Screaming bloody murder

Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey – Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism, 2016)

This is the shit that things grow out of. This is the shit that things were already growing out of before the ink was dry in messrs. Fernie and Palfrey’s notebooks.

No mysticism, it’s because they are steeped. Up to their waists in the loam, the historical and psychological doo-doo.

Their stated ambition is to reach inside Macbeth’s torture chamber, a place all the bloodier in Shakespeare because of the curtains drawn around it. A place all the bloodier because of the lack of blood.

In Fernie and Palfrey’s version there is comedy, sheer amoral brutality, rape.

In each and every era civilisation appears to be finally completed before we are disabused of the illusion. Good riddance, I say.

I was in top set for English at school and our hippy teacher – an excellent teacher, to be fair – showed us Threads, which traumatised me for life. She also showed us Polanski’s Macbeth. Crackling VHS images captured on YouTube have come with an evil hiss ever since.

A scene was going on in Macbeth as the white static snow strafed the screen, and there was some screaming down the corridor. The hippy teacher flatly explained ‘of course, all the women would be raped when a siege broke.’

Even at this distance I can still access the shock I felt in my body as it sunk in. Like ice in the veins and then anti-freeze. My face burning red. This teacher opened my eyes to the brutality of humans. Fernie and Palfrey have done this all over again.

Then we all had to shuffle out of the classroom, by girls, girls in skirts, girls who suddenly – after seeming so scarily, shapeshiftingly advanced in comparison to us puny boys – looked vulnerable.

Fernie and Palfrey’s writing is incredible. They can conjure something greener than the greenest green without the colour ever appearing. I still cannot remember or find again the sentence they connived to do this but the image remains.

But what Fernie and Palfrey have really done here – the very big thing they have done – is to explore the psychology of humans all over again. They have also re-created human history, in which the glorious lineages of the present are lies that hide absurd accidents, smashed apart continuums – here the arrival of industrial bread factories – and fake heritage, all underpinned by murder, rape and more rape.

The filth and the lies are then scraped together into a dark, sweet confection and served to a glad-hearted population. How very now.

Everyone should read this book, academics, adults, children. It is not an academic experiment, the tone they have found makes it far wider in appeal.

Fernie and Palfrey’s book, emerging in 2016 and written before the current mess showed its full shape, has stood its own test of time already by re-lighting 2019, a place almost impossible to see from, say, 2014.

In this it stands up to their ultimate subject, to Shakespeare himself, and there isn’t a higher compliment than that.

– Steve Hanson

Fallen Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Joe Darlington

Enter the Gonkaverse

D Harlan Wilson. Natural Complexions. (Equus Press, 2018).

It is not a good time for transgressions. We like our explorations courteous now. We like our politics earnest.

The boundary-pushing, rude and raucous style of writing that we label “transgressive” has a distinct flavor, and it’s one that feels like it’s from another time. The Dadaists, Artaud, Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Bret Easton Ellis; these all fit the transgressive bill.

But there’s a subterranean element to this tradition as well. Small presses and zines, performance poets and conceptual artists all help to keep transgression alive during those downtimes, like the present, when the toleration of outside voices does not extend to the chaotic, the nihilistic, or the flippant.

It’s during these times when people in search of the lewd and the crude, the grotesque and the trashy, should turn to outside sources. The latest hook-up that I’ve stumbled upon comes in the form of Equus Press, a London/Paris/Prague connection that specializes in the esoteric, the dauntless, and the malapert.

The first work of this press that I encountered is the subject of this review: D Harlan Wilson’s Natural Complexions. With a suitably stomach-churning cover, I was initially trepidatious in my approach to the text. It could contain anything, I realised. There was danger in it. I felt uncomfortable reading it on the tram.

I was right to be nervous, for Wilson’s novel (if we might call it that) takes aim at contemporary mores not so much with a rifle as a blunderbuss. Having written an academic study of J.G. Ballard, Wilson borrows liberally from his techno-apocalyptic imagery. We see a President mown down in a motorcade, L. Ron Hubbard making regular appearances (practicing hypnotism without a license, punching his sleeping wife for dreaming of another man), and the movie star BRIAN GONKA constantly recurs; simultaneously a pick-up artist, a dead man, a police detective, and a host of other manic characters.

The book is structured in four parts, each with a large number of often single-paragraphed sections, all tied together under loose themes and interconnected by recurring characters. These characters are all given highlighted names like Joel Osteen. The visual effect is reminiscent of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, although the piecemeal approach to narrative building is Burroughsian in effect.

Individual lines spring out from the text and surprise you. “Zebras are the primary source of crime”, for example, is hard to beat as an opener. Equally so is Harlan’s reference Greek gastromancy: “they believed the gongs of indigestion might belong to the articulations of the dead, the ghostly, the spectral or the cosmic”. The material bodily lower stratum is never far away from the cerebral, or even the transdimensional in Wilson’s imagination.

Some sections are even laugh-out-loud funny, in a way that only bad taste humour can be. The section “Death Sentences” describes body builder and murderer Maxwell La Fleur, who explains at length his only regret; that he has eaten too many carbs prior to his execution, and thus ruined the final effect of his rippling muscles as they spasm in the electric chair. The innocents he murdered, we are told, deserved it.

“Sisyphus II: The Sequel” is another such piece, funny enough for a stand-up comedian to deliver were it not sandwiched between an email from a Ghanaian scammer and piece of faux scientific speculation. In it, our unlucky speaker describes being shanked from the moment he entered prison. First the other prisoners shank him, then the guards, and then the prison doctor. The journey continues from there, taking in a wide range of shanking situations until our hero is eventually lowered into the grave, the mourners around him all leaning over to shank him on the way down.

