The Gesamtkunstwerk of fragments

Ansgar Allen – Plague Theatre (Equus)

Scarborough. A man finds an old manuscript. It tells of plague and bad times.

Ansgar Allen’s larger body of work is a great thing. Across this work, he treats the same set of themes to repeated but different literary experiments. Allen’s educational writings, his work on cynicism, and his strategic experimental texts all return to the same concerns. Here, in Plague Theatre, we see them return again: ‘The intellectual persona is always a miserable creature and a fraud.’ Museums are ‘destroyed by intellects.’

Allen is, I think, exploring a philosophical core via experimental fictional strategies. Perhaps as a scientist might bombard his subject material with repeated attacks, in order to see what it is made of. The object of the exercise, though, is less about finding an unbendable, final, enlightenment truth, rather than understanding that reality is remade each time by the very experiments which try to find that truth. Paradoxically though, this gives Allen’s work a strong centre of enquiry.

Here the author begins by quoting and paraphrasing Artaud’s Theatre and The Plague. The ‘author’ then seems to split, as bacteria multiplies, into a narrator, an author within the fiction, and an overarching, organising writer, Allen himself, we might assume. Superego and Ego.

Here’s how the book begins, and establishes the premise of the story: The ‘author’ describes a found manuscript, discovered in an old building in Scarborough. This manuscript seems to be an account of the plague in Scarborough. Defoe, then, arrives later in this work, both the Tour and of course A Journal of the Plague Year.

The narrator speculates that Defoe mapped the plague in Scarborough, 1720, which the mysterious text describes, on to Defoe’s published ‘Plague Year’ text about the known London plague.

To communicate how this text works it is best to describe what it does at certain points: here, the author is describing how ‘the author’ is transcribing the found manuscript. There, the author is reflecting on how he will put together the text that has already been put together. It has obviously been put together, as you are reading it in its published form.

Put more simply, Allen unsettles the reader just as soon as they start to get comfortable. He does not allow them to immerse, and this is done subtly, rather than through some showy or contrived alienation effect. This is achieved in a similar way to Allen’s earlier work, Wretch: The author-narrator in Plague Theatre is not an exact copyist; the work is changed as it is preserved. As Allen states elsewhere, all we have left to work with are fragments. Leftovers. Again, these are core concerns for Allen. We are witnessing a literary body of work take shape here.

‘The author’ describes the found manuscript in such an adjacent way that it risks appearing without ever appearing, which is exactly the genius of Brian Catling’s Stumbling Block and Its Index, the key to its status as a piece of art (and I’m ambivalent about whether you call it art or literature or poetry).

But here the manuscript does appear, slowly, by degrees. It is revealed, although its revealing is one half uncovering and one half concealing. I am reminded of Heidegger strongly at points.

The description of course creates a new object, not a clear window we look through. All the unreliablility and speculation of the discoverer, the keeper and transcriber, is kept in the account of the object. Further, it is written back into the object. For this is truth in any age, the most recent and teleologically complex media age being the most slippery, rather than the most faithful.

Even with the scan, the digital copy, and similar techniques: Allen knows this, but pitches his ideas onto this slippery terrain of anecdotes from the east coast of England, onto a strategically sketchy account of a found text, and therefore, also, into the past. The excavation and the exhumation are merged here. An early Briton appears, in an early coffin, a hollowed tree, the body as black as Jet. Anyone who has explored the Scarborough and Whitby coastline – I have, and looking for fossils – will know that Jet comes from the remains of the monkey puzzle tree, which has been compressed for millions of years. This is more than a metaphorical device.

Actually, Brian Catling’s later work appears to describe human culture turning itself to coal before igniting itself. Plague Theatre, similarly, relates to the concept of longer historical contours. In one section the cliff edges of human time are very simply given as roughly fifty years. The way they overlap the larger units of centuries, one hundred years, is then alluded to. It is a particularly excellent passage. It does a counter-intuitive thing that lesser writers struggle with, it communicates complexity by simplifying.

