I Placed a Jar in Tennessee

Andrew Smith – Rabbit & Robot (Simon and Schuster, 2018) 

Andrew Smith, pioneer of ‘weird fiction’, has thoroughly confused and astounded me once again.

Although I love his work, I stress to new readers that he is an acquired taste and it isn’t wise to jump straight in to his catalogue. His latest work, Rabbit & Robot, is perfect proof of this, as it demonstrates his uniqueness but also how close he is to becoming his own parody. From an academic point of view, it was one of his weaker novels, yet it still contained many of the Andrew Smithian elements that I’ve loved in his other work and I was still able to enjoy it. It’s just that maybe Rabbit & Robot takes a little more work that we’re used to.

Rabbit & Robot follows Cager and Billy whose parents have invented two of the most ground-breaking pieces of technology of their lifetimes: the cogs, and the lunar cruise ships. The cogs are robot servants who, despite now being on v.4 of their development, are frozen them in one constant emotional state (happiness, anger, hunger, etc). Cager, Billy, and their guardian Rowan, steal a lunar cruise ship called the Tennessee; home to thousands of malfunctioning cogs.

The premise of this novel is as exciting as his previous ones, and I can never fault Smith for his originality. What I also love about his books is that despite their sheer surrealism, they always have something to say about the world that we reside in.

Rabbit & Robot was essentially a novel that explored ‘us v them’, as well as the question of what it really means to be human. Are our emotions just a form of programming? Do our genes make us nothing but cogs made out of flesh? Some of the imagery here, like the cogs oozing strange coloured liquid, and Cager being completely unfazed by inflicting violence on them, was quite shocking in its inferences.

There are other small things about this novel that I enjoyed, yet I felt weren’t fully explored. The idea that never-ending wars were being waged on the Earth below them, for example. Or the drug, Woz, that Cager is addicted to, being a substance used in schools to neurologically train children and teenagers into obedience.

The fact that Smith is never afraid to openly show homosexuality and homo-eroticism as ordinary behaviour, and actively includes trans and bisexual characters, is something I’d like to see more of. And, finally, the idea of the Tennessee as a ‘jar’. The entire ordeal of the book resembles some sort of scientific experiment, and the revelations of Cager becoming completely irrelevant and detached in relation to the Tennessee present us with nothing but an image of dehumanisation.

What let this book down was a number of loose ends and unnecessary elements that took away from the novel. In the middle of it they are visited by aliens who claimed to have installed the fault in the cogs. Whilst this was an interesting idea, in that it created quite a terrifying image of an ‘us v them’ hierarchy, Smith is better at showing how humans ultimately plot their own downfall.

Grasshopper Jungle, for example, is his apocalyptic novel about humanity’s neglect of nature and toxic use of science. The same really worked for this novel until the arrival of some aliens for about 30 pages, and I don’t think that really fit well into the story. Smith also really needs to work on his female characters, because they are flat and barely exist outside of the male gaze.

So I have very mixed things to say about Rabbit & Robot, but as with all of Smith’s works it can take a lot of time for the messages to really jump out. Whilst these messages are definitely there in the undercurrent, the surface story of Rabbit & Robot wasn’t completely my cup of tea. Andrew Smith is at his best when he doesn’t try so hard to shock, but to scare, and does it by showing us a taste of our own world in destruction rather than too-removed sci-fi we can’t recognise.

– Rachel Louise Atkin

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The Old Gods and the New

Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, 2017).

Writers, especially experimental ones, complain of the professionalism bestsellers. Like Hollywood movies, we associate them with plots that are too standardised, writing that is too accessible, and an approach that doesn’t take risks.

Yet the biggest bestsellers aren’t like this at all. Dan Brown’s sentences are horrible. Philip Pullman’s plots are desperately overcomplicated. E.L. James somehow turned low-grade pornography into a multimillion dollar empire. None of them could be charged with being cynically over-professional.

Happily, there is no predicting a hit.

The reason I say this, is so that you don’t misunderstand my praise for Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. The terms on which I love this book are the stuff of pure bestsellers. It is pacey, exciting, crystal clear in its prose, and filled with short sentences and concise paragraphs. It features archetypical characters in traditional storylines and just the right level of history and fantasy for the reader to indulge in escapism.

It is the story of Vasya, daughter of Pyotr, a rural boyar and cousin of the Russian Prince. Vasya is blessed with the sight; an ability associated with witches that allows her to see the world of spirits and demons resident within the forest. Living on the outskirts of society, she grows up as a friend to the spirits and rejects both marriage and the convent.

Morozko, Spirit of Winter, lays claim to Vasya as his future bride. The charismatic priest, Konstantin, arrives at the farmstead at the very same time, with a plan to exorcise the woods of their spirits. And so begins the fairy tale.

Arden perfectly balances the duelling narratives. Konstantin the Christian versus Vasya of the Old Gods. Vasya’s friendly spirits against the malicious agents of the Great Bear.

Every scene moves us forward, carrying us effortlessly into a complex world without ever pausing for exposition. The final scenes of the novel may take place in a fantasy setting, but so subtle is Arden’s unravelling of this story that it is only in retrospect that I realised I was reading a full-blown fantasy novel.

