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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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

King Cang

Stuart Elden – Canguilhem (Polity)

I went through this book on Georges Canguilhem by Stuart Elden in strides, thanks to his excellent explanatory craft. He lays out detailed research with an engaging narrative style and no gloss or loss. I hadn’t explored ‘King Cang’ in detail before and now I see how important he was.

The Foucault link is the thing many people know about, but the oft-mentioned connection to Foucault’s PhD is actually minimal, at the same time as Canguilhem’s work is Ur-Foucauldian.

The Normal and the Pathological is the key work and Elden maps out the text itself with fascinating asides on the histories of some of the concepts and debates Canguilhem grappled with in his time.

Canguilhem was a historian and philosopher of science, he worked closely with Gaston Bachelard, who is largely known for his book on space in Britain, rather than for being the equally paradigm-challenging individual he was in Europe. Shall I talk about Europe? I better not talk about Europe.

These figures – Foucault included – take you right into the roots of epistemology. For Canguilhem disease is not a diversion from the ‘norm’ of health, but a new type of life. Dead things live, hair grows. Live things have deadness. Mechanism and vitalism – and in fact morbidity and life – are not divided cleanly in two by a scalpel blade. The experimental laboratory is not a normalised situation, but a pathological one. Statistical mean averages normalise. The roots of this lie in metricisation and all the way back to the revolution, Bonaparte. Standard measures that were required to control and for warfare.

Scientists may have their eyes down the microscope, but they all live in a social world and they blindly bring elements of that socialisation to their supposedly neutral objective labour.

The links with Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic and other works should now be clear to those who know that material. But the kind of thinking Canguilhem executed is exactly that which is under threat in some places as conservatism and a re-kindled fascism shows a clear desire to close down on all but the most instrumentalised philosophy.

Cang’s work was in fact a kind of philosophical Antifa – as Elden shows – even though the explicit terms of those politics were muted in his writings.

These issues are at the heart of the struggle for the independent soft power of the university in Britain. Canguilhem is a crucial figure to keep as that struggle moves on, his critique of science and its epistemologies are as far-reaching as Adorno and Horkheimer’s in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Elden’s book is the perfect introduction and future guide to ‘Cang’ in English. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

Our Laureate of the Concept Collider

Michael Conley – Flare and Falter (Splice)

This author is so far from the mass of average fiction writers, wrapped up in a fantasy idea of their own life, wanting to ‘express themselves’, or even worse, doing that but not even knowing there’s another way to work.

Conley takes two ideas to his giant particle collider brain – it runs the full length of the Mancunian Way if it had been completed – then he lets them go, BANG round the tubes at a million miles an hour. They smash into a trillion infinitely coloured fragments. A snapshot is taken from every possible angle. Conley writes up the report, lab coat on, biros in top pocket – important that – and then he condenses it into a short story. He repeats the process until he has a short story collection which also works as a novel.

Conley knows that to make good art you have to stand further back, not get closer. That you have to squint, not peer in. That you have to look out, not like, hey, inside yourself man.

He also knows that ultimately this will provide a better snapshot of Michael Conley – as well as a cracking work of fiction – than a decade of soul-searching could ever give. He’s also a bloody great poet.

Now, spoilers are very possible with this one – and will ruin your fun – but all I need to tell you is that one short story involves the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl returned to the next life as a South Manchester pub landlord.

Buy and read immediately.

– Steve Hanson

Fallen Words

Melchior Vischer – Second Through Brain (Equus Press, 2015). Translated by David Vichnar and Tim König

“In fifty years or in fifty minutes will this my good inanity surely become apodictic wisdom”; so predicted Melchior Vischer, writer of the first Dadaist novel, Second Through Brain, in 1920.

Well now it’s almost a hundred years later and far from being apodictic (that is, surely, clearly and indisputably the case), Vischer’s work remains troubling, and in many ways as impenetrable as it was upon first publication.

The novel (if it might be called that) was translated by David Vichnar and Tim König into English for the very first time just over three years ago, and a copy has only recently made its way into my hands. It is a worthy piece of literary recovery, filling a gap in the records that I had not even realised was there, and one conducted in the most rigorous academic manner.

There enough in both the scholarly introduction and annotations to satisfy those with an academic interest in the text, while the text itself is presented in the small, challenging sections that typified the original work. At only 116 pages, it is a work as concise as it is important.