The Roman ruffle on the dress of history appears, implicitly, in the concept of the ‘century’, then more explicitly in descriptions of Roman remains found around Scarborough. The hollowed-out tree coffin of the early Briton seems to be a metonym for another fictional object in Plague Theatre: a piece of wood which floats in the Atlantic for two decades before being washed ashore. Their being symbolically adjacent seems to decentre the ‘Briton’, which so many have been desperate to fakely re-centralise again, over the last few years. As I type, Tommy Robinson briefly trends on Twitter once more. There are two moments in which the author takes pot shots at blue plaques and local museums. Both underscore the sheer banality of English culture. At another point, the narrator states that English culture needs shaking out. Here be a plague, I wrote, in my book Proceedings, a parallel plague of words. A linguistic virus that arrived well before Covid-19. Plague Theatre is as much about that as it is about the philosophy of meaning.

Then a moment arrives in which the fourth wall appears to be broken. The author tells us – some way into this long description about the found manuscript, and about what he is doing to keep it – that he will start this account with Artaud’s Theatre and The Plague as a kind of epigraph. But breaking the fourth wall doesn’t suddenly bring a reliable narrator, if anything it throws the fox back in the hen coop all over again. Allen’s earlier book Wretch did similar things.

Artaud’s notion that plague and a certain type of theatre are ‘revealers’ follows: ‘During a plague the psychological makeup and moral fibre of society is attacked and attacks itself…’ Here, the raining frogs and speaking in tongues, 21st century style, of England’s turn to conspiracy appears, again, without being explicitly named. Artaud is actually, on one level, brought in simply to state what Allen is doing in this book: revealing our time to us.

The unspoken but obvious other lens here is Allen himself, writing just after the pandemic. This is the text as a kind of mitosis, but the whole book becomes a sort of prism through which we can see our present time and the past in one view.

There is so much to explore here. Like Allen’s other work it is almost impossibly rich. But its importance for our present moment is that it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar, in order to show us where we live, in a time of very rapid transition.

Steve Hanson

And I Feel Fine

Charlie Gere – World’s End (Goldsmiths/MIT)

About a year ago I wrote a double review of Hartmut Rosa’s The Uncontrollability of the World and Srećko Horvat’s After The Apocalypse (both Polity).

In it, I wrote that in recent times – referring to the pandemic – my personal ghosts were right on the surface, but after reading these books, ‘my ghosts now have their own armchairs in the living room.’

Today, I feel I have joined my ghosts in the Living Room At The End of Time. Us grinning skeletons, we have all been levelled down. As I write, the Russian war in Ukraine crunches on. Sanctions are tightened, increasing the possibility of a desperate Russian lash-out. In my earlier review, I commented that Charlie Gere’s book I Hate The Lake District was haunted by ‘the possibility of new wars’, which at this point ‘means the risk of nuclear strikes, or at best standoffs.’

I am personally haunted by all of this, and have been – on and off, to a greater or lesser degree – since the early 1980s. Gere’s new book for Goldsmiths/MIT explores this idea further. In it, he explains:

‘I still feel that sense, of being in a target, even today. To a great extent I am surprised to have lived this long, to still be alive. It is as if our lives have been an endlessly deferred death sentence, or as if we have always already been deemed dead, and only given our life through some act of sovereign mercy. As I write this I think of David Bowie’s song “We are the dead” from Diamond Dogs.’

Gere quotes Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture several times, who told me, not long before he died, that he was amazed not to have experienced further nuclear destruction of some sort in his time. The title of ‘World’s End’ doubles up, then, to mean the end of the world. Gere told me that this ‘is definitely a moment for literature to respond’ to the times we find ourselves in:

‘However one of the points of World’s End is that the world is always in turmoil, always changing and always fraught with risk and contingency. The difference with the Ukraine War is that it is so much closer to us in the Liberal West, unlike, say, Libya or Afghanistan. And the idea that the possibility of nuclear war ever really went away has always struck me as wilfully naïve.’

There is clearly a connection between the apocalyptic and Gere’s interest in New Media Theory. For instance, Friedrich Kittler described the optical fibre networks that would theoretically allow TV to operate after WWIII has wiped out all humans. I confirmed with Gere that this was the case:

‘I think all my work has been about nothing but the connection between media and the apocalypse, from my first book Digital Culture, through to Art, Time and Technology, Community without Community in Digital Culture, and on to Unnatural Theology, and now with this new kind of more personal writing with I Hate the Lake District and World’s End. They are all deeply concerned with the apocalypse both in the sense of destruction and revelation. One of my main points in Digital Culture was to show how all the realtime computing and networking technologies with which we are surrounded are absolutely products of the Cold War. At a deeper level there is a profound relation between media, death, the nuclear and language, most beautifully explored, I think, in Derrida’s essay “No Apocalypse: Not Now.”‘

These books are the capstones of a long and rich academic career. They are also personal, haunted by death, both personal death and the death of our wider culture.

