Monday, 30 March 2009

Karen Jay Fowler, The Case of the Imaginary Detective (2008)

This is neat, and nice, work. Amazon quotes Publisher's Weekly:
At the start of this quietly funny, slightly mysterious novel of discovering one's roots, 29-year-old Rima Lanisell visits her estranged godmother, Addison Early, in Addison's house by the sea, Wit's End, in storied Santa Cruz, Calif. Addison, the wildly successful but cautiously private author of the Maxwell Lane mysteries, was once the girlfriend of Rima's recently deceased father, Bim, for whom a character in the series is named. For each novel, Addison first constructs a dollhouse diorama that depicts what will be the principal murder scene, but her upcoming novel and its dollhouse are uncharacteristically delayed. By weeding through decades-old correspondence with eccentric fans and the contemporary channels of online forums, Rima slowly discovers the truth behind Addison's novels and that Rima herself is a topic of interest among Maxwell Lane devotees. As Fowler analyzes our modern-day relationship to novels and writers' relationship to their readers, the line between fiction and reality blurs--real people become characters in another's blog as fictional characters become real to the fans that fetishize them.
Amazon also quotes a Seattle Times blurb that was presumably the work of coffee-overfuelled office bravado ('I wager you'll not fit the word venturesome into a legit review, Marjorie'; 'I accept your wager, Lemuel, and shall undertake not only to do so but also to include a Hungarian surname as well!' 'Do it in under ten words, Marjorie, and dinner at my club shall be yours! I say club. Obviously we live in Seattle and there are no clubs. But I'll certainly stand you a coffee.'):
“[A] Rubik’s cube of a book ... this is venturesome work.”
OK. Let me say something about the shaping, or perhaps distorting, power of readerly expectations. I read The Case of the Imaginary Detective because Niall Harrison asked me to do so for a Torque Control exchange that, in the end, never happened. As I picked it up my thought was: 'yeah, this is The Jane Austen Book Club author, isn't it'. I'll confess I've not read that novel, and nor have I seen the film, partly because having small children means I only ever go to the cinema to see kids' films, and partly because I assumed it was a chick-flick. Not to denigrate an entire genre, but if I'm going to the cinema I'd rather see The Dark Knight than Sex and the City. Beyond that I knew nothing about the novel.

The point of this preamble is that I started reading The Case of the Imaginary Detective with preconceptions: and foremost amongst those was that it would be intelligent (because that was the vibe I got about The Jane Austen Book Club) chick-lit (because that's how I'd pegged her as a writer) with an sfnal edge, and I thought this last because Niall had asked me to read it to contribute to a discussion about it on a sfnal 'bsite. And, expecting that, that's what I found. Which is to say, I decided that it was chick lit insofar as it's a story about relationships, a toothsome and eligible female heroine, eccentric bit-part players and a possible Mr Right (Martin). As I neared the end I found myself thinking: but where's the sf? And because I was looking for that, because my preconceptions had geared me that way, I found the sf in the second part of chapter 27, where Addison reveals that her 'doll-house' for her new book is a virtual environment rather than an actual doll's-house. It's the Matrix, I thought: Rima isn't real: she's Mr A.I.! It's a twist ending, with the whole thing having been revealed retrospectively to have been elaborate computer simulation ... that's why she's the only person to see the clown, etc etc. Ahah!

Holding horses for a sec: on reflection I don't think so. Actually I don't think it's a story about the path of true love not running smooth: I don't think the relationship between Rima and Martin is about that ('true love') at all. It's about family. And I don't think the whole thing happened inside an AI. But I'll come to that in a minute.

