Terse Wisdom

Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)

This book looks like a biography. A big, Christmas or birthday present biography. It is solid, it has the name of a star written across the front of its glossy dust jacket in Helvetica bold and a striking, masculine portrait. It could be the ghost written biography of a footballer.

It couldn’t be further from one. The first thing Wiley says is that he hates biographies.

The writing is terse. Matter-of-fact statements which belie a great deal of depth and understanding. You can hear him speaking, like you can hear Miles speaking in his autobiography, but Wiley is rooted, and there is warmth.

This book has two poles. At one pole it is straightforward, ‘keeping it real’, or whatever label you want to put on that from the culture. At the other pole, the book structure works like a prism. We see key figures in the story of Wiley’s life move from Kent to London and back, but we see them do this through different eyes. Producers, family, friends, crew members. Wiley himself is at least three different people, Richard Cowie, Kylea, Wiley…

Hackney, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets and Bow. Rinse FM and other pirates, mandem, Roll Deep Crew, Dizzee Rascal. These are all faces of the prism. But it is the story that could be about anyone that is the most honestly told and vital:

‘In my generation no-one knows what they’re doing. Our parents parents were different – they came from the West Indies to England to work. They just had to be on point.’

In some ways, then, this is everyone’s story, the big story Zygmunt Bauman writes about: The hell of choice. But this is also just the story of some. Estate kids. Black kids. Those with the odds stacked high against them. Wiley cites crack cocaine in the 80s as a big breaker of communities: ‘All kinds of fuckeries’, he says, and he doesn’t need to say more than that. Four words. See how much he shifts by not messing around with it.

Wiley’s mum’s brother was murdered in an argument and they all moved to Kent. In Kent, they experienced racism. His sister came home from school having been called a ‘Paki’ by an Indian boy. We somehow get all the geographical relations of white flight and the strange disorientation of moving from city to country, London to Kent, in just a couple of pages.

The book covers early days early on, and recent times later on, but aside from this generalism it is essentially non-linear. There are interludes in interview form. As though this bloke Richard Cowie has asked people he knows about this character Wiley, becoming a journalist in his own life.

There are poetical interludes. As Linton Kwesi Johnson says, this is where poetry is in Britain, UK hip hop, grime, dubstep. This is also where the prophetic tradition that the first wave of incomers brought with them has gone. It was always a partly colonial prophetic tradition. Is it a coincidence that Roots Manuva – Rodney Smith – was brought up by a poor tailor and preacher? No. There is a tangible line across generations:

‘The hardships and struggles at that time were the usual struggles: money, the streets. Even then, not really being safe. People hustling. There were still people trying to lean on you for whatever reason.’

It could be Curtis Mayfield, it could be Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale, it has their directness and hard won wisdom. Like them, Wiley understands the old ways of channelling different impulses:

‘Back then, I realised quickly that a loss is sometimes just a loss. If you’re caught up in any violence or drama, you think that if you take a loss, you have to go out and get a win. That’s the way the world is. But sometimes you have to let it go. Use the energy you have for revenge and channel it into something you enjoy doing. That energy can be cold like ice, and people can get hurt. You just say, “No I am not having it”, and people go to jail, or people get killed. Or the energy can be hot, and you can succeed. That energy can take you all the way to the top. Don’t move backwards, move forwards. Get on with life. Literally I found a way to use the energy I had productively.’

But as you can see this isn’t some indulgent journey of self-creation, not for the people from those estates. This is survive and thrive or die. The usual routes out are here for black youth: football; music; it’s the same story that goes back to the thirties, to America, boxing and other activities, or selling drugs. School is explained as a stark binary, exams, university, or ‘other’, and there’s a heaviness about taking the path to ‘other’:

‘Every boy when he goes into the world has to find his own path. People show you stuff, both good and bad, and you need to decide what to do and what not to do. I was very lucky not to go to prison. I knew what drugs were before I got into the game. There is a lot of money in drugs. Anyone who goes into it will find it hard to come out, because of the money. That’s why people end up in prison. The risks go up as the money goes up. But drugs are not good, and that’s it. Don’t take drugs. Trust me.’

These are things that people who haven’t lived it only know – if we’re really honest – because they happen to have watched The Wire:

‘Streets are crazy. No matter how bad you are, you can’t avoid it. There are no rules. There is no ring, no boxing gloves. It’s more dangerous than anything. You can get shot, stabbed, hit with a hammer. Anything. Not just London, either. Anywhere.’

There is a moment, where the future could be drugs, and he surges into music. You can’t do both, he says. He talks of his dad, a stable presence, of good parenting, being surrounded by great music. The roots in jazz are chatted through – and punk actually – through to Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, through to Jungle in 1995 and 1996 and he’s waking up.

Wiley minutes the realisation – a delicious moment – that with Jungle their accents were now allowed, ‘a London someting rasta’, and on it goes, Bashment, Grime, Dubstep:

‘When it started Grime was a young black man’s punk rock’ Wiley explains. ‘The grime nationality is rude boy, now. And anyone can be a rude boy, you get me. It’s not just for black kids any more. It’s for everyone: black kids, white kids, Indian kids, Turkish kids, Moroccan kids. It’s a release.’

On one level, this book does everything those who arrive at it with expectations will want: Rinse and the pirates; clashes and dissing Kano; Dizzee.

But it has many other layers, it does such a lot more, and it never breaks with its straightforward style while doing it. It combines the most economical talk with a non-linear, prismatic structure.

It isn’t Ulysses, but it doesn’t have the clichéd symphonic rise and triumphant end section of the usual biographies. Towards the end, we find Wiley in a panic as a motorcyclist looks as though he’s going to shoot him, a vignette that shows fame doesn’t bring serenity. But we also find him creating in real time, every day, spitting into his iPhone, hundreds of recordings, sketchbooks becoming bigger things.

This book is a snapshot of the early twenty-first century. It tells you what it is to live precariously. Everyone lives precariously now, but some, as Orwell might have said, more so than others. It is about not being risk averse, although in a context where you either make yourself buoyant or you drown. It moves from poverty to excess. It is the story of a journey through everyday multiculture, generational cliffs and British class. But it is also about London black history, the river and the routes back to the Indies, to the Caribbean.

Everyone should read this – and it arrives right at the moment we need it most – just when the island appears to be turning inwards and moving backwards, this book shows you how to turn your heart outwards and move forwards.