Second Through Brain tells the tale of Jörg, a builder who, while ogling the bountiful bosom of a girl in an office below him, slips and falls forty feet from scaffolding. The manic, linguistically mangled visions that blast into his mind during the one-second duration of his fall constitute the body of the text; ending with the composite image of his last sight, a shop selling eggs, and the cracking of his skull, egglike, onto the pavement.

In the graspable content of the novel, we find a series of dreamlike images. These fray and bend out of shape in the iron wind of broken language. Jörg has little time for the “dumbass languages of the wicked Earthball”, we are told, preferring to present the world, in all its fury and pointlessness, through a slurry of half-images and twisted words.

As a foundational text – the first novel of dada – there are a panoply of techniques on display here that it is tempting to call firsts (although I am no expert). The use of non-sequiturs throughout is reminiscent of automatic writing, although the animals and vegetables of the surrealists are not in as regular attendance here as are soldiers, sex, acts of violence, and language itself.

A favourite trick of Vicher’s is the compounding of nouns and the adverbisation of verbs. “A French victoryofficer” is said to “choke gurglingly”, for example. It is a testament to the translators that such words, and the non-sequiturial sentence constructions that contain them, have been effectively rendered in English despite the many barriers that lie between our own tongue and the German original, especially in terms of approaches to grammar and the use of compounds.

The effect is one of conscious unmeaning. Like the two professors we find wandering through the book at its halfway point, we are left “searching for the point. Yes indeed, the point!”

As the professors are revealed to be deer, watched by “a frog corked with cyanide winking imperceptibly, yet aristocratically”, we can conclude that they never did find the point; nor we neither. Which is precisely the point, after all.

Vischer/Jörg is a Sudetenland German, as German speaking Czechs were known at this time, and is keen throughout the novel to situate himself in the German Dadaist tradition. As if to distinguish himself in the reader’s mind from Slavic contemporaries, he makes reference in numerous places to his “friends” Tristan Tzara, Raoul Hausmann, and expressionist Franz Marc. In Vischer’s own mind he was a bridge between the expressionists and Dada. To the founders of Dada he was a provincial opportunist.

Nevertheless, his most ardent yells are those in the name of Dada: “here still reigns the free, primitive lust of procreation. Da da! Here’s the mother of all culture. Da da!”

It is surprising then to find that, other than Second Through Brain, a novel which constituted both his most important and best received contribution to literary culture, Vischer wrote nothing else in the Dadaist or wider avant garde modes. The “primitive” passions of his twenties burned themselves out chasing abortive careers in the theatre, popular fiction, and then history and literary biography.

In fact, as the well-researched introduction to the text makes clear, Vischer soon dropped everything, including his own name, to join up with the Nazi party and write propaganda under the names Emil Fischer and Heinrich Riedel.

One is tempted to draw a parallel with Hitler’s own failed art career, only Vischer had the added frustration of having had one solitary success, Second Through Brain, and nothing but failures after. That this success was anti-bourgeois, anti-church, and anti-art must have rankled with the later “Fischer”, who lived a buttoned-down, churchgoing, happily married life from the 1930s onward.

So might we consider Vischer’s groundbreaking novel to be apodictic wisdom in another fifty years’ time? The signs suggest not. If, after a hundred years, a novel still has the power to baffle, infuriate, tease, captivate, and offend, then perhaps there is hope yet for the avant gardist mission.

Second Through Brain is nowhere near as elaborately conceived or beautifully executed as, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s The Waves, but it reads as far more contemporary. Time hasn’t dulled the blades on the meat grinder of its language. It is still every bit as curious and mocking as it was back in 1920, and now that English readers can get their hands on it I highly recommend that they do so.

– Joe Darlington

The bard of two-for-ones

Colin Herd – click + collect (Boilerhouse Press)

Book of two halves, Click, and then Collect.

Click begins with the TV remote and the trigger, soldiers captured, shown on television, stripped to their underwear and soon to be dead.

Herd’s confidence is detectable in that he – or he appears to – write easily and relatively unencumbered by the dead weight of ancient verse. Pound’s ‘heave’ against pentameter is definitely over here. No sweat.

But he isn’t presenting a cod modernist piece either, that assumes it has to arrive fractured as though a typesetting accident has occured which looks like a Microsoft Word default.

It’s subtle. It’s dark and light at the same time. It’s everyday and slightly otherworldy at the same time. I applaud all those qualities.

Brilliant book, get it. Then you can find out what Collect is all about.

– Steve Hanson