Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

More gripping again than the first, the second in Stieg Larsson’s series is an enjoyable novel of corruption that hones in on the story of its protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

After three murders – of a couple investigating sex trafficking and Salander’s guardian Burjman – she becomes the subject of a major national murder investigation. Blomkvist is one of the few people who don’t believe her guilty, and makes the connection between them all, and battles with the police and criminal gangs to help her. As always, though, Salander saves herself and is the strongest character throughout.

What’s nice about this book is it is really about Salander – how she became who she is, and we meet her father in particular who is deeply involved in trafficking.

The book is obviously pretty unbelievable. It relies on a high degree of coincidence and the unlikely physical and mental abilities of Salander. But at the same time it tackles big subjects like power and corruption, upbringing and agency – and it’s a fantastic read.

The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

Walter Mosley – Little Yellow Dog

The eponymous dog belongs to femme fatale Idabell and appears to be the cause of many of the problems in this, the fifth novel in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

It’s set in JFK-era US and deals characteristically with the reality of racism and race relations. Easy is a black private investigator who’s had a hard upbringing, spent time on the street and is now trying to live straight. But his skin colour, and his difficult past, keep getting in the way.

He’s now working as a supervisor in a school overseeing the building’s maintenance, but after the brother of Idabell, one of the teachers, is discovered on the school he quickly gets himself involved in unearthing what is going on. The plot as always thickens inexorably, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing even after you’ve finished the book, and Easy finds himself stuck between the police, gangsters, city officials – and the small dog he ends up looking after – all of whom want him gone.

The plot is good, like his other Easy novels, but the reason I keep reading Mosley is in part the hard boiled style and, more than anything, Mosley’s understanding of racism and poverty, of how the two are intertwined, how they define the way so much in the US works, and of how circumstances can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

J M Coetzee – Elizabeth Costello 

Elizabeth Costello is an ageing, well regarded author. Now rarely writing, she tours the world giving lectures and talks. In Amsterdam, on a cruise liner, in the States and elsewhere she finds herself talking on the big themes of philosophy, religion, human rights.

Through it she is in a state of angst – about whether what she is talking about is meaningful and ultimately about what it is to be a human, a writer, to have a presence in the world.

In some ways the novel is a construction to explore some important but slippery distinctions: between humans and animals, between philosophy and creative fiction, between morality and belief, between bearing witness to horrors and getting sucked into them.

There is an abstract and Kafka-like scene toward the end of the book which nicely articulates the protagonist’s worries and, more widely, is a nice way to capture why it is to hard answer the question ‘who am I.’ She is waiting to pass through from one place – an Italian piazza as it turns out – to another which may or may not be heaven.

The judges who determine whether she can pass base their decision on what she believes – whether she has a belief – but when she is asked the question ‘what do you believe in’ she struggles to identify the ‘thing’: her beliefs, the values that define her are multiple and changeable and hard to articulate.

Two hours – Ed Caesar 

Wow! What a book. I don’t know anything about marathon running or runners but I loved this.

It’s the author’s ability to tell a gripping story that does it. He traces the aspirations of a small group of elite modern day marathon runners intent on running a marathon course around a city in less than two hours. As he points out, it’s insanely fast, and the amount of training and dedication required to get anywhere near it is all-consuming.

To bring the story alive he follows in particular Geoffrey Mutai, an incredible Kenyan runner who is among the top athletes in the sport. We get to see up close his frustrations as individual runs don’t come off and he’s left knowing he could have done better.

He shows, too, that Mutai is more than a runner, he’s the source of a local economy in Kenya: because the rewards from sponsors and race organisers are so high, he – like the many other Kenyans who excel at the sport – supports his family, friends and neighbours as well as himself in the village where he lives.

Ceaser explores the success of Kenyans in particular in the sport, and what comes through is the complexity of reasons for their dominance: ancestry, upbringings involving a lot of distance on foot, high altitude villages, traditions of running, scouts, hard training, diet… so many things.

This book, well, it’s just great writing, great reporting, on a group of people who are doing amazing things.

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

Trumpet is a beautifully written novel that makes you think differently – you surely couldn’t ask for more from a book.