 

 

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Cold Comfort

Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff) – I Am the Brother of XX and Other Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017)

In an interview conducted for TANK Magazine, interviewer Claudia Steinberg questions the Swiss author Fleur Jeaggy on the choice of narrative technique for her biographical work, ‘Three Possible Lives.’ Jaeggy responds, ‘I would prefer to tell you that I own a Hermes typewriter.’ She follows this with a brief description of the typewriter.

When Steinberg muses on ‘silence’ as a theme in Jaeggy’s writing, Jaeggy offers in return an account of her friendship with a swan, a friendship made a number of years ago.

The swan, which she named Erich, was a resident of a pond in Berlin. Jaeggy had been staying in an apartment near to the pond.  ‘A good friend,’ she remembers of Erich, before she describes strolling, with Erich waddling beside her, around the pond water.

The interview concludes with Jaeggy remarking, ‘We have talked very much. I hope there will be far fewer words in the magazine. Promise to mention Erich, and then say close to nothing.’

The interview, a rare thing for Jaeggy, was conducted on the occasion of publication of ‘I Am the Brother of XX.’ This is her latest collection of short stories, translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

Throughout the interview, Jaeggy resists Steinberg’s efforts to elicit explanations of her peculiar prose. She swerves questions pertaining to craft, literary influences and formative childhood experiences. Above the interview text on the TANK Magazine website is a black and white photograph of Jaeggy. She has neatly bobbed hair and a thin smile.

I first encountered Jaeggy’s work on the website of literary magazine, The Paris Review. Her short story ‘Agnes,’ was published there last spring. Like many of the stories included in the collection, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ of which it is a part, ‘Agnes’ is concerned largely with death and madness.

The narrator of the story, a jilted lover, details the fallout of an infatuation. Of the stories I read that lunchtime at work, sat listlessly before my computer, it is ‘Agnes’ that I remember very clearly. I was struck by Jaeggy’s written style. Her sentences are so terse and sharp it is like they have been spat out.

The story has a strange structure. The narrator breaks off abruptly from one train of thought before beginning on another, apparently disconnected, thread. Past events are depicted in brief, bizarre flashes. Characters appear unintroduced, except by name, and are quickly discarded. It has a disorientating effect. It is a superb piece.

The stories included in ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ are also expertly, and peculiarly, composed. It is a collection of almost unremitting bleakness, both in setting and plot. The stories are situated in isolated places; a decrepit castle, a snowed under village, a mountain-top boarding school surrounded by boulders, a massive, suspended bird cage. 

Death looms large. Whether one takes place, has taken place, or a character is pre-occupied by the thought it.

The depressed, heavily sedated narrator of the title story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls, ‘once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ And I answered, I want to die.’

Characters are described as having ‘cold’ and ‘dead’, ‘blank’ and ’empty’ eyes, a, sometimes laboured, intimation as to their inner states. Relationships are antagonistic. Denouements are brutal. Jaeggy recounts the fates of her characters very coolly.

Flowers have been placed on the coffin… a flowery meadow on our mothers’ skull,’ remarks one character observing his mother’s funeral. 

In the aforementioned interview for TANK magazine, Jaeggy remarks that she dislikes ‘effusion.’ Her descriptions and observations, indeed, are very precise. 

The narrator of the story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls of his stylish, disaffected-seeming sister, ‘She was saying she liked solitude. Meanwhile she was going out every night, coming back late, her mascara smudged.’

In one of the collection’s best stories, ‘The Black Veil,’ the narrator chances upon an old photograph of her mother. The photograph shows her, now deceased, mother at an audience with the Pope. She has a ‘desperate, depressed’ look in her eyes. For the daughter, the idea that her elegant, composed mother might have been ‘desperate’, is as startling as punch in the face. Jaeggy conveys this brilliantly.

Jaeggy writes reverently of her famed writer friends Ingrid Bachman, Oliver Sacks and Josef Brodsky. She writes warmly of animals. In the story, ‘Encounter in the Bronx,’ the narrator, dining out with two companions, describes feeling a sense of kinship with a kind eyed fish gliding about the restaurant aquarium. It is the kind of easy friendship that might have existed between Jaeggy and swan.

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

How unfortunate, the narrator reflects, that at any moment the fish will be fetched, killed and made into a meal.

– Abby Kearney

References

‘Promise to mention Erich and then say close to nothing,’ Fleur Jaeggy interview with Claudia Steinberg, Tank Magazine, The Book Issue, Summer 2017

‘Agnes’ by Fleur Jaeggy, The Paris Review, Issue 220, Spring 2017

Map Ref. 418-419

Neil Astley (ed.) – Land of Three Rivers, the poetry of north-east England (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Vin Garbutt is first up in this collection. Just that fact alone makes me love this anthology. I am a sucker for books it is possible to live one’s life in and here is another one. The surface of this collection covers the territories of the northeast. It carves it up by area, its contents are a kind of metapoem of the northeast: County Durham, Teesdale, Middlesborough, Cleveland, Farewell… 

Take a moment to leaf through. Open it randomly, as I did, to find the double page spread formed by 418 and 419. Geographical co-ordinates with a deep valley between them. 418 is a hymn to the A184 by Jake Campbell – there is poetry in the numbers alone – it was written in 2017, and 419 contains a twelfth century description of Durham in verse. A thousand years falls into the fold between the pages…

This book is a map, but don’t mention the ‘p’ word. There is no need to be so pretentious as to pull that word ‘psychogeography’ in here. It has been dragged about until it looks like a filthy rag. Throw it out and leave it there. But something must be said about the curating, editing, selection, production – call it what you will – of this book. It runs across pages, down columns, along roads, down rivers and into parallel centuries. It runs through biographies, Auden, Basil Bunting, Garbutt. Did I mention Vin Garbutt?

Tom Pickard is here. Tony Harrison is here too. Jimmy Nail is here! And Mark Knopfler, with the lyrics from ‘Tunnel of Love’, which is not just a picture of a place, but of time in that place, of a whole generation’s experiences, of a particular class, in the north.