But World’s End is also about life, specifically a life spent in and around an area, the World’s End in London. It is also about growing up in a different time. ‘I remember the curious resistance of the money slot in the phone booth as I pushed my two pence in’ Gere writes, and then reminds us that ‘when I was a child, homosexuality was still illegal and the Lord Chamberlain still censored theatre productions.’ Worlds also change slowly, incrementally, as well as apocalyptically, and sometimes for the better.

But World’s End is a prism, to be viewed from multiple angles. It is not just a cold war memoir. The book seems obsessed with the secret history of London, too. Books such as Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces are just the more obvious forerunners in this tradition. Gere has a highly alert cultural radar, to the extent that he has delivered up a book which fulfills the promises of ‘psychogeography’ without ever descending into any of its risible pretentions.

It reminds me of Fred Vermorel’s Dead Fashion Girl (Strange Attractor Press, 2019) which was reviewed here by Bob Dickinson. The Profumo affair hangs over that book, as it does over World’s End. Vermorel’s book revolves around ‘the unsolved murder in 1954 of 21-year old Jean Townsend, in South Ruislip, in the same neighbourhood the eight-year-old Fred Vermorel also lived.’ It also takes apart the 1950s and 1960s, and by doing so, it seems to explain the catastrophic decades which followed the collapse of the rhetoric of utopia, at the very end of the 1960s.

This is a highly successful exercise in what the Situationists called ‘unitary urbanism.’ Vermorel is obsessed with the fashion industry and its dark side. Gere also focuses in on the psychedelic boutiques such as Granny Takes A Trip, and their negative underside. In this, it is also a successful exercise in dialectical thinking. Its confidence in its own abilities are, I think, evident in the lack of psychogeographic posturing, and the lack of mystified methodological window dressing. There is no tenuous, bloated philosophy of walking here.

I asked Gere about this specifically. I like his take on landscape and place writing in World’s End and I Hate the Lake District. I admire that he doesn’t fetishise walking in ‘Lake District’ and says so. I like that he doesn’t mystify what he does and focuses on the cultural material of the territory he engages with. He tells me:

‘I think or at least I hope that the writing is itself a kind of reflection on the practice of its own making. I am writing a rather odd book at the moment and I toyed with calling it “Book with the Sound of its own Making”, as a reference to Robert Morris’ sculpture “Box with the sound of its own making”. I don’t think any piece of writing can avoid offering the reader an instruction or lesson about how it was made. However there is quite a lot to be said about the specific practices in those books, and how they are composed in a largely unscholarly way in a magpie-like bricolage of things that catch my eye and interest me, without any overarching thesis or desired endpoint. This messiness is a deliberate response to what I see as the unmanageable and unmasterable complexity of the world. A lot of writing to me seems to offer a false sense of mastery, that the truth of something can be contained within the book’s covers. If things were simple word would have gotten round as Derrida puts it.’

There is so much more to explore in Gere’s book, but I will sign off and simply encourage the reader to get a copy. This is the real deal. Gere actually pulls off the Prophetic here, in a full sense. His description of the collapse of a different sort of underground, of Chelsea millionaire basements in 2020, and the result looking like an image of the blitz, is genuinely chilling to read in 2022, not least because of the sudden asset freeze on Russian oligarchs who had made Chelsea their playground. The prophetic is about reconnecting the alpha with the omega until you cannot tell them apart.

Gere concludes his book simply by removing an apostrophe, taking us from World’s End to ‘worlds end‘. In this, at least, there is acceptance as well as pessimism.

Notes

I reviewed the Horvat and Rosa here: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/2021/04/14/messianic-millenarianism/

Gere’s previous book I Hate the Lake District was covered here: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/2020/06/01/apocalypso/

Bob Dickinson’s review of Vermorel can be found here: https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/sous-les-paves-le-vide/

The Kittler reference is from Gramophone, Film Typewriter.