It begins with the death of the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. On his death a secret only he and his wife Millie have known is revealed – that Joss was in fact born a woman (Josephine) and has lived his life as a man, bandaging up his breasts every day and telling nobody, not even their own adopted son Colman.

The book is a look at the fall-out from this revelation. We get a variety of first person perspectives: Colman in particular, who is very angry and is working with a tabloid journalist to write a biography and expose of his Dad; Millie who is mostly struggling with her son’s reaction, as well as reflecting on her past with Joss; and a variety of others, like the journalist, the drummer in Joss’s old band, the funeral worker, Joss’s Mum.

A big part of the book is from Colman’s perspective as he tries to deal with the realisation. His character is unlikeable – he is already a bit of a loser, like the children of high achieving famous people might be, and discovering his Mum and Dad had hidden something so big from him for years tears him apart. Over the book, though, he gradually realises that despite everything Joss was his father, he loved him, and he can’t go ahead with the expose.

Millie appears naïve, as if she hadn’t considered what would happen when the news was out. It’s interesting, and I wonder if partly this is because she and Joss had lived with the secret for such a long time that I had become normal. And the fact that they kept this secret, even from their own child, makes you realise that they did so because this is something that was and remains very hard to talk about, so it drives you to do things that aren’t necessarily perfect.

What’s clear, too, is the way that Joss and Millie had a very tight relationship, one guarded from the outside world – and one that probably excluded Colman quite considerably, though they might not have known it, and it was only when the secret was revealed to Colman that this became clear.

Trumpet is brilliantly written – simple language but very beautiful and affecting. And the story works on so many levels – as a love story, in part, as a complex take on the impact of social norms on the way relationships work, as a delve into the psyche of someone learning his life was not quite as he thought it was, and as a morally ambiguous story about families and secrets.

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a lyrical novel, rich with accurate metaphors, and a gripping story with a social conscience.

It tells the story of the interweaving lives of twenty-somethings Harry, Becky and Pete. Harry, with her best friend Leon, is a high end dealer; Becky is an inspiring dancer who funds her aspirations through massage; Pete is Harry’s brother, struggling with finding direction in his life.

Pete and Becky are together, though their relationship is falling apart because of Becky’s job and Pete’s jealousy, but Harry and Becky fall for one another separately. Harry and Leon end up being set up in a drug deal and doing a runner with bags of cash an drugs. Becky’s Uncle, it turns out, is the dealer’s muscle, and everything comes to a head in the excellent chapter ‘Everybody Down’ (also the name of an album by Kate Tempest), where all the issues collide at Pete’s surprise birthday party.

The characterisations are excellent and because they are given such attention have a high level of complexity. Though there is a romanticisation of youth culture and an unbelievably high level of coincidence, the plot is gripping.

The absolute strength of the book, other than the evocative writing, is its ability to show how these three characters’ personalities and lives are shaped by a mix of social situation and pure luck. If goes back into third parents’ lives and how they affect their kids, with all experiencing tough upbringings – Becky especially – that make them sympathetic, believable and real.

Mediated reality: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

maxresdefaultA gripping read that not only keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also highlights how our self-understanding is often mediated by and defined by how we are viewed.

The plot of Hunger Games doesn’t really need restating, so famous it is. It’s a dystopian future where, each year, two young people from each of the 12 Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle in which they fight until only one of the 24 is left alive. It’s organised by the Capitol as a reminder to the Districts of the Capitol’s power, and as spectacular entertainment that is broadcast across the Capitol and is mandatory watching for the Districts.

Katniss’s sister Pim is picked to fight for the poor mining District 12, along with the baker’s son Peeta, but Katniss stands in for Pim, so Katniss and Peeta go into the Hunger Games. The book covers the build-up and preparation for the first third, and the Games themselves for the latter two thirds.

It’s told entirely from the first person perspective of Katniss, which is interesting, not only because we never fully understand what Peeta and others are thinking because we always see people through Katniss’s eyes, but also because she appears quite a poor judge of both what she feels and others feel throughout. It’s a powerful contrast with the film. Whereas in the film Katniss appears cold because we only see her from the outside, in the book she appears to be sensitive and struggling to convey feelings without giving too much away, making her a far richer character than she is on-screen.

