Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood (2009)

Not sure how I missed this when it was published a few years ago; for it is a thoroughly remarkable book. It sounds like the kind of project a person writes for a bet, or after having ingested too many Experimental Writing Biscuits (I've a supply of those myself in the cupboard, incidentally) -- for its every sentence is a question directed at the reader. Some of these are straightforward, some goofy, some thought-provoking; it's not easy to see any underlying logic in the stream of interrogatives and yet somehow, I'm not sure how (and I make it my business to know these things) it works. By 'works' I mean: it hold your attention; it entertains and amazes you; and it works in intriguing, profound ways upon the mind. Here's a taste:
Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you like down and rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your Mother and Father and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendelyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?
All the way through, like this. Hypnotic.

A couple of immediate, and gut-level responses (I mean: I haven't analysed the 4000-or-so constitutive questions in any systematic way): the questions are mostly closed -- for example, questions with a yes/no answer -- although a fair number are open; they are divided pretty equally between the literal and the metaphorical, and likewise between the practical and the for-want-of-a-better-word-we-might-as-well-etc the 'metaphysical', and the frame of reference is skewed pretty heavily American. Although the book is often very funny (indeed, I read passages aloud to my nine-year-old daughter -- only very occasionally having to bowdlerize or omit question on the hoof -- to her howls of laughter) I found the overall effect rather melancholic. But I strongly recommend you give it a go yourself.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Adam Kotsko, Awkwardness (2010)

This is another book I bought (via Amazon, for under a fiver) and read on my phone. I lurve my new iPhone 4 + kindle app. Anyway. I can hardly recommend this little book enthusiastically enough. It is a well-conceived, deftly-realised, clearly written interrogation of ‘awkwardness’ as an individual and social phenomenon: ingenious, thought-provoking and (given its small compass) pretty wide-ranging. Kotsko notes how awkwardness is not something we can observe neutrally, but is rather something we tend to get drawn into, and he makes large claims for its centrality in contemporary life. After an opening chapter that anchors his version of the large-scale ‘awkwardness’ in personal, social and philosophical observations, Kotsko reads three influential texts that represent and embody awkwardness: The Office (UK and US versions), the ‘Judd Apatow’ awkward cinematic comedy (films like The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s a bit of Heidegger at the beginning of the book, and a bit of Saint Paul at the end, and both are handled well: by which I mean, not just pertinently, but in such a way that non-experts can grasp what’s at stake in their relevance to Kotsko’s thesis. To the Heideggerian moods of ‘anxiety’ and ‘boredom’, as correlative to human experiences of time and being, Kotsko (via Nancy’s ‘relational’ being-with) adds awkwardness as the ‘mood’ of human relationships:
‘Though [Nancy] attempts in Being Singular Plural to revamp Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time by refocusing it on the question of being-with, he does not provide anything closely parallel to Heidegger’s analysis of a fundamental mood. This is the gap I propose to fill, at least partly, by putting forward awkwardness as the mood or feeling that provides the best angle on our relationship with other people, or the intrinsically awkward social nature of humanity.’ [15]
All very interesting. Now, the main thought that occurred to me as I read this book had to do with embarrassment. Awkwardness is exploring a similar conceptual territory to Christopher Rick’s great book Keats and Embarrassment (1974), though neither Ricks's book nor (I think I'm right in saying) the word embarrassment is mentioned in Kotsko's account. Ricks discusses aspects of awkwardness, though, through the prism of Keats's poetry: the lack of harmonious ‘fit’ between the individual and others, or the individual consciousness and the cosmos. He's particularly good on what he calls the ‘moral intelligence’ of embarrassment (the blush; its sensuous and indeed sensual components) and the way Keats's greatnesss as a poet is connected to his openness to this intelligence.

The awkward situations Kotsko discusses are embarrassing; indeed, I'd say it is precisely their potential to embarrass us that make them so potent and significant. Yet I suppose ‘awkwardness’ and ‘embarrassment’ are not the same thing. For example, what makes Ricky Gervais’s David Brent so wonderfully awkward is precisely the fact that he does terribly embarrassing things with no consciousness that they are embarrassing, or that he ought himself to be embarrassed. K. argues that ‘if the social order really did have a regulation prepared for every encounter, awkwardness would never occur in the first place’; and although this seems to overlook the possibility that there may indeed be such omni-applicable codes but that not everybody is competent in them, it clearly touches on an important sense in which awkwardness is a kind of broader social out-of-stepness. To take this a further step: inadvertency is one maker of awkwardness, but a person can also be deliberately and wilfully awkward—think of the phrase ‘the awkward squad’. If somebody is inadvertently awkward they will generally feel belatedly embarrassed (although maybe not, if for instance they are on the autism spectrum, or a David Brent-like idiot). Conversely, if somebody is aware of the potential for embarrassment they generally won’t be awkward in the first place. But to be deliberately awkward requires the ability to push through embarrassment. Since I’m presently writing a review, let’s take 'reviewing' as an example: I review a lot, and sometimes review negatively (occasionally even swingeingly). I do this not from malice, but because I believe reviews exist for the utility and entertainment of the reader rather than the maintenance the writer’s ego, or the advancement of the reviewer's career. Much of what I review is science fiction, and SF is a small world, so I often find myself engaging socially with somebody I have slagged off in print. This is, of course, a very awkward, and embarrassing state of affairs; but I suppose I would consider it pusillanimous to write a good review of a bad book simply to avoid later awkwardness. I’m not sure this circumstance is covered in Kotsko’s thesis. In fact there’s an extra layer of awkwardness in reviewing this particular title, although precisely not because it is a bad book. I know Kotsko holds my critical intelligence in low esteem: a few years ago he and I disagreed online over the question of whether converging infinite series could be summed or not. He said in several venues that I was ‘a fucking idiot’ and ‘fucking wrong’ and various other wholehearted articulations of his inalienable right to both have and voice his opinion. He may be right vis-à-vis my fucking idiocy (obviously I’d hope not, but I’m not best placed to judge it). But what seems interesting about this, it seems to me, is that, oddly, it’s a context that makes a positive review more awkward than a negative one might be. If I cremated the book I’d be playing my part, in a small way, in an established tradition of intellectual feuding (we do not, after all, expect Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway to kiss and make up; a display of public amity between those two would be more awkward than their continuing, reassuring and frankly entertaining enmity). If Kotsko had written a bad book, I could have reviewed it as such. But by writing such a good book he has made things more awkward for me than they might otherwise be. I suppose that strikes me as ironic.

Irony is also part of Kotsko’s larger argument. He suggests, rightly I think, that ironic detachment is one mechanism for dealing with awkwardness; but he thinks irony doesn’t work any more. By the early noughties, he says, ‘irony—which didn’t even attempt to produce any kind of positive ethos—had completely run out of steam' [24]. I don’t think this is right, actually. Two main ethoses (if that’s the plural) occur to me: ‘cool’ and the broader culture of laughter—irony is often very funny, after all (superiority over those who don’t ‘get’ the irony is perhaps a third, lesser ethos). It seems to me that irony is a larger concept, too, than simply being a subcultural style. Maybe all I'm doing is embroidering a transatlantic differend. As an Englishman, perhaps I feel I have a culturally proprietorial insight to awkwardness denied to other, less hung-up and repressed peoples. For instance: it seems to me that K.’s reading of The Office, though very good, misses the element of a specifically class awkwardness in the show. Like Dad’s Army (a show with which The Office has much in common, I think) the friction of a situation where ‘job’ or ’official’ status is at odds with social standing and class is the real motor for the humour. In Dad’s Army it is the middle class Mainwaring whose military rank (Captain) puts him notionally ‘above’ his social 'superior’, the patrician Sergeant Wilson. In the UK Office it is Brent’s cheesy lower-middle-classness, and its tension with the relative superiority of his job status as 'manager' (underlined by the effortless confidence of his immediate superiors, the upper-middle-class pairing of Jennifer Taylor-Clarke and Neil Godwin). Something similar happens with Martin Freeman’s ‘Tim’, who is more middle class than his rival for Dawn’s affections, the working class Lee—but is not nearly as good looking or self-confident.