Reviewers have so far drawn the obligatory parallel to Carter, particularly Nights at the Circus, but for the first half of the novel I felt it closer in style to the historical novels of Nick Brown or Bernard Cornwall. Arden places you directly into the Prince’s court in the era of the Golden Horde, and convincingly conveys life in the deep northern woods.

When the fantasy elements do enter, they come in the guise of folktales and the ancient religion of the Rus. Arden explains in her afterword that she has taken considerable liberties in her translation of Russian nomenclature. The translation is entirely on the side of readability over authenticity, and it works perfectly.

The final result is an adventure that I found totally enthralling, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend it to a friend. It is a quick read, and uncomplicated, but smuggles some potent ideas in beneath its fast-paced surface. Questions of modernity and tradition, the Old Gods and the new.

Arden’s book is by no means obscure, but it is not a blockbuster. Perhaps she will achieve this rare and ambiguous credit with a future work, but for now her debut is finding success on its own terms.

If you’re looking for a break from Booker Prize-longlisted difficulty, but can’t face the usual fare that cycles through the top 10 bestsellers lists, I can’t recommend The Bear and the Nightingale enough. You will have fun, but it might stay with you too.

– Joe Darlington 

Everyone’s price?

Bryony Bates and Joey Frances – Cash/sex: a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto (Generic Greeting/intimate pussy, 2018) 

Where, today, does the worry that we’re not where we want to be come from? Or else the worry that we don’t even know where we want to be? Why, by such and such an age, are we expected to have worked this stuff out? All questions which have been on my mind prompted by a reading of the newly published pamphlet from Joey Frances and Bryony Bates: Cash/sex: a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto. A work written, a note at the back explains, over the course of 12 months, some 3 ½ years ago when both the authors were 23.

It’s a work which shows the two authors wrestling with the problem of how to live ethically under capitalism, hyper-aware of their own, as they put it, ‘semi-privilege’ and the accompanying expectations others will have for them and about them based upon that semi-privilege and trying to, instead, figure out for themselves what they want. As the introductory piece indicates, what this wrestling could be said to amount to is a ‘Quarter Life Crisis’ – something which, in itself, need not necessarily be a bad thing, framed positively as a kind of ‘constant personal revolution’.

Following the first half of the book’s focus on cash, centring upon questions of earning a living, the second half turns towards sex, in both domestic settings and the world of pornography. And immediately we are stopped dead with the lines ‘(I (this Romantic I) stopped worrying about walking / down dark streets/ once I knew I would be raped in my bed.) / In a perfect world, yeah, this would be a horrendous/ statement . . . ’ and we’re forced into an urgent questioning and interrogation of the condition and power structures of any world – along with our own position in that world – which doesn’t immediately recognise that statement as the horrendous one that it so clearly is.

And, indeed, this is a book that insists upon asking a lot of questions again and again, which seeks to break through lazy, unexamined ways of thinking. And as such there is the sense that, here, in this text, their declared youth might very much be working in favour of Frances and Bates: that their age perhaps enables them to see and point out to their readership things which their readers may have become blind to either due to their own advanced years or routine, or some combination of both.

The placing together of ‘cash’ and ‘sex’ in both the pamphlet’s title and within the book itself in its two sections is intriguing: what is it that’s being suggested? How do the two authors see the two subjects as being connected? Questions which seem to be answered towards the end of the book when appears: ‘this horrible impossible force over everyone how/clear or incidental or forceful or whatever it’s a rape/ metaphor, it’s basically at the centre of it, as I expect/ you’ve already noticed except in this case the rapes/ are also not metaphorical…’ Lines which add up to a provocative declaration of the position of the two authors, and one that succeeds in – again – compelling the reader to clarify where they, too, stand with regards to capitalism.

Why, though, didn’t Frances and Bates opt to publish this text as soon as it was finished? Why withhold it? That decision strikes me as an important one somehow. Of course there could be any number of mundane reasons explaining the delay in publication, and probably there are, however I choose to interpret the delay as a deliberate strategy to place a block of ‘time’ within the pages of this book, the 3 ½ years between completion and publication dates, thereby to force the reader’s attention upon that time as a perfect conceptual accompaniment to the words of the text: words as analysis of life under capitalism, chunk of time as actual piece of life under capitalism.

The sub-title of this book… a verse essay for voices, alto, contralto: the putting together of the words ‘verse’ and ‘essay’ suggests questions similar to those raised by the putting together of the first two terms of the title. How, then, might the authors see the relationship between the verse aspects and the essay aspects of this book? Questions which are then additionally complicated by the information that the book is ‘for voices’. Why have Frances and Bates settled on the form they have? Is this book poetry? Is it an essay? Is this piece meant, preferably, to be heard or does it work just as well in the quiet of your own head? All questions which, of course, really, matter not at all… Still, though, as I’ve asked them I may as well say what I think…

The text seems, to me at least, quite heavily edited and crafted, work which has resulted in the finished piece possessing a strange kind of rhythm and musicality, not the musicality of a pop song I’m sure no one will be surprised to learn, rather, that of noise or free-jazz… and it’s that musicality which I think takes the form of Cash/sex somewhere interesting, somewhere new, somewhere which is neither just poem or essay. Seek it out.