There are two strong themes that comes through in the Hunger Games, the book anyway. The first is quite a sophisticated take on ideas around ‘performativity’ and what Baudrillard called the ‘simulcra’ – the way in which our ‘self’ is defined by performing certain roles and the perception of that among others, and the way in which our reality is so mediated by representations that we understand reality through representations of reality rather through direct unmediated experience.

This is a real struggle for Katniss in the games itself. She and Peeta are encouraged to win the support of viewers and sponsors by feigning a romance. Throughout Peeta is able to do this apparently honestly and convincingly whereas Katniss is never able to distinguish what she herself feels from what she thinks others are seeing when her performance is broadcast. Repeatedly she does things in order to appear the way she wants to be perceived but as she does it she realises it might actually be what she wants to do – whether helping one of the other competitors, Rue, appearing ruthless or kissing Peeta, she does what she wants only by performing it for the audience.

This, I think, is one of the strongest elements of the book: this complex interplay between ‘real’ feelings and performance, reality and its mediation which in fact shows that self-understanding is determined in part by how we are perceived and represented, not some a priori self that exists outside of that gaze.

The second strong theme is perhaps less sophisticated: it’s a hard distinction that is drawn between the honesty and vitality of the life Katniss leads in District 12 and the duplicitous and decadent life lived by the people in the Capitol. Katniss spends her time hunting, harnessing her skills, at one with the land and the people she lives with, despite the poverty and struggle and hardship. Capitol residents spend their time eating exquisite food in pampered luxury alienated from nature and the hard realities of life. This leads to a contrast between the ‘poor but happy’ district dweller and the ‘disconnected, cosseted elite’ which is probably too much of a caricature – though it does make for god reading!

A damning indictment: Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss

This is the kind of book I love, a mix of continental philosophy and biography that covers radical ideas and action around the 1960s. But, though it was well researched and written, the overall judgement of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries just didn’t feel right.

The book primarily covers the four original Frankfurt School figures: Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Jeffries covers their radical critiques of capitalism well, traces their origins in Hegel, Marx and Freud, and looks in detail at their lives, and how they were shaped by their upbringing and events, especially the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, from which they and their families fled.

Despite ending the book with the view that we need the analytical approach of critical theory to understand what is going on in our one dimensional, capital-driven society, in fact much of the tone of Grand Hotel Abyss contradicts that.

He regularly offers a quasi-Freudian criticism of the Frankfurt School as rich kids rebelling against their self-made industrialist father’s whilst, at the same time, relying on them for money. This feels like a bit of a cheap attack on some of the most far thinking theorists of the twentieth century.

More significantly, Jeffries presents the Frankfurt School as ivory tower intellectuals who – apart from Marcuse – refused to enter the fray of the political even during the upheavals of 1968.

Adorno in particular comes out badly in the book, not only for his ‘negative dialectics’ but as a fusty reactionary who doesn’t see the radical potential of the student movement to such an extent he opposes it. This may be true to some extent, but nothing is ever that simple and the lives and works of Adorno and the rest of the School are testament to them being engaged intellectuals who developed independent research and a school of thought that challenges capitalism in a way that still resonates.

Walter Benjamin comes out of the book most positively, primarily I think because he died young and therefore did not mellow in the way that the others did, or face a choice in the 1960s.

It’s a shame. I liked the subject matter, the style and many parts of the book, but ultimately it leaves you thinking that the Frankfurt School was a well-meaning but elitist project rather than forward thinking intellectuals offering a critique of capitalist society that gets more relevant by the day.

Everyday surrealism in Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars

There is something captivating about a book of poems that begins with a sperm whale explaining that he is “attracted to the policies of the Green Party on paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided by an unseen force”, who has a brother, Jeff, that “owns a camping and outdoor clothing shop in the Lake District” and who notes, simply, “I keep no pets.”

