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

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