– Richard Barrett 

 

Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

The crackle of damaged wiring

Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson – The Acts (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018)

It was a Sunday and there was damage to the cables in Cornbrook. No-one knew what the damage was. All they could say was that there were replacement services available, although they didn’t know from where. Cornbrook is the central node connecting every tramline across East, North, and South Manchester. It was going to be a long day.

I tell you this to situate my review. When I tell you that The Acts, an experimental collaboration between Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson, is about stuckness, about the oppressiveness of bad space, about social shitness, then you know that’s because I felt it.

This is not a book about being stuck on public transport for five hours, although it might be its philosophical equivalent.

I say that not to put readers off. What Barrett and Hanson have accomplished is the kind of raw writing that is honest in the sense of honest sweat and honest toil. It is not a clean honesty. Not an honesty that shocks you with its confessions. It is simply two men talking about their daily grinds, heartaches and the kinds of suffering that don’t sell.

The narrative, if there is one, is the exchange of messages between two writers. Both are literary, both academic, and yet their writing is clearly as much a symptom of their lives as it is a record of society’s symptoms. There is no separation between personal confession, myth making and theorising. Instead we hear of friends, failed romances and visions like Manchester Area Psychogeographic levitating the Corn Exchange; all three overlapping.

As you read you get the sense of lives lived in constant dialogue with theory. Two voices attempting to understand themselves through the words of hundreds of other voices.

One voice, the self-styled Mendelssohn, plans to analyse every year of his life thus far, moving backwards. Starting at the age of 42 and planning to spend a year looking at each year from 2018 back, he soon realises completion of the task might take him into retirement. The weight of personal and theoretical pasts builds up.

The dialogue is then punctured by updates from a news website. The free-floating prose is suddenly nailed down to a specific time: Trump announces North Korea talks, Labour backs new EU customs union. These remind us that history is always moving on in the background as our writers struggle on with deadlines and the end of their 12 month contracts.

The writing is always clear, even when its grammar fragments and its images grow strange. It is writing like scar tissue, healing over the cuts and cracks of daily life, bits of newsprint sticking into it like gravel in a scab.

As the blurb says, The Acts is an attempt to “tell the self” without the glory of self-promotion. It is a fascinating project for a new press like Dostoyevsky Wannabe to take on. I feel like its combination of raw sentiment and closely observed mundanity might offer a new approach to what we take to be confessional writing.

I have never sold my body for drugs. I have never been implicated in a child’s death. I have been stuck on public transport for five hours, and I am ready for a book that speaks about my pain. This just might be it.

– Joe Darlington

Taking culture by the throat

Jean Dubuffet – Asphyxiating Culture (Good Press)

Reading Keith Haring’s Journals this Autumn Jean Dubuffet’s Asphyxiating Culture gets a mention. Haring’s thoughts being, if I remember rightly, that the book’s argument is pretty sound if somewhat obvious and that Dubuffet ties himself up in knots a bit in the delivery of that argument. The Dubuffet being a book I’d never heard of before but the combination of that – IMO – fantastic title and, I suppose, Haring’s brief review of it, made me want to read the thing myself. And that I was able to is down, solely, to the fine works of Good Press Gallery who have made a very affordable edition of this book available thus ensuring Amazon’s 50 quid plus copies can remain unsold a bit longer.

As it turns out, that I got myself a copy of Asphyxiating Culture on little more than a whim, really, seems entirely in keeping with the critique of culture and associated industries which Dubuffet outlines in this text. Briefly, Dubuffet has it that the culture industry is nothing more than a big swizz focussed on endless self-propagation which cuts off any real innovation as soon as it’s detected. Dubuffet says that we need to remember that for each supposed exemplary cultural product of times past there were another hundred or several hundred other products which were overlooked, any one of which could just as easily have found its way into the gallery or museum rather than the product which actually did if the arbitrary tastes of the ‘experts’ had been even ever so slightly different.

The concept of value (in the artistic sense) being the big thing that Dubuffet takes aim at here. He says that ‘value’ is a kind of collective illusion, founded on entirely arbitrary bases by a self-serving cadre of critics, academics and governmental cultural workers, with this false notion succeeding in dazzling everyone who encounters it – members of the public and gullible and foolish artists alike, leaving anyone who dissents from received opinion regarding so-called ‘great works’ feeling like a bit of a dummy.

Much more preferable, to Dubuffet, than the idea of ‘value’ is that of whim. Dubuffet prefers to see works of art acclaimed as great on a Monday, if the viewer, on that particular day, for whatever reason, considers them as a such, and then – those same works of art – condemned as rubbish, or at least not worthy of attention, come Wednesday, all received wisdom about what constitutes great art straight outta the window to be replaced by opinions based solely on however the viewer is feeling. Opinion constantly shifting and moving rather than stuck, fixed. Though how different is this vision to Dubuffet’s origin story for the emergence of ‘value’ I can’t help wondering? I suppose not that different at all, just that Dubuffet’s way of doing things would be without the prop – as he has it – of a bogus cultural-critical-artistic supporting structure.