Architecture, liberated

Paul Dobraszczyk, Architecture and Anarchism: Building without Authority (Antepavilion in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021)

It scarcely needs pointing out that there has been a lot of interest in the architecture of the 20th century over the past decade or so. An overwhelming proportion of this enthusiasm has been for modernist architecture. As much as an interest in the buildings themselves, this often reflects a desire to return to what these buildings represent. There’s a collective longing for an era of post-war consensus, and the way in which the nascent welfare state provided for its citizens’ needs, which looks increasingly attractive after more than a decade of austerity.

The architectural historian Paul Dobraszcyk’s latest book, Architecture and Anarchism, is refreshing for going against this now well-worn grain and telling another story. It explores architecture that is not provided for people, with their perceived needs met by the beneficent hand of a top-down, omniscient state, but by people, setting out the potential for citizens to identify their own wants and needs and take up the tools to provide buildings for themselves.

Bookended with accounts of two recent and heavy-handed police raids on the arts organisation Antepavilion in London (by whom this book was commissioned), central to the book is a questioning of the concept of power – primarily, who has it and how it is used. The book offers a grounding in anarchist thought and histories of self-building, organising and grassroots action, as informed by the core tenets of anarchism: autonomy, voluntary association, mutual aid, and self-organisation through direct democracy. It sets out a series of oppositions – humanist as opposed to authoritarian, participatory as opposed to top-down, free rather than uniform, inclusive rather than elitist.

Through these, Dobraszcyk explores a number of motivations behind self-building, from a political act of resistance and refusal, and a desire to create counter-communities, to a means of empowerment, to a desire to escape conventional social structures. Of course, for many people – such as the homeless and migrants – this isn’t a choice and arises out of necessity. The book highlights that instability and large-scale movement of people will become an even more pressing challenge, in the context of future pandemics and climate change – and we’ll all need to find ways to adapt. Looking to anarchist building and organising projects which are already seeking new and less resource-intensive ways of living on the planet, Dobraszcyk suggests, might give us some ideas. Rather than focusing on buildings, per se, Dobraszcyk points to broader-based movements, from the Transition Towns movement to Extinction Rebellion, suggesting that just as important as physical spaces is the capacity to think outside the box and imagine how things might be different.

In general, Dobraszcyk takes an expansive approach to what constitutes ‘architecture’. This includes not just permanent structures, but those designed to be temporary, or which arose in response to specific needs, from protest camps to the Calais Jungle, and those which were never built. It doesn’t just include new buildings, but includes DIY refitting and renovation, as in Granby Four Streets, Liverpool. The book even considers transient gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the California desert, and artworks and games, experienced in both the physical and the virtual world.

Exploring these themes across a range of case studies (primarily from the Global North, but also including examples in Southern Asia and Latin America), Architecture and Anarchism is an accessible, readable introduction to the subject. Giving the book something of the quality of a textbook or reader, each case study is summed up with a short assessment of the place in question, as a lesson to be learned of what worked or didn’t work.

The real strength of the book is its photos – primarily new pictures taken by Dobraszcyk, augmented by a handful of historic photos and archival images – which give a glimpse into self-built projects and communities around the world. What doesn’t come across quite as strongly is a sense of place. As I read, I longed to get an idea of what it was like to visit these places – the smells, sounds and atmosphere – or to have heard more of the voices of those who lived there or experienced them. While that may be beyond the scope of this book, it’s certainly piqued my interest to read and explore further.

Natalie Bradbury

A few lines on felines

On Cats: An Anthology – Introduced by Margaret Attwood (Notting Hill Editions, 2021)

It took me a long while to get into cats. For this reason, I empathise with the mother in Rebecca West’s ‘Why Mother was Frightened of Cats’ – a short extract from which is included in the new anthology On Cats – who shrieks “Take it away! Take it away!” when confronted with an unfortunate feline.

What changed my mind was seeing the transformation of close relatives when they welcomed a cat into their lives. This cherished new member of the family was loving when she wanted to be and aloof at other times, dependent on them and assertive in her needs, but also fiercely independent. These are all traits which are encapsulated in On Cats, which portrays cats in a range of roles, from pest control, housemates, freeloaders and minor irritants to friends and companions, across short stories, essays, letters, poems, and excerpts from longer works.

Sometimes, these writers remind us, we adopt cats – but cats also find and select us. We rescue cats – but they can also rescue us. While stereotypically cute kittens – and motherhood – are perhaps overrepresented in the collection, cats are far from being sentimentalised and the selected writers don’t shy away from loss or cruelty: cats often grow up and grow old with us, but just as frequently their lives are cut brutally shot, whether by intent or by accident. On Cats presents a range of cultural attitudes towards cats and how they should be kept (living in the UK, for example, I never cease to find it surprising that cats are customarily confined to live inside in many countries, as in Margaret Attwood’s introductory essay).