What’s the matter with you? Have you heard the soundtrack to Local Hero? Forget your prejudices and open your heart to this book. Its contents pages crack the horrible slablike thingness of ‘the northeast’, a term that takes so much difference and richness and seals it into a cold fossil of prejudice. This book then explodes the term completely. Taking us to the Roman Empire via Hadrian’s Wall. Housesteads, Vindolanda. The Roman goddess Diana, of the hunt, of the moon, of nature, who freezes her features off in a poem by Gareth Reeves from 1984.

But this book is warm, body temperature to be exact, it is about life. There is ‘donner meat and chips’ and Jarrow, but this book never rests in the clichéd afterimage of the northeast. The cold shoots right through, to be sure, but the warmth always wins. Visitor Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Sonnets From Whitley Bay’ wakes up, shakes up, we ‘hot up instantly like a four bar blues’, by B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

If you have any interest in this island of Britain, in its politics, its idiotic bloody class nonsense, its stupidly tolerant people, still tolerant of even worse idiocy, of the machinations of lazy fat Lotharios straight out of a Gillray, buy this book and learn to love again.

If you are going there, don’t buy a guide, buy this. If you never intend to go there, buy only this. You can’t get farther on just short of fifteen quid any other way.

Devils and Details

Claire Potter – Round That Way (MA Bibliotheque)

The first piece here is a close reading of a YouTube performance by chavscumboss which demonstrates and understands the temperature of the work: Potter manages to convey the performed masculinity and the classed conditions of the artist’s practice just via descriptions of the backdrop and other details. It unspools like a parallel piece rather than a commentary, as though it were written live. Performance and poetry, their temporalities, are a big part of Potter’s work I sense.

Potter understands atmospheres and temperatures too, particularly at her readings. I saw her in Manchester, at one of the Other Room events. She dressed provocatively, read on her knees, reading words she had crossed out, in a kind of punishment-reward relationship with her own writing: It is clearly about power, but it achieves potency through exploring that. I wanted to shout ‘go on!’ but something had been conjured before me and the air was gob-stopper thick.

The second piece here is about a housefire, and having experienced one myself, but also a flood, in the town where Potter now lives, I saw how – television now off – people gather in the street to look, but it takes a disaster for them to do this. It takes a catastrophe that switches off the electricity for them to turn their backs on the television, come out and actually speak to each other. The plague of locusts is next. I wonder if she has an unpublished piece on that somewhere.

Again though, the details of this piece move the mountains. Potter has an acute eye and a scalpel-like ability to convey what she has seen through taut description. Sharp tongued. Unsentimental.

One part of the second piece describes – I think – Potter’s father and the Page 3 girls pinned up in the mechanics garage where he worked. I watched Potter perform this at another Manchester poetry night called Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, but interspersed with other pieces. It seems that when she reads, she picks up elements from her archives, sutures them into new pieces, improvises with composed sections. This pragmatic approach is refreshing. Not over-precious, it is work.

‘Dominique’, 19, ‘from Wapping’, leers out of the poem, just as the mechanic in his garage leers in, these girls, the stark fact that Wapping is the place where the newspapers are printed, it becomes an unfact, then a cheap lie, transmitted through sheer laziness, a lie that is somehow more brazen and more shameful than the supposed brazenness of the images, impossibly tidy, clinically hairless, smooth.

There is something about this line and the descriptions from the chavscumboss video that then connect, come full circle, expose the way class can be both detected in the details, but also how it operates through those details. Here lies the power of this work.

Pow!

Reed Tucker – Slugfest (Da Capo, 2017)

Marvel and DC Comics have had a rivalry that goes back over half a decade. DC ruled the industry in the late 1950s, but in the early 1960s Marvel gave Stan Lee a break with Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, who made their debut in 1960. DC was slow to see what was coming. At that point, Marvel operated from a tiny premises, DC from an uptown space.

DC could not understand who would read dialogues between Spider Man‘s alter ego Peter Parker and his grandma, and in this they dismissed Marvel as a threat, but in doing so they also missed the way in which the rights of passage of teenagers were and still are being articulated via masked heroes. In this sense, the whole teenage revolution, the cultural swelling of the baby boomers, was beyond them. Sales began to fall.

Of course, for many, this story will be read backwards, back down through the 1990s and late 1980s, via Frank Miller, through Alan Moore’s simultaneous revival and reinvention – this time via DC – of the masked hero as ordinary, flawed, and sometimes a bit kinky, which was something of a challenge to the Comics Code in America, a Mary Whitehouse-esque quango for more Christian values, which in fact the dissenters served much more effectively than The Crusaders. This story is also told well.

Reed Tucker’s book is engagingly written and focusses on the sales, adaptations and shifts in the narratives of the two superpowers of the superheroes, Marvel and DC.

However, all the way through it tipped me into considering the cultural aspects of the work of these two publishing titans, a consideration that is well beyond the brief of the book, but those aspects occasionally glow through its Kryptonite framework.

But here, my review of Reed Tucker’s rewarding book effectively ends.

When I interviewed Alan Moore in 1996 he recounted a meeting with a DC bigwig: ‘Alan you’re the worst mistake I ever made’ he said to him. Moore chuckled, explaining that people spoke their own prophecies, ventriloquised their own future. He even cited Brian Jones shortly before his death, saying ‘I can’t really see much of a future…’ Of course Alan really was the biggest mistake he ever made, changing the game for ever and being totally uncontrollable, certainly by such earthly concerns as money and power.

We suddenly felt as though we were caught in an outtake from Nic Roeg’s Performance. It is no coincidence that Alan is a kind of occult mythologer, and that some of these heroes, for instance The Mighty Thor and his nemesis the evil trickster hero Loki are from Icelandic myths and other world stories. DC seemed to miss the more fully primal functions of this derided genre in the 1980s and 1990s too.

Some examples are perhaps needed. If we take the origin myth of The Mandarin, invented under the Marvel logo, we see an oriental peasant stumbling on extra-terrestrial technology, in the form of a UFO, before taking it away. You may remember there are 10 ‘rings of power’ in Lord of the Rings. They are also present here in the form of 10 rings of energy. They include a black light ring. The Emperor Ming character in Flash Gordon closely resembles the Mandarin, and he also sports a controlling ring. So Wagner is also at play here, a subtext, as that’s where Tolkien took the rings of power from.