I found Asphyxiating Culture an exciting, liberating read. Dubuffet’s vision of art for all with art as an activity totally incorporated into the everyday lives of everyone, so much so that all talk of art becomes kind of redundant as people are just too busy doing art is tremendously appealing in its anarchy and radicalism. Reading through the book near enough every sentence has been underlined by me and finished off with a couple of exclamation marks signalling my giddy assent. Key criteria of a quality book in 2019 (which it has just turned today . . . happy New Year everyone!) is that every page of Asphyxiating Culture felt Instagrammable to me . . . though the one paragraph I did photo and post to Instagram got no Likes so go figure lol. This is part of the Dubuffet quote I liked so much that I felt moved to post it to social media: ‘It may be that writing, due to the concrete form it must take, has a much more dulling effect on thought than oral expression (which is already dulling to some extent), it is possible that it brings about an entanglement of one’s thoughts, and an inclination for them to enter into the traditional modes of expression, which alters them’.

Another bit I particularly liked was Dubuffet calling for an end to theorizers aiming to achieve a total theory, saying what was needed was a theory of fragments with no attempt to join up each individual fragment. Foucault, right there, I thought. Indeed, Dubuffet’s statement that ‘instead of attempting to straighten lines that by their very nature are curved and will remain curved, this new philosophy of the discontinuous will study the curves themselves’ sounded, to my ears at least, like a pretty good summary of Foucault’s aims in the Archaeology of Knowledge.

Foucault being not the only presence I detected in the pages of Asphyxiating Culture, Georges Bataille also seemed to be haunting the book’s latter half, specifically the Bataille of Eroticism with his view of the insufficiencies of language when it comes to dealing with the mysteries of sex and death. As perhaps indicated by the excerpt above Dubuffet claims art making, as well, must always elude language’s inept attempts to capture anything of its magic and mysteries, that talking about making art immediately alters the impulse that was behind that original desire to make art.

As well as the central argument of Asphyxiating Culture Dubuffet, in his book, travels down numerous fascinating and stimulating side-streets, so much so that it’s easy to understand Haring’s slight frustration with the book’s somewhat meandering style however I, personally, thought the unfolding and wandering of Dubuffet’s thought succeeding in only adding detail to the forward drive of his main thesis. Really, there’s so much in Asphyxiating Culture that this review could easily have be twice, three times its size however I’m gonna stop here as, as I mentioned above, it’s New Year’s day today and I feel like going for a walk now.

– Richard Barrett

The dog-house of language

Gareth Twose – Psychodography (Leafe Press)

What’s the deal with language Gareth Twose asks in his new poetry collection from Leafe Press Psychodography. What can words do? What can’t they do? How is language changing? What are the forces effecting that change? Questions put by Twose to, not just the reader, but – as well – to an assortment of political leaders and pop-cultural figures and, with greatest frequency, the unnamed pet dog who accompanies Twose on his twisting and turning route through language across the pages of this new book.

Words are all we have to interpret and make sense of the world Twose understands, a physical world, in this case, of woods and fields that he and his four-legged companion freewheel through at often verging on the delirious speeds: who’s leading who here, though, the reader wonders – is owner leading dog or vice versa? And where, exactly, are we the reader being led in such haste? What will our eventual destination be and will we recognise ourselves when we get there?

Pace is key: the manner in which the book dashes by put me in mind of the small dog at the heart of things bounding off, following some mysterious scent or other. Frequently, as well, the text that I was reading – in as much as how words blur into other words, get tangled up so that they become semi, but not quite, incoherent, or else become new words altogether – seemed to me like some kind of objectification of thought: Twose’s language racing to keep up with, not just his dog, but, as well, the speed of his own mind. So faithful to the movement and rhythms of thought in the abstract do these pages seem that, at times, I’d find myself wondering if Twose had succeeded in achieving this affect by flipping the top of his head open to take an imprint upon the page of all that was going on inside rather than by the perhaps more traditional route of simply trying to transcribe his thoughts and ideas.

A head populated by, amongst others, Donald Trump – who repeatedly crops up in these pages – Theresa May and ‘angular merkleness’; each dancing/facing off to the strains of Nancy Sinatra and Siouxsie Soux tunes while the opening lines to old Boney M songs get misremembered by everyone present to become ‘by the rivers of Medlock’ continuing on to usher in a very funny and original Elizabeth Smart allusion.

Smart being not, though, by any means, the last of the literary references contained in Psychodography as, later, the opening to Part 4 with its ‘rriver shearned and malearned in front of you . . . yes there was a gurn in the riveroo, but a re-furn in another parallel flivver’ seemed to me to be something more than a mere nod to the Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake. Though, re-reading those lines I’m wondering now if perhaps Twose was maybe just pulled by his walking companion into the path of an out of control Deliveroo courier and decided to reference the incident in his poetry?