What happened next is that I bumped into Niall at a publisher's party and chatting to him I said I'd read The Case of the Imaginary Detective but not 'her earlier novel'. 'But she's written many prior things,' Niall replied, from his lofty position near the ceiling. And then I realised: but of course I knew Karen Joy Fowler, and knew her in an sfnal context. (Specifically: I haven't read Sarah Canary, but I have read several of her SF short stories ... 'Game Night at the Fox and Goose' and 'The Lake was Filled With Artificial Things', both very good ... and I know that she was the third editor of the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction with Ursula Le Guin and Brian Attebury, but that Norton bumped her from the cover because they thought three editors was too many (she gets an 'associate editor' billing on the inside, I think). Suddenly I had a sense of the sort of author she was not from second-guessing the fact that a chick-flick had been made from one of her books, but from a sense of the stuff she actually writes. So for instance I don't think she'd play this sort of rabbit-from-hat Sixth-Sense twist ending game. In other words paradoxically, positioning Fowler as an author within the mental map of Genre I carry about (rumpled and incomplete; not at all like the map in Time Bandits) in my head made me less likely to read the book as SF. I looked at it again and thought: it's a very engaging and winning story about the fictions we construct about our own lives and their relationship to reality; it's about 'private life' and 'public life' and the misconstruction of the former as hermetic selfishness; it's about family and it's not sf at all. Not a problem, this last, but that's where I end up.

So. What's the point of classifications like 'science fiction', or 'chick-lit'? It's a question often asked, I know, and several answers immediately present themselves. One would be: 'because structuralist and formalist critics find it satisfying to classify literature along such lines ... which is to say, for professional taxonomic reasons'. I'm almost entirely uninterested in that notion. Another would be: 'it's a mere shorthand, to facilitate sf fans from finding the sorts of books they're likely to like, and to prevent them wasting time or money on books they are unlike to like.' Lots of problems there, of course (we should all expose ourselves to stuff we're not sure we're going to like, or our minds will roll down a single deadening groove all its weary life), but there are reasons of convenience on its side.

But there's a third answer, which has to do with shaping our expectations of a novel even before we have picked it up. My experience was that because, rather foolishly, I was expecting the novel to be one sort of thing, I was baffled not to find it that thing; puzzled that the novel seemed recalcitrant about revealing its true nature. The temptation is to blame a book for being stubborn like that. The result was I got much less from the novel, I think, than I might have done if I hadn't turned to chapter one without that particular preconception. It's nobody's fault but mine that I did, since I'm in charge of how a read a novel; but it meant that I missed or, no: better say didn't take the full force of the specific excellencies of Fowler's writing, and kept trying to force its struggling legs into a procrustan bed of my own making.

So: here are two genres, SFF and Crime, and they’re the two boss genres today (bigger and, I’d say, more significant than the nearest other genre ‘literary fiction’, and much more important than Westerns or Romances). SF authors sometimes get given a hard time by fans for wanting to jump ship, sometimes from SFF to Literary Fiction but just as often from SFF to Crime (lots of writers, from Asimov to McAuley, have undertaken that knight's move); although the prejudice that Crime is a more grown-up genre than SF—which may be part of its appeal—-is surely only a veiled statement of the fact that Crime tends to be read by older people rather than younger. Since older people tend to have more money (and, when retired, more time) there’s probably more money in Crime, which may also be an incentive.

The Case of the Imaginary Detective, of course, is metacrime; a commentary upon crime fiction rather than a straightforward example of crime fiction, although of course providing some of the satisfactions of crime fiction. But I liked it better than I like most crime ... and for reasons I won’t go into here, I’ve read a very large amount of crime fiction in my time. It's a genre, generally speaking, where for me problems gnaw at satisfactions.

