Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.

9780195371857

In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link

 

The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.
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Review of “Albert of Adelaide”, Howard L Anderson, SF Site, 2012

Original here. `And I must confess that until I stumbled across it I had forgotten reading this book or writing this review.

The anthropomorphised animal is a staple of children’s media, especially TV shows and films, so much so that we barely notice it. Even such paradoxes as why Goofy can speak but Pluto can’t pass by unnoticed; so familiar is the technique of humanising animals that giving them a pet, even of the same species, is a logical progression. Adult-focused anthropomorphic fictions are rarer, at least in literature (though not in mythology) and tend towards fable and allegory. From Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, anthropomorphism is used to smuggle in or sweeten unpalatable observations on human society. Sometimes this results in great literature, but more often modern allegories are clumsy and po-faced.

Albert of Adelaide tells the story of the eponymous platypus, an escapee from Adelaide Zoo, and his adventures in Old Australia, which he had previously idealised as a human-free paradise. Albert is haunted and infuriated by memories of his captivity, and the perpetual eyes watching his every movement. Further back, his capture from a simple life along the Murray River was even more traumatic.

The story begins with Albert, days march north from Adelaide, delirious and seeming ready to die. He encounters Jack, a wombat who rescues him and becomes his companion of the initial part of the narrative; Jack gives Albert canned sardines, makes camp with him, and clothes him. Jack also brings him to a remote general store/saloon called Ponsby Station, run by Sing Sing O’Hanlin, a vicious kangaroo. Here Albert’s strangeness both attracts the unwanted attention of other customers and becomes a protective factor, setting a pattern for the rest of the story.

What follows is a curious tale of Albert’s wanderings through the landscape of Old Australia, with various fauna as anthropomorphised friends or antagonists, with his captivity and prior capture still haunting him. Howard L Anderson does a good job of capturing some of the frontier spirit of Australia (it is somewhat difficult to work out when the story is set) which remains, for all its cosmopolitan cities, a land of huge untamed territories. His prose style is generally clear and engaging, and sometimes unobtrusively lyrical although the richness of the Australian argot is rarely captured (the characters do sporadically deliver themselves of such Ozisms as “fair dinkum”).

But what does it all add up to? Unlike Watership Down, to which the book is compared on the blurb, Anderson does not construct an elaborate platypus-centred world view, and with the animals wielding guns, operating saloons and toting backpacks there is no claim to any kind of natural history verisimilitude of even the most rudimentary kind. The characters occasionally indulge in observations on “difference” and “otherness” which are uniformly trite, and Albert’s self-reflections similarly fall flat. Albert is something of a cipher; one feels that Anderson intends him as a sort of accidental picaresque hero but his characterisation is not developed enough. There is a pointlessness about the whole endeavour which ultimately left me rather cold.

Review of “Kafkaesque” edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, SF Site, 2012

I previously blogged a shorter piece, adapted from this review, on Kafka and alternate history. Here is a full review of what was an enjoyable book to read,

:

“Kafkaesque” is a word used very often to describe bureaucratic snafus and paradoxes. Even people who have never read a word of Kafka use it to describe their encounter with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or airport security. So pervasive has “Kafkaesque” become that it has nearly lost its link with the works of Franz Kafka. When it comes to trying to summarise this wonderful anthology, I have something of a dilemma. I would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who has ever read any Kafka (even — perhaps especially — if they didn’t like the experience), but what about those for whom Kafkaesque is a noun they use but Kafka is not someone they’ve read?

On reflection, the answer is yes. This anthology — which after all includes Kafka’s own “The Hunger Artist,” and a version of the same story by R. Crumb — is both an ideal introduction to Kafka’s writings and an surpassingly excellent anthology in its own right. An ideal introduction as the stories capture the strangeness, wonder, despair and humour which Kafka’s work exemplifies (often all at the same time). And an excellent anthology in its own right as stories such as Jeffrey Ford’s “Bright Morning” and T.C. Boyle’s “The Big Garage” would be worthy inclusions in any collection of speculative, surreal, slipstream-ish (not to nail the genre coffin lid on too tight) stories.

This beautifully designed little volume consists of eighteen stories (as well as a witty, insightful introduction from the editors, and a handy Kafka chronology) each of which is preceded by a brief piece from the story’s author on Kafka’s influence on them and the story. After each story the editors provide their thoughts on the story. So what we have is a sort of extension of the anthology concept. Not only does each story itself reflect and deepen our reading of Kafka, the authors’ and editors’ contributions deepen our appreciation not just of the story, or of Kafka, but of the whole web of influences and reflections that every author exists in.