A poetry thrilled by the possibilities for growth and development that the online world and social media represents for language – reading, I couldn’t help but find myself imagining excitedly James Joyce’s Tweets and Facebook updates. Twose understands only too well how language must morph and change in order to survive, indeed, a case could quite easily be made that it’s Twose and his peers who are at the fore-front of taking language where it needs to go. Not for him any grey-faced concern with preserving language as it’s meant to be used or whatever.

Understood as well by Twose is just how fascinating are the possibilities of language to make and then remake the world. In these pages, as well, though, we see Twose wondering how the world must seem to a being without words: to his dog. What do we gain from language? What do we lose by our reliance on words? Towards the end of this collection we come to feel that Twose is slowly beginning to conceptualise for himself a new way of being in the world, a perhaps freer, more unconstrained way of existing. The journey into and around language that he and his companion have undertaken seems to have changed him somehow. How will we, as readers, be changed ourselves by the reading of this fantastic collection?

– Richard Barrett 

Joe Darlington End of Year Review 2018

This year I have been making a lot of conscious efforts. I’ve made an effort to understand classical music, to write more poetry, and to quit drinking.

The effort most pertinent to this review has been one that I made sometime around August. I decided stop piling up books that I thought I ought to read, and allow myself to buy books on a whim. As a result, I’ve read far more contemporary novels than ever before, and quite a lot more poetry.

I’ve also read far fewer academic books, and nearly zero political ones.

What I discovered when I freed my reading, however, was that I can’t trust my own taste. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Olivia Laing’s Crudo were both books I leapt into thinking, “yes, this is exactly my kind of book,” only to emerge disillusioned, and mildly peeved. I don’t read the Guardian anymore, which might be why they irked me so. I don’t think they’re bad either, just not for me.

Meanwhile, I picked up Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things based solely on its floral cover. The cover featured a recommendation from The Lady which, at the time, I didn’t really know what to make of. Turns out, the novel was brilliant! An interesting premise, cheery characters getting into japes, and then three-quarters of the way through it suddenly becomes a ghost story. The Lady knows good literature, clearly.

What I like, I think, are novels with original premises, good pacing, and some drama in them. If they can do this and be experimental, then I’ll sing their praises to the heavens (I’m looking at you, Adam Roberts’ The Black Prince), but frankly I’ll settle for a good story well told.

Only this month did I wander into the “sci-fi and fantasy” section at Deansgate Waterstones. I think this is where they’ve been hiding all the interesting books. I’ve read a Katherine Arden and a Francesco Dimitri so far. Are these even sci-fi or fantasy? There’s neither an elf nor a space ship in sight. They should re-label it the “interesting premise” section, I think. I’ll certainly be spending more time there next year.

What all this paddling around in the contemporary has done, however, is provoke a certain longing for the greats; the guaranteed classics. I miss the sense of pride you get when someone mentions a Great Work of Historical Significance and you can say “yes, I read that”. There’s a horrible sense of impermanence that comes of reading a blockbuster novel knowing it’ll be forgotten in five years.

New books in hardback also take up an unforgivable amount of shelf-space. I bought An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by the YouTuber Hank Green (it was for research, honestly!). The damn thing’s as big as all my Thomas Hardys put together. It’s got font the size of your head. There’s no excuse for that.

So I guess what I’m getting at, as I approach my top 5 of 2018 (in no particular order), is that my relationship with my own reading taste is as messed up as it’s possible to be. I am in no fit state to be giving recommendations. Nevertheless, now that you are duly warned, these are the five books I’d definitely suggest you check out from this year:

– Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Okay, so this one came out in late 2017, but I only got around to it this spring. It is the story of a bachelor, dying of terminal cancer, who travels across Japan to the homes of various friends and relations looking to find a new owner for his cat. The story is told from the cat’s perspective, and does an excellent job of capturing the haughty demeanour of a former stray. I liked it for its perfect balance of drama and quiet, its colourful cast of characters, and the sudden moments of poetry that broke out unexpectedly within an otherwise innocuous story. It’s a great commuter book, and even made me look forward to the inevitable delays outside of Cornbrook as I’d have more time to read.

– Zoe Gilbert, Folk

I admit that I pre-ordered this one for the sake of the cover alone, but it’s lucky that I did as it was a work surpassing any of my expectations for contemporary literature. Set on a fictional North Sea island in an indeterminate, pre-modern time, Folk presents a series of interlocking stories, some magical and some mythical, all of which perfectly capture the essence of the folktale. The first section, where young men dive into gorse bushes to retrieve arrows shot by the girls of the village, is one that has stuck vividly in my memory. This is a book that I feel like I’ll still be recommending in twenty or thirty years’ time.

– Jane Draycott, Pearl (A New Translation)

I’m about six hundred years late in recommending this one. Pearl, a masterpiece of the late fourteenth-century written by the poet who gave us Gawain and the Green Knight, begins as a poem mourning the loss of the knight’s young daughter only to transform into a mystical vision of heaven, filled with pearls, gold and a river of gems. This is a poem I have long felt obliged to read in the original Middle English, but somehow never got up the energy to do so. Instead, Draycott has produced a new translation that positively glows with a sense of spiritual rapture. She has translated medieval wonder into a wonder for the modern reader.

– Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam

What began as a webcomic by indie comics workhorse Tillie Walden is now a lusciously presented space opera spanning hundreds of pages and thousands of galaxies. A coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of intergalactic exploration, Walden’s unique art style is given free rein in this book like never before. It represents, for me, the best of what indie comics have to offer; fully-fleshed imaginative worlds that are nevertheless solid enough that we can learn from them and grow with them. Her art is a treat for the mind, and her stories are always touching. If the price tag is a little steep, I’d recommend starting with A City Inside, which I consider her masterpiece.

– Jason Heller, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded

I had the pleasure of meeting Heller when he came to speak at the Burgess Foundation on the weekend before Halloween. It was a fitting day on which to purchase the book; mobs of students dressed as characters from Star Wars and Doctor Who walked the streets with Ziggy Stardusts and Jimi Hendrixes. Heller’s book is a damn-near comprehensive study of sci-fi’s infiltration of pop music during the 1970s. From the earnest escapades of prog rockers to the silliness of space disco, the book paints a remarkable picture of just how much interaction occurred between science fiction and music within this decade. Brilliant fun to read and packed with surprises, I’d recommend perusing it with Spotify open to fully immerse yourself in the space rock weirdness.

Those are my recommendations from 2018, that also go some way as to explaining why I have not yet been appointed as a judge on the Man Booker Prize awards panel. Perhaps in time my reading tastes will align with the popular consensus, although I fear it would prove a great effort for minimal rewards.

Now, who knows where 2019 will lead us…

– Joe Darlington

Sally Barrett’s 2018 Roundup

I have recently gained some reading glasses which are enabling me to see to read. This is something that has been lacking in my life for a few months and making it very off-putting to try and read anything with small print.

One of the first books I picked up after my new acquisition was The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. To date, I have only read the first story in the book, which shares the title. I was enthralled like a child, terrified like a child and disturbed, leading me to feel uneasy discomfort. I loved this story and the multiple layers and ambiguities. I loved the writing style. I loved the imagery and the resolution.

This year I saw a poet named Amy McCauley perform work, twice. The first was her piece ‘Oedipa’ and the occasion was at the first event of No Matter, a reading /performance series held at The Castle on Oldham Street.

McCauley’s poetry is not just reading work from a typed piece of A4, it is not just memorising a poem. She creates a poetry experience using music and props to create powerful emotional reactions in her audience.

I bought a copy of her book Oedipa which I believe has now sold out, but this piece really needs to be seen as performed by McCauley to experience maximum unsettling impact. The themes of incest and abuse, confusion and fragmentation are brought very close to the audience’s face. It feels as though one is looking through glasses with a prescription that sharpens and sharpens to stark reality that makes one shudder.

More recently, I saw McCauley perform a piece at the Poetry Emergency event. This piece threw the audience into confusion initially. I felt despair with hope and fear intermingling and a dreadful premonition that the whole event would disintegrate into chaos.

As the cathartic experience resolved I found myself experiencing relief with a laugh inside me. This laugh was mixed with angry energy with nowhere to put a punch, except to gush at the writer my feelings about her piece.

McCauley comments on a darkness of childhood, in which I too am interested. My childhood stereotypical world is exemplified by the fairy stories in the Ladybird Books. I recently re-read many of these for a project I am working on. The fear in fairy tales is watered down in these re-tellings: all of them seem to end with a marriage and offer little of the horror of Carter’s imagination which presents us (sadly) with still unusual female roles.

Ladybird in the 1960’s brought a cleansed version of life to my childhood self, with girls from humble beginnings facing peril, being rescued by a rich handsome prince. Something to aspire to, obviously, and no wonder I have spent twenty odd years searching for ‘the one’. Luckily I found him and we rescued each other.

I have been interested in the differences between men and women since school. I remember putting my hand up in ‘Personal and Social Education’ once, to explain there was no intrinsic difference (between men and women), and got laughed at. I think even in the Eighties the situation was more complex than my statement.

However, my brother sent me a link today of an article in The Guardian dated 14/12/18 by Jim Waterson entitled ‘UK advertising watchdog to crack down on sexist stereotypes’ which explains that adverts are no longer going to be able to contain classic gender stereotypical roles. This is a wonderful thing, but will create advertisers with a challenge of sociology to work out what is and what is not gender stereotypical in promoting goods.

I look forward to a hopeful future where we can all promote a celebration of difference and where I may be laughed at for saying there is no difference, but for potentially more radical reasons.

– Sally Barrett 

The year of living entropically

I don’t really know what to do.

There are great books out in sociology and politics. Les Back and Shamsher Sinha’s book on migrant Britain, Vic Seidler’s book on Brexit. Imogen Tyler. Will Davies’ work. Emma Jackson’s. But if I look away from that and towards the vaguely nominated ‘literatures’ that are Manchester Review of Books’ remit, I feel enervated.