If someone put a sawn-off in my ear and insisted I articulate my premier dissatisfaction with crime as a genre I would, amongst various harrumphing caveats about the dangers of making sweeping generalisations and complaints about the gunmetal in my lug, say this: crime is a genre predicated upon the notion not only that somebody is to blame, but that blame can be neatly apportioned. So, crime deals with violent disruptions to peoples’ lives, and with death, and these are important aspects of human existence; but it deals with them in a particular way that seems to me mendacious. It says: these things are horrible, but somebody is responsible for them and we can identify who. In life, I’d say, it’s rarely the case that somebody is responsible for our feelings of grief and pain (though it’s an insidiously appealing idea that somebody is) and it’s never the case that ‘identifying (or misidentifying) who’ will make us feel better. My life isn’t what it could be; I fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, but the fault lies with: the butler; my ex-wife; the Government; Al-Qaeda; the Jews, etc. etc. I’m being a little idiosyncratic, here, I know; but bear with me. One of the things I love about the best SF is that it doesn’t tell its readers this: or, more precisely, it rarely does. E E ‘Doc’ Smith and his ilk may be in imaginative hock to conspiracy theories on the grandest scale, but the best SF apprehends a less humanocentric cosmos. Sense of wonder, you know.

My point is this: The Case of the Imaginary Detective is precisely about the problematic of attributing the fault for the things in our life that have gone wrong, or that distress us, to other people. It’s too clever to suggest that there is a single culprit. One of its pleasures is the (deliberately) slightly evasive complexity of its account of causes and consequences.

This makes it a slipperier-than-usual crime story; a double-hyphenated term I mean as unambiguous praise. It is also a novel that is, strictly speaking, modular (which is how Samuel Delany characterises SF). Literature builds models of reality, but the models SF builds are particularly intricate and involving. There’s something batty about Addison’s dolls’ houses but something well-done about them too. Fowler know enough about writing modular fiction to understand both the appeal and the limitations. Or to put it another way, in a modular literature it is those places where the model misfits reality that can be the most telling. In science fiction, where our textual models have a particularly distanciated relationship to reality, this is more obviously true. But it’s true, too, of Fowler’s novel. This is what’s behind one of my favourite sentences in the novel, sentences I’m here identifying--idiosyncratically, but for reasons I hope I’m making plain--as science fiction. These two, right from the beginning. ‘There was something so creepy about little Mr Brown. He wore a hat you couldn’t take off.’ [5] Lovely, that.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (2009)

Charlotte Mandell's fluent, expressive translation of Littell's 2006 Les Bienveillants: that's a whole lot of book, right there. It comes in seven parts, and I've blogged my responses to each in turn:

Part 1 'Toccata'

Part 2 'Allemandes I and II'

Part 3 'Courante'

Part 4 'Sarabande'

Part 5 'Menuet (en Rondeaux)'

Part 6 'Air' and Part 7 'Gigue'

Andrew Seal has a more coherent overview post on the novel here; hopefully he and I will joint-author something in the near future. In the meantime: an, er, extraordinary novel.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Ken Macleod, The Night Sessions (2008)

To begin, at the beginning, with a general Macleodic observation: I want to like Ken Macleod's books more than, often, I do. He is a talented writer with an incisive, inventive mind and lots of sfnal virtues; his writing is always crisp, his plotting and characters often very good, and he plugs his cable into the zetgeist's circuitry in thought-provoking ways. But more often than not, after finishing his stuff, I find myself trying to pindown a sense of not-quite-thereness.

That said, I certainly enjoyed The Night Sessions more than reviews had led me to expect. Not that I entirely disagreed with those reviews: Jonathan McCalmont gets it pretty much right, I think, with his ‘uncanny valley’ piece. The book’s world does indeed fall uncomfortably between being distanciated enough to function as fable and having the verisimilitude necessary to make it come alive as a convincing simulacrum of reality. It is a novel that ought, perhaps, to have had the courage of its Phil Dickian convictions, and set itself in a more stylised 1950s-American-Suburbia-on-Mars, or something.

