Anemone and Skins

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Rita Indiana – Tentacle (Achy Obejas, translator, & Other Stories, 2019)

A post-apocalyptic Caribbean island. A sacred anemone is stolen from the dictator’s personal obeah and traded for Rainbow Brite; a drug that can change a man to a woman, or a woman to a man.

As far as premises go, Tentacle had me hooked from the start. Then, just like its namesake, it sucked me in and entangled me. It was a book that I couldn’t put down and, more than that, the book wouldn’t put me down either.

Rita Indiana has an amazing ability to switch up tone and direction without it breaking the narrative flow or writing style. We move between the minds of a trans sex worker, a lazy artist and an eighteenth-century skin trader with seamless fluidity. The translator, Achy Obejas, must take some credit for this too. The book is a masterpiece in streetfighting style.

As far as narratives go, Tentacle is refreshingly plot-driven. Despite being primarily literary in her approach to writing, Indiana has smuggled in the dark arts of structure and pacing with her sci-fi genre borrowings. We move from section to section just at the right moment; entering during the action and leaving just before a resolution is offered. Serious momentum is developed as a result.

So, what is the story? Well, the primary narrative concerns the aforementioned transman Acilde who is introduced to Esther, the President’s obeah, by a john. This client is a Cuban doctor who can get access to the transitioning drug Rainbow Brite and so, after some underworld scheming, they concoct a plan to steal the obeah’s rare, sacred, and, most importantly, highly valuable anemone.

The sacredness and rarity of the anemone is due to an environmental catastrophe that, despite being essential to the book’s setting, is nevertheless dealt with lightly. The Caribbean Sea (and perhaps all seas, we are told) have been turned black. A bioweapon was unleashed that destroyed all marine life and the world lingers on in the aftermath.

The smartest part of Tentacle, for me, is its depiction of a “post-apocalyptic” life not too dissimilar from our own. Everything continues, only slightly worse, and refugees from the devastated zones (in this case Haiti) are efficiently disposed of, posing only a minor inconvenience.

There is something more chilling, more real, in this blasé attitude to disaster than anything offered by The Road, for example (another book with black seas).

The disaster explains the anemone’s rarity. Yet to understand its sacredness, Indiana introduces us to a historical narrative. Roque, the cook and captain of a small band of skinners, lands on the island with his men, Argenis and Engombe, accompanying him. They slaughter and skin cattle beside a sacred cave.

In the cave are said to be the “big headed” men and women of the ancient times. To access it, one must dive through a narrow underwater passageway lined with anemones. To do so changes a man.

It is here that we are introduced to the final portrait of our narrative triptych; the artist, Argenis. Also present at the skinning, Argenis has a loose relationship with time, and it is his aimless meandering through the past and the future, call-centres and the fine art world, that provide the connections between Indiana’s overlapping narrative arcs.

Argenis’ journey through art holds the key to understanding Tentacle’s concealed thematic depths. Trained as a promising renaissance painter by a group of Catholic priests, he arrives at art school to discover abstraction, modernism, and postmodernism all at once. This leads to a breakdown at first, a total lack of confidence, before eventually offering a rebirth.

Argenis’ neoclassicism is much in demand from wealthy commissioners, and praised by the fashionable for its kitsch. Argenis is a success, but the terms of his success alienate him from his paintings, his work, and ultimately his own life; preferring weed and porn to his wife and family.

Tentacle is, to my mind, a book that is as much about art as it is about disaster. Indiana might have taken all the best bits from sci-fi to construct her narrative, but its speculative aspects serve a symbolic rather than a predictive function.

Like Argenis’ ironic detachment from his own classical talent, the sacred magic of the anemones is made hollow by the sea’s death, and Acilde’s life too is made hollow by getting what he wants: having achieved a male body, he has no more to pursue. The apocalypse of Tentacle is twenty-first century meaninglessness, and each character meets it, is crushed by it, and becomes post-apocalyptic as a result.

Tentacle is a novel of great depth that also happens to be a great read. These don’t come along very often and I highly recommend checking it out. This is the novel that Olivia Laing’s Crudo was trying to be. If it isn’t granted the same kudos as that unfortunate book then we can be sure that our literary class is corrupt, and we should push them all together, en masse, into the black sea.

– Joe Darlington 

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Evening in Cairo

Raph Cormack, ed. – The Book of Cairo (Comma Press, 2019)

I had friends in Alexandria when the revolution happened. I watched the events closely, feeding information to them after the regime blacked out the media and then shut down the entire power grid.

