The Frolic – Thomas Ligotti

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve re-read one of the most chilling of Ligotti’s stories, The Frolic. It packs a deceptively large amount of peril into its few pages.

David is a psychiatrist who has recently moved his wife, Leslie, and young daughter, Norleen, to a small town where he has become the psychiatrist to what appears to be a prison for the criminally insane. The whole story is set over one evening, when he returns from work and begins to explain to Leslie that he thinks they (or he) made the wrong choice in moving because, he says, the inmates are so terrifying and beyond the help he idealistically thought he could give them.

One inmate with whom he has a long therapy session has him particularly worked up – known only as John Doe, because he refuses to give a single name, he has a long long history of abducting children and doing who-knows-what with them, which he calls frolicking.

As David conveys his worries about the frolicker he admits his fear is that, despite being behind prison walls, The frolicker will somehow do something to Norleen. And as they talk a sense of concern gradually builds. David goes to check on Norleen, finds her asleep with some kind of comforter. They talk some more and agree they should move quickly. David mentions the comforter Norleen was cuddling. Leslie says she’s never heard of it and didn’t have it when she went to bed. David runs upstairs to find Norleen gone and a sinister note from the frolicker.

There is something quite conventional about this story, compared to others of Ligotti’s, but I think he does three things brilliantly in it.

First, he builds tension, claustrophobia and fear all the way through – from the stilted dialogue to the small town where Leslie feels trapped. He gradually reveals the sinister ending, surprising us despite it being the only way the story could end in retrospect.

Second, he paints an excellent picture of a conventional and difficult family scenario – the traditional family roles, the husband moving his wife and child for a job, the wife supporting his career and moral aspirations, the wife’s unspoken sense that they shouldn’t have moved, the evidence (that he didn’t put Norleen to bed, that he didn’t know what she takes to bed) that he is at work more than home, his gradual realisation he’s put his family in danger….

And third, what makes this story – as with all of Ligotti’s writing – so much more than one about a nuclear family threatened by an external threat, is that he puts ambiguity everywhere. 

The frolicker is in the prison, but he denies his past and any names, and appears to be ageless, timeless, supernatural, such that the prison walls ultimately mean nothing. What the frolicker does with the children is never said, leaving that knowledge unknown, tantalisingly unresolved. David has the feeling that the frolicker knows his daughter’s name but this is always dressed up in riddles and it’s quite unclear as to whether he does or how he could. And, indeed, there is ambiguity about where culpability lies – with the frolicker or with David who brought the situation upon them. 

Horror works well when it plants seeds of fear in the most normal of situations – what Ligotti does brilliantly here is take a traditional family set up and inject the fear of a sinister, unknowable and supernatural threat that is both inside and outside the family. 

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On Cosmopolitanism – Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida’s essay on cosmopolitanism, hospitality and the treatment of refugees what is most striking is how the mood on immigration has shifted so dramatically since it was written in 1997.

During the 1990s the ideas of cosmopolitanism and global human rights were relatively high on the agenda. In this context, Derrida argues in On Cosmopolitanism that when you deconstruct the concept of cosmopolitanism and how states should respond to claims for asylum or protection by refugees, it is divided between two poles.

On the one hand is a universalist normative ideal of hospitality which says everyone should be given refuge, regardless. On the other is the pragmatic consideration of the economic impact of accepting unlimited refugees. The principle is one of openness, of borderless-ness; the pragmatism is around what is financially possible. How these are negotiated, where the line is drawn, is the stuff of politics.

Derrida is aware in the essay, of course, that cosmopolitanism is not the only force driving nation states, and points to France as an example of a country that wants to be seen and understand itself as offering hospitality to exiles, refugees and migrants but also had started to crack down on migrants in order to control them. He refers to an ideal of ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘free cities’ as possible alternatives to state power, where we might see individual cities (he cites Strasbourg) offering hospitality to refugees regardless and despite what the state does.