In fact, The Night Sessions is three novels jammed together, held with surgical twine and bolts through its neck. One part is policier in a recognisable Edinburgh Ian-Town Top-Rankin style; which is to say, a whodunnit and police procedural with a deal of Scottish specificity (although as Nic Clarke notes, the policeman at the heart of the investigation is pitched in a rather obviously anti-Rebus mode—happily married, sober, methodical and so on). Connected to this, but not in a way that coheres especially well, is the SFnal stuff: a future society in which global atomic war has knocked religion out of the public magisterium, a new Enlightenment; viz., a fictional platform upon which Macleod can stage a number of—sometimes interesting, sometimes less so—thought-experimental postulations about the way ‘religion’ works in the world. The dramatic emphasis is on religious fundamentalism, and the bite of the piece has to do with our contemporary anxiety about those few who parlay their religious beliefs into violence.

The third element is a robot story; not quite a Benderesque Kill-All-Humans uprising, but far-sweeping enough. This component is the best of the three, I thought.

My reaction to reading this novel came in two stages. The first, immediately on finishing it, was, broadly, of disappointment. It is not, as several reviewers noted, so effective a piece of fiction as The Execution Channel. In key ways I just didn’t believe the world it portrays: that religion could be so easily contained and officially marginalized, for instance; or that so devastating a nuclear war could leave a world so plushly high-tech—all towering futuristic-farms, space-elevators, solar-shield and so on. The Faith Wars are almost presented as good things, despite turning large chunks of the globe into radioactive glass ('they certainly defeated militant Islam, with secular republics now implanted throughout the Middle East' [23] we're told early on; and the presence of the Bomb Squad at a crime scene is so unusual that one policeman-character says that he thought they'd been disbanded). Then, on a nitpickier level, there were various bits and pieces of the novel that didn't work for me: the silent club didn’t seem to me transgressive enough, and the iThink game stuff, recycled from an earlier short story, seemed stale to me (though that may be because I didn’t much like the original short story).

Still, after a week of the book stewing in my mind* I find myself thinking differently about it. It is better, I’d say, than my initial reaction allowed.

Though I take Macleod to be an atheist (I’m an atheist myself) The Night Sessions is scrupulous in presenting, for instance, people with faith who are not idiots; considering its subject in a more than 2D Dawkinsesque right-and-wrong, true-and-false mode. So for example, his New Zealand preacher is a very genuine guy, and has some interesting and worthwhile things to say. On the other hand, I wonder whether parsing a thought-experiment about religion as a whodunit doesn’t carry with it an implicit formal balance: that religious faith is a problem to be solved, as one might solve a murder; its truth is there, somewhere, to be uncovered. I have to say I really don’t see this is a good way of apprehending the topic; any more than one might seek to plumb the mystery of supporting Manchester United or liking science fiction as a problem to be solved. The mismatch is formal, I think, rather than exactly conceptual or narrative; but it added to my difficulty in really believing the world being portrayed.

Thinking about it, though, I've come to the conclusion that one of the things I liked about the novel is the way it sets-up a thought-experiment about religion in order to construe a number of in-jokes about SF itself: from the deliberately clichéd opening line (‘science fiction has become science fact’) onwards. This I liked, although I accept that other readers may not be as interested in the crossover between religion and SF as I am.

It's a novel that riffs upon a number of established SF tropes, and I tend to think it works better as metafiction than it does as fiction. For example, calling a creationist Christian John Campbell is quite a good joke; although giving him the middle name Richard (by way, I suppose, of slipping ‘Dick’ into the middle of Campbell’s name: check out what his actual middle name was, fnah-fnah) perhaps overeggs the pudding. Those two SF compadres, Newman and McAuley, get walk-on parts as policemen. Another character is called ‘Vermeulen’, which put me in mind of Nick Gevers' Jack-Vancean email moniker. It's not just people: Skulk is a smaller version of an H G Wells' Martian Tripod (which, since it's an old chesnut that such a tripodal machine would actually find it very difficult to walk, or do anything but at all teeter-around in a circle, I took to be a gag). The Piltdown robot quotes Pratchett (‘ook’, 63) in a rather knowing way.

The comedy doesn’t lift itself terribly far, true (as it might be, quoting Python’s lumberjack song for instance); but perhaps that’s precisely the robot angle. After cracking a joke, Skulk, or more specifically Skulk2, adds: ‘humour is a spontaneous consequence of conceptual rearrangement’ [298]. Which is the very acme of ha-ha-not.