The sperm whale is bluntly accurate, too, in why he was ‘christened’ with this name:

“The first people to open me up thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and had lived without women for weeks, and were far from home. Stuff comes blurting out.”

From The Delegates which tells of two Professors skipping the Conference of Advanced Criminology to go shoplifting, to The Experience, in which the narrator Terry finds himself out grave robbing with Richard Dawkins, Seeing Stars is a fantastic book of vignettes, poems, micro stories, none more than two pages long.

What form of writing this is exactly I’m not sure, but it packs a significant punch, making surprising contrasts and surreal yarns in order to reveal the ridiculousness of aspects of life which sometimes go unnoticed or unquestioned.

The inner thoughts of jaded but intelligent animals is not a major device in the book but one that works well. Like this from The Last Panda:

“Unprecedented economic growth in my native country has brought mochaccino and broadband to where there was nothing but misery and disease, yet with the loss of habitat the inevitable consequence; even the glade I was born in is now a thirty-storey apartment block with valet parking and a nail salon.”

The panda, not surprisingly, is nostalgic for better times, like so many others, adds:

“The sixties did it for everyone, I mean EVERYONE, and what people fail to grasp about Chairman Mao was despite the drab-looking suits and systematic violations of basic human rights he liked a good tune as much as the next man.”

Race and rage in Citizen by Claudia Rankine

This is a powerful reflection on the everyday experience of racism in contemporary America and it’s psychological and emotional impact.

At its core, I think, is the idea that daily acts of racism – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – pervade interactions between people and these inevitably and understandably build up into occasional acts of rage by those who experience constant racial discrimination.

The subtle racism is highlighted through poetry, essays and short insightful vignettes covering everything from stop and search on the streets of Ferguson to professorial conversations at elite universities. 

One of the strongest pieces is a lyrical essay on Serena Williams who has experienced spoken and unspoken racism through her career, despite being perhaps the most successful ever female tennis player.

The essay is set against Zora Neal Hurston’s phrase: ‘I feel most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background.’ Tennis, surely the whitest sport there is, exemplifies the significance of this insight, as Rankin’s essay shows.

This sense of eruptions of rage is brought to life in a small section of quotes from the likes of Franz Fanon and Zinidan Zidan. The latter , a French Algerian, famously ended the final football match of his successful career by head butting another player after he made a racist insult about Zidan’s mother. In the context of Citizen, his action can be understood as an act of uncontrolled rage that appears occasionally among those who experience continuous racial discrimination.

Citizen is also a book that allows you to make connections to other things – to the concept of displacement in psychoanalysis, that of ressentiment in Nietzsche, as well as films about resistance to colonisation like the Battle of Algiers. And it makes you realise how art can reveal feelings that are hidden or misunderstood.

The missing protagonist at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues

An evocative story, Broke Heart Blue weaves the voices of countless upper class Americans together in a powerful tale of memory, perception and class.

The background to the plot is the early years of John Reddy Heart, a working class teenager from our of town and new to a well-off school in Willowsville in upstate New York. Adored by the girls for his rugged aloofness and admired by the boys for his manliness, he ends up shooting a man – Melvin Riggs – apparently after Riggs has a fall out with Reddy’s Mum, the beautiful and out of control Dhalia Heart. We subsequently learn that John Reddy was not responsible but takes the fall anyway in order to protect his family.

What’s interesting is how little John Reddy Heart is in it. The book is split into three parts. Part 1 is at high school and told through the eyes of various teenagers, first focusing on their lust for him, later the trial. Part 2 is twenty years later when John Reddy is trying to make his way as Mr Fix It, an odd-jobs person, and build a relationship with a young woman, Nola. And Part 3 is a 30 year reunion for the school, where the privileged kids of yesteryear reunite in a decadent party that is fuelled by alcohol and the lack of John Reddy a Heart.

Beyond the missing Heart, so to speak, the most striking feature of the book is the style. At no point is there a clear narrator but instead a range of interweaving voices and perspectives. The technique is at once gripping and difficult, and has the effect of reinforcing the subjective views on what’s happening and the impossibility of getting clarity. It’s all emotion, conjecture and desperation. Other than John Reddy there are no strong characters developed, despite this being a dense 500 page book.