Where we are today is light years from here – not just from these ideals but even the hopefulness that would allow someone like to Derrida to write this essay. The idea that the treatment of refugees comes from a negotiation between the universal of hospitality and the particular of what is possible seems almost impossibly utopian. Arguably, today the negotiation is wholly more negative.

On the one hand is the pragmatic need for a country like France to absorb migrants in order to ensure that the economy is viable. And on the other is the normative idea that there is an established nation with a people, an identity and a set of values that needs to be preserved. Debates about burkinis in France, Polish plumbers in the UK and Syrian refugees in Italy are all about borders and identity, with the concept of hospitality at best a marginal sentiment. Right wing populism, nationalism and borders are common currency now.

In typical Derrida fashion, On Cosmopolitanism is dense and at times obscure but ultimately sheds light – in this case on what was at stake when we were talking about ideals of cosmopolitanism.  But more than anything it makes you realise that question being asked in parliaments and city halls around the world is no longer, given we have an obligation to provide hospitality how many migrants can we practically take but, given we need migrants to power the economy how many can we take without diluting out national identity.

It makes you realise, put more simply, that our thinking on citizenship and immigration has taken a turn for the worse.

Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.

 Isabell Lorey – State of Insecurity

State of Insecurity is a theory heavy but often thought provoking book on contemporary capitalism and the nature of work.

Her basic argument is that precariousness – financial and existential insecurity – is part of modern capitalism and reinforced by government policy around welfare and pensions. It’s not just migrant workers and younger generations that are in a state of precarious work; everyone in and out of work have insecure and precarious coditions now that short term contracts, temping, zero hours, portfolio careers, a contracting state and the like have become the norm.

Drawing on Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ she suggest this isn’t simply imposed on people from external forces (the state, businesses etc) but that people govern their own behaviour and conduct in light of this precariousness. Hence in a workplace, solidarity – if it ever existed – has been replaced by people developing their reputation and personal brand so as to compete with others for promotions in insecure jobs. The cultivation of this way of conducting yourself in public, where you are always in some ways working, is even stronger amongst freelancers, whether they chose the freelance option or not. For them, the division between work and leisure breaks down.

Finally, though, she sees – again following Foucault, this time his idea that power always creates resistance – that precariousness is not all bad: it creates problems but also the possibility of alternatives. She draws attention to movements of precarious workers who are identifying what they have in common and creating networks and movements to support themselves.

The book is big on theory and light on practice, which makes it an insightful analysis of the current situation for those with a good grasp of social theory, but doesn’t really provide the examples needed to bring things alive and help us understand what’s at stake and what different forms of resistance we might see.

Grief is the thing with feathers – Max Porter

Grief is the thing with feathers is astonishing: part poem, part novel, part collection of aphorisms; it is funny, intensely sad and wise at the same time.

It’s a simple set up, describing how a father and his two young sons cope – or not – with the death of the much loved wife and mother. It alternates between the perspective of the Dad and the Boys, with short often poetic descriptions of episodes or feelings, taking them chronologically from the early days to reflections many years later.

What the approach reveals are some stark truths about loss, the often very different perceptions of the Dad and the boys of the same things, but also the closeness that the three of them feel for one another despite the hard experiences of loss they are going through.

That alone would be enough, but what gives the work an extra dimension is the appearance of a human size crow which comes to live with them after her death.

Crow is part of the father’s imagination and, it seems, represents grief. Crow is a foil, a practical joker, an ear, a guide, a protector and much more to the Dad. Crow does all those complex things that grief does and, because the feeling of grief seems so solid and tangible and immovable, the recalcitrant presence of a wild bird seems fitting.

Why a crow specifically? In part I assume because a crow, with its viciousness and wildness and blackness, is a fine representation of grief (a murder of crows is, after all, the collective noun). But also because the Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar. If I knew Hughes’ writing better I would, I guess, have seen countless references throughout Porter’s book.