I wonder if Neil Campbell’s Zero Hours (Salt) will change that opinion, but I’ve neither got nor read it yet.

Good things are happening, it’s true. I’m involved, at the fringes, which is probably the best place to be if you want a life too, in some exciting things. But coming to the end of 2018 I feel adrift. I’m all old on the new. I’m popupped out.

I’m still enervated by theory. I think literary theory is up for grabs if someone could be bothered. Metamodernism? The new depthiness? It’s a joke, surely? And that seems to be one of the more concerted efforts.

I watched that film on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn the other night on Mubi. Grant somebody. All those super-posh artist people talking all that. I felt disgusted. It just goes on and on, doesn’t it?

Sebald’s work is great. But these tinny satellites. It’s all just so very just-so. I had a go at psychogeography here and you know, Iain Sinclair’s work is still astonishing. But like the moment Hendrix arrives, you just get bad Hendrix copyists forever. Now not only psychogeography but radical literature is flattened into a round of party games people join for cultural capital, to ‘build a profile’, within academia and out.

Someone said to me about that Sebald film – one of those throwaway two word comments that can destroy a whole epoch – ‘psychogeography’, ‘so you mean that it’s ponderous and fragmented?’ It was one of those comments that stays in your brain like some insect and does things you didn’t necessarily want it to.

Criticism and commentary. I think we’re living in a time in which ponderous and fragmented is all that’s needed to gain applause. There’s a particular sort of politely ponderous and fragmented – hooked to certain aesthetics that in turn hook into the ego to please it – and this became the default replacement for anything like a set of meaningful genres in supposedly serious writing.

It’s become a script like the uncanny and sublime have become a script in undergraduate art school teaching: When was the last time you had an experience you could really call uncanny or sublime, in the full sense? For me, a long time ago. When was the last time you experienced some writing or art that connected you to an experience you could call uncanny or sublime in the full sense? For me, never.

When was the last time the politely ponderous and fragmented shifted you anywhere?

So I was thinking about how to react to my enervation. I was thinking of revisiting some old sites for a re-study. Back to ethnographic work. But then as soon as I considered that I had a primal urge to curate an online log of hours of writing that nobody ever sees the results of. And of burying the things I’ve done that I think are alright in some sort of sealed box ten feet underground and then forgetting all about all of the universes of writing and art that currently exist.

Maybe I’m just very depressed and don’t know it. But I know that the feeling is solidly connected to the Thatcherite production model of what passes for ‘radical’ culture. The crowded field of people all holding aloft their tiny variation on whatever theme is current in their clique – in order to try to get noticed – is also part of it.

I’m not depressed, I’m far too sane for my own good.

Real work can only get done away from this scrum. The production of real and new work will not just happen to avoid this ‘way’, it will be borne of that total avoidance.

I also keep experiencing a potent aversion to the supposed obviousness of many of the reactions to the new times. All of the sure and strong voices sound like the opposite to me, because they’re sure and strong. I have an overwhelming feeling, right or wrong, that what’s happening now and into the future will render most things but a few – and none of us know what they are yet – irrelevant. I still don’t really know what to do.

The same thing applies to theoretical positions, when I encounter someone taking one. On the left there is some sort of postpunk-modernist-communist compact that has ditched postmodernism and poststructuralism as though it was an erroneous blip – rather than the slight cultural swell it was – swollen by increased access to credit before the crash of 2008. The rejection seems to tally with the rightwing anti-PC commonsense aggressives far too closely. It wears a bobhat.

I want the left in power in Britain. But the core of my aversion is this: I think much pomo culture was garbage and I want it gone and I claw for something that at least even feels real – like many other people do – but you can’t just get that by loudly denouncing what went on a few years ago, and then running right back to modernity as though it had nothing to do with the most horrific human epoch so far. The search for a more vital real is tangled up with the search for authenticity and the search for authenticity is also badly tangled up with the most horrific human epoch so far, the twentieth century. Now I really don’t know what to do.

Some people say they know what to do but I don’t trust them precisely because they say it. Their saying they know what to do means they don’t.

It is most telling is that people will now shout you down simply for expressing uncertainty. Everything is switched on to defensive mode and the mode has stuck.

But it’s worth saying – because people get confused or only read bits of things then react immediately – that the real enemies are the Tories, the fascists, racists, misogynists, climate crisis deniers and capitalists. The Russian state and the Saudi despots and fucking Erdogan et al et al. The rise of the far right is real and a real danger, no matter how small the Tommy Robinson marches have been.

But what I have been doing is writing things that look like poetry and reading a lot of poetry. I’ve written it since the 1990s. But I did so privately as the last thing I wanted to do was call myself a poet. I still don’t and won’t.

What I’m doing is trying to work some things out and this involves experimenting with language. I’ve also been talking to Richard Barrett a lot who I think is brilliant and that dialogue gives me hope.

I don’t assume writing poetry or experimenting with language will change anything and I also hugely distrust people who think their creative activities change things.

I’ve only just fully realised that I switched modes into poetry because of the enervation I describe. I suppose I should just be writing about what I’ve read this year: Just give us the listicle, you miserable sod.