As a result, my memory of the events is perhaps clearer than other British people’s. I remember when the news, baffled at the first uprisings, labelled them terrorists. I remember when the revolutionaries, struck with a McLuhanite awe for the medium rather than the message, thanked Facebook for overthrowing Mubarak. I remember how it all ended. Bloodily, cynically, inevitably.

Every Egyptian no doubt has similar memories. Yet, living in the aftermath, most choose to forget. In Comma Press’ Book of Cairo, we can witness this forgetting transformed into artistry.

Comma Press is the UK’s most esteemed publisher of short stories. They are entirely dedicated to the form, viewing it as an end in itself and not some minor detour on the path to novel writing. Their cities books feature the best of short form writing from across the world.

The Book of Cairo provides a panoramic view of the city. From the very first story, “Gridlock”, we experience the mad rush of one of the world’s busiest and noisiest cities. Seven characters stuck in traffic put aside their seven different objectives in favour of one monumental confrontation.

From here, our narrative camera zooms in. We are treated to stories of individual struggles and individual loves. The city under its shades is like any other big city, it seems, although there is nevertheless a surrealistic twist in many of these tales.

“Talk” by Mohammed Kheir tells the tale of a doctor about whom unfortunate rumours are spread. Losing his livelihood and his self-respect, he is approached by the rumour-spreader. It turns out to be a shakedown.

The twist: the rumour-monger knows a true secret about the doctor. By spreading lies, he feels he is doing him a favour. “What would hurt you more, lies or the truth?” The doctor concedes that he prefers the lie and takes up the blackmailer’s offer. He hires the blackmailer’s public relations firm to protect him from further lies.

Appearances and performances are a running theme. In Hatem Hafez’s “Whine” a new Head of Department tyrannises his former colleagues, dyeing his hair and rearranging furniture to show them who’s boss. He must do everything in his power to stay the new boss, and not become just another old boss, waiting to be replaced.

Nahla Karam’s “The Other Balcony” is the story of a teenaged girl whose suitor moves into the apartment block opposite. He watches her as she emerges onto the balcony, demanding she dress up for him and act in a modest manner.

The act tires her, but not as fast as it tires him. Soon, she receives no messages from him at all, and she is left to wonder what other balconies his flat overlooks.

Not all of the stories are realist. Two, “Siniora” and “Two Sisters”, stand out as the wildest and most imaginative of the book. Their pacing and placement within the collection encourage you to read them as just another narrative, but soon the twists and surprises enter and we end up in a new place entirely.

The feeling overall is one of mysteries known but unspoken. Whether this is an aftermath of a forgotten revolution, or a cultural manner that has been always been there in the Middle East, it is hard to know. Acts are performative, so much that they imply their opposites. Messages are ambiguous where morals are bold.

The penultimate story of the collection is, to my mind, the greatest. “Hamada Al-Ginn” by Nael Eltoukhy follows an everyday police sergeant; one who is corrupt but, in his corruption, prays to maintain the integrity of the force overall. He becomes obsessed with clues. He reads papers, technical manuals and observes everything. He is desperate for the truth: the Whole Truth.

Our desperate policeman chances upon an old man who, under interrogation, appears to hold some part of this truth. With great sorrow and regret, he orders the man tortured. He refuses to speak. Then, eventually, the man asks only that the police ask nicely and he will tell them “the Whole Truth”.

And so, asked and answered, Eltoukhy presents the secret state police as the bringers of harmony and enlightenment into Egypt. Egyptians become a people uniquely gifted by their access to the Whole Truth, and all it took was the tireless efforts of the state’s torturers to bring it about.

Eltouhky’s story is one of the darkest bits of satire I have read in recent years, but it captures something in its excess that the Book of Cairo has been hinting at throughout. In a culture of forgetting that cannot forget, the terrible ironies of history permeate everyday life.

There is something hopeless in the Book of Cairo and yet, beneath a hardened surface, the vast hopes of the old causes still linger. All of life, we are told, is in Cairo. That there is life in this book is without doubt.

– Joe Darlington

Priests in Space

Jim Clarke – Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

With a subtitle like “the Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy,” Jim Clarke’s new book promises fantastic adventures from its very cover.

Dealing seriously with such questions as, “can Jesus save aliens?”, “what does the Vatican think about robots?” and, “if Priests could time travel, where would they go?”; the monograph is a mind-bending journey through the broadest reaches of sci-fi, theology and the politics of religion.