Maybe it is an English limitation to see minute gradations of class as the key to all mythologies. I'd say that K. is much more convincing when discussing the American version of the show, and on the Judd Apatow phenomenon, where these things matter less; and Larry David's Jewishness enables him to address this whole area via race rather than class. But I can't help feeling the class thing is important nevertheless, especially since K. wants to situate ‘awkwardness’ in terms of a wider social history of the West. Jonathan Miller once claimed that the truly distinguishing feature of the British aristocracy is the way they can break wind, noisily and in public, without losing equanimity. A circumstance that would cause you or I intense embarrassment does not touch the poise of the genuine aristocrat. In a sense, this amounts to a definition of the aristo. We are awkward because we are unsure of our status (that’s also why awkwardness is so often funny); but the man at the top of the tree need never feel that embarrassment. I missed the ‘aristocratic’ angle, actually, in Kotsko's book. In his (very good) chapter on Curb Your Enthusiasm he quotes Larry David, being interviewed by Ricky Gervais, noting that although the ‘Larry David’ character in the show is based on him, he (the actual Larry David) does not push things as far into social awkwardness as his character: ‘of course not—I’m not a sociopath!’ [70]. I see from one of Kotsko’s blog that he’s writing a follow-up to Awkwardness on the subject of sociopaths. I can see why he's interested in the topic. We might think, according to the thesis advanced in Awkwardness, that the sociopath, the one furthest outside the norms of society, ought to embody the greatest level of awkwardness. But to look at a character like Hannibal Lecter is to see that (on the level of cultural representation, at any rate) something the reverse is true. Lecter is effortlessly suave and comfortable at all times, even when he is biting people’s faces off. The reason for this, I think, has precisely to do with class: Thomas Harris makes Lecter a European aristocrat in part because that means he can float disdainfully above the messy complications of day-to-day life in ordinary America. The other ‘missing’ element (though I’m concede that now I’m really being awkward, here, in my reaction to the book—it’s a 90-page essay written with the general reader in mind, not a 1000-page attempt at a comprehensive theory of its subject) is Nietzsche’s ressentiment … a characteristically ‘awkward’ outlook on life characterised not by the lighthearted, ultimately redemptive comedy of Kotsko’s chosen examples (The Office, the Apatow films, even Curb) so much as by a to-the-bone self-destructive bitterness. At the very least we might want to say: this, too, is awkwardness; though of a less palatable sort. All this, though, is testament to how stimulating and thought-provoking Kotsko’s book is. It deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Paul McAuley, City of the Dead (2011)

To start with a slightly oooh-get-me observation: I bought this book from Amazon as an e-book (for 70p) and I read it using the free Kindle app on my iPhone. How 21st-century am I? Actually I'm rather smacked-in-the-gob by how smooth and enjoyable this whole experience was. I had been toying with the notion of getting an iPad in order to download fiction and such; but now I don't think I'll bother. The iPhone 4 has everything a iPad has, as well as being, er, a phone and much more portable. Moreover, I discover the one thing it lacks (size) really isn't a problem; the screen is plenty big enough for easy, convenient and non-squinty reading.

McAuley's pricing model is well judged, too. I've been browsing amazon for downloads, sometimes buying, sometimes pulling back, almost always for reasons of price -- but 70p is a no brainer. City of the Dead also happens to be a story easily digested in shorter reading bursts. Pulling the phone out of my pocket when I've a moment spare (waiting in a queue at the post office, say; hanging about whilst the kettle boils; or standing by whilst my daughter tries on one hundred and eighty seven different kinds of sunglasses in order to find precisely the right one) and reading a page, or a couple, felt very natural. All in all: two thumbs way way up.

As for the book itself: as you'd expect, City of the Dead is very good. An alien species, the 'jackaroo', have traded humanity the solar system for a wormhole network and access to fifteen new planets. According to the venerable Roadside-Picnickish sf trope, these worlds are littered with artefacts from long vanished galactic civilisations which will, if you can find them, make you rich. On one of these planets a town sherriff and a researcher into native 'hive rats' run into some ruthless gangsters who are searching for one such artefact. It's efficiently and effectively told; a touch of Ballard's time tombs, a smidgen of Paul's own Confluence books, and (strikingly) a healthy splash of James Herbert's The Rats all linked by the distinctive tone of McAuley's particular mode of hard SF: excellent.

I don't know how well it has gone, qua ePub experiment; but it's made me think I should at least try something similar. I'll look into it.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Joseph N. Bell, Seven Into Space (1960)

Not to be confused with the little-known Enid Blyton SF adventure of the same name ("Janet watched in horror as the alien face-hugger devoured Peter's tongue. 'Gosh!' she cried, unholstering her laser pistol. 'This won't do at all!'") -- this is factual: 'the story' (as the subtitle puts it) 'of the United States astronauts and Project Mercury'. What makes it especially fascinating is that it was published before the first Mercury launches. That means that Bell has to negotiate a tricky narrative voice, balanced between past ('since the beginnings of recorded history men have been chasing stars'), present ('John and Anne Glenn have two children') and future ('Much of the battle between Communism and the free world for the minds and hopes of uncommitted men in the years ahead is going to be fought in outer space'). The account of the training and development is good, but the account of what space travel will be like is either rather flimsy:

(I'm sure you can make out the continents, there) -- or else rather gloriously over the top. What will a launch into space be like? well, it will be sexy:

Orgasmic side-effects apart, there's also some splendid, copper-bottomed optimism as to the imminence of mankind's colonisation of space (you can embiggenclick this image, if you like):

I find this prophesy of men on Mars by 1990 and so on a little mournful, actually; although the mood is saved by the caption to that photo of the moon, there ('this is what the moon will look like to space explorers as they easy down to the moon's surface', it says: because 'this is what the moon looks like right now, through a telescope', though more accurate, is less thrilling). Further into the future there are a couple of lovely two-tone illustrations of the alternate timeline we should be, but alas are not, living right now.

Click it and make bigger; it's a doozy.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Pierre Morel, Taken (2008)

I've a soft-spot for action movies, and there are some Liam Neeson films from the 1990s I don't mind at all, so when this popped up on Sky Movies rotation I thought I'd give it a go. But oh lordy I wish I hadn't.

It's a run-of-the-mill plagiary of one of Schwazenegger's more forgettable movies (Commando): retired American superspy alpha male, particularly close to his daughter, goes on the rampage when said daughter is stolen away, tracking down and killing everybody associated with the kidnap with guns and his own fists, and rescuing his little girl. Scriptwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (Besson also produced) update and urbanize the story a little, but keep the lumpish underlying ethos, although they completely lose the saving tongue-in-cheek campness of the original.

The result is one of the most repellent and mendacious films I have ever seen. The mendacity goes, turtle-like, all the way down. Liam's daughter, a beautiful American WASP teenage virgin, is kidnapped in Paris by filthy Albanians who want to force her into sex slavery, and who sell her on to a filthy, obese Arab sheik. Liam Neeson's character comes to Paris and kills them all in a souped-up fightathon that amounts to a celebration of ethnic cleansing. I honestly can't think of a more nakedly racist mainstream movie released this century. Of course, the film's central premise is not only a lie, it is a Big Lie and pernicious to boot: women are being trafficked for sex all over the world; but the victims are not white US girls from wealthy families, they are overwhelmingly poor third-world ones; and the men who pay for them and thereby enable the trade are not hairy Albanians and fat, leering Arab sheiks but, in large part, white Westerners, some of whom look (I don't doubt) distractingly like Liam Neeson. Next to this, the film's many other lies look almost commonplace -- that violence solves problems rather than creating them; that nobody in the world is to be trusted; that torture is a brisk and effective way of getting vital information (Liam electrocutes an Albanian to death, and shoots the wife -- the wife, mind you! -- of a corrupt French cop in the arm before terrorising her with death threats: on both occasions he gets the information he needs and proceeds heroically on). But the commonplaceness of these lies doesn't make them any less harmful. Horrible, horrible film.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Week in Music

So what am I listening to this week?

Radiohead, King of Limbs (2011)

I for one welcome our new shufflebeat, scratchy-scritchy, waily-Thom-Yorke-top-end, blumpy, peepy-peery, broken-breathéd overlords.

Elbow, Build a Rocket Boys! (2011)

I like this a great deal. I would enjoy it more, I feel, if I were more Northern.