This is to reiterate my point that the robots are the best bits of the novel, not only in terms of characterisation and sfnal geekcool, but in terms of distilling what I take to be MacLeod’s conceptual focus: the deeply sciencefictional practice of literalising metaphor. In The Night Sessions this becomes the literalisation of the metaphors of religion: and it’s often sharply and nicely done. The police asking Skulk: ‘are you saved?’ [270] is perhaps the best of this, since as a robot Skulk has the option of being saved in a literal computing sense denied to the Jesus-my-saviour rest of us. There are similar thought games played here with resurrection, with immortality and above all—at the end—with the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven.

*My mind, as perhaps I should have mentioned earlier, is a stewpot.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Hives, Tick Tick Boom (2007)

The fly in the explosive ointment of this song, I used to think, is the way everything stops after Pelle Almqvist sings his exclamation-marked 'Boom!' That wrongfooting pause. Takes the wind out of the song's sails, I used to think. Now, however, I take it this way: what we have here is actually three iterations of the one short song, each stopping with a boom. Thinking about it that way helps me appreciate the texture of the ointment fly-free, I believe.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Conan Doyle, The Lost World (1912)

[My thoughts on this novel were focussed by attending this event. Below are notes jotted that summarise the line I argued there, which really has to do with a particular perspective on the development of utopia as a mode. Page numbers are to this penguin edition.]
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, first published in The Strand Magazine from April to November 1912, remains a key work of SF ‘a model,' in the words of Everett F. Bleiler, 'upon which many stories and motion pictures have been formed.’ For book publication Doyle appended a self-penned epigraph that identified the book as a story of 'Boys'—which is above all, of course, how the book has continued to be regarded: as a canonical, and even archetypal, Boy’s Own Story:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

Irish journalist and rugy-footballer Ed Malone, eager to undertake heroic exploits of some sort in order to impress a woman, joins English aristocratic hunter-explorer-adventurer Lord John Roxton, Professor Summerlee and the eccentric, if forceful, Professor Challenger on an expedition to South America. Challenger has reason to believe that there exists, deep in the wilderness, a plateau that has been effectively cut-off from the outside world, and upon which dinosaurs and other wonders that have died out in the world at large, still exist. After various adventures these four white men, accompanied by a number of native guides and bearers, get to this place, which they call Maple White Land (after a prior US explorer who discovered a route up, got away again, but then expired). It takes some doing, but eventually they climb to the top of the plateau. Their adventures include the strange flora and fauna, battles with a savage tribe of ape-like creatures, and also with a more 'civilised' set of human natives. The book ends, startlingly, with the white men leading the natives in a gleefully described genocidal war against the ape-people. Returning home our adventurers discover themselves rich (the plateau, we discover, is littered with high quality diamonds) and two of them, including our narrator, make immediate plans to return.

It put me in mind of Thomas More's Dē optimō reī pūblicae statű dēque novā īnsulā Ūtopiā (1516).

Given the pronounced difference in tone between the two books, it might be thought an unlikely strategy to consider them as versions of one another. But nevertheless: More’s Utopia is a traveller’s tale, as is Doyle’s; of a journey to a distant land, one cut-off (to one extent or another) from the rest of the world. It is, I'm sure I need hardly point out, Utopian Studies 101 to identify the strategies utilised by utopian writing to separate their imagined worlds from the rest of the world (this is something put in critical play by Jameson's brilliant essay on utopias, 'Of Islands and Trenches'). So, More's Utopia used to be joined to the mainland by a peninsular; but King Utopus had this removed, turning his land into an island. Maple White Land is, in a sort of brilliant hypertrophy of this principle; not just surrounded by walls, but literally elevated out of the reach of common earth-crawling humanity.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay notes that utopia is conventionally conceived in rational terms:

Utopias are distinguished from idylls by being not only good places but fully rational ones that exist by virtue of their rational laws, institutions and customs. The great trenches and walls that separate utopias from the social mainland embody the imaginary gap between humanity's capacities in first and second nature. [p.85]
So, for example, More deliberately distances his narrative from the stories of travelers encountering dangerous monsters at the edge of the world, because (he says) his theme is something even rarer: not monsters but good governance:
As for monsters, because they be no news, of them we were nothing inquisitive. For nothing is more easy to be found than barking Scyllas, ravening Celaenos, and Laestrygons, devourers of people, and suchlike great and incredible monsters. But to find citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws, that is an exceeding rare and hard thing.
Doyle is interested in the monsters, not the laws. Nevertheless it’s worth dwelling on a few salient similarities. Both these books present to the reader new worlds, and render them in such a way as to make them appealing to the reader both in their own right and as glosses on their own country.

Although Maple White Land is on the other side of the world from England, the narrator repeatedly describes it in homely, English terms. After traipsing through a distinctly tropical South American jungle and pampas to reach the plateau, ascent reveals a landscape ‘temperate’:
The beech, the oak, and even the birch were to be found among the tangle of trees which girt us in. [134]
The narrative mentions ‘forms of conifera and of cycadaceous plants which have long passed away in the world below’, but specificity is more likely to make an English reader feel at home than anything else: ‘mare’s-tails’, ‘tree-ferns’ and the like. There are plenty of dinosaurs, of course, and Malone describes them in terms of more exotic fauna (‘monstrous kangaroos, twenty feet in length, and with skins like black crocodiles’, 138); but before we have time to think of these creatures as in any sense Australasian or African he goes on: ‘you’ll find their footmarks all over the Hastings sand, in Kent, and in Sussex. The South of England was alive with them when there was plenty of good lush green-stuff to keep them going,’ [140] Thereafter the tendency is to describe the dinosaurs in European terms: the pterodactyls live in a ‘rookery’ [142]; in flight they are ‘all swooping like swallows … with a volume of sound that made me think of Hendon aerodrome upon a race day’ [143]. One beast is ‘like a giant toad’ [151]; another ‘like a huge swan’ [173].

Maple White Land as a whole is described as being ‘not larger than an average English county’ [155]. In amongst the monsters are ‘porcupines’, ‘a wild pig’ and a species of large deer [156-7]. When Malone takes a night-walk he follows a stream ‘a cheery companion, gurgling and chuckling as it ran, like the dear old trout stream in the West Country where I have fished at night in my boyhood’ [170]. A lake in a clearing ‘was not larger than the basin of the Trafalgar Square fountain’ [171]. The party are captured by savage ape-men, including one whose physical resemblance to Challenger is, to rather ponderous comical effect, repeatedly stressed. The effect of all this is to balance a narrative posited explicitly upon the appeal to exotic foreign otherness against a sense that the country in which our heroes are having their ripping adventures is similar to, or perhaps capable of assimilation to, home. Maple White Land, in other words, is to all intents and purposes a version England, or more specifically it is England with added excitement, adventure and exotic otherness (not to mention diamonds); its otherness inoculated by the repeated invocation of familiar flora and fauna. A world surely cannot be lost unless it was once possessed; Maple White Land is not defined by its alienness so much as its familiarity.

More’s Utopia occupies a similar imaginative space insofar as it parses its exotic distant land via England: The dimensions of More’s Utopia are, as Peter Ackroyd points out, exactly the same as those of England, with the same number of city-states as England has shires. The main city of Utopia, Amaurotum, has the same expanse as the city of London, with a main tidal river like the Thames, a grand stone bridge like London bridge, and many other smaller points of identification. In short ‘it is London redrawn by visionary imagination.’