There are great publishers. There’s Boiler House Press and Dostoyevsky Wannabe and manifestos and Fitzcarraldo… I still think Brian Dillon’s Essayism is the most useful book I’ve reviewed here. It’s kind of wonky, but it’s honest in a way that many writers I encounter don’t seem to be. But that came out in 2017. OK, here are some books:

I read Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale and Honorary Consul for the first time this year and dipped into the Complete Short Stories quite a bit. Greene’s characters are often flat, but they are about people pinned in history and how. That short story about those kids destroying that guy’s house that survived the blitz: Greene is now, right now. I also read Robert Hewison’s Under Siege and Tom Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz.

I re-read Sebald’s Emigrants and enjoyed it. Who cares?!

A friend of mine reads a Dickens each year and I took his challenge on – how else to get through them before death – and I stupidly raised him a Shakespeare. So I read Hard Times and King John by Shakespeare. King John is the most Brexity of Shakespeare’s plays, try it. I was tipped off about this by reviewing John Sutherland’s Brexiteer’s Guide to Eng. Lit here (Reaktion).

I’ve made a piece of writing out of King John which came out in a very obscure place. It is derided as one of the poorest of the plays, King John is, but actually I got to like it.

I’ve been reading the journals of the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White to fall asleep. MIT publish it – for students of the natural sciences I guess – but it’s beautiful poetry to me. These odd things I find in rubbish dumps always end up being central somehow.

Much of the poetry-poetry I’ve been through I have reviewed here and lots of it published by Carcanet. I have a Michael Hamburger reader they put out that I need to review here. I also read Hamburger’s Truth of Poetry this year.

I’ve discovered the New York Review of Books, which is infinitely more brilliant than the LRB. There was a letter in LRB some time ago from Alan Bennett, and you know, love him, but he was wiffling on about chairs in the National Portrait Gallery. Is that all these people have to do? And then LRB publishes it? New York Review just seems on the ball by comparison.

I’ve dipped, I’ve done a lot of dipping. I end up with a pile of books folded into each other and some writing. Then I get to the end of a thread and pack the books away and the writing ends up in a folder then, on a hard drive. This dipping and writing is just scholarly activity though, it might go somewhere or not.

I’ve been waiting for some things to come out that have been hanging around for a long time, to draw a line under them and free me up. Let me be and get on. The enervation is partly to do with being tied to this. I’m trying to work out what to do about it in future. In other times I would be charging onwards, whether or not the last thing was out yet, but I think… now’s not the time…

More sustained dipping and folding back: I’ve been exploring some literature on utopia I have. This includes a really strange book by Frank and Fritzie Manuel published by Blackwell in 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World it’s called.

I mean, here’s the flipside to that terrible film on Sebald, and my gobby prejudiced comments on it. These two use the fruitiest language, but they know exactly what they’re talking about. ‘Exordia’ and ‘a prophetic peroration’.

It’s like reading Hegel, if he was still hanging about in the late 1970s. I’m still finishing Andrew Shanks’ book on theodicy too. Same goes. Highly intelligent, scholarly excellence, but with a scalpel-like sense of criticism. I’ve been meaning to review it here, but it keeps leading me into other things.

The ‘other things’ include Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel. Now that’s good. Picked it up this year, so it counts. It’s in the same series as Shlomo Avineri’s book on Hegel and The Modern State that I read a few years ago. There’s work to be done here fusing these two books with Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution. I haven’t started this in a sustained or systematic way, but I think there’s a way back into existentialism through these texts.

I’m really wary of sounding like a cliche of someone approaching fifty who has retreated into classical music and ‘the classics’ and probably, you know, chess, except I haven’t even a basic idea of how to play chess. And I always have a copy of Viz hanging about and some Steve Bell If… anthologies. I have read lots of newspapers particularly the Financial Times. I need to wean myself off the FT obsession a bit in 2019.

I read Burgess’s End of the World News for the first time. It reads like reportage now! Just swap Lynx for the combined threats of nuclear war and climate disaster and there you go. I read his anthology of shorts, The Devil’s Mode, too, which is very enjoyable.

It’s probably worth mentioning that I do all the bad things everyone else does but only some admit to. You know, I will read half a Brian Aldiss and never finish it then feel like I committed a mildly serious crime in a previous life when I see it again.

But it’s happening: I’m getting old; although I suspect it’s nothing more than a slightly pretentious version of watching old sci-fi films to escape from the all too close present. I do that too.

What I’m trying to escape from even more is a creeping sense that the future might look like Graham Greene, Hewison’s Under Siege and Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz with Massive Bells On.

I think the main way I can respond to my enervation is to try to shut my gob for an extended period of time. But I’m not sure I can manage it.

I really don’t know what to do. Nor do you, if you’re really honest with yersen.

And that lot o’er there, they certainly don’ know what they’re doin’.

And that bunch in old photographs, from the Edwardian era.

One dressed up like Britannia, the others in togas, they don’ know what they’re in.

You think you do?

– Steve Hanson