REM, Collapse Into Now (2011)

The best REM in a long time. Not saying much, but true. Musically it’s a little overfamiliar I suppose, but Stipe’s voice is in fine, sardonic fettle and his lyric-writing is as good as it’s ever been (my favourite moment: ‘All The Best’ and its articulation of what it means to have a ‘quasimodo heart’—‘That’s where I slipped and fell/I rang the church bell til my ears bled/red/blood/cells’). It only occasionally missteps itself. ‘Oh My Heart’ lacks the reticent eloquence of the rest of the album (‘the storm didn’t kill me/The government changed’ Stipe sings; as if superrich rockstars were the ones at risk of being killed by the George W. Bush administration. When he adds ‘the good of this world might not see me through’ the odour of self-pity comes unpleasantly into our nostrils). And 'ÜBerlin’s refrain, ‘I know, I know, I know what I am chasing’, provoketh me to reply: I don’t believe you. But by and large this is an eloquent, controlled, effective piece of work. ‘Alligator Aviator’ and ‘Someone is You’ are both nicely forceful and driving, and (in the former) I particularly like the way Stipe sings ‘me’ in the line ‘if I didn’t like the way you stared at ME!’ ‘Blue’ is a touch too reminiscent of ‘Belong’ on Green, though the way it segues back into the opening track at the end is very sweetly done. The whole thing is not profound, but it does what classic REM did, and which they haven’t managed for a long time: it creates the perfect simulacrum of profundity. Which is harder to do, and in a way more interesting.

P J Harvey, Let England Shake (2011)

Soursweet, musically and lyrically, to the point of being a little rebarbative in places; but powerful, and a work that grows in effectiveness the more you listen to it. It is almost proggy, actually, in its ambition—though, obviously, not in its actual music—to make a concept album about what it means to be English in the early 21st-century. It’s dark, overshadowed by Iraq and Afghanistan, and interpenetrated (as of course it must be) by Americana. Occasionally it’s a little over-obvious (‘England/the country I love/you leave a taste/a bitter one’). Usually, though, it gets the balance of love and the-horror-the-horror just right. For example, the shimmy-shake rhythm, and the salmon-leap vocal line, of ‘The Words That Make It Maketh Murder’ articulate a grim-enough message (‘I seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat ... arms and legs were in the trees’); but the song ends up quoting ‘Summertime Blues’, and does so only partly ironically. ‘On Battleship Hill’ is particularly lovely.

Beady Eye, Different Gear, Still Speeding (2011)

Imagine if modern science were able to resuscitate John Lennon. Imagine that he got back together with Paul and Ringo to release a brand new Beatles record! A really really weak Beatles record! Derivative and lyrically vacuous, though with an unmissable Beatly flavour! This--is that album! It is a record that makes one think: ‘but why did the scientists have to meddle? Why not leave well alone? This John Lennon is but a brain-wrecked zombie, gasping half-remembered fragments of the Lennon-McCartney backlist ... Ah, me, for Death will not be trifled with, inevitably it exacts its terrible price, and Entropy is Lord of All.’

On one or two of the songs here, Different Gear, Still Speeding raises itself (musically speaking) almost to the level of the Rutles. It has none of the Rutles’ lyrical panache, though.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Paul McAuley, Fairyland (1995)

1: SF and Fantasy

Is Fairyland Hard SF or Fantasy?

Of course, for many the distinction between ‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Fantasy’ is part of the problem rather than the solution. Yet I’d like to argue that there is a crucial difference between these two sorts of writing, something which has deep roots in the traditions of our genre. And I think it helps illuminate McAuley’s extraordinary achievement in his own Hard SF Fantasy Fairyland. Bear with me whilst I dilate on this topic a little.

Fantasy is premised on magic, the supernatural, the spiritual: it articulates a cosmos as a divine quantity, as does religion. The relationship between the individual and the universe in religion is an ‘I-Thou’. That same relationship, under the logic of Science, is an ‘I-It’. Science Fiction, which unsurprisingly begins when ‘science’ begins, is premised on a material, instrumental version of the cosmos. Fantasy happens in Dante’s solar system; SF in Copernicus’s and Kepler’s—indeed, Kepler is the author of what I take to be the first SF novel (the trip-to-the-moon speculation Somnium, written in the early 1600s and published in 1634). Personally I date the rise of SF from this period, and I see it as no coincidence that it happens about the same time that the effects of the Protestant Reformation established themselves in Europe. Without wishing to be sectarian, we might use ‘Catholic’ as a descriptor of Fantasy: the boss text of Fantasy in the twentieth century The Lord of the Rings is, amongst many other things, a great Catholic book. ‘Protestant’ writing, on the other hand, was (slightly) more amenable to the new Scientific thinking about the cosmos.

But in another sense it is misleading to tag Fantasy and SF with religious terminology in this manner: of course a great many SF writers, even Hard SF writers, have been Catholics or have come from Catholic backgrounds (Steve Baxter, one of the key living writers of Hard SF, is an example); and some Protestants (for instance the High Anglican C S Lewis) have been Fantasists, more comfortable inside medieval ‘I-Thou’ world-views. The ways in which the rise of SF is tangled up with the Reformation and the vicissitudes of scientific development in the seventeenth- to twentieth-centuries are complex. Even the Hardest of Hard SF is likely to be fascinated with tropes that are, at root, religious: transcendence, say—look at the works of Arthur C Clarke: rigorously rational and opposed to mumbo-jumbo, Clarke’s books nevertheless return again and again to transcendent, almost mystical conclusions, Childhood’s End (1950), ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) all move towards endings that border on the mystical sublime. The ‘sense of wonder’ that tough-headed atheist Hard-SF fans crave is closer than they admit to the sublime of religious contemplation.

I rehearse all this at the beginning of this piece (in rather truncated form) because it seems to me that Paul McAuley’s Fairyland mediates this divide more effectively than almost any other book I can think of. McAuley trained as a scientist before becoming a writer. His PhD was in botany and he worked as a researcher in California and the UK. His earlier novels are firmly rooted in an SF ethic (the blurb on the back of my copy of Secret Harmonies (1989) praises it as ‘better hard science writing than any British author since Clarke’). Fairyland is also carefully positioned in the idiom of Hard SF: nanotechnology, biotech, virtual-reality, genetic engineering, holograms, hardware. Nor is the idiom of the book Fantasy. It starts, rather, as cyberpunk; in a grittily run-down near-future London of cops and high-tech robbers, and although it moves away from this environment it never quite steps out of the ‘body/technology overlap’ and ‘reality=information’ premises familiar from cyberpunk. It is also stylistically resonant of those same Chandleresque crime stories, the densely worked texture of McAuley’s perfectly handled writing.

Yet in another sense Fairyland is Fantasy. This is the case not just because the book deals with ‘fairies’, important though that fact is. It is rather a formal truth of the book. McAuley has attempted an ambitious fusion of SF and Fantasy tropes, setting out to explore from several angles the dialectic of metaphorical (‘magical’) versus ‘real’ (‘technological’) that determines SF/Fantasy today. It does much more than simply bolt a few Fantasy props onto a noirish cyberpunk SF plotline, although all the props are there (elves, wizards, dragons, trolls, beautiful female warriors, castles, goblins and a Fairy Queen). Rather this is a book that interrogates the point at which culture determines the escapist other we associate with Fantasy.

Another way of putting this is to say that there are no High Fantasy gods and demons in McAuley’s book; there are only humans (and, in the case of the fairies, posthumans) striving and living. Everything in the novel is given a scientific, technical or at the very least a pseudo-scientific explanation. The novel’s ‘fairies’ are genetically engineered monkeys, conscious-less ‘dolls’ that are made over a second time by Alex Sharkey, a fat, anxious gene-hacker, and ‘Milena’ a brilliant and mysterious little girl. With this second reinvention the blue-skinned dolls become feral, canny, liminal creatures, who pursue their own projects on the margins of human society.

But despite the fact that it is set in a future world emptied out of theological certainty, there is a glamour in the interstices of this novel, a god-ish quality that touches and moves the reader for all that the fact that the novel never leaves its materialist-atheist idiom. One of the best definitions of this materialist-atheist understanding of the religious impulse comes from a 1931 essay by Aldous Huxley, ‘Meditation on the Moon’ in which Huxley defines ‘god’:
How shall we define a god? Expressed in psychological terms (which are primary—there is no getting behind them) a god is something that gives us the peculiar kind of feeling which Professor Otto has called “numinous” (from the Latin numen, a supernatural being). Numinous feelings are the original god-stuff from which the theory-making mind extracts the individualized gods of the pantheon. [Huxley, Music at Night and Other Essays (1931; reprinted London: Grafton 1986), 60-61]
For Huxley this ‘numinous’ feeling is a core aspect of the healthy psyche. It does not relate to the actual existence or non-existence of a divine being, but rather to the psychological make-up of the human animal. Alex, McAuley’s flawed hero, knows full well that he isn’t really in love with the girl he calls Milena; he knows that he’s only the victim of a sophisticated nanotechnological ‘love bomb’, infecting his brain. He knows that Milena is not actually the Fairy Queen; just as he knows (because he helped create them) that fairies are not actually magical woodland creatures, but only chimps profoundly genetically engineered and uplifted. And yet, in another sense, this knowledge does not obtain. Alex’s search for Milena, which structures the various strands of the book, gives meaning to his life. She is the focus for his sense of the ‘numinous’; and it is his feelings (of love, of yearning for something unattainable and transcendent, of fairy glamour) that seep through the diamond-sharp Hard-SF details of virus-bombs and manned missions to Mars, and create an aura about Fairyland that we can properly call magical. The postcard message that Alex sends Morag, after the latter character has endured a series of horrific adventures, manages to send shivers up the spine because it taps into this common apprehension of the numinous: ‘Still looking for Fairyland’ [269].