My argument is this: the enormous success of Doyle’s tale points to a shift in the cultural logic—in the cultural function—of utopian narrative. In More’s 16th-century narrative, utopia is presented as a preferable to actual European society because it is better ordered; because it has better laws, and because they are better implemented. Utopia, in other words, is construed as a function of rational legality. In Doyle’s 20th-century novel, on the other hand—and despite the fact that the late C19th- and C20th- was massively oversupplied with self-consciously utopian narratives all predicated upon the same Morean premise—Doyle’s novel figures utopia in quite another way: as a place that offers precisely escape from law, from the restrictions of civilization. The cultural logic of utopia itself shifts from being the perfect embodiment of rationality to being the perfect escape from rationality. It is the place where you can escape both civilisation and its discontents; you will see exciting new things, experience dangers (ie thrills), indulge your violence (kill a whole population if you like) and return rich beyond the dreams of Croesus.

It is, in fact, precisely because it is a necessary component of this new utopian logic that Doyle’s utopia is a place of danger, hardship and even physical pain. This speaks not to any masochism in Doyle’s utopian imagination, but rather to the extent to which The Lost World must necessarily position itself in opposition to the cultural construction of comfort. But the great utopias of the twentieth-century (and by 'great' I mean: broadly successful, culturally ubiquitous, imaginary spaces after which millions yearn, to which they hunger to travel, which they prefer to their own mundane lives) are Lost Worlds in this mode. The key example, I suppose, is Tolkien's Middle Earth; a similar balance of the exotic and the (English) familiar; a similar balance of danger and comfort; but above all a simmilar sense (here coded as 'magic') of a release from rationality.

That's what actually happened to 'utopia' in the twentieth-century: it went to New Zealand.


[Postscript: The ‘good’, human natives in White Maple Land are called ‘Accala’ (as if A C Doyle took his initials, and then reversed them, and then finished the word off with the ending of his own surname). The ape-creatures are ‘Doda’, which both suggests ‘dodo’ and therefore the creatures eventual extinction, and plays once again with ‘Doyle’ (both ‘Do’ and ‘D’) and Arthur (‘A’). Which, I think, speaks again to the sense that this South American environment is acutally a symbolic bodying-forth of the familiar and homely. What is more 'home' than your own self?]

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Low, The Fearful Fifties (1960)

There's no shortage of gushing acknowledgment of the importance of David Low to the twentieth-century political cartoon, and to popular art more generally. More detailed analysis, and actual close reading of his visual texts, seem thinner on the ground. That's a pity. There are very interesting things going on in his art.

Reading The Fearful Fifties, a collection of his 1950s cartoons reprinted in one volume and accompanied by Low's own chatty and sometimes droll commentary, certainly is a fascinating experience; not least because howsoever brilliant the artwork--how deftly economical, how solid and memorable, how brilliantly composed and striking--the cartoons themselves are, on the level of denotation, much more often bewildering than anything else. For example [click on it if you want it bigger]:
OK: so it has to do with Cyprus, clearly; and a swift Wikipede on Enosis. and the relevant section of the Cyprus page, fills in some context. But even so: where's the laugh? British 'baggage' is a military shell; Britain is represented by three chaps (Army, Air Force, Civil Service) not liable to instil confidence in the Cypriots. Of course we know we are in Cyprus because some helpful person has carved CYPRUS into the rock at their feet; and there's Archbishop Makarios dancing on the beach with a young lad. Sure; but ... funny? OK. Never mind that. I find myself looking at the effortless yet superbly visually evocative way Low has drawn the Army chap's boots. See how leathery and shiny they are? See how excellently Low has conveyed that by a simple process of leaving two wriggles of white space in the middle of his inking? And the faces. The faces are perfect; blandly ingenuous, naif even, and yet clearly capable of ordering people killed.