Break out the Adorno, you know where it leads…

The origin myth is a regular organ of both the Marvel and DC Universes, but we can track the Mandarin back even further, as a kind of cultural quotation, to Fu Manchu, and then forwards to Chairman Mao, then Warhol’s Mao, already a cartoon on one level, drained of its historical significance and then re-filled, by Warhol, with surplus-value.

Warhol blurs the idea of nation in his Mao portrait, but these Marvel cartoons are the direct opposite, being encrypted with chest-beating nationalist ideologies. In ‘Mandarin’s Revenge’ – episode 1 of the animated series – Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, is not only an industrialist, but an arms manufacturer, who has regular dealings with the Pentagon.

The Mandarin steals Western, American, cutting-edge technology ‘for himself’, or rather China, in the form of Tony Stark’s missiles for the US government. The internal monologues often take the form of patriotic, personal reflections which are all united by their form as confessional testimonials to ‘right’, Iron Man proclaims:

‘If this is to be my finish, I’ll show that nothing can shatter the faith of a man who fights for freedom…’

At one point the Mandarin appears, three times his natural size, ‘I don’t know how you did it mister, but size doesn’t impress me’, Iron Man exclaims. The Chinese are usually smaller than westerners. The multiple Mandarin is next, identical foes. This section is inherently racist, representing the Chinese as ‘looking the same’, but it goes further, they are cast as the ugly crowd, the threatening, unknown and unknowable masses, with their ‘other’ ideologies. The Mandarin’s morphing identities turn out to be a trick of mirrors, only one among many other techniques of illusion.

In the fictions of the Victorian era, ‘the Chinaman is treacherous’, something Alan Moore plays upon in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The trickster figure is also present here, as in other anti-heroes, for instance Loki and The Joker. Loki though, was traditionally a kind of ‘trickster-hero’. Again, Loki can be tracked back to Medieval Iceland, then forwards, through Victorian engravings, and on into the ‘modern’ era.

What I love is being able to read trashy comics and watch cartoons and ponder the decline of industrialism and the state of the west as China rises globally – all at the same time. We can see similar dimensions by examining The Thing. Now we have a description of the rivalries between the two main ‘temples’ in this book to add to it all, although it is only fair to say that next to nothing of what I have written here can be found in the book.

To put it bluntly, race, class and gender are not strong points. Another example. The Thing was one of The Fantastic Four. The story of The Thing’s origins have altered over the years, across different versions of the tale – like gods, really – but the first myth is a classed one. Before he became The Thing, Ben Grimm was brought up poor on Yancy Street and started out as a professional wrestler, moving into this from life as a tough Jewish street kid, running gangs. White working class American narratives ghost the story of The Thing, which is modelled on Jack Kirby’s upbringing on Delancey Street, New York. The story comes on like a kind of graphic, hyper-imaginative Studs Terkel. Grimm wins a scholarship to high school – through football of course – and meets the man who becomes Dr Doom, among others, who is a kind of evil scientist and corporate player.

There is lots to write on Dr Doom and the way he signifies, but that’s for another piece.

With The Thing, the territorial raw power and rage of the lower classes is always either fully present or lurking, the excessive musculature is associated with manual labour, boxing and wrestling, but it is an implicitly white working class story. Various romantic interests also map class stigma back onto The Thing, he is never ‘good enough’, his lack of self worth is given tangible form in his aesthetic ugliness, reflected back at him from society every day, in screams of terror.

‘The Thing’ isn’t ambiguous as a name, it suggests the monstrous unknown, and again a fear of one from the ‘ugly crowd’. Eileen Yeo and E.P. Thompson’s 1971 re-examination of Mayhew’s writing reveals that privilege-guilt and fear of the masses were unconscious drives operating in the nineteenth century ‘philanthropist’ psyche. This is underscored by the work of Freud as the twentieth century unfolded. Disgust, and more subtle forms of class stigmatisation, can also be found in the writings of Charles Booth and Beatrice Webb.

This nineteenth century reading isn’t tenuous at all, both The Thing and The Incredible Hulk follow Jekyll and Hyde as split personalities, a latency which is forced to fully emerge in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s creation of a very Thing-like Jekyll and Hyde for their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was even further exaggerated in the film version.

Again, Moore treats these things no differently to gods from classical mythology, they are language, they are cultural, the gods, says Moore – or at least he said this to us in 1996 – ‘inarguably exist in the mind’, and they morph into one another and broadcast across eras, beyond the lives of their mortal creators. Moore also writes in a love interest with Mina Harker, a posh Victorian girl, which underlines the class discourse. Harker has migrated from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is equally double sided, her vampire story standing in for repressed sexual drives.

The Jekyll and Hyde comparison also shores up the class reading, particularly the spatial–urban aspects. The classic Victorian clean and ‘respectable’ house frontage, which conceals poverty, crime and darkness, at the rear, is readable in Jekyll and Hyde, something Engels picked up in Manchester, which has been seen as a proto-Chicago School city model.

Of course, this maps back on to Jekyll and Hyde, The Hulk and The Thing, in that they are all utterly split, like the Victorian city was split, and these things may or may not be possible without Freud’s reading of the splitting of the psychic functions into different layers and compartments and Marx and Marxism’s understanding of money’s side-effect, its symptom of dividing social relations by reducing them to a cash payment:

‘Just as Hyde is the disreputable element masked by Jekyll’s respectable exterior, so too does Hyde’s home in Soho itself become the hidden site of squalid degeneracy amidst the wealth and privilege of London’s West End […] Jekyll’s house mirrors the layout of the city in which poverty existed in tandem with wealth but remained carefully concealed from view.’*

Much later, The Thing/Ben Grimm goes back to Yancy Street to build a community centre, entering into conflict with the Yancy Street gang over their graffiti writing, updating the spatial-urban reading. If these are our gods or heroes, then they are the gods of modernity, delivering the modern myths of the urban spaces the modern human subject inhabits.

Again, none of this is in the book under review. Just as Jim Carrey in The Mask wore zoot suits and thus became a metaphor for a kind of racialized, performative, urban otherness, these myths are created, in late capitalism, as ‘entertainments’, sold for profit and Tucker tells that side of the story.

The way the ideas are sometimes latent before they physically manifest is also interesting. The Thing was transformed into the shape you see via a rocket trip to the moon, before any manned space flights had taken place. His transformation occurs, like many superheroes, through one of the high magics of our age, atomic radiation. His new form is barren, like a dried out desert, the inverse of fertile, often a term associated with femininity. His skin looks like a difficult to survive on surface, teasing out the stamina required by his circumstances.