2: Three Fairylands

The books three parts provide three different modes of conceptualising ‘Fairyland’. The first ‘Edge Gliding’, set in London, treats that city as a metaphorical Fairyland; where the gap between the expertly delineated grim realities of London life on the streets and the sparkling conceit of Fairyland functions as an ironic reinforcement of the metaphor. Alex, the ungainly gene-splicer trying to pick a path between the demands of lethal gangsters and the harassment of cynical policemen, recalls his childhood with his mother, Lexis.
Alex … thinking of his mother, the times they had up in the windy air above the Thames. A nation of two, with the city at their feet. Sitting in the dark, watching the lights, Lexis slowly getting smashed on rum and coke. Fairyland, she’d tell her son. There’s anything you want out there, anything at all. [49]
This is an only partly ironic evocation of London as an ideal location (McAuley is nothing is not a London author; he lived in the city, and evidently he loves it). Part 1 of the novel—although often portraying London as broken-down, violent, seedy and unpleasant—nevertheless shares Lexis’s slightly misty-eyed, romantic excitement about the buzz of the streets, the possibilities of the city.

Part Two, ‘Love Bombing’, takes another ironic literalisation of ‘Fairyland’, this time the (unnamed, for copyright reasons) resort of Disneyland Paris. Taken over by wild fairies, who are tolerated by the big corporations because of the genetic agents they manufacture, this ‘Fairyland’ is a site of refugee camps, heavy surveillance, and some appalling violence. The section is built around an aid worker, Morag, and her search to recover a ‘changeling’ child kidnapped by the fairies. In other words, McAuley is working with the simulacrum of Fairyland that is a Disney theme park.

Part Three, ‘The Library of Dreams’, moves us to Albania, which for our purposes can better be described with the Shakespearian term ‘Illyria’. This is the location of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and is part of the same geographical world (Macedonia, Albania, Greece) as Shakespeare’s great fairy drama A Midsummer Night’s Dream (McAuley nods towards this with one of his chapter headings: ‘In Another Part of the Forest’). It’s here, where the ‘real’ fairies, and the ‘real’ Fairy Queen, are finally encountered. McAuley’s writing hits precisely the right spot in passages that expertly trace out the collision between actuality and fantasy. Attacked, Alex breaks a fairy’s neck; but he has already been infected by the fairy’s ‘fembots’ (the nanotechnological agents that power much of the book’s action), and his perception of the wood around him begins to change:
Slowly, like an old fashioned TV warming up, a new layer of reality is worked into his sight. The air is alive with bright motes that slant through the night, each as individual as a snowflake. It is as if every tree, every branch and every leaf, is coated with a frost of photons. Ahead a glorious music rises in a neverending harmonic.
‘Welcome to our land,’ the fairy croaks. Its head lolls on its broken neck. Its eyes are points of red flame. [349]
This Fairyland is, in one sense, only in Alex’s head. It evokes memories of his mother (‘the child who once stood with its mother on the shabby balcony of a highrise council flat, surveying the skeins of London’s lights … is now once again looking through his eyes. He hears Lexis say, quite distinctly, “Fairyland”’). And it leads to a lush vision that might be from a Victorian fairy painting:
A wash of huge, blurry stars arch overhead. The glow of the half-moon that hands above the treeline seems to be focused into a kind of temple of vaporous illumination in the middle of the road. Within that distilled light, a host of fairies and other creatures flank the two figures sitting on high-backed spiky chairs fretted from thin white spars that might be the bones of extinct birds. [349]
This, we might say, is all ‘only’ an illusion: but that doesn’t really help us understand what’s going on here. Because, in another sense Alex has truly arrived in the real Fairyland. Indeed, this seems to me one of the deep points of the book: the larger trajectory it takes from ‘metaphorical Fairyland’ (London), via ‘the simulacrum of Fairyland’ (the ‘Magic Kingdom’ of Disneyworld) to this complex interaction of real/hallucinated Fairyland in Illyria. This enacts a complex modernist/ postmodernist/post-postmodernist narrative logic (metaphor to simulacrum to the dialectical interrelation of real and imaginary) that provides the whole book with its larger-scale structuring principle. The central idea, Fairyland itself, shifts and moves just as Western culture, and its key icons, has shifted and moved over the last century or so. A book in motion.

3: A book in motion

It is not a coincidence that the novel opens in a railway station. Fairyland is a book about travel as reality (it ranges widely across Europe) and also a book about travel as metaphor—specifically, travel as evolutionary narrative. This evolutionary theme is present glancingly in Part 1 (Milena’s first pseudonym is ‘Alfred Russel Wallace’, and Alex ‘remembers that the idea of natural selection by survival of the fittest came to Wallace when he was tossing and turning in his hammock, burning with swamp fever … Evolution was a fever dream burning away the fossilized hierarchies of the Victorian age’, 51). This theme is more centrally apprehended in Part 2, where we discover that Milena is using the Magic Kingdom as a breeding ground to evolve by natural selection the nanotechnology she’s interested in. ‘We walk into the future,’ she says, making explicit the travel metaphor. ‘Fairyland isn’t a place … it’s a hyperevolutionary potential. It is where we can dream ourselves into being’ [265]. Finally, in Part 3, we understand cumulatively that the novel as a whole is about the evolutionary journey of the fairies themselves.

Fairyland is a restless novel, never content to settle in any one attitude or place. But this very restlessness is a key to the aesthetic project of the whole. Truth, in this novel, is not a set or solidified notion, but rather a continual movement towards a horizon of knowledge whose margin (as the poet put it) fades for ever and for ever as we move. It is not just that characters are constantly walking, driving, flying, travelling from place to place (although this is true); and nor is it just that characters are constantly reinvented themselves (although they are). The novel’s restlessness is a cultural fact, apparent, amongst other things, in the welter of cultural references.

It is also a deeply allusive novel. From the first few chapters alone we are presented with allusions to Oscar Wilde, Lou Reed, Gary Larson, Mortal Kombat, The Killing Fields, Benson and Hedges, Lamb’s Navy Rum, HMS Belfast, ‘Elvis, or Elle, or Fred Flintstone’ [56] and many others. But the point here is not to list all this stuff, but to recognise how McAuley’s pastiche and quotation from the full range of culture works in this book. McAuley’s quotations range from pop songs (there are too many examples of this to note), to painting (Turner’s Slaver Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying—Typhon Coming In, 58), to high literature (I’m confident that McAuley’s readers recognised the quotation from William Golding’s Free Fall in Alex’s walk up Charing Cross ‘past secondhand bookshops where bargain books burst in white hosannas from wooden racks’, 59). None of the allusions are random; they all relate to the main themes of the whole. McAuley even has his characters pointedly not get popular cultural references. Milena is talking about one fembot that spreads an ‘abduction by aliens’ meme. ‘“Klaata barada nikto,” Alex says, and isn’t surprised to see that she doesn’t get it’ [82]. Milena might recognise High Cultural reference, but not 1950s SF films. Later Alex quotes ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ to Katrina, but once again she ‘doesn’t get the reference’ [289]. Not everybody is, or can be, as crammed with cultural knowledge as Alex, or as McAuley.