Some of the cartoons here seem oddly contemporary ('Boom!' 'Bust!' Precarious economy! Politicians are clowns! How very 2009!), but I'd say that has less to do with any actual timelessness of satirical focus, and more to do with the fact that these sorts of images are so formally familiar nowadays ... I mean cartoons constructed according to a semiotics of diectic over-precision (a French politician with a sword hanging over his head that is actually labelled 'Sword of Damocles' throws a rifle to a US politician, and the rifle has a label tied to the stock identifying it as 'Defence of South East Asia'). Low invented a visual vocabulary and we're all now so adept at reading it off that sometimes we mistake that very familiarity for contemporary relevance. Look again. I'd say the 'bust' wheel, tyreless, will work just fine on the high-wire; the rim will fit snugly around the rope. And that saggy 'boom' wheel will plump around the wire too, and provide a useful balance. That can't have been how we're supposed to read this.

But that's exactly my point My reading of the cartoons kept spilling over the hermeneutic borders. It is part of Low's charm (of course) that he directs us how to read his image in the image itself: a sort of Ceci est un pipe visual logic. That this almost never does limit interpretation has, counter-intuitively, something to do with this very specificity. Low's efforts to pin down the otherwise proliferating possibility of interpretation to the one focus of his gag actually invites our usual way of reading pictures (which is never so one note) to intrude.

'Peep-Bo': yes, there's the US Congress, John Foster Dulles and the US State Department trying to capture a Khrushchev cherub with a butterfly net (funny, see? Because Khrushchev was fa-a-a-at). The gag is that the playground is actually a nuclear missile. Yes. But doesn't it look, rather, as though the three Americans are trying to shove the missile along? Or steer it in flight? Or maybe squash K. withi t like a bug? Maybe the butterfly net is mere misdirection. Or take a look at this:

Britain has pretended a 'parental' role in her Empire, yes I see; but as Doctor Freud noted, children don't always respond to parental care with gratitude. Yes I see. Look, there go Ceylon, Singapore and Amman, creeping up behind Britannia to kick her downstairs. But the specificity here cannot contain the mode of interpretation; in fact, it has almost exactly the opposite effect. I'm talking about the way this image specifically prompts a Freudian symbolic decoding ... look at the book she's reading! Look at the expression on her puzzled face! Are those three gleeful looking men putting on their shoes to give her a kick? Or are they, rather, in the process of taking off their shoes, prior to undressing altogether? Just what are they planning to do to that plumply maternal lady, in the downstairs room? What sort of a clue does Freud give us, here?

One of the chief pleasures for me of reading this vol. (of course, of course) was noting how thoroughly science fiction interpenetrated the cultural logic of the decade. Khrushchev's visit to the US? It's like aliens coming from space!
Also I learned what I didn't know before, that Laika had many names. To quote Wikipedia: 'Laika (Лайка, "Barker"), originally named Kudryavka (Кудрявка, "Little Curly") ... was also known as Zhuchka (Жучка, "Little Bug") and Limonchik (Лимончик, "Lemon")' Why so many names for one dog? I don't know. I liked Low's cartoon, though, even if he got the dog's breed wrong:
And I liked his image of the Americans and the Soviets taking turns to throw darts at the moon:

But then, just when you think you've got a handle on the visual logic, the very next cartoon is of Harold Macmillan, his face contorted in quasi-sexual ecstasy and drops falling suggestively from his phallic waterspout, apparently taking Lady Luck (a very surprised looking Lady Luck) from behind, as they both balance on a pound coin in the middle of the ploughed-up 'Field of Investment'. Ploughing, you see. 'Ploughing' Lady Luck, like that. And, yes, maybe she's not surprised. Maybe that's an expression of delight.

You know what's especially freaky? Pound coins weren't even introduced until 1983.

It's possible that Low is so habituated to glossing straightforward visual images with complicated secondary allegorical meanings (leaning heavily on interpretative glosses literally inscribed into the image) that he no longer sees how filthy he has become on the straightfroward level. Or perhaps he knows very well. Perhaps he knows that this is what makes his art more than just contemporary vsual editorialising.

These superb visual rebuses work on one level, and then immediately estrange themselves, beautifully, into absurdist possibility and disorienting worldbuilding. Marvelllous.