He is a nationalist trope, as most superheroes are. In earlier comics he went to spy on the Russians. In a more recent Fantastic Four film he saves motorists on a bridge from certain death and is applauded by firemen, shortly after 9/11, who are effectively applauding themselves. Its function is inevitably patriotic, operating through the masculine, heroicized and classed cultural quotation of The Thing ‘saving the day’.

Yet there is also an inversion in casting The Thing’s brute strength as a force of destruction for the good, rather than a force of provision and creation. There is a kind of unconscious giving with one hand and taking away with the other at play. The bridge and wider landscape in this scene also signify, Lewis Hine’s portraits of workers on the Empire State come to mind, yet the use of firemen re-directs us to workers as the rough-but-good technicians of disaster, which the firemen are, and The Thing is, rather than the working classes as the builders of America.

Of course there is an implied foreign enemy in all of this too, then Al-Quaeda, now Isis, but The Fanatastic Four film usefully blurs this with Dr Doom’s scientific-corporate machinations.

Some of this ghosted knowledge is intentional, as signification is made, put in by the script writers, designers, the director, the cinematographer, but some of it operates unconsciously. Fredric Jameson’s project, particularly in what he calls the ‘political unconscious’, is to unmask that where it operates. Of course, this lays him open to accusations of reading-into, rather than analysis, but I don’t think that holds. When Jameson reads, for instance, Ursula Le Guin, he maps it onto contemporary work cultures, because that’s where it’s ‘taken from’, as he sees it. It isn’t about some futurescape, it’s about now, and that’s what makes it so exciting. When he reads fear of ‘the masses’ of the third world in Le Guin, these things are sort of there and not there, at the surface of the text.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying that Reed Tucker’s book is great, but for me, the fecund life of the mind that comic books give me has to be filled in on that mindscape. I similarly suspect, through Reed Tucker’s book, that many of the subtler dimensions of these works of literature were created under the noses of the managers rather than in front of them, if not semi-consciously by the writers and artists.

Ultimately though, whatever nuanced alternatives you bring, The Thing is a hero because he has sustained an image of total masculinity for over fifty years, in nothing but a pair of powder blue underpants. It is almost as amazing to find that these delicate webs of meaning were produced by men who might otherwise have been insurance executives.

Notes

* Coverley (2005) London Writing. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials

2017 End of Year Review No.5

1) WG Sebald – The Emigrants

In the final part of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, the unnamed narrator receives a bundle of letters from the aging artist Max Ferber who is at work in his studio in a disused factory in Manchester. Like the narrator, Ferber is a German migrant to the city. Yet, while the narrator first arrived to work at the University of Manchester in the mid-1960s, Ferber’s arrival was much earlier and wrapped up in European anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. It is only late into their twenty-five year friendship that Ferber begins to tell of his experience fleeing Munich for the UK as a teenager in 1939. The packet of letters that Ferber passes on were written by his mother and detail her life and childhood in the predominantly Jewish village of Kissingen, Bavaria, prior to the Holocaust. After reading the letters, the narrator travels to the village in order to retrace the life of Ferber’s family, but instead finds that the village has all but erased its pre-war past.

The Emigrants deals with the complex relationship between memory, forgetting and place as they weave through experiences and stories of forced migration. What was forgotten doesn’t always stay forgotten and what was once submerged in silence can suddenly bubble to the surface. The Emigrants is formed of four episodes, including the story of Max Ferber, which are drawn from Sebald’s own encounters and relationships – encounters, he has argued, that would not have taken place in post-war Germany, but rather among German-Jewish and Lithuanian-Jewish migrants in Manchester, Norwich, France and the USA. The work has been called ‘unclassifiable’. Sebald’s prose operates on the border between biography and fiction and its episodic and exploratory narrative structure eschews the usual conventions of the novel. Enigmatic photographs are also inserted throughout the text. They accompany the personal histories being told and re-told, but more often than not raise more questions than answers.

I read and re-read The Emigrants throughout my PhD as I carried out ethnographic research alongside refused asylum seekers living destitute in Manchester. And I read it once again in 2017. With each reading I felt that Sebald’s writing spoke as much to the crafts of sociology and ethnography as it did to literature. In the story of Max Ferber, it is not only the letters of Ferber’s mother and his own revelations towards the end of his life that drive the narrator to re-tell the story of Ferber and his family, it is also the erasure of this history in Kissingen, in Sebald’s home state of Bavaria, that compel the narrator to write. Sebald has referred to a ‘conspiracy of silence’ in post-war Germany – a withholding of information out of shame and guilt (which is markedly different to the silence that can accompany traumatic experiences). Personal and political silences are continually negotiated in the text and the narrator recognises that the re-telling of these personal histories is an always incomplete task. It is, he admits, impossible to do justice to the experiences of Max Ferber and his family. Yet, while there is an incompleteness to each episode, Sebald continually anchors the writing in descriptions of place. The story of Ferber takes us from Manchester to Munich and to Kissingen, before returning to Manchester once again. These are places of memory and forgetting, connection and disconnection and erasure and new encounters. These are points of departure and arrival where the complex and dynamic relationship between memory and place are borne out. And in all of this, finally, I think it’s fair to say that Sebald has written some of the most poignant descriptions of Manchester that have ever been put to paper.

2) Mari Akasaka – Vibrator

Vibrator. Machinic self-pleasure. Vibrator. The low, steady rumble of a lorry on the expressways criss-crossing northern Honshu, Japan. Mari Akasaka’s 1999 novel is a steam-of-consciousness journey through the inner and outer landscapes of Rei Hayakawa, a free-lance journalist in her early thirties. The novella opens in a late-night Tokyo convenience store as Rei stares at the booze selection, deciding which bottles of wine and gin to take home for the night. Voices emerge and submerge in her mind. They are fragmented and intensely critical and merge with the banner headlines of the lifestyle magazines on sale. Her inner voices take us through her depression, alcoholism and eating-disorders. A careful, dark calculation on how to balance binge-drinking and bulimia. ‘In a man’s world, it’s easier to get by as a woman like this’, she says to herself. Time compresses. Or it expands. And thirty pages in we, the readers, don’t know if Rei has been standing in front of the wine rack for 5 seconds or fifty minutes. She eyes up a lorry driver, Takatoshi Okabe, who’s passing through the convenience store and eventually joins him in his lorry parked outside. The next morning they are on their way to Niigata, a delivery journey across Honshu. Takatoshi and Rei talk, and share, and drink shōchu, and touch and fuck. The stream-of-consciousness narration is only broken by moments of conversation between the two as they drive along the expressway. How much of what they share is fantasy and projection and how much is reality remains an open question. And whether or not the entire journey is a fantasy remains an open question too – the excellent 2003 film adaptation directed by Ryūchi Hiroki is more decisive on the matter. Vibrator is a closed-circuit journey of departure and return. It is James Joyce’s Ulysses with the floor punched all the way through to Homer’s Odyssey, but this time arriving back in turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo with Rei as its troubled hero.