The motion is counterpoised by a steadier set of thematic and mythic anchors. Underpinning this kaleidoscopic welter of pastiche reference is a series of architectural or sustaining intertextual references, repeated many times. It will often happen that a writer will adapt a classic or familiar narrative to his or her own purposes; and if done well this strategy can pay off twice—the story borrows from the resonance and power of the original story, and at the same time we recognise the riffs and variations—powerful and expressive in themselves—that the author has worked on a traditional base. So we recognise Hamlet when we watch Disney’s Lion King, we hold in our heads Wagner’s Ring when we read Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series. McAuley’s ambitions are larger, and skill in keeping multiple balls juggling in the air defter than either Donaldson or Disney. Quite apart from relating his narrative ubiquitously to the traditions of fairy Fantasy, he orchestrates a number of other intertexts. Four in particular struck me: first, Frankenstein (Alex and Milena act as a sort of Frankenstein in giving life to the first fairies, their creation then assuming powers they did not anticipate); second, Tarzan (we remember that both dolls and fairies were originally genengineered from monkeys; Alex functions as a kind of king and an ironic anti-Tarzan, fat, unfit, unphysical, to whom Milena, overlooked in the first part by ‘Nanny Greystoke’, is a sort of Jane); thirdly, the Terminator films (themselves, of course, versions of Frankenstein)—films about the relationship between humans and a technologically created mode of life that proves both threat and friend: the novel twice cites the tag line ‘come with me if you want to live’ [259, 375]; and finally, Arthurian myth. Indeed, the characters themselves are most likely to try and make sense of the multifarious sorts of experiences they undergo with reference to this last reference. Milena tells Alex that she ‘chose him to be her Merlin’ [101]; he recalls it later in the book: ‘she called me her Merlin, once upon a time … well, if I’m Merlin, then she’s Nimue’ [320].

This novel, in addition to telling an exciting and thought-provoking story peopled with vivid and believable characters (as any good novel should) works through these underlying mythic contours in firework scatterings of allusion, reference and intertextuality. It’s mode is not exactly meditative (it moves too rapidly for meditation); but it does process the mixed implications of genetic-engineering, of slavery and the effects slavery has on both slaves and enslavers (Slaver Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying—Typhon Coming In), of the power of fantasy, of the unconventional but life-warping shapes love takes. There are, accordingly, many points of access to the novel; readers interested in different things may find in Fairyland fertile dramatisations of the crises and exhilarations of technology, the imagination, the media, war, life, love.

It is also an extremely well-written book. McAuley builds up his world by an, as it were, verbal and semiological impasto, giving it tremendous immediacy by writing in the present-tense. He can also turn a vivid or arresting phrase better than almost any writing working today: an overbred dog is ‘a crufty creature’ [11]; Alex ‘sits under a roaring air conditioner outlet’ in a loading bay one hot night in London, whilst ‘traffic ghosts by at either end of the little street’ [56]; another night-time, still in London ‘a dog barks monotonously as if barking is the one idea it has left’ [117; McAuley reused this image in The Secret of Life]; Morag tries to get to sleep in a strange flat: ‘the swags of cable seem ominously like snakes, the random pinhole speckles in the ceiling tiles a movement away from making some kind of sense’ [233]; in Illyria ‘crickets stitch the night with pulses of insect code’ [336]. It’s all beautifully written, and to more than just localised effect. This dense, vivid style is about creating a certain affect of immediacy, of ‘realness’, that is absolutely germane to the themes of the book. It is one of the reasons the book works as well as it does: the richness of the writing continually connects us back to the texture of lived experience, saving the work from becoming too esoteric.

But it seems to me that there is a deeper mythic equation underpinning the modish seeming-chaos of the novel’s glittering surface. And it is at this point that analysis of the novel moves towards the more subjective: so that if I talk about the particular site of the numinous for me—the White Goddess—I may no longer be communicating with the reader of this essay (who may find the numinous in quite another place). It may also be bending the novel around the lines of force of my own response, rather than being, as a critic should be, properly attentive to the particularities of the text in front of me. But this is how the book struck me, and powerfully, when I first read it.

The White Goddess

The spine of the novel, we might say, is ‘Alex searching for Fairyland’. In practice this general search boils down to looking for a particular woman (Milena, or Antoinette as she is later called). In other words the book elaborates the relationship between the male acolyte (in terms of poetic myth, the hanged king; or, as one character in the book describes Alex, Spenser’s ‘parfit gentle knight’, 318) and the Great Goddess, the Fairy Queen herself.
The crucial work here (not mentioned explicitly in Fairyland but, I feel sure, present in its conception) is Robert Graves’ eccentric but brilliant ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’ The White Goddess (1946). The elusive, alluring, cruel and powerful female figure that is the object of Alex’s search is none other than Graves’s Muse figure; and Alex is perfectly well aware of this. Mrs Powell, the Englishwoman Alex and Katrina run into in Albania, asks who Milena is, and Alex reels off this answer. He could be quoting chunks from Graves’s book:
She wants to be thought of as the lineal descendant of Daphoene, the huntress of the moon, the triple goddess of the moon, the triple goddess of air, earth, and the secret waters of death … The Age of Reason was almost a fatal blow to the triple goddess, but in its ending is a new beginning. The last century saw the deposition of the paternal God who was set on the throne of Zeus, which was once her throne … [Milena] believes she is the triple goddess returned. In Catholic countries the triple goddess never quite went away, for the cult of Mary was little more than a dilution of her own cult. Crusaders brought back a version of this story to Britain, although Mary quickly became Marian, the companion of that Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood. She is waiting, a seed in the bitter earth … It was she who ordered the lives of our ancestors. Without her there was no sacrifice of temporary kings; without her no seasons, no harvest. And here she is again, incarnated as the self-appointed queen of the fairies. She marked me, you know. Long ago when she was making her first fairy. I’ve been trying to understand ever since. [318-9]
In other words, Alex is a version of Thomas the Rhymer (working with genes and fembots rather than words), in thrall to the Queen of Fairy. His friends find it hard to take seriously the notion that Alex is actually, hopelessly in love with Milena; and the fact that her ‘glamour’ has a technological-mechanical explanation (the fembots with which Milena infected Alex in London the night they created the first Fairy) seems similarly to devalue his feelings for her. Yet not only Alex but the whole novel is in thrall to the White Goddess: as is—in fact—most of McAuley’s fiction.

This is by no means to suggest that Fairyland is a New Age novel, a crystal-believing dreamcatcher-hanging exercise in neo-mystic gibberish. On the contrary, McAuley’s imagination has deep roots in English and Celtic myth, where most of the Glastonbury tree-hugger crowd are interested only in the tinsel. Mrs Powell (who may have been introduced into the novel gently to satirise precisely this contemporary tendency towards muddle-headed romanticism) says to Alex ‘we really do have a lot in common’, but he retorts: ‘not really. You believe that’s the literal truth. I believe it’s a metaphor my dark lady has been playing with’ [320]. The point here, I think, is that the metaphorical is better than the literal. Certainly Fairyland dramatises its titular metaphor so powerfully, and (I have been arguing) so variously—which is to say, in so fertile and unfolding a manner—that we can begin to understand how living metaphor works as the pumping heart of Art; not the straight-jacket of allegory, but something deeper and more creative.

Morag encounters the Fairy Queen only once, in a beautifully handled, hallucinatory scene (pages 262-67), but the meeting ends in loss.
Morag realizes that the woman [Milena] has been growing smaller—when she speaks her last word, she and her retinue are no higher than Morag’s knees. Then Morag realizes that they not shrinking but flying from her. The speed of their passage makes their clothes flap and billow like banners around them.… Morag goes down on her knees, on her belly, to watch them dwindle into unguessable distances, and then she is awake.
She is lying on a cold bleak hillside. [267]
The allusion, of course, is to Keats’s extraordinary fairy-poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, a lyric whose mournful beauty is unsurpassed even amongst Keats’s exquisite body of poetry. A Knight at arms meets a lady ‘full beautiful, a faery’s child’, with whom he falls in love. Lulled asleep by her he sees a vision:
I saw pale Kings, and Princes too
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all
Who cried La belle dame sans merci
Thee hath in thrall.

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.
Here is the ‘numinous’ Huxley was talking about. If reading this poem doesn’t send shivers up your spine, then there must be something wrong with you.