Highlights of the collection include an extract from ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson, which offers a lesson about learning to get along with others, and appreciate what we have, as told through a relationship with one cat – which proves to be unsatisfactory – and its replacement. Set evocatively within a Finnish family summer, and redolent of childhood longing, it’s an ideal choice for the first story. An extract from ‘My Life, So Far by Pard’, by Ursula K. Le Guin, gives an amusing cat’s eye view of the world, reinterpreting objects and interactions familiar from human life from a cat’s perspective and leading to subtle and entertaining misunderstandings. ‘A Death in the Family’ by Caitlin Moran is one of the most moving tributes you will ever read to any (previously) living creature, human or animal. Similarly poignant is ‘An Inscription at St Augustine with St Faith’s Church’, which celebrates “the bravest cat in the world”. This plucky cat guarded her kitten through German bombing in the city of London in September 1940, which destroyed the church in which she was resident. ‘Cat and Mouse in Partnership’ by Brothers Grimm lures us in with a seemingly unexpected tale of friendship between the two titular creatures – before this mismatched relationship leads to its inevitably grisly conclusion. ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ by James Bowen, on the other hand, reads like a modern-day fairytale – a human and a feline, both down on their luck, find fortune together.

On Cats demonstrates that once we’ve met one cat, we’ve met one cat: while in some ways all cats are alike, our feline friends are just as varied in their personalities as us humans.

The collection perfectly captures humans’ relationship with felines, and the part that they play in our lives: cats can give us company, heartbreak, frustration and, perhaps best of all, humour. While we are able to enjoy the company of cats, though (at a time of their own choosing, of course), ultimately it’s futile to try to understand them. 

Natalie Bradbury

The End

R.B. Russell, Waiting for the End of the World (PS Publishing, 2020)

It is the end of days. The end of things. The end of time.

This was the last book on my “to-read” pile.

The last review I’ll ever write for the Manchester Review of Books.

And so how does R.B. Russell face the end? Well, with a curious ambiguity.

Waiting for the End of the World is, as you would expect, a novel about apocalypse. Initially, a personal apocalypse – “revelation,” from the Greek: a secret, long hidden, is finally revealed.

The corpses are lifted from their graves and slouch towards Jerusalem.

But then, as the novel progresses, we move from a comfortable realism, full of reflection and pity, into a new revelation; the revealed world of the spirit.

Time shifts. Visions speak. Angels, not meant to be seen, are seen, and they converse somewhat like Terry Pratchett characters.

The world that Russell has done so much to convince us is our own slowly subsides into a multidimensional set of alternate realities, where Abbeys appear and crumble to dust all at once, and a time-travelling millennialist cult show up at each turn.

Geography gives way to theography. World to spirit.

The millennialists are called the Children of the Cross. They follow a charismatic African leader called Phillip, who they insist on calling Jesus.

Phillip does not consider himself the Second Coming, but this does not stop his disciples. Some, like Gabriel, will contradict him, to his face, about who he is and what his coming means.

Ultimately, Phillip reveals his power; doing so out of frustration, as his followers try and tell him what he means. He insists that he does not know what he means. He doesn’t know why he is still alive, or why he seems to appear and disappear through time and space without rhyme or reason.

Our protagonist, Elliot, is unconvinced of Phillip. He remains unconvinced, in fact; choosing not to believe even after witnessing miracles and angels and all the rest.

Just as some can believe without seeing, Elliot can disbelieve despite seeing. Sight is no guide, perhaps. Phillip, the purported messiah, says similar.

Both Elliot and Phillip share names that can be spelled with only a single “l”, but both are spelled with the double. This ties the two together. Mirror images. Second comings.

The structure of the book moves us as if towards a final revelation but, as we approach its end, there is slippage. Our capacity to suspend our disbelief is tested: first by tonal shift – from realism to allegory – and then by meta-breakages, clear contrivances, and the resolution of irresolvable elements.

The final effect is troubling. But is this not the point of an apocalyptic book? A cosy resolution hardly seems at one with a book called Waiting for the End of the World.

