Hell is ordinary

Ansgar Allen – Wretch (Schism, 2020)

A figure – I won’t say a person, that would be too holistic – exists in a cell with a copying machine. Wretch. He has broken his last copying machine and perhaps more besides, we do not quite know. His name is not unique, he is one among many wretches.

Wretch’s cell has a central orifice, down which goes waste. Bleach is poured in daily. Wretch eats.

Wretch copies what is pushed under his door as he trains himself to have an ordered mind. He has rages that he cannot remember. He is told this by the people who sit outside his cell door and feed him more copying.

This element of memory loss, or more accurately of blanked-out trauma, has one dimension rooted in Freud and the whole historical psychoanalytical conversation thereafter. But it has another dimension in the fact that as Wretch copies, he adds what he overhears through the door to his ‘copies’.

The account we read in the book, therefore, is an account from an accountant of texts, of a sort. But this all flings the reliability of Wretch as a narrator in the air, in all directions, which puts the reader into a very interesting space.

This could all act as a metaphor for historical process – there is a monkish aspect to Wretch as copyist – or for subject-formation, or both. It works as an entry point into theoretical work by Derrida, or Friedrich Kittler even. But the strength of Wretch as a work is that it is never loaded with any single explanation heavily enough for it to be weighed down.

This book is a prism, a dark one, a scrying mirror perhaps, but it can be read and re-read via any one of its facets. This multiplicity of meaning is quite astonishing for a narrative which centres on a complete lack of freedom, a lack which is our lack, all of our lacks. It is about ‘civilisation’ as Freud figured it. Here, civilisation involves the repression of drives and their often violent return.

But Wretch notes that those outside the cell allow him to rest, to fall silent as he stops copying. This moment shows the author’s craft well. Lesser writers would script overt punishment beatings. Power partly works through provision. The book is both brutal and subtle, not an easy thing to pull off.

There are many moments like this, for instance when the people who sit outside Wretch’s cell feel euphoria from trading machine parts. What is left of the human seems reduced to a mutual serotonin trigger. This work is not beyond ideology or metaphysics – none are – but by peeling a very particular narrative right back to its barest parts, Allen gets very close to a world stripped bare. It shows us The Real we all live to avoid. The thing we all live in, but really cannot live in.

Wretch, like all prisoners of all kinds – and there are many sorts – knows only his cell. But he also ‘knows’ the world outside it. From inference and induction, but of course significant parts of that knowledge are always already sheer fantasy. And we don’t quite know which parts, we don’t know what we don’t know, or that we don’t know it.

We don’t know that we don’t know something that we don’t know.

Wretch has to be told about himself by others. That detail alone is worth twenty pages of explanation by other writers. One obvious reading of that aspect of Wretch is dystopian. But another interpretation is that we are all told about ourselves by others, something you can get from reading Winnicott, or Lacan. The book puts you into that horrible place where our workings are laid out on a cold slab. This is literature as autopsy, or x-ray.

The ‘Known City’ then appears, initially in Wretch’s copying. But if Wretch’s copying includes half-heard inferences from outside Wretch’s cell, what do the documents he copies hold? Here the cell complex begins to appear as a sort of symptom-amplifer, a mutter-collider.

Out there, something really terrible has happened. Or not started. But we’ve read so many stories which say that, surely? There is an entire branch of sci-fi, probably with a GDP figure attached to it, focussed on such things. But here, actually, this is where it starts to get really interesting. When ‘they’, they are always just a barely known they, go outside the Known City – all posited by our copyist-mummer Wretch – they are ‘lost to reason’. This is a magnificent genre inversion. It completely upends Heart of Darkness, in that ‘the horror’ – a citation that can only now return at a pomo-lite Simpsons level anyway – is located in reason, not in its lack. In this it critiques colonialism as much as it attacks reason. It seems to do what Heart of Darkness, because Conrad was so very compromised, could not do. The civilised here do not want to know.

The way the book is paced here is also very skillful. Allen takes us a certain distance into alien territory, then just as we are orienting, he scrambles all the compasses. Again, the book deals with massive epochal subjects via narrative elements, and here The Enlightenment. The sections of description that provide a sort-of surface about the explorers outside ‘The Known’ show us that enlightenment reason is not a cold floor of objective truth. It is yet another veil of human projection.

That ‘the centre’ – in Wretch’s cell, pointedly, right at the start – is a kind of anus is surely deliberate. I could begin to write a scything essay on Berkeley, Hume and Kant at this point. Magnifying glasses are to be avoided here, as those things show the world as un-ordered. Where pulp for paper comes from is to remain unknown, it is better to not know.

Here is a human world rolling back on knowledge. But they are trapped-between, which is perhaps always our historical hell, in whatever era we live. There’s a double edge to all of this in Wretch, humans are still continuing in a world made by reason, just as the Soviets carried forward factories, but the bottom has dropped right out of the whole project. We never find out why. It doesn’t matter. But as I said, it’s both brutal and subtle.

It also sits on the anthropocene, Wretch, in that it illuminates our simultaneous total immersion and alienness in the universe. If we have an objective, cosmic position, it is surely this. At one point the explorers – from the Known City, going into the unknown world – are following on single file in order to reduce perception, rather than to increase it. It is tempting to say that this is a future in which humanity devolves itself, in stages, towards a Bataillean primord, each individual recombining to become a groping worm. But isn’t that also a statement about the condition of the contemporary social world, particularly of work?

Wretch re-ignites Beckett, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Orwell, Kafka, Burroughs, Conrad and Nietzsche. At the same time, Allen is none of those writers. There seems to be far more interest in losing the ego in order to make a piece of effective work. In terms of critical theory, what is happening in Wretch can trigger a multitude of thinkers: Freud, Derrida, Marx, Lyotard, Foucault, Agamben. Simultaneously, it feels unaligned. It is philosophy or critical theory as strategic art. This field has become known as ‘the creative-critical’, but in this work ‘strategy’ gets much closer to what is going on here, and in some of my own work, which is trying to do similar things.

It reminds me of teaching on the studio side in art schools. Students need to be trained out of their desire to make work from the inside-out. To get them to see dispassionately is the first slog, to get them to coolly and distantly sketch out the whole the next task. Wretch does this, in literature. But Wretch is not without writerly detail. A survivor of an expedition beyond the Known City staggers back with the ‘instincts of distended elastic’, with ‘enough pull to return but little more than that’. The biological creeps in slowly too, skin under fingernails, moisture and breath. Its terror is post-COVID.

But what is truly chilling to the bone about Wretch, ultimately, is just how unfantastical most of it is, at a very basic level. It is in fact not dystopian enough. Hell sits in its ordinariness.

Beyond all this high-falutin review chat it also works as a great horror story, with a cover that my closet metal-head self loves (by JMF Casey).

This is a work which deserves a much bigger audience, and one that commands a place in the archive of texts to hang onto for however many years are left, whether we call that a canon or not.

Steve Hanson

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