And Crow is funny. The boys’ passages often lighten the mood, but not as much as crow’s. He is crude, cruel and a joker some of the time. After a few years the Dad has sex with someone for the first time since the wife died, for example. It’s a tender section, very poignant and raw, but then ends with Crow… ‘When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.’

This is a short book with nearly every page containing some insight into love and loss. It is the kind of book to read more than once, to keep coming back to for more.

The utopia of rules – David Graeber

There are so many thought-provoking ideas and new analyses in here that it seems wrong to summarise it for fear of missing some out. In just over 200 pages Graeber makes you think differently about technology, democracy and bureaucracy – and also feel slightly better about being inept at filling out forms.

The Utopia of Rules is really a collection of five discursive essays on the theme of bureaucracy. It says a lot about Graeber’s style, I think, that it’s easier to pull out some of the overarching themes of the book as a whole than do so for each of the essays separately. So, here are some.

His premise, his basic argument if you like, is that ‘we live in a deeply bureaucratic society’, so much so that we can hardly see how bureaucratic it is and struggle to imagine things being any other way. Importantly, this isn’t just government bureaucracy but more commonly the bureaucracy of large corporations and the relationship between the two.

This is most evident in our assumptions about technology. He asks the really interesting question: why have none of the technological development fantasised about in the 50s and 60s (flying cars, part time work for all, robots that think and act independently) come to pass? His argument is that the funding and direction for research and development has become increasingly focused on creating processes to administer our current economic, social and political arrangements, thus creating, in fact, a more complex bureaucracy. Grand schemes to change the world or do something radical with technology largely came to a standstill when the space race ended.

Bureaucracy, ironically, is also part of what we have come to think of as freedom. While many of us fantasise about living in a world unshackled from bureaucracy – and in an excellent few pages Graeber dissects the mass appeal of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings in this regard – in reality we tend to view arbitrary power held by others as an impediment to our freedom and bureaucracy, conversely, as a way to limit arbitrary power because it standardises everything.

But he also points out elsewhere in the book that bureaucracy also creates unequal power relations, with those who know and enforce bureaucratic processes in a stronger position than those following them. He refers to ‘interpretive labour’ as the additional work that those with less power are forced to do, using examples like the CEO or Minister who is able to make any pronouncement they like, with his or her staff then having to work hard to understand what that is, carry it out and smooth things out with other people. The person at the job centre or completing their performance appraisal or trying to get insurance is in a similar position.

He discusses in this respect why it is so easy for an otherwise intelligent person to making mistakes on forms. The reason is that people are so busy with the task of interpretive labour, working out what is required, which hoops need jumping through next and so on, that there’s no brain-space left for the mundane job of filling in a form in the right boxes.

What he points out, too, is that bureaucracy is so effective in creating this sense of worry because, when it comes down to it, the paperwork and inequality inherent in bureaucracy is backed up actual violence. This might be the law coming down on you for failing to get car insurance, or one step removed, being sacked from your job for not completing the performance appraisal paperwork correctly and thus becoming unemployed and poor.

And all this, he points out, is quite ridiculous. Not only does bureaucracy limit our possibilities, create inequalities and rely on the implicit threat of force. As the title of the book implies, Graeber also points out that ‘all bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract idea that real human beings can never live up.’

In highlighting these few things from David Graeber’s excellent book I’m just scratching the surface. There is so much to these essays. The novel ideas, of course, but also the style, which provides simple explanations of complex theories with occasional stories about himself to bring it alive. Some of it I’m not entirely sure of. He often refers to developing a left critique of bureaucracy which I think unnecessarily limits the possible audience for some of the insights in this book. And similarly he occasionally lets a rather conspiratorial view of a state acting in the interests of capital creep into his reading of certain situations. But nevertheless this is one of the best and most thought-provoking pieces of political analysis I’ve read in a long, long time.