3) 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9 – The Interface Series

In the spring of 2016 a series of posts began appearing on seemingly random Reddit threads. They were written by a user with the handle 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9 and offered a compelling, yet highly fragmented, narrative about mysterious ‘flesh interfaces’. Each new post added to the story while remaining strangely out of place in the context of the thread it was posted to. An engaging and experimental work of science fiction was emerging on Reddit. Initial posts were written from the perspective of an unnamed CIA operative, but then other voices began to appear – American soldiers in Vietnam and Iwo Jima, a Treblinka administrator, a hippy living in Death Valley, a cat, a dog . . . The narrative seemed to be developing an alternative history of the 20th century, centred on the appearance of ‘flesh interfaces’. These were biological devices constructed under the collective influence of LSD. The flesh interfaces were described as meaty, throaty, vaginal passages that could be digitally connected to information flows and were possible portals to other, alien worlds. Some descriptions were dry and clinical, others took the form of grotesque epiphanies that borrowed imagery from the Book of Revelation. The gallery of voices meant that no cohesive, linear account emerged and it was left to the reader to fill in the gaps.

Eventually, an authorial voice surfaced among the posts. He claimed he was an American male in his mid-thirties and a severe alcoholic. The posts, he said, were speculations on possible pasts in order to provide insight into possible – and most often horrific – futures for humanity. He did not refer to his writing as ‘fiction’, but rather as ‘information’ that he was providing to the reader. As the ‘author’ posted more, he made more and more references to Phillip K Dick, the science-fiction writer who not only succumbed to substance abuse, but also, openly, blurred the boundaries between fiction and delusion. This constant tension between fiction and delusion is something that defined the writing in the ‘Interface Series’, as it became known. Whether the ‘author’ that announced himself in these posts is ‘real’ or another voice among others doesn’t really matter. He was someone to hang the fragmented narrative on. And his descriptions of his own alcoholism were moving and profound. They cut to the bone and were testament to the quality of writing being offered by 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9.

The ‘Interface Series’ was eventually picked up by national media. The BBC, The Guardian, and Vice all wrote pieces on the developing work. As the series of posts came to an end, the author admitted that he found it easier to create new narrative arcs – new voices – rather than to bring anything to a coherent close. Yet, with each new post, the authorial voice began to collapse into some of the narrative arcs that had been developed. Right until the end the writing remained vivid and maintained its disturbing oscillation between fiction and delusion. There are now rumours of a book and rumours that the whole thing has been a viral marketing campaign. There are a lot of rabbit holes on the internet (and there is a lot of terrible writing), but this is an internet rabbit hole – or flesh interface – worth going down.

4) Sophocles – Oedipus at Colonus

In Sophocles’ ancient tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, the dying exile and wanderer, Oedipus, arrives outside Athens. The Athenians are cautious and wary, viewing the stranger at their gates as both a potential threat and a potential asset. Oedipus is the former king of Thebes, a fallen hero who had unwittingly killed his father and married his own mother before being banished from the city. Blind and infirm and tainted by his past, when the Athenians recognise him they initially plead for him to leave as he may pollute the city with his presence. But, Oedipus appeals to Athens as the ‘City of Justice’ that welcomes a suffering stranger. The city’s political integrity and self-image are at stake in how it deals with Oedipus and they eventually accept him as one of their own as he is buried at Colonus, on the outskirts of Athens, confirming that Athens is, indeed, a just city.

Sophocles likely composed Oedipus at Colonus in 406 BC as a political crisis engulfed the Athenian city-state during the Peloponnesian War. And it was first performed in 401 BC after Athens’ catastrophic defeat to Sparta. In this context, the image of Athens as the ‘City of Justice’ produced in the drama was an idealised fantasy floating above the chaos of Athens the actual city. This staged ideal can be read as an attempt to mask the real wounds and problems of the city. And the migrant – in the figure of Oedipus – was being instrumentalised by Sophocles for this task. There is a lesson here for today: how we treat migrants, and our obsessions over who deserves to belong and who doesn’t, most often says more about us, our own hang-ups and socio-economic problems and how we collectively perceive ourselves then it does about anyone else.

5) William Gibson – Neuromancer

Simstim, Turing Police, construct, cyberspace and the matrix. Like any good work of science-fiction, William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer, is full of neologisms – some of which have become vernacular. This is in no small part down to the Wachowski’s The Matrix Trilogy which leans heavily on aspects of Gibson’s novel. At its most basic, Neuromancer is about the self-mastery of artificial intelligence and attempts to restrain this. It’s also about, very broadly, the constantly changing, and sometimes invasive, relation between technology, the body and consciousness. In Gibson’s world, a person needs to directly connect their nervous system to a console in order to access cyberspace (or the internet). The central character, Case, has had his nervous system surgically tampered with in order to prevent him from ever ‘jacking-in’ to cyberspace again. At the opening of the novel he’s a washed-up former hacker who roams the streets of Chiba, Japan, where there is an underground economy built around illicit surgery, body modification, organ exchange, amphetamines and prostitution. Other characters exist on the more extreme ends of this body-consciousness-technology nexus. There is ‘Armitage’ – an AI fabricated personality patched onto a wounded and very disturbed soldier. And there is ‘Dixie Flatline’ – the consciousness of the dead hacker McCoy Pauley stored on a ‘construct’ (or hard drive).