Clarke’s book is, in the first instance, a clear case of writing against. The narrative of science vs religion that predominates in Anglophone sci-fi takes for granted a narrative in which sci-fi’s forerunners are the proto-scientists of the Enlightenment and, before them, the Protestant reformers.

Such a history, Clarke writes, owes as much to Protestant pamphleteering as it does to any true analysis of Catholic “superstition”. He reminds us that Catholics had long separated science and spirituality in the form of Thomism, and that Jesuits are still among the foremost thinkers on the ethics of exoplanetary exploration.

The uncritical support for technocracy celebrated by the first sci-fi novelists, particularly H.G. Wells, are shown to have inherited a tradition of anti-Catholicism. It is a tradition that lingers on even after the genre’s faith in scientific positivism dwindles.

The majority of Clarke’s readings are, for this reason, examples of Catholicism as a villain. The Church is the foremost anti-science force in sci-fi. It comes to stand in as a representative of all religious faith; the rational, the irrational and the superstitious.

What interested me, however, more than the critique of Catholicism-as-bogeyman, was the many instances Clarke finds in which Catholicism plays a more positive, or at least ambiguous role.

Patricia Anthony’s 1997 novel God’s Fires, for example, is set during the Spanish Inquisition. A spaceship abducts a girl from a Spanish peasant village and impregnates her, leading to rumours of a virgin birth. Inquisitors are dispatched, one immediately believing this to be the devil’s work. Another, our protagonist, is of a more searching and (pardon the pun) inquisitive mindset.

The novel serves as perfect food for Clarke’s conflicted thoughts. It is at once a typical case of Anglophones writing about evil Catholics, but it is also a defence of Catholicism in the form of a rational Jesuit (the scientific Jesuit is a recurring character, particularly in religious dystopias).

The way that Anthony thrashes out the conflict between dogmatic and liberal faith is typical of sci-fi’s refusal to ever quite let go of the Roman Church that intrigues them so much.

Other points of insight include Clarke’s analysis of the sci-fi New Wave which, occurring simultaneously to the liberalising Second Vatican Council, leads to a number of strange holy alliances including robot popes, computer popes, a robot saint and devils in the form of algorythms.

Historical moments also serve to enlighten our reading. Clarke recounts the journey of Minoru Asada, chief robotics engineer at Honda, who went to consult the Vatican over the ethics of building humanoid robots. Creating sentient life is typically presented as sinful in Christian myth, Clarke reminds us. Nevertheless, after much contemplation, the Vatican ruled that, if Asada was a good man, then his robotics work must also be good.

Clarke is clearly underwhelmed by this answer.

More nuanced is the Vatican’s approach to “exotheology”: the theological implications of life on other planets. The Vatican observatory has hosted over a dozen conferences on extraterrestrial intelligence. The wide variety of conclusions drawn by exotheologists provide Clarke with a bold new set of theories against which to read his primary texts.

There are certainly a lot of primary texts too. If Clarke fails to convince in his close readings (which is unlikely, as they’re both well-chosen and well-argues), the sheer mass of science fiction writing that deals with Catholicism makes a case for this being an obsession of the genre in itself.

Science Fiction and Catholicism is one of those liminal-sounding books that, once you get stuck into it, you realise is going to impact your thinking in major ways. It obviously recommends itself to sci-fi fans and those with theological interests, but I’d guardedly suggest that it might recommend itself to outsiders even more.

Clarke’s prose is clear and concise, his use of theory is lightly done and always relevant, and Gylphi have done a great job with the book design, making the book a pleasure to read.

A perfect book for the space priest on the go.

– Joe Darlington

Ghost Goo

Louis Armand, Glasshouse (Equus Press, 2018)

A murderer is loose in Paris. More than one, in fact. Actually, the town is full of them, like every other town on earth, and for the people whose job it is to clear up afterwards, nothing is a surprise anymore.

Welcome to the midnight world of Louis Armand’s Glasshouse. A grim study of the residents of a Paris housing block that mixes black humour and grotesquery with pure cynicism to produce a concentrated burst of bad-vibes brilliance.

The book is short, 128 pages, but captures a wide panorama of down-and-out city life. It is built up of short sections, each concentrating on a specific character and delivered in a different style. These are tied together, to an extent, by the murder of a schoolteacher.

Schönbrunn is the hard-boiled detective tasked with solving the crime. He is faced with an abundance (and therefore also a scarcity) of suspects. Any of these nutters could have done it. The crime scene itself shows all the hallmarks of a sexual motive, and yet, mysteriously, it also features an unidentifiable ectoplasm.