We are left to ponder the essence of endings. The Bard told us not to expect a bang, but only a measly whimper. Would we even hear a whimper today?

Endings are faceable but the unending…

What is the end has gone past, and we are just here…

All things have their time and place within the world, and the best we can hope for is to be present.

Endings are never quite endings, nor beginnings fresh starts…

It’s the books – the books that train us!

Starts and ends. Starts and ends.

You spend your life

                Waiting

                          For a perfect ending and

         Then you

                                 Realise

You’ve just missed it.

Magic Words

Olga Dermott-Bond, A Sky Full of Strange Specimens (Nine Pens, 2021)

Kali Richmond, Gradual Reduction to Bone (Nine Pens, 2021)

Poetry casts spells. Its practitioners traipse the landscape in search of ingredients. On the page, alchemical, they bring them together. They make things happen.

Nine Pens is a new kickstarter-driven poetry press based in the North Pennines. High in the mountains, it is a gathering place for rhymers and allegores. A secret coven, open only to subscribers.

My first two pamphlets, from Olga Dermott-Bond and Kali Richmond, provided much substance for rumination.

Although Nine Pens publishes a wide range of poetry, these two collections spoke to each other with great clarity, like an echo. Both use nature imagery, but made crooked.

Raven’s feathers. Spider’s webs. The patter of rain.

Dermott-Bond describes a kitten, “head perfect like a penny”.

Richmond implores us to “dig enough holes and you’ll find the bones / of wolf, of lynx, even of bears”.

Two poets’ journeys through our tired and tangled island are laid bare. We see their visions, feel their heartbreaks.

The ancient lore lives again among cellphones, hospitals, main roads; the whole “anthropocene chorus”, as Richmond memorable describes it.

I am particularly fond of short-lined poems. They are more epigrammatical. More punctuating. Both collections contain good examples.

Richmond’s “Toil” says:

Pebbles rubble boulders

Igneous sedimentary meta-

Morphic

Pick them up one by one

Pile them into a trembling tower

Those little duosyllabic words with their bilabial plosive “b”s are like round rubble running around in the mouth. Richmond conjures them up and then reinforces them with latinate science words, armouring them, ready to be piled up.

The tower is narrow and high, like our delicate column of words.

Dermott-Bond’s “Mrs Florence Skelton’s House Falls into the Sea, 1946” is another thin poem:

The last thing I remember

Was the kettle calling.

I had always loved being

High over cliffs, waves

Crumpling like rock, paper,

Scissors […]

The crisp, clear images place us in an uncomplicated room; in uncomplicated relation to that room. Things are normal. Words are spared.

But we know from the title that this is not the case. So we are alert.

The first sign – the crumpling waves – are beautiful in their ambiguity. First, we think, they crumple like rock – tumbling, heavy, crashing – then they crumple like paper – white sheafs folding over each other – before, finally, the juxtaposing “scissors” send us back to the start.

We see the waves now as hands – children’s hands perhaps – competing, restlessly, in a tumult of movement and contest. Rock, paper, scissors, rock, paper, scissors…

Our plain domestic is complicated. Our scene is torn by poetry, just as the wallpaper will soon be torn by the falling masonry.

These poems are arcane, but careful. Ornate, at times, but also, when the crystal ball clears, they are crystalline and shimmering.

  • Zoe Islander-Bax

The Eternal Round

Edita Bikker, The Night of Turns (Broodcomb Press, 2021).

Johan Huizinga thought the world was a game. Shakespeare called it a stage. One thing’s for sure; we are all players.

As we move backwards through time, the categories blur. Games, we find, and plays, overlap – and it all overlaps with magic.

Edith Bekker’s The Night of Turns takes us back to these times. Or, at least, it takes us away, into some semi-mystical folk realm – perhaps foreign (although its participants are all British), perhaps the past, or perhaps the post-apocalyptical future.

The realm is structured by a series of plays and games. Our protagonist joins a caravan, walking on endlessly, around and around the eternal Round.

They are stalked by something. They are watched by something. Something hides among them.

Is it the same spirit, or it is just a game?

The caravan-dwellers have their own game; a board game that they play compulsively. When they stop they take turns to play it all night.

Those who don’t play, practice with the puppets. Puppets with eerily human eyes.

Bikker’s novel, published by the Cornish small press Broodcomb, is a captivating work of folk horror. A perfect balance of uncanny elements, surprise and endearing characterisation, such that one can’t help turning the pages, even though you’re worried as to what might be there.