The characters move between Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul and orbital stations with ease, seemingly instantaneously. In the novel space becomes compressed. And at the novel’s close an AI reveals that it has begun communicating with another AI in Alpha Centauri. While humans – in their various states – move globally, the AIs are now interstellar. In Gibson’s world, spatial differentiation through distance is much less important than the binary between cyberspace and the ‘real’ world of flesh and bodies and matter. And throughout the novel Case hooks up to his console with electrodes and jumps between the two.

For Gibson, science-fiction is an ‘artefact of the moment’ – a speculation on what is possible through the lens of the present. It is a constant toggle between there being ‘nothing new under the sun’ and ‘everything having changed absolutely’. Neuromancer was written at the dawn of the internet-age and mass access to digital technology. And in this novel Gibson was attempting to offer up a ‘poetry of the emergent language of the digital’. It’s a language caught up in the tug-of-war between novelty and the same, the familiar and the strange. And these new, emergent words can easily lodge themselves into everyday language or just as easily become dated. Terms such ‘modem’ and ‘virus’, which appear in the novel, have either fallen into disuse or have become firmly embedded in our new vocabulary of the digital. Gibson’s description of cyberspace, with its blocky shapes, now seems very retro and based on early 1980s computer graphics. And case’s console, which he uses to ‘jack-in’ to the matrix, has the feel of an Atari 2600. Yet, in other respects the novel remains fresh and even prescient – from the open possibilities of artificial intelligence to the constant, sweeping technological change that defines our present. Just like in Gibson’s novel, the high-tech is continually collapsing into the mundane and uneven social landscape of everyday life.

Neuromancer taps into the essential relationship between technology and the human. The body is technologically supported while consciousness adapts to these new technologies. In some ways this is a primordial nexus. While sitting down to write this review, I’ve had to put aside my crutches as I recover from a torn calf muscle. They are a rudimentary technological support for my injured body. This primal relation between technology and the body is both a part of humanity’s distant past and its continuing future. In the novel, the character Molly has surgical intervention to heighten her reflexes and quicken her movements. She also has retractable razors implanted into her finger tips and lenses permanently inserted over her eyes that relay digital information alongside her vision. These sorts of body modifications are part of the hyperbolic speculation that is a staple of science fiction. Yet, they also speak to the present. I’m staring at my laptop late into the night, writing this review. Its screen relays digital information onto my retinas via the blue-light spectrum. It’s the same blue-light emanating from the screens of our mobile phones, computers and tablets. We may not have Molly’s permanent lenses, but we don’t really need them as our interaction with digital information through various screens is already a ubiquitous part of our daily life with all the haptic and neurological adaptations that this entails. While Case ‘jacks-in’ and ‘jacks-out’ of cyberspace throughout Gibson’s novel – a process that involves electrodes – we have a more fluid, and more constant, relation to the internet. It’s become a natural part of our daily social existence. There is nothing new under the sun while everything is changing absolutely.

– Mark Rainey

Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their potential, meet other artists, have time, space and resources to test and experiment, and to challenge and be challenged.

For this reason, the overall emphasis of the art schools featured in the book is less on practical and vocational training and more about creating a discursive environment which is flexible, collaborative and self-directed. The school in this sense is less a place where the student is a fee-paying customer, taking on crippling debt in order to purchase an off-the-peg education delivered in expensive buildings, and more a place to go to learn and change through process and experience. This is an education which is not separate from the real world, but takes place throughout the everyday, and concerns not just knowledge and skills but thoughts and attitudes to life. It’s interdisciplinary: art schools are not just a place where one might find painters and sculptors, but activists, writers, cooks and musicians. This education does not end at the close of the school day, once students have left the building or graduate, but is something students take with them into the future. It’s less about giving students the keys to enter elite international art networks, and the ability to participate in global art markets, than about developing artists’ abilities to criticise, critique and suggest alternatives.

In School, Thorne explores the different approaches that have been taken to providing this education. He grounds artist-led education historically in initiatives such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, before presenting a series of interviews with alternative art schools around the world, from European case studies to projects in Cuba, the United States, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

Sometimes these schools mirror the formal education systems, whether in language – several adopt the name of ‘school’, ‘university’ or ‘academy’ – or in their expectations of the students, such as writing a formal dissertation. These alternative schools may also have symbiotic relationships to the academy, through affiliation, funding or staffing. Often, too, students have already been through post-graduate education – the alternative art school is supplementary to it rather than a replacement.

Thorne shows that what does separate these schools from established institutions is their tendency to be small-scale, rooted in community and specific in their response to local context. Among the case studies highlighted are universities that are nomadic, moving to different cities, those which take place within the domestic space of the home, and those which suggest the atelier model, with students acting in a role that is akin to assistants within a studio system.

The more interesting interviews are those in which the challenges faced by artists and art students are most apparent, due to economic, social or political constraints, or which take place in areas with little tradition of mainstream non-academic art education: it’s in cities such as Ramallah and St Petersburg that alternative, critical education feels most daring, urgent and necessary.

Thorne made the conscious decision to focus on the founders of alternative art schools. In a book expounding non-hierarchical and collaborative education it feels a little odd that key, driving individuals and personalities are highlighted at the expense of those who have participated in, taught at or graduated from alternative art schools. The ideas and motivations behind the schools therefore come across much more strongly than the feeling of actually studying there.

These alternative art schools, too, appear as a series of experiments and one-off projects rather than long-term, sustainable alternatives to the market-driven system of higher education. However, as Thorne points out, even if they don’t offer an alternative route to the established system they offer ‘modest proposals’ for the type of education that might be delivered in the art school of the future.

– Natalie Bradbury

Down the dark rabbit hole…

Julie Egdell – Alice in Winterland (Smokestack Books)

As a lover of Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’, I was initially hesitant to read this collection, but I came away feeling enthralled by the atmosphere of the poetry though with a slight after-chill. The book left a lasting impression upon me.

Egdell uses Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’ as a way to look at transitions and being an adult in the world, particularly her experience of living in Russia. She uses the original works effectively and with caution and respect, in order to frame other issues.

My favourite two poems come near the end of the book and the first one is ‘Something from Alice’ with excellent use of images and language. For example, the line: ‘I emerged from the belly of my outer skin’ is inspired and works on many levels. Egdell successfully plays with words, metaphor and meaning and also describes the harsh reality of the realisation in adulthood that life is hard.