Is it ghostly, or perhaps extraterrestrial? Schönbrunn is damned if he knows. “Shit,” is the favourite of his many exclamations. To which his partner unwaveringly replies; “with spangles on”.

The collection of deviants inhabiting the glasshouse each carry the stylistic marks of prior authors in their linguistic DNA. Qwertz, the sailor-turned-artist, speaks in ellipses… very clearly… in reference to… Celine. Gep, meanwhile, speaks in cracked poetry, reminiscent of beat poets and British experimentalists like Ann Quin.

Yadlun and Madame Lenoir, by contrast, feature a more straightforward, yet still allusive prose. Early Burroughs is lingering here, as is the transgressive tradition that comes after him.

The picture of life that Armand conjures in the first section of Glasshouse is one that is by turns bleak and captivating. It is transcended by the second section, which features characters post-death. The victim talks, as do the ants that inhabit her body. I found this section even more fascinating than the first.

When Armand moves from presenting characters to ventriloquizing the objects that move them – the Scaffold and an umpire’s chair, for example – we feel the abjection of his world disintegrating into something totalizing. The fabric of the universe itself seems to cry out with the anguish of the glasshouse.

Voices of the mob punctuate this section: exclamations in English and parallel French. The local cats are heard, as is a “fathomless” hole in the ground.

When the second section collapses into an act of violence, a brutal counterpoint to the first, we are left waiting for the third and final section. Our synthesis, however, is eternally deferred. There is, Armand makes clear, no end to the violence and counter-violence that shakes the glasshouse.

In this brutal little novel, there is only entropic pleasure and entropic pain.

Recently longlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, Glasshouse is a highly readible work. For readers who have yet to stumble onto the bad side of literature’s tracks, the book will provide a perfect short sharp shock of transgressive awareness. For those who already enjoy the dark side of writing, there is more than enough innovation here to keep you hooked.

A murderous little book, and a fun one at that!

– Joe Darlington

Here it Comes

Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran – Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2019)

Last week a friend on Facebook was asking for definitions of the concept of ‘crisis’, for a piece of research.

She wanted the sociological roots, but I asked my go-to classicist and Deleuze translator – Robert Galeta – as I was suddenly interested to know the roots of the word crisis as well.

He said:

‘Crisis is from krinein, to separate, from two possible sanskrit roots meaning that.’

‘Occurs in Herodotus and the tragedians eg. a lost Sophocles play the judgement – krisis – of Paris. It is used about 150 years later by Hippocrates to mean a crisis or turning-point in a disease.’

Crisis as split is all over this book.

Crisis as split is coming out of a split personality. A 1-for-2 poetical bargain.

Would you strike a bargain with these two? Answer carefully now.

Halsey and Corcoran are two splitting into one. The weird, Hegelian, laughing gas logic of that could act as a key to this book.

They riff off each other, call-and-response style: …this is my mouth behind my mouth Corsey and/or Halcoran states.

But it isn’t some experimental indulgence. Halsey and Corcoran have form in yet another doubling way.

I can’t remember when or where I first read Halsey. But Corcoran I came across in Angel Exhaust. Number ten, I think.

I read the poem. It knocked me over.

These two are not messing around. Well, they kind of are, but… this kind of messing around isn’t messing around.

The strength of experienced poets can be seen in the fact that Halsey and Corcoran don’t need to raise a flag about the crisis.

Nothing is on their sleeve, not a button.

The crisis is in the structure of this book, the dates they use as sections do the work, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, now. Just using those numbers pins us all in like a moth in a case straight away.

They act as containers for words that are often so dangerously un-contained.

Up their sleeves be monsters.

Halsey and Corcoran do the only thing poets of genius – they really are – can do in the face of the new ‘geist’ and that is come on like some bad stand-up double act vomiting out ancient myths in the shape of contemporary news feeds:

‘Come on, get it all up now, you’ll feel a whole lot better.’

Morecambe and Wise start babbling and indulging in cannibalism. Ern eats Eric and becomes self-contemplating Zeus. It works as a joke and as a riddling course of education that could lead you to understand all sorts of arcana you might regret ever having put in your head.

You could take it as that, actually, look up all the references – lots of them I had to look up – and learn.

In fact you could live in this book. I am certainly going to live through the crisis in it.

Galeta has his own guidebook, Liddell and Scott. I started to see Halsey and Corcoran in some golfwear, sicking up a bit more of it all on the unfairway.

If this is a guide, then it is a kind of mad anti-guidebook to the chaotic swirl that is starting to pull us all off the floor.