By this point in the book I was in hysterics, ruining what little credibility I had left among my fellow tram passengers.

Wilson’s book is a short one at only 76 pages, but it is a slow burn nevertheless. One must push through one’s own reticence in order to find the humour, the satire, and the unfortunate truths that lie behind his often gruesome and gritty takes on the world. For me, the book ended just as I had started to feel at home in Wilsonworld.

It is abrupt, perhaps, but perhaps this is also for the best. For what truly transgressive book would happy to leave its reader walking away untroubled?

Like Burroughs, Acker and Ballard before him, Wilson has written a book that would recommend itself to the atypical reader. If you are a regular consumer of books who is in search of something brazenly original, drawing on known writers but offering something new as well, then this is the book for you.

If you’re a musician or a dreamer, or if you take a lot of drugs, this is also the book for you – although I question why you are reading this book review if you are…

Natural Complexions is a laugh riot that also makes you feel a bit sick, and you can’t ask for more than that in a book. I look forward to tracking down more of Wilson’s writing and I’m glad there are publishers out there like Equus Press who make sure that such writing can still make its way into the hands of prurient reviewers like me.

– 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

Fragments of a Map

Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories)

Experimental writing is often considered self-indulgent. I am not sure if this is the case. There is, however, something of the writer’s self which always seems to come through experimental writing in a way that it doesn’t in a bestseller.

The new collection of Ann Quin’s stories and fragments, The Unmapped Country, display the writer’s work at its most direct and its most obscure. The range befits this lesser known but truly important writer whose life and work remain enigmatic. Ann Quin’s writing career began in the early sixties and was tragically cut short by her death in 1973.

She was part of a circle of innovative writers published by John Calder which included Carol and Alan Burns, Eva Tucker and Giles Gordon, and in her early career was known to read alongside B.S. Johnson.

In the later sixties she used her royalties and grants to travel the world associating with American post-Beat writers and the pop art movement which she had first encountered working as a secretary at the Royal College of Art.

Her biographical trajectory is traced in her novel’s settings; from the grim Brighton of Berg (1964), to the middle class holiday home of Three (1966), through Greek dictatorship in Passages (1969) to her final comic book cut-up American odyssey Tripticks (1972).

This collection, sourced from archives, old magazines, as well as the authors’ friends and collaborators, contains work from every era. It opens with a Berg-style meeting of surrealism and social realism in ‘Leaving School – XI’ and ‘Nude and Seascape’. The latter of which is either hilarious or horrifying. I fell immediately in love with it.

‘A Double Room’ adds to the grottiness with a tale of an illicit weekend jaunt to Brighton which turns immediately stale. One feels in these stories the Brighton of Quin’s childhood. Characters trapped in the allotted pleasures of austerity Britain.

Her style and imagination is captivating, elevating, even when fixated on nastiness; it suggests rather than states how writing could lift her out of these surroundings.

We then have a few choice fragments. A satirical voice in the form of ‘B.B.’ written personally, it seems, for pop artist Billy Apple. A cut-up about soldiery, ‘Living in the Present’, co-created with poet Robert Sward. Sadly not a prime example of the genre (it’s the only part of the book that feels notably dated) it is nevertheless fascinating to see the kinds of experiments Quin was undertaking.

The meat of the collection is found in ‘Tripticks’, the story published in Ambit which would later expand to novel length, as well as ‘Ghostworm’. Both display the hypnotic Quin prose style unleashed on her favourite subjects of sex, brutality and globetrotting adventures.

Each rewards repeat reading as imagery jostles for space with the cracked, fixated voices of her protagonists. Fans of the novels will be glad of these treasures, as well as the less psychedelic ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’, which depicts a trip across Mexico with all its troubles, death and stirring encounters.

The penultimate piece, ‘The Unmapped Country’, is the final and unfinished novel of the Quin quintet. Quin fans like myself will know it from 1975’s Beyond the Words anthology of experimental writing but here it appears restored and in full.

For this particular reader, the piece remains a bit of a disappointment. Had Quin lived I can’t help that feel she would have dramatically revised and edited it. It remains, nevertheless, a moving story of incarceration and mental illness. It is tempting to draw links here to Quin the writer who herself was institutionalised around this time. But the biographical Quin and the characters she creates have always subtly repelled each other as much as they attract. Reading this as pure autobiography would be lazy.

It is on this point that I come to the second voice in the collection, that of the editor Jennifer Hodgson. Alongside her heroic efforts bringing all of these previously lost and discarded pieces together she contributes an introduction that is sympathetic, insightful and precise.

For Quin fans this introduction also represents something important in terms of biographical framing. The ugly myth of Quin – the lazy interpretation typified in Buckeye’s Re: Quin (2013) – is one of a tragic rock and roll martyr; Sylvia Plath on LSD.

Hodgson’s introduction, by contrast, tells of a varied life in which Quin’s non-traditional relationships aren’t reduced to daddy issues, her experiments with drugs aren’t a cry for help, and her travels across the world aren’t signifiers of a decadent and depraved collapse.

Even Quin’s death ‘swimming out to sea near Brighton’s Palace Pier’ (30) isn’t speculated upon; subtly breaking from the typical presumption of suicide. This is only a short introduction but, as someone who has previously attempted to write about Quin-the-person and failed, Hodgson’s approach impressed upon me the importance of biographical objectivity.

If anyone is going to write a biography of Ann Quin then it should be Jennifer Hodgson. And Other Stories have done a great job with this book.

Every shelf with four Quin books on it will, I don’t doubt, have five on it come January. More than this, the book’s scope recommends itself to new readers as well. As an overview of this important British writer The Unmapped Country is to be admired.

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments will be available from And Other Stories in January 2018.