The second poem I really liked follows the one just mentioned and is named ‘Dreamchild’. Although the poem has an apparently cheering title the poem discusses death. It includes a line that makes reference to a ‘nothing game’. A ‘nothing game’ is very like something Carrol may have written and invented but, to my knowledge, did not. This poem however is far darker than Carrol’s Alice and left me quite unsettled.

The contrast Egdell portrays between childhood ‘fluffiness’ with references to children’s fairy stories, literature and myths, and experiences, and on being a person in the world (which can be a cold place – in many ways) gets into your bones. The feeling it resulted in for me was dread, as opposed to fear, with a bit of low energy excitement thrown in. The collection becomes darker and darker as it moves on and Egdell successfully keeps pace in the collection by interweaving styles and content, encouraging us all the time to get to the end of her journey with her.

– Sally Barrett

2017 End of Year Review No.4

Some books which have made an impression on me this year, presented unsystematically and in no particular order…

As someone who’s spent the last few year being excited about the work of Chris Kraus it was a great thrill to get the chance to attend a reading she gave, this year, at Waterstones, Deansgate. Kraus’s appearance in Manchester was in support of her new book After Kathy Acker – the first book on this Top 5 of the year list of mine – which is Kraus’s biography of the great 70s/80s punk literary experimentalist who appropriated, and made her own work from everyone from Milton and Dickens right through to Harold Robbins.

Kraus’s book is a scrupulously researched run through of Acker’s life and achievements but, as well, it’s also a portrayal of the various literary/bohemian milieus Acker existed in and moved through: artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians helping each other and supporting each other and, just as often, stabbing each other in the back . . . It’s a tremendously exciting read and very evocative of a time and place I dearly wish I’d known.

Two writers younger than Acker who yet moved in some of the same circles as her are Lynne Tillman and Mary Gaitskill; and whilst reading Kraus’s Acker book, by chance, I came across books by both Tillman and Gaitskill in charity shops . . . And though I’m not going to include on this list anything by either Tillman or Gaitskill I will heartily recommend, in particular, Tillman’s Motion Sickness and Haunted Houses and Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

Maggie Nelson is a writer seeming to be exploring some of the similar areas to Kraus, the intersections between autobiography, art-writing and critical theory, and, though she’s someone who’s been around for a while, Nelson’s a writer I only got around to reading this year. This year I read, from Nelson, first off, her Bluets followed by The Art of CrueltyBluets was the standout title for me and so takes the second position on this Top 5 list. It’s a meditation on Nelson’s relationship to the colour blue charting, as well, some of the historical uses the colour has been put to. The book is poetic, moving and profound. And, at the time I read it, I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it before. It’s only a slim book but one which contains an awful lot.

Whilst poetry has long been my primary writing activity I haven’t done that much of it, comparatively speaking, over the last couple of years, having been busy – instead – on a seemingly never-ending, ever changing book-length prose work; my reading of poetry has also slipped a bit . . . This year, poetry-wise, it’s been just Eileen Myles’s Collected I Must be Living Twice; Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems and Neruda’s Elemental Odes which seem to have left an impression on me. Room for none of those on this list though . . .

In the constantly threatening to topple book pile by my bed I’d say its film-related texts that have supplanted poetry; this past year I’ve got through a load of film stuff . . . theory; histories and biographies. The ones I’ve enjoyed most would probably be Robin Wood’s very precise, detailed survey of 6 of Hitchcock’s films; Jean Luc-Godard’s collected film writing, edited by Tom Milne; Robert B Ray’s The Avant-Garde finds Andy Hardy and Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The Rosenbaum, in particular, impressed me a lot and takes the third spot on this list. Rosenbaum, a long-standing movie critic for the likes of Sight and Sound, the Village VoiceFilm Comment and, latterly, the Chicago Reader has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and his writing is never less than fascinating. The essays collected in Placing Movies include considerations of Barthes on cinema-going and extended meditations on some of my favourite directors including Jacques Rivette and Bela Tarr. Also, the list of movies I found myself noting down, movies I hadn’t seen but wanted to, grew longer almost page by page as I made my way through Rosenbaum. 2018 definitely looks like being a year of filling in some gaps in my movie-watching record as well as further investigations into Rosenbaum’s back catalogue.

A new area of reading, for me, this year, has been art writing; some of the titles I’ve enjoyed include Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland; Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World; Arthur C Danto’s What is Art?; and Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery. The art book which blew me away though, this past year, and which I’m going to put in this list at number 4 is Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: a survey of a handful of contemporary artists plus an attempt to identify and analyse certain theoretical concerns recognisable behind the work of the artists Foster has focussed upon.

I found the book demanding but, also, endlessly exciting. Every couple of pages, it felt like, I was being introduced to some new idea; ideas not just to do with art but to do with psychoanalysis, critical theory and political resistance. As per Rosenbaum, I expect next year will see me digging deeper in Foster’s work.

Finally, the number 5 spot of this list is going to be occupied collectively, by a rather random selection of a few of the books I’ve read this past 12 months which appear, from my perspective of today, to have left some kind of imprint in my brain. Firstly, there’s Pierre Guyotat’s autobiographical Coma detailing the deterioration of his health which led, eventually, to him falling into a coma in the pursuit of his literary vision. An unsurprisingly intense read which, however, encouraged me to seek out other translations of Guyotat. Renata Adler’s Speedboat: a collage of impressions; snippets of conversations; half-finished stories; dialogue overheard on the street; and advertising slogans and things off TV which seemed to me to add up to a much fresher, newer way of creating ‘fiction’ and, as well, an example that, it could be argued, hasn’t really been followed up. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: Wharton being a writer I’d long been convinced might prove hard-work, and hard-work of the not particularly rewarding variety I was, to my surprise, blown away by this novel. A beautifully written, stylish account of love and manners amongst the upper class new Yorkers of the early 20th century; I loved it and currently have several more Wharton novels sat on my shelf awaiting their turn to be read.  Finally, I want to mention Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up: a short story collection of tales of the uncanny and strange  featuring Axolotl obsession and young men who vomit bunny rabbits. Lots of sci-fi-esque effects happening in non-sci-fi settings. Weird as anything; also brilliant.

. . . and having finished this list I’m, immediately, remembering more books from the past year that I’ve enjoyed and which deserve a mention here but, you know, it’s Sunday morning and I want some breakfast, so I’ll end this here.

– Richard Barrett