All of us. If you don’t agree with me when I say that this work is completely in-geist then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s outside.

When you ingeist sometime you gotta just bring it all straight back up again.

Iain Duncan Smith becomes Guido Smith, becomes Guy Fawkes via the rightwing agent of chaos Paul Staines. Staines never appears, but does. Here be conjurors.

Similarly, as Ern eats Eric, one arm and head off, the other going in the bloody gob, Goya’s Saturn flashes up like a TV re-run. They don’t even have to mention it, there it is, and that’s the difference between really good poetry and a magical act.

This is a magical act.

It is also a musical act. Winterreise is of course a song-cycle by Schubert.

Its narrative slots right in, just through using its title. A wanderer, his love goes for someone else, he follows the river and finds the coal-burners, the crossroads, the cemetery, even death will not release him. The real wanderers are Halsey and Corcoran, drifting through war zones, a shattered London, to the moon and back.

Death will not release them.

Back in Winterreise a wrecked street musician appears, the ending is open. Later, Hendrix appears, on an ordinary bus. A warlock, make no mistake. Under all of that is all of the versions of all of those stories going back to Homer. Depth signification, sheer vertical parole.

But ‘winter’ signifies much more straightforwardly along the horizontal axis: I saw my first conker out of its shell today; here it comes.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer.’

And this book is just out.

Winter as winter 2019 and winter as end times.

This is not a King lamenting that he is loathed. It is the alchemical transmutation of the deep shit ordinary people have been cast into made gold.

The gold is the story fire made by the powder kegs of language they are all terrified of, those finks who are named here. Him, and that other one.

This is one of those rare books that makes you realise that your bestest most published poetry isn’t worth a single signifier inside the landscape of this work. You can’t trade it in for a comma.

You can’t even trade it in for one of their spaces.

You know that their spaces are different to ours, don’t you? They are not made by space bars. They can swallow you whole.

I tried to sneak my bestest most publishedest poetry in between ‘ceiling’ and ‘window’ at the bottom of page 33, but it just winked out of existence.

It seemed like a quiet moment, I thought I could get away with it.

There wasn’t even a tiny fart of posterity as it unbecame. Just gone.

It is vast.

One could get depressed. But these people are in the world doing the thing itself, so I don’t have to.

I get the book, I open it. It tells me about now and forever at the same time and it riddles how I might try to survive with mad practices. It makes me reach for resources I didn’t know I had, in books that I did.

But poets and their classical references. Sometimes, you know, it is ridiculous.

Around 2003 I worked on a new edition of a journal for someone. There had been a discussion about the name of it.

‘Classical’ names had been offered in the meeting at the university.

One working class academic scornfully objected.

‘Call it “Tossos”, Steve’, he said.

It was funny. I was just the layout boy. I said nothing. I laughed.

Poets sometimes drop in a thin classical reference, an ‘omphalos’ here, a poiein there.

You know when it’s a facile inclusion. You know it in your marrow. It makes you wince with embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.

But not here. Never here.

They trade these references like a game of crazy poker played with tarot, but they are standing in it as they do that, and they make you stand in it anew, in your existence in the world and the existence of all that human culture for three thousand years.

They are in it up to their crisping, singing eyebrows, because they smashed the pavement with each other’s hard skulls, but they didn’t find any sand under there. No no no.

None of that, not here, now’s not the time, it just isn’t…

They unleashed the word hoard under the concrete and it has ripped through them, and it will rip through you.

Halsey and Corcoran, in some parallel dimension, actually call it all ‘tossos’ and make the ancient world more serious, present and dangerous by doing so, rather than less.

But this doing isn’t phenomenological, it is epistemological. This is craft, they are monteurs. They are also witches, there is no difference.

Gove and Putin fry in this overheating pool. Hecate pulls them down. The cosmos begins to radiate new colours.

Universal and right now. Forever and today. Essential. You’re going to need this.

Just get it. It isn’t much money.

– Steve Hanson

Tapping on the Glass

Laura Scott – So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)

There are moments in a poetry reader’s life when you wonder if what you are reading resembles in any way the readings other readers. Things that you are told are exceptional seem to hold little meaning for you. Meanwhile, things that truly astound you are met with puzzlement by others.

It’s easy to fall back on the platitude that “it’s all subjective”.

That’s why, when collections like Laura Scott’s So Many Rooms come along, we have cause to celebrate. For there can be no doubt at all that this is an exceptional piece of work.