McAuley’s Fairyland does more than just invoke this powerful poetic mythos: the book explores the way this romantic image gets reconfigured under what, for want of a better phrase, we had better call the logic of postmodernity. Take two key scenes where the book steps entirely into the fantasy idiom of Fairyland: first the one I’ve just mentioned, from the end of part 2, with its deliberately overinflected Keatsian lushness (‘the night is alive with light, a river of stars carried by people with grave, beautiful, shuttered faces, endlessly rising from darkness and sinking away’, 264). This, we might say, is the traditional, romantic conception of Fairyland, a locus classicus for the numinous White Goddess (as Robert Graves argues at some length, we find her not only in Keats, but in Coleridge’s Christabel and ‘the Nightmare Life-in-Death’ from The Ancient Mariner). We can set against this a second visit to Fairyland, placed in a structurally similar place towards the end of the third part of the novel: ‘green hills saddle away under a bright blue sky towards a horizon where … a vast forest looms … In the middle distance, a little pavilion, its walls cream silk, its conical roof pink, is pitched in a daisy-starred meadow. A white horse grazes beside it. The horse has a spiral, nacreous horn as long as a man’s hand growing from its forehead’ [380]. This saccharine vision strikes Alex, understandably, as ‘a bit of an anti-climax’ (McAuley even flirts with overstatement when ‘a disneyfied bluebird flies up to the window, its brown, human eyes, with coy fluttering lashes, stare into Alex’s’).

This disneyfied simulacrum of Fairyland replaces the older, Keatsian mode; thematically mimicking the broader trajectory of the novel. Because one of the many things the novel does is to trace out a shift from ‘real city’ (London, in part 1), to simulacrum city (The Magic Kingdom, in part 2), to a VR simulacrum of a simulacrum (on the net, in part 3—it is in virtual space that Milena/Antoinette finally apotheosises). If this positions the book as in part about the postmodern retreat from authentic reality into simulation, then it needs to be said that Fairyland is much more than this. Like Alex, the novel traces a path towards an unreachable (and female) object of desire. As Graves says, the White Goddess is the Triple Goddess; she is maiden mother and crone; she is air, earth, and the secret waters of death; she is Nimue, and Mary, and the Fairy Queen. But above all she is the Muse, and Fairyland is a work written, almost archaically, in thrall to the Muse. Understanding this begins to open the beauties and numinous chill of this wonderful book.

[Footnote: I wrote the above in January 2005, for Paul Kincaid’s excellent volume, The Arthur C Clarke Award: a Critical Anthology (2006). I’m reprinting it now to tie-in with Orion’s ‘Celebrating Fairyland and 25 years of the Arthur C. Clarke Award’ post—nobody who is interested in SF excellence needs reminding about how central the Clarke award has been to British SF over the last quarter century: the list of winners really is is a rollcall of SFnal excellence. Still, though a couple of other winners run it close, I’d still pick Fairyland for my Clarke-of-Clarkes, should such a meta-award ever be mooted. Partly that’s because it is a novel that chimes particularly melodiously with some personal crotchets of mine; for all aesthetic judgement is grounded in the personal. But all aesthetic judgement should also aim to transcend the personal, and I’d maintain that, irrespective of my personal response, this is a book of remarkable power, wholeness and beauty.

And on a related note (whilst we’re talking prizes); a word about the editor who originally commissioned this piece, Paul Kincaid. Paul is one of those people without whom British SF, and SF criticism, wouldn’t be what it is now (not least because of his own involvement in the Clarke award). You can see from his website that his own critical writing has been shortlisted for a range of prizes (including a Hugo for Related Book; and BSFA, Locus and BFS Awards for Non-Fiction) without actually winning any. He has been BSFA-nominated once again this year for his excellent roundup review of the Hugos. It’s the best piece of criticism on the list, I’d say; and Paul is long overdue recognition for his critical writing. So if you’re a BSFA member do me a favour: get in touch with Donna Scott, and vote for him this year

Friday, 11 March 2011

Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson, Hellhole (2011)

I did consider reading this oulipo-style experiment in anti-writing. It's very promising: viz., a title that can only make the reader think of a Spinal Tap song, and (double viz) some terrible, terrible prose:

It was the end of the rebellion, and this day would either make or break the freedom fighters. General Tiber Maximilian Adolphus had struggled for half a decade against the corrupt government of the Constellation, taking his cause across the twenty central Crown Jewel worlds and riding a groundswell of popular support—all of which had led him to here. A last stand where the old regime was bound to collapse.

The battle over the planet Sonjeera would decide it all.

The General’s teeth ached from clenching his jaws, but he stood on the bridge of his flagship, ostensibly calm, confident. He had not intended to be a rebel leader, but the role had been forced on him, and he’d never lost sight of the goal. The ancient, incestuous system had oppressed many populations. The more powerful noble families devoured the weaker ones to steal their planetary holdings. Ultimately, even those powerful families split up and tore at one another, as if it were some kind of game. It had gone on far too long.

For five years now, the General’s ever-growing forces battled oldguard loyalists, winning victories and suffering defeats. Any reasonable person could see that the bloated system was rotten, crumbling, unfair to the majority. People across the Crown Jewels had only needed a man to serve as an example, someone to light the spark and unify their grievances. Adolphus had fallen into it by accident, but like a piece of driftwood caught in a whitewater flood, he had been swept along to his inevitable destination.
Yes, indeed, the Galactic Empire is named after the slang term for testicles; yes, the authors do write in a random, jotting-shit-down-as-it-occurs-to-them manner; yes they positively revel in both cliché and mixed metaphors ('riding a groundswell of popular support' ... like, uh, some kind of surfer, I guess); yes that third paragraph there, the one beginning 'The General’s teeth ached...', may be the worst piece of writing I've read all year. So I did consider reading this one. But then I decided against it. Standing there in my local bookshop, I read the first page, closed the cover and put it back on the shelf.

So, I can't offer an assessment of this book's overall quality, I'm afraid. Maybe, in the immortal words of Will Self, it turns into Tolstoy on p.2. Somehow I doubt it, though.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Ebbe Klövedal Reich. Kong Skildpadde (1985)

The title means 'King Turtle'. I speak no Danish, and know nothing about this book except that (a) the Danish for turtle, 'Skildpadde', is a very cool word, (b) the review below (by Svend Birke Espegdrd Risskov, in World Literature Today) makes the novel sound interesting in a bizarre and reactionary sort of way, and (c) it was, as you can see, originally published with a terrible, terrible cover. From Risskov's review:
The great villain of Kong Skildpadde is the secret organization "Axionion," which combines European Union ideas with a total regimentation of all individuals. The plot of the novel accelerates when Axionion chooses Denmark as the site for initial implementation of its plan. Democracy is put out of power, a hallucinogenic colalike beverage is distributed, and one of the former young rebels, Erling, is assigned to unify the mass media. In reaction against the "imperialistic disease," nature creates a mystical power, the mouthpiece of which is another former young rebel turned vicar, Tue. By a universal transmigration of souls he inherits the power of the late turtle (!) Tui Malila, King of the Tonga Islands (near New Zealand) for two hundred years. Tue gains curative power over animals, becoming a new Jesus of the Gnostic school ... In this fantastic and simplistic story Reich has portrayed his own generation of the sixties in a fierce yet funny way. He shows particular concern for the women of that era, who have never lost contact with nature. As a reader, one can accept Reich's metaphysics and political prejudices because he is a captivating and amusing storyteller. In many respects, in fact, one is reminded of the Czech writer Karel Capek's classic anti-Nazi novel, The War with the Newts (1936).

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Fredric Jameson , Valences of the Dialectic (2009)

‘Valences’ in the sense of ‘different aspects of’ or ‘flavours of’ or, if we’re honest, in the sense of ‘bits and pieces that have occurred to me at odd moments about’. Valences of the Dialectic is a great wodge of book, two thirds of a thousand pages long, made up of many previously published essays, reviews and introductions to other philosophers. Written especially for this collection are the first section ‘The Three Names of the Dialectic’ [available online as a pdf] and the last ‘The Valences of History’—one of the best things here, actually. In between we have various things: a long, dense two-part section on Hegel (‘II. Hegel Without Aufhebung’), a rag-bag of essays (‘III. Commentaries’) on Derrida, Deleuze, Lukács and Sartre, a selection of shorter and sometimes entry-level essays on things like Commodification, Ideology, Lenin and the like (‘IV. Entries’), and four essays and a hundred pages on politics, globalisation and Utopia (‘V. Politics’).