In their youth, the mass of teenagers – Verrie Myers, Art Lutz, Kate Olmsted, Dwayne Hewson and countless others – are so in thrall to their passions that they can’t get a clear sense of what’s going on for John Reddy. He is living a difficult life with a neglectful mother, forced to be the grown up rather than her – but none of them ever appear to realise the gravity of the situation.
And thirty years later, at the reunion, their memories of school are idealised and often wrong. There are events they have completely rewritten, people forgotten – and John Reddy Heart looms large in their lives despite them not knowing him while at school or since.

They are, it seems, all successful white upper class Americans who were always destined to do well. Their love affair with John Reddy Heart represents a shallow infatuation with the working class and troubled life of John Reddy Heart which they appropriated for their own stories, entertainment and collective memories without ever thinking of his life. In this sense, John Reddy Heart is missing from the story both in the sense that he isn’t much part of the plot and in the sense that his thoughts, motives and life are never seen or understood by the other characters that place such significance in him.

The honest melancholy of Sian Hughes’s The Missing

This is poetry unadorned and raw. It hardly feels like you’re reading verse, so different is Sian Hughes’ collection The Missing from common views of poetry as flowery or difficult.

Rather than dealing in similes and metaphors, Hughes’ writing is direct, almost prose-like if it weren’t so effective. In just a few short lines of everyday language she can nail descriptions and encapsulate emotions.

Like the evocative Fireworks on Ward 4C, so vivid you can picture the scene and almost feel the disappointed desire and sadness in the room:

The lights are out in the playroom
where gathered at the windows
on flimsy metal legs a small crowd
of saline drips and monitors
send out quiet illuminations
in response to the distant trees.

Only the rockets reach us here.
A series of explosions at ground level
do no more than colour the sky dark green
as we wait for the next high-pitched yell
to descend into a whining thump
and a spray of pink and yellow stars.

The themes of the collection are around the death of a child, grief, soured and dysfunctional relationships. Many of the poems have glimmers of humour, but what is strongest throughout is an honest melancholy.

This, from the most famous poem in the collection, The Send-Off, for example, which documents the death of a baby:

No, you don’t need a bottle, cuddle,
special rabbit, teddy, bit of cloth.

You don’t even need to close your eyes.
They were born that way, sealed shut.

You are a hard lesson to learn,
soft though you are, and transparent.

There’s a mark on your forehead –
the simple flaw that separates
the living from the dead.

It looks like I dropped you downstairs.
I didn’t. I promise. It was like this:

somebody did some counting
and when they added you up

they found one part of you didn’t match.
It’s supposed to come out even.

Come on in! – Charles Bukowski

Come on in! is an evocative book of poems that conjures up a visceral sense of down-at-heel urban America.

There are themes here which won’t surprise: alcoholism, cigarettes, poverty, sex, cheap apartments, homelessness. But also reflections on being a successful writer and the contrast between the down-and-out years and the later years of Bukowski’s life.

The style of poetry is distinctively Bukowski’s: paired down language and short lines, often just a few words, are used to create strong feelings, with occasional metaphors or pieces of imagery that bring the whole thing to life. Like this:

but I cannot sleep and I sit in the kitchen

with a big black fly

that goes around and around and around

like a piece of snot grown a

heart,

– from first family

 

The comparison with the beat poets is an obvious one, but Bukowsi isn’t trying as hard as Ginsberg et al and so he impresses so much more with his simplicity. Like this, a poem that is in fact about the beats:

my opinion remains the

same: writing is done

one person

at a time

one place

at a time

and all the gatherings

of

the

flock

have very little

to do

with

anything.

 

any one of them

could have made

a decent living as a

bill collector or a

used car

salesman

 

and they still

could

make an honest living

instead of bitching about

changes of fashion and

the ways of fate.

– from the ‘Beats’

There’s something a little samey about reading these poems one after another; it is best, perhaps, to dip in and read five or so at a time. They are, though, wonderful bits of writing. Short, often vignette-like; this is poetry as its simplest, rawest, funniest, most surprising.

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. 

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.