Scott’s poem “If I Could Write Like Tolstoy” was the highlight of Michael Schmidt’s New Poetries VII. Here, it opens the collection, and is followed by a series of Tolstoy-inspired short pieces; each one capturing in miniature some facet of Tolstoy’s epic scale reflections.

Scott has the capacity to capture drama in a small number of words, neatly arranged. Her poetry, in this way, is the quintessence of poetry. Her clarity, concision and quiet ambiguity are yardsticks against which I find myself measuring other poets.

Highlights of the collection include “Mulberry Tree”, “Pigeon”, and “Espalier”; three minimal pieces that each use crystal clear description to open a moment to thought.

The longer poems – “The Thorn and the Grass”, “Cows”, and “Turner” especially – develop Scott’s clarity into more narrative modes. Admittedly, the word choices grow looser, but this gives the content more room to breathe, and also brings it closer to what we expect of sophisticated poetry.

This is Scott’s second pamphlet, after 2014’s What I Saw. It nevertheless has the feel of a debut collection. Its confidence and its consistency both suggest a poet who has arrived. She offers a comprehensive vision. We are watching a poet composing at the height of her powers.

Importantly, it is Scott’s style that differentiates her and defines her voice. Her themes are manifold and her subject matters move from the historical to the fantastic, from the folksy to the quotidian. Nature makes consistent appearances, but then this is poetry after all – and English poetry at that –so this should be no surprise. Her uses of nature are many. No simple pastorals, these.

Although Scott’s collection is short, 60 pages, it displays a tremendous range of poems. After reading it, you’ll feel like you’ve engaged with a major work. The shortness of her average poem’s length explains this in part. And yet, it is, in part, also her mastery of scale.

Scott manages, like Basho, to put big thoughts into small, very tidy boxes, then polish them off with a neat ribbon.

Kudos for this book seems to be rolling in already, so whether our recommendation here at the MRB counts for much I don’t know. Either way, if you like contemporary poetry, Laura Scott’s new collection is an absolute must-read. It’s not even September yet, but I suspect it might be my poetry book of the year.

– Joe Darlington

Mountains of Men

Michael Nath – British Story: A Romance (Route, 2014)

When I came across Michael Nath’s novel, British Story, at a book fair last month, I was hesitant to buy. It seemed like an interesting story, published by the small press Route, who I trust. My worry was more that, since 2016, anything with “British” or “English” or “England” in the title means Brexit.

And it doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a Guardian reader’s Brexit. Veering wildly from sneering at the proles to trembling at jackboots within the space of moments. Brexit hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already ruined literature.

Which is why I was so pleased to discover in Nath’s novel an antidote to all of the post-Brexit ugliness. Where other novelists promised to find the “real Britain”, and “capture the spirit of a troubled nation”, only to end up embarrassing themselves, Nath has managed to say something meaningful.

His secret? He wrote the book in 2014.

Yes, I came to British Story a little late. But I feel like, perhaps, it was I who read the story at the correct time, and Nath who made the mistake of writing it too early.

The story follows Kennedy, an English Lit lecturer who, thankfully, is rather cynical about the over-intellectualised puff that is the bane of his subject area. Kennedy is old school. He understands that literature, or perhaps good literature, is all about character.

“But what is character?” his postmodernised colleagues ask. For them, it is a construct. For the blokes he meets down the pub it’s just something made up – made up stories. But characters are real, Kennedy knows. Not real as in physical. Not objects as such. But they exist and they exert power in the world.

He is studying Falstaff, the character of characters. Shakespeare’s trickster spirit who can charm the King, and who can make even gluttony and cowardice somehow heroic.

It is in the aftermath of an unsuccessful conference when Kennedy finally encounters a Falstaff of his own. The true character who emerges from the novel, overpowering Kennedy like Gatsby does Nick. He’s a Welshman: Arthur Mountain.

Once Arthur enters, the novel is impossible to put down. He is a compelling, dangerous character. A man of big passions and ancient beliefs. He drags Kennedy into a real world of character: underworld villains, football firms, a Mancunian dreamer called Ian Brown; it is a tour of the country’s big mythic heroes.

This is the beauty of Nath’s writing. He has brought to life a range of Brits who all bark and bite with equal ferocity, but love and dream as well. He is not a realist, but his characters linger on the border of reality. They are as real as feelings – the feelings of pride, shame, and frustration that led us to Brexit. Nath truly speaks to the heart of Britain in this book.