There’s a lot here, and much of it is stimulating and rewarding. ‘Our only rule,’ we’re told at the beginning, ‘will be a strict avoidance of the old pseudo-Hegelian caricature of the thesis/antithesis/synthesis; while our only presupposition will be the assumption that any opposition can be the starting point for a dialectic in its own right’ [19]. And indeed Jameson’s various dialectics are supple and dextrous enough to generate a great many new perspectives. I liked his attempt to de-transcendentalize (as it were) Hegel in a way that isn't just materializing Hegel: ‘Absolute Spirit is not a concept of a phenomenon one can analyze, let alone understand; but it is [rather] a formal moment that can be grasped only as ideology or method’ [106]. And I liked the deliberate ‘immobilization’ of dialectal process that Jameson undertakes; a denial (in part) that dialectical motion is in any sense ‘a progress’ or a passage from a to b to c—his way of freeing Hegel’s dialectic from vulgarisation as a particular sort of linear narrative. (On the other hand, later in the book, coming at the same matter via Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, FJ declares himself ‘at least postmodern enough to be willing to defend the proposition that everything is narrative’ [484]; but he means something particular by ‘narrative’ here—and anyway, one of the joys of immersing oneself in dialectical philosophy is that contradiction is always a symptom of productive negation, not conceptual muddle). The engagement with ‘materialism’ is also very promising, refusing to take this Marxist bedrock for granted to the point of asserting ‘the concept of matter as such is an incoherent one’ [7]. And from time to time the writing rises to a kind of pomo-poetry, a hectic elevation—like this passage from near the end, which has already been excerpted and quoted by several reviews and Theory blogs:
We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling … which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance. Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonising among poisonous colours and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid. The world of the human age is an aesthetic pretext for grinding terror or pathological ecstasy, and in its cosmos, all of it drawn from the very fibres of our own being and at one with every post-natural cell more alien to us than nature itself, we continue murmuring Kant’s old questions – What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? – under a starry heaven no more responsive than a mirror or a spaceship, not understanding that they require the adjunct of an ugly and bureaucratic representational qualification: what can I know in this system? What should I do in this world completely invented by me? What can I hope for alone in an altogether human age? [608]
But this sort of thing, I have to say, is the exception rather than the rule.

So, yes, the style. The book is made out of strings of these great, chuntering Jamesonian sentences, a style which we Jamesonophiles have come to love and loathe in equal measure, in which conditional ‘might’s, ‘may be said’s and ‘could be thought’s frame a series of ringing assertions about what is always the case, what we must do (‘we must be able to imagine the world without the object form’ [258]) and what the absolute horizons of thought and action are. Benjamin Kunkel’s fluent and largely positive LRB review of the volume (‘Into the Big Tent’ LRB 22 April 2010, 12-16] makes this point about Jameson’s style, via a comparison with the other, son-less James (‘not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force’). That’s right, I’d say; although we can be more specific and say that the prose of Valences reads like late James, not least in the way it calls to mind Wilde’s H. G. Wells's famous characterisation of that style as a hippopotamus making a laborious effort, whatever the cost to its dignity, to pick up a pea. Kunkel’s review contents itself with broader brush assessments, and avoids getting tangled in the minutiae of Jameson’s various Valences theses—wisely, I think. For despite many moments of piercing analysis, and the sorts of mind-reorienting clarity that made Jameson’s name, much of this volume makes for wearying reading. Two thirds of a thousand pages is, frankly, too many for the arguments Jameson wants to make—involved and complex though some of them are. At one point he asserts that ‘if we could summarise the content of philosophizing in a page or two, we would not have to do it in the first place’ [86]—which seems to me wrong on its own terms (as if Nietzsche’s apothegms don’t trump the collected works of Husserl, or the brevity of Civilisation and its Discontents isn't better in every way to the coiling bulk of the Écrits) but also, worse, smacks of an already long-winded writer giving himself permission to extend his wind further. Žižek, with whom Jameson engages at some length in Valences, is often bonkers; but he is very rarely dull. The same cannot be said of Jameson’s new book.

A degree of repetition is inevitable, I suppose, in a book made up of previously published essays and reviews all of which treat the same broad topic. But Valences goes beyond inadvertency in this regard. In his reading of Hegel’s Logics FJ lays before us the heartsinking notion that a philosophical work, though it appears at first glance ‘turgid and laborious’, may actually best be read not ‘as an attempt to expound some idea which the reader then attempts ... to grasp’ but rather ‘like a piece of music, and its text a score, which we must ourselves mentally perform and even orchestrate’ [80]. Valences, in other words, is a book in which FJ has not only not attempted to smooth out the repetitions and superfluousnesses, but in which he has actively pursued them, as quasi-Wagnerian motifs and themes. I daresay I’m not the only reader who finds this strategy tiresome, and worse—self-indulgent, even self-deluding.

Anyway, I’ve no desire to tilt at the creaking windmill of The Jamesonian Style. It is what it is, and I’ve been reading FJ long enough to have grown rather fond of his succession of huge spooling sentences, interpenetrated by numerous holey-space-style parentheses and subordinate clauses. Indeed, in what after reading this volume I’m almost obliged to call a dialectical move, Jameson’s style is becoming simultaneously more arthritically cumbersome and more chirpy (one chapter is called ‘It’s Dialectical!’). The long periods cluttered with technical-philosophical German or superfine distinctions about modes of negativity are all present and correct, but, like raisins in the batter, here also are references to tins of peas, black holes in space and dancing tables. And there’s a kind of dialecticism of critical approach that is almost droll. Chapter 2, ‘Hegel and Reification’, quotes many drily unengaging sections from one of Hegel’s lesser-known productions, the ‘Logic’ chapter of Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1817). These quotations are sufficient to convey to the reader how tedious and often opaque Hegel’s Encyclopedia can be; but Jameson goes out of his way to spin a series of souped-up, even ecstatic interpretive riffs from them (it’s Beethoven! It’s a Modernist novel! It’s Dante! It’s ‘supremely active at the very heart of what seems to be sheerly empirical’ and so on). This is rather endearing.

And nobody could deny that FJ embraces the dialectical mode in this book wholeheartedly. No matter how common-sensical a notion might appear to be, he is prepared to assert its antithesis. Sometimes this works brilliantly: a chapter on ‘Utopia as Replication’ addresses the phenomenon of Wal-Mart from the standard left-wing point of view (‘a new Wal-Mart drives local businesses under and reduces available jobs; Wal-Mart’s own jobs scarcely pay a living wage, offer no benefits or health insurance, the company is anti-Union, hires illegal immigrants ... promotes sweat-shops and child labor outside the country ... exercises a reign of terror over its own suppliers, destroys whole ecologies abroad and whole communities here in the US, it locks its own employees in at night etc etc’ [420]). As Jameson drily notes, this is ‘unappetizing’; but he immediately undertakes a dialectical reading—‘this business operation, who capacity to reduce inflation and to hold down or even lower prices and to make life affordable for the poorest Americans is also the very source of their poverty and the prime mover in the dissolution of the American small town’—as a way of thinking through the antithetical revolutionary potential of this phenomenon: ‘the ultimate in democracy as well as in efficiency ... as admirable as the Prussian state or the great movement of instituteurs in the late nineteenth-century French lay education, or even the dreams of a streamlined Soviet system. New desires are encouraged and satisfied as richly as the theoreticians of the 1960s (and also Marx himself) predicted’. In sum, it is the very success of Wal-Mart as a Capitalist entity that dissolves Capitalism:
Wal-Mart is then not an aberration or an exception, but rather the purest expression of that dynamic of capitalism which devours itself, which abolishes the market by means of the market itself. [421]
This is very neat indeed, although Jameson slightly undermines the rhetorical impact with a whiff of smugness at his own cleverness (‘I trust that this proposal will be even more scandalous than Lenin’s celebration of monopoly...’); and the dialectical antithesis smacks rather more of wishful thinking than the hard-to-deny commercial reality of the thesis.

More, once committed to this strategy, FJ finds himself endorsing to some odd and even offensive positions. ‘“Big Government” should be a positive slogan,’ he tells us; ‘“bureaucracy” itself needs to be rescued from its stereotypes and reinvoked’ [382], to which we might want to reply, in Spongebob Squarepant’s chirpy words, ‘good luck with that!’ Less forgivably he tells his readers that ‘Stalinism was a success and fulfilled its historic mission, socially as well as economically’ [397] (really? Mightn’t we say the same thing about Hitlerism, on its own terms?). Or, again, quoting (oddly) ‘editors of the Economist’ as corroborating authorities, he praises one-party States in Africa as constituting ‘a useful path towards rapid industrialisation’. Events over the last month make this indulgence of African dictatorships look particularly wrongheaded, I'd say.