In a famous essay, “Kafka and His Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges identified a diverse band of stories, poems and essays which bore the mark of Kafka. They were an assorted bunch — Browning, Kierkegaard, Léon Bloy, Zeno of the eponymous paradox inter alia. As Borges wrote, these were not necessarily authors we would have linked were it not for Kafka. Yet there is unmistakably something of the Kafka spirit about the works he discusses. Kafka creates his precursors, as much as his precursors created him. His work modified our perception of the past, as it will modify that of the future.

Of course, our perception of Kafka is modified by our own preoccupations and concerns. Kafka’s own work never contains the word “Jew” and explicit consideration of Jewishness is absent. Many of the stories in this collection deal with themes of Jewishness. Our contemporary concern with ethnicity and diversity is surely part of this; more significant may be the Holocaust. Kafka’s work is often seen as a prefiguration of the totalitarianisms of the Twentieth Century, and also as a premonition of the attempted industrial extermination of a whole population. Orson Welles, in his film version of The Trial, described his final scene as an explicit invocation of the Holocaust; we read Kafka now in the shadow of an event that began fourteen years after he died. Tamar Yellin’s excellent “Kafka in Bronteland” explores Kafka’s Jewishness — and the narrator’s — in a way that is never strained or (despite what one might think from the title) overly “literary.” It is the final story in the anthology and one that has a real sense of compressed power, a sense of being a summing up that opens up new possibilities.

I am being rather perverse discussing the final story first. Some of the stories, such as Borges’ own “The Lottery in Babylon” and J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant,” are Kafkaesque in spirit. Others, such as Carol Emshwiller’s “Report to the Men’s Club,” Damon Knight’s “The Handler” and Boyle’s “The Big Garage” use Kafkaian tropes and themes (with varying degrees of explicitness) but do not invoke Franz by name. Of course, as readers we may think we are finding allusions when the author hasn’t meant there to be. Eileen Gunn, in her reflection on her insect transformation story “Stable Strategies For Middle Management,” describes how her inspiration came from a particularly anthropomorphic sentence from David Attenborough’s Life On Earth: A Natural History. It was only later, discussing her work on the story with a writer friend, that she realised the Kafkaian parallels. And now the story takes its place in an anthology of stories “inspired by Franz Kafka.”

Another strain — and possibly the stories which Kafka aficionados will perhaps get more out of than the Kafka virgin — is the story in which Kafka and his works feature directly. I have to say these were the stories I enjoyed most myself — and in their invention and wit, I personally feel confident that the hypothetical person who had never read a word of Kafka would too. “Bright Morning” is a perfect example, a tale which Jeffrey Ford wrote partly to exorcise the overwhelming influence of Kafka, which combines weird wit, vampirism, and a very literary ghost story into a package that may be the most haunting short story I’ve read all year. Johnathan Lethem and Carter Scholz’s “Receding Horizon” has Kafka survive his tuberculosis and cross the Atlantic, changes his name to Jack Dawson, become a screenwriter and work with his near-namesake Frank Capra. The story becomes a retelling of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Quentin Tarantino said once that what he found really interesting about Capra’s seasonal tale of Everyman realising his indispensability was not the redemptive ending but the despair and alienation of George Bailey. Lethem and Scholz insert themselves into the narrative in the best metafictional tradition, yet the whole thing works and never seems overly contrived or clever-clever.

Scholz, as a solo writer, is represented by “The Amount to Carry,” which takes Kafka’s day job in the insurance industry and imagines him crossing the Atlantic (a recurrent theme of quite a few of these stories) to attend a conference where he meets his fellow insurance professionals Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens. Lethem and Scholz have co written a book of five stories on Kafka in America, Kafka Americana, published originally by Subterranean Press and republished by W.W. Norton.

Paul di Fillipo’s “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” (at this point the reader may be interested to know that kavka is the Czech for “jackdaw”) is perhaps the wildest, most fun reimagining of the real Franz Kafka, this time as a caped crusader against crime in New York. Kafka writes for a newspaper owned by Bernarr Macfadden, a historical figure I had never heard of and I am eternally grateful to di Fillipo that now I have.

What this