And so Arthur is revealed, in a battle with sword-drawing Michael Stone, to have been an Arthurian legend all along. But Arthur is Britain. He’s a hero so English that he was here before the English, and so is actually Welsh. If anything, his people were the enemies of the English. And you can’t get more English than that.

British Story is a novel for our time. Michael Nath knows how to write real literature, stuff with heart and character. He isn’t afraid to look life in the eye, despite all of its jagged edges and contradictions, and he knows how to take this and turn it into a story. A British story at that.

– Joe Darlington

Canals Repeatedly

Jeremy Over – Fur Coats in Tahiti (Carcanet, 2019).

What is the function of poetry? Well, its uncertain. Like fine art, it’s partly defined by its lack of function. Yet, like song, its core functionlessness lends it a wide variety of partial functions.

Poetry is always serving a purpose, but it never serves only that purpose.

When it comes to the writing of Jeremy Over, fathoming the core purpose is a difficult, perhaps even impossible task. His latest collection, Fur Coats in Tahiti, could, if encountered in the wild, unprompted and without prior forewarning, present the reader with a poetry of total meaninglessness.

Over is a borrower of techniques and tricks from across a wide variety of opaque movements: Dada, Ou Li Po, Japanese conceptual art, Victorian nonsense. One is tempted to describe his work as the next step down this crooked literary path.

But to do so would be to miss out on some of the less immediate functions of Over’s poetry. I had the pleasure of seeing Over read during a triple book launch this month. Hearing Over’s poems read through Over’s own delivery, punctuated by his stories and explanations, reveal in the works a world of semi-magic, semi-humour, semi-musicality, and semi-tragedy, that all overlaps while never quite explaining away his enigmas.

“Kenneth Kock Uncorked”, for example, is the strangest poem in the collection: appearing as a series of “O”s strung out over pages. An in-person reading reveals these to be holes in a punchcard. Koch, a poet fond of exclaiming “O!”, has had his work processed by Over, each O punched through, and the resulting pattern is fed through a music box, creating an uncanny, yet magical soundscape.

The same semi-humour and semi-magic is found in “Eat Your Cherries Mary”. A Steve Reichian celebration of repetition, it makes reference to Dan Maskell, the BBC’s “voice of tennis”, whose inability to pronounce Eastern European surnames introduces humour into the poems repetitions.

You’d never know this by reading the page, although you may intuit it. Over’s poems are all funny, especially if read aloud, although you don’t quite know what you’re laughing at.

They also seem magical. Like magic words, or Latin mass: more powerful for all its uncertainty.

It is for this reason that I’d recommend reading Over’s poetry aloud. Perhaps even share the duties with a friend, so that at least one of you might be able to experience the purely aural poem, while the other reads the page. I feel as if Over works on both levels – read and heard – but that one can never fully substitute for the other.

There was indeed something in Over’s reading that suggested to me the hidden power of language that each poet, intentionally or not, is seeking to uncover and harness. It is the power of making something of the silence come through. Using words to dig up raw meaning, instead of merely covering it over with language.

How else do you explain a room being moved by pure syllables, or finding laughter in a music box?

On a few rare occasions, the full power of Over’s funny little mysteries communicates itself purely upon the page. The final section of “Red Sock in Yellow Box” is just such a moment:

One cannot put one’s foot into the same river twice.

One cannot even put the same foot in the same river twice.

It’s hard to explain why but one cannot. One has tried.

One can however fall in the same canal repeatedly

One can

One canal

One can easily

Just when you think that the function is cerebral, it is comic. But just as you’re certain it’s comic, it is linguistic. It is sound.

This is my first encounter with Jeremy Over’s work and I suspect that it won’t be the last. His poems are compulsively re-readable, and never fully explicable. They are always up for reconsideration. If you can hear him read, cancel everything else and go do so. But if not, I’d still recommend his new collection.

Perhaps new powers linger in there that are yet to be uncovered. They will be well worth discovering.

– Joe Darlington

Screaming bloody murder

Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey – Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism, 2016)

This is the shit that things grow out of. This is the shit that things were already growing out of before the ink was dry in messrs. Fernie and Palfrey’s notebooks.

No mysticism, it’s because they are steeped. Up to their waists in the loam, the historical and psychological doo-doo.

Their stated ambition is to reach inside Macbeth’s torture chamber, a place all the bloodier in Shakespeare because of the curtains drawn around it. A place all the bloodier because of the lack of blood.

In Fernie and Palfrey’s version there is comedy, sheer amoral brutality, rape.

In each and every era civilisation appears to be finally completed before we are disabused of the illusion. Good riddance, I say.

I was in top set for English at school and our hippy teacher – an excellent teacher, to be fair – showed us Threads, which traumatised me for life. She also showed us Polanski’s Macbeth. Crackling VHS images captured on YouTube have come with an evil hiss ever since.

A scene was going on in Macbeth as the white static snow strafed the screen, and there was some screaming down the corridor. The hippy teacher flatly explained ‘of course, all the women would be raped when a siege broke.’

Even at this distance I can still access the shock I felt in my body as it sunk in. Like ice in the veins and then anti-freeze. My face burning red. This teacher opened my eyes to the brutality of humans. Fernie and Palfrey have done this all over again.

Then we all had to shuffle out of the classroom, by girls, girls in skirts, girls who suddenly – after seeming so scarily, shapeshiftingly advanced in comparison to us puny boys – looked vulnerable.

Fernie and Palfrey’s writing is incredible. They can conjure something greener than the greenest green without the colour ever appearing. I still cannot remember or find again the sentence they connived to do this but the image remains.

But what Fernie and Palfrey have really done here – the very big thing they have done – is to explore the psychology of humans all over again. They have also re-created human history, in which the glorious lineages of the present are lies that hide absurd accidents, smashed apart continuums – here the arrival of industrial bread factories – and fake heritage, all underpinned by murder, rape and more rape.

The filth and the lies are then scraped together into a dark, sweet confection and served to a glad-hearted population. How very now.

Everyone should read this book, academics, adults, children. It is not an academic experiment, the tone they have found makes it far wider in appeal.

Fernie and Palfrey’s book, emerging in 2016 and written before the current mess showed its full shape, has stood its own test of time already by re-lighting 2019, a place almost impossible to see from, say, 2014.

In this it stands up to their ultimate subject, to Shakespeare himself, and there isn’t a higher compliment than that.

– Steve Hanson

To the Lighthouse

Vincent de Swarte – Pharricide (Confingo Publishing, 2019)

It’s not often that you read a whole novel in a day. It’s even rarer to find a novel that encourages you to do so. Vicente de Swarte’s Pharricide, newly translated into English by Nicholas Royle, is just such a novel; and the effect is tremendous.

You almost feel bad for the efforts of both writer and translator, that their work can be consumed in a single, nerve-tingling afternoon. But, in the reader’s defense, Pharricide is a roller coaster ride that is perfectly suited to rapid reading.

It is a descent into madness with action that dips and rises rapidly. It has many facets, all hanging together in an apparently simply arrangement which, when viewed closely, reveals a more complex structure filled with allusion, hints and suggestions.

It follows the progress of one Geoffrey Lefayen, lighthouse keeper and “executioner of Cordouan”, whose winter spent alone in the Cordouan lighthouse drives him into a state of murderous rage.

No reasons are given for his rage, other than his solitude and the hint of a traumatic childhood, although I suspect these may have been thrown in merely to supply the demanded motive. His violence is, instead, compulsive, ritualistic, and driven by pure animus.

De Swarte’s terrifying protagonist can be charmingly quirky at times. A taxidermist in love with his work; he amasses a small animal following including a friendly conga eel, a “red, red” crayfish “painted as if cooked”, a sick seagull and, later on, even bigger game.

Lefayen’s derangements culminate in a fantastical wedding ceremony. There are stuffed sea creatures presiding and the bride is a murderer on the run.

Lefayen’s lighthouse seems to attract criminals in fact. Like Lefayen himself, it casts out a light into the shadows, drawing in a variety of victims both deserving and undeserving. Early in the novel, Lefayen feels himself transforming into the lighthouse. He, as Lucifer, the lightbringer, attracts his victims as an anglerfish does its prey.

As a lot of Pharricide’s readerly enjoyment derives from the twists in its tale, the surprises and the shocks, I feel that to truly recommend the book I must leave my description of the text minimal. It isn’t often that a novel surprises me nowadays, and this one truly did. It would be unfair of me to ruin such surprises for others.

But rest assured that Pharricide is pacey, direct, and translated with a concision that rewards the quick reader, as the original too is said to have done. First published in 1998, the novel has taken a while to arrive upon our shores but it does now in a translation that is destined to win over plenty of new readers.

It is an excellent introduction to its small press, Confingo, and to an author still almost unknown in the Anglophone world.

Short, snappy, fun and frightening. Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide is a must-read for the summer. A perfect book for a lazy afternoon, a long-haul flight, or for passing the time while trapped alone inside a desolate lighthouse.

– Joe Darlington