Jameson can hardly be blamed, in a book published in 2009, for not knowing about the radical changes currently sweeping across North Africa, of course; except that much of Valences is given over to deeper analyses of the contemporary state of the world (the project is nothing less than a reading of ‘late capitalism of the world system today and the place of Marxism within it’ 404); and we might be forgiven for thinking that, if these analyses had any explanatory power then things like the current upheavals would be at least foreshadowed.

But Valences is a work of political and cultural analysis that is very much bang not up to date. Partly this is because some of the pieces reprinted here date from the early 1990s; but then again, many were written in the noughties, and the book itself was published (after all) at the end of 2009; so it’s not as if FJ was not given the chance to revise in the face of more recent events. Yet Jameson’s political frames of reference are, broadly, twofold: 1968, and the surrounding political and cultural climate of late 1960s quasi-Utopian engagement on the one hand; and the bugbears of ‘Reagan and Thatcher’ on the other (‘what began to be visible with Reagan and Thatcher...’ [357]; ‘the crudest forms of ideology seem to have returned in Reaganism and Thatcherism’ [285]; injustice reached a ‘paroxysm in the Reagan years...’ [391]). The reader looks in vain for any reference to Blair, Sarkozy, Merkel, or even to George W. Bush. There is a difference between living with an awareness of history and living in the past, after all. It’s one thing to make positive noises about ‘the recent anti-World Bank and anti-WTO demonstrations’ in an essay published in 1998; it’s another to republish the same essay in 2009 and leave the word ‘recent’ unrevised. Things have happened between 1998 and today (you may have noticed) that render assertions that ‘Yugoslavia and Iraq’ represent ‘two countries that might currently seem to be outside that orbit [of Western imperialist domination]’ peculiarly mole-eyed. Would it have killed Jameson to blue-pencil that paragraph when the proofs arrived on his desk in 2009? (‘Currently’? Really?)

It’s at this level—a core one—of engagement with contemporary politics, history and ideology that Valences is most disappointing, I think. There’s a veritable angelic disco happening on the heads of some of the book’s pins—the consonance between Aristotle’s ‘kata’ and Mallarmé’s ‘selon’, for instance [477f.]; or the fundamentally anti-dialectical nature of Hegel’s Verstand [75-101]. But there’s very little, or nothing at all, on Counter-terrorism, Climate Change, or the Credit Crunch. There is, to be fair, a lengthy (but not especially productive) engagement with ‘globalisation’ [435-72], and from time to time FJ will step away from teasing out ‘the conceptual stalemates of the aporetic’ [530] to pronounce on more practical matters. For example he considers it ‘scandalous’ that right-wing governments ‘lower taxes so rich people can keep more of their money’ [285]. So do I, as it happens. But I’m not sure this level of analysis is really dialectical enough to merit inclusion here.

Another way of saying this is to mention one of the (Republican) elephants in Jameson’s ‘Dialectics’ room. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History is also, of course, an interrogation of Hegel; the German is praised in that book as ‘the first historicist philosopher—that is, a philosopher who believed in the essential historical relativity of truth. Hegel maintained that all human consciousness was limited by the particular social and cultural conditions of man’s surrounding environment—or as we say by ‘the times’. Past thought, whether of ordinary people or great philosophers and scientists, was not true absolutely or “objectively” but only relative to the historical or cultural horizon in which that person lived.’ [End of History, 62] Of course, Fukuyama has a much narrower understanding of ‘the dialectic’ as a historical process (basically: Hegel’s master-slave dialectic projected onto the big screen of the C20th Cold War), and of course FJ is orthogonal to FF in terms of political allegiance; but that doesn’t mean that his argument can be simply ignored, or treated as merely beneath contempt. (John Quiggin, of Crooked Timber—no neocon he—has a lot of time for the Fukuyama thesis, for instance).

Fukuyama steps into Jameson’s argument hardly at all, and when he does it is only to be sent away with a wave of the hand. ‘But is it certain,’ FJ asks, rhetorically-questioning in a rather clumsy way, ‘that all of human history has been, as Fukuyama and others believe, a tortuous progression towards the American consumer as a climax?’ [444] This isn’t as witheringly dismissive as it needs to be, not because FJ’s reservoirs of scorn are dry as far as the neocon ideology is concerned, but because the terms of abuse are weirdly complicit with FJ’s own project—after all, what is Jameson’s multivalent dialectic if not ‘tortuous’? Or more specifically: the main argumentative burden of FJ’s long, mazy, complex first three chapters is precisely that the ‘progression’ so blithely imputed by many to Hegel’s version of the dialectic is much more ‘tortuous’ than has previously been thought, to the point indeed of racking the notion of narrative progress entirely to a standstill.

But although FJ addresses ‘the dialectic’ from many angles, he doesn’t attempt any synthetic or coherence overall thesis (specifically disavows such an approach, indeed). Up to a point I can see the theoretical justification for this, although it makes the book rather frayed-at-the-edges and the experience of reading increasingly frsutrating: 'a coherent thesis' needn't be 'a totalising thesis', after all. (And anyway, in the Lukacs chapter FJ makes an interesting defence of 'totalisation'). Worse, Jameson doesn’t always follow the implications of his own approach all the way down the rabbit hole. This, I think, was the valence of this volume that surprised me the most; a sense of Jameson rather laboriously chugging around points an earlier version of himself might have lanced directly.

I'll give an example of what I mean. In the final chapter he quotes Althusser (‘ce que l’art nous donne à voir, nous done donc dans la forme du “voir”, du “percevoir” et du “sentire” ... c’est l’ideologie ...’) and adds:
This view endows art with a cognitive and constructional function consistent with its own specific mode of existence (and not imported from philosophy); and it suggests a useful way of grasping the nature of the operation of emplotment, now understood as the production of aporias, their demonstration before us (as one might demonstrate a new machine and put it through its paces), and thereby the modified status of their being (which the enigmatic word “catharsis” also seeks to convey). In other language, art’s business is to produce contradictions, and to make them visible. The formulation of Lévi-Strauss, that of imaginary solutions to real contradictions—or closer to home, “real toads in imaginary gardens” (Marianne Moore)—is satisfactory[.] [531]
The first sentence, quoted there, isn’t quite as diffusely baffling as it may appear, quoted out of context (it picks up on the earlier discussion of ideology, ‘emplotment’ and the complexities of Aristotelian catharsis); but the next two—though, obviously, more clearly expressed—seem to me to miss a trick. Jameson’s point hovers somewhere between on the one hand a rather banal notion of art as a kind of ideological ‘thought experiment’, or perhaps as a mode of 18th/19th-century ‘Sensibility’ whereby our empathy with the suffering of fictional characters opens us to an awareness of injustice and the possibility of change (this is the basis of FJ’s reading of ‘catharsis’)—and on the other something stranger and more suggestive, a kind of conceptual actualization that takes place in imaginary (or ‘ideological’) lives. There is, after all, an important difference between the Lévi-Strauss and the Marianne Moore; the latter’s “real toads in imaginary gardens” is a much more radical notion than the former’s “imaginary toads in real gardens”, not least because the garden is precisely where we find ourselves. I’m not sure that FJ follows this thought through.

I was disappointed, too, that there’s so little actual analysis of Marx here. The one chapter that looks like it might address Marxian dialectics directly (‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’) is in fact a reprinted review of Derrida’a Specters of Marx, and is much more to do with deconstruction than with Karl (in another sense, of course, Marx is immanent in the whole project; but I’d have liked some specific engagement with Marx himself nonetheless). I’m not sure I agree with FJ that ‘globalisation’ carries at its heart a dystopian ‘fear of multiplicity and overpopulation’ [427]: I’d say the motor is not the fear of sheer populousness, but the older demons of fear of the Other, largely still racially (or ‘culturally’) conceived. And I wondered at the blithe I-know-what-the-future-holds confidence with which he claims that ‘other languages will never come to equal English in its global function, even if they were systematically tried out’ [443]. From time to time I flat disagreed with assertions. ‘There is a way in which time and memory constitute alternate codes or conceptual languages for the same reality’ [483]. (Indeed there is ‘a way’ in which this is true. Sadly it is ‘a stupid way’). But, taken as a whole, this is a more rewarding read than the last FJ microwave-oven-sized collection of previously published essays, articles and reviews, Archaeologies of the Future. That book had an interesting thesis about ‘utopia’ (rehearsed again here in Valences), but packed it about with a great deal of expanded polystyrene. The texture of Valences is denser throughout: and some of it—the two Sartre chapters, for instance, or the first Hegel one—left me feeling like I’d just had an Indian Head Massage from Edward Scissorhands. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.