Reading it is like reaching your hand into a dark doorway at night. Heart-racing. Spellbinding.

As a work in the folk tradition, The Night of Turns treads some old ground. The haunted carnival, the acting and the puppetry, is a touch Carteresque. The gypsy living is reminiscent of some Philip Pullman. The modern-yet-ancient setting reminds me of Zoe Gilbert’s excellent Folk (2018).

Yet, as with the best genre works, Bikker’s own folk tale combines the old ingredients in a brand new way. Despite the familiar elements, the book feels strikingly original.

A whole world has been thought through here. We are introduced to it slowly, with mysteries unravelling to deeper mysteries, and a magical terminology laying itself out unnoticed.

You find yourself on The Night of Turns searching for the spirit-architect of the Caravan of the Owls along with Green Gwen and Hoofman, soon to return to the Great Barn… and it all feels natural, right and proper.

Even the game itself, convoluted and strange as it is, begins to make sense; begins, in fact, to give a deeper and more powerful meaning to these characters’ lives than you can find in your own.

This is true magic being worked: the spell of narrative. When you read The Night of Turns, you come out of it transformed.

There’s a whole world here, of Bikker’s creation, and it deserves to be more than a well-kept secret. I can imagine Night of Turns fan art, video games, comics. At the very least an accompanying board game; something like The Decembrists’ Illimat.

  • Joe Darlington

A Bellyful of Laughs

Shalom Auslander, Mother for Dinner (Picador, 2021)

If you want to get on in America in the twenty-first century, you’ve got to have a dash.

African-American is where it all started, of course. Asian-American came along in time, eventually to be followed by a veritable parade of Something-Americans.

French-Americans, Portuguese-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, Albino-Americans…

But what about Cannibal-Americans?

Shalom Auslander’s new novel, Mother for Dinner, exposes the plight of this under-represented minority. Seventh Seltzer, our Can-Am protagonist (to use the preferred shorthand), believes himself to have got out from under the long shadow of his heritage, only to be dragged back in after his mother dies.

His mother, like her father before her and her brother after her – the shamanic “Unclish” – is a devout follower of Cannibal folk practice. On her deathbed, she draws her children around them and delegates each of them a part of herself to eat after she passes.

“To you, First,” she says, addressing her first child, “I leave my ass. So you can kiss it.”

She is not the most pleasant of mothers in literature.

Mudd, as she’s named – a suitable Jungian derogative for the fecund, foul ground of life – names her children in honour of the order of their birth: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Zero, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth.

She had wanted twelve boys. When six died she was distraught, more because it ruined her naming system than because of the actual loss. Then, when her eighth-born child was a girl, she made an allowance by calling her Zero.

Can-Am lore, like Mudd’s naming system, has a distinctly improvisational feel. In fact, the more obviously made-up the traditions sound, the more vociferously Mudd and Unclish defend them.

Seventh’s father, from whom Mudd is now divorced, sums it all up as “ancient bullshit”.

Their holy book is The Complete Guide to Field-Dressing and Processing Your Deer. The ancients, Unclish solemnly states, hid the book from prying non-Can eyes by switching out the word “person” in favour of “deer”. Only the Can-Am community knows the real truth.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson, whose refusal to come out as Can-Am is a source of abiding shame in this “community”. The “community” also frowns on Gilligan’s Island, a show created by the Jews to make Cannibals look bad.

As the book goes on, we come to wonder whether this “community” ever stretched further than Mudd and Unclish. Sure, they have their ancient customs and ceremonial daggers, but at lot of the lore seems curiously convenient.

Seventh works as a book publisher. He spends his days sorting through piles of manuscripts, each one telling the next Something-American odyssey; a tale of oppression, followed by hope, followed by disillusionment, and the resolution to fight for change.

His own Can-Am version of the “Not So Great Something-American Novel”, Out of the Shadows, is continually passed over in favour of the latest “One-Legged-Pakistani-British-American-Fiscal-Conservative-Social-Democrat-Transgender-Polygamist” novel, or “Queer-iOS-Supporting-Non-Corporeal-American” novel.

That Seventh so easily disparages the mass of identical Something-American narratives and yet wants to have his own published demonstrates Auslander’s astuteness when it comes to dealing with his central theme: American identity.

Americans don’t want to be imposed upon by the past and yet, in the absence of any belief in their own nation and culture, it is only through looking for supposedly “deeper” and “truer” pasts that they can shore up their identities. In the world of Something-Americans, the Something always rings truer.

 And yet, being Americans, they want to be free, even of their own self-imposed Somethingness.

There are no neat solutions to this psychological splitting, this national fragmentation, and Auslander doesn’t try to provide any. Instead, he lays on the laughs. Humour is perhaps the only way to navigate a topic like this, and his note-perfect delivery leaves us bemused, frowning, groaning, and, on occasions, totally disgusted.

Auslander has understood the obscenity of the situation. Can-Am tradition is simply a concretising of the whole Freudian, Levi-Straussian, Žižekian mess that weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The Motherland. Tell me about your mother…

Mother for Dinner is a brilliant astute comedy that explores a delicate subject without an axe to grind. A veritable feast.

  • Joe Darlington

Fox-Wife, Wolf Wife and Walrus Fingers

Richard Price, The Owner of the Sea (Carcanet, 2021)

Only Carcanet could do justice to this book; one that is both a testimony to clarity and concision in narrative poetry, and also has a woman who has sex with a dog.

Richard Price, whose collections Small World (2012) and Moon for Sale (2017), are masterpieces of clarity and careful pacing, has endeavoured to bring three Inuit folk tales into English language poetry; “The Owner of the Sea”, “The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man”, and the epic Kiviuq.

Each tale is full of bawdy, fun and cruelty in the best of the old storytelling tradition.

Price walks a tightrope between outright filth and respectable poetic style with an effortlessness that is majestic to behold. One suspects that a lesser poet, with a lesser publisher, would have come unstuck. Instead, Price puts in a perfect performance.

So what are the tales?

“The Owner of the Sea” is a rather opaque origin myth for the mysteries of the deep.

The owner – “The Woman Who Was Always Having Sex”, “The Terrifying One” – refuses to listen to her father who wants to marry her off. Instead, she spends her days combing her hair and having sex with her dog, who she calls “Husband”.

She moves out, across the water, but still depends on her father for food packages. Husband swims across the water between them, carrying the packets, until, one day, the humiliated father fills a package with rocks.

Husband drowns. She fights with her father. Finally, she is cast into the sea.

As she tries to climb into his canoe, he slices off her fingertips – these become seals – then down to the knuckles – these become walruses – and then, off come the stubs, the last of the fingers, which become whales.

She plunges into the sea and her hair is the seaweed, and now you must placate her if you want the bounty of her animals.

It’s a moving tale, in parts, and in parts quite shocking and surprising. It bears the marks of oral tradition, where characters are invulnerable, uninhibited, and the only details are those whose striking imagery captures the imagination, and allows them to be remembered.

Price’s poetry translates this directness to the page. Short lines and expansive use of white space give the words room to breathe. The wind blows through them like an arctic breeze across a fishing boat. Very little is said, but nothing is rushed.

“The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man” is similar to “The Owner of the Sea” in many ways. Knives are taken to body parts – transformation through mutilation – and the traditional place of woman is inverted, norms upset.

It is only when we reach Kiviuq that we see the other half of this society; the male hunters with women waiting for them, sometimes betraying them.

Kiviuq is a wandering hero, the old archetype, familiar from Viking sagas and Celtic myth. He learns to hide inside a seal skin and become a great hunter, only to be bullied by the other boys who plan to kill him.

Inside the seal skin, he gains the seal’s abilities. He tips over the boys’ boats and drowns them. Thus he begins his wanderings, as an outcast.

The Kiviuq cycle is the longest of the three tales. It contains the least allegorical material, and is the loosest in construction. Although there is a beginning, there is no end. Kiviuq is perhaps still out there now, taking up with more women and witches, and facing ever-greater perils.

He is no Cu Chulainn, all-powerful warrior, but an Odysseus, a fighter who lives by his wits.

For those interested in myths and archetypes, there is much red meat here. There is also great poetry. Poems like “Stone House” – part of the “Old Woman Who…” tale – that is simply one potent, resonant line:

                “Ours is a stone house so perhaps the first people made it.”

As far as scene-setting goes, what more do you need?

These are stories that should be more well-known, and Price’s translation ought to become the standard version in English. A timeless collection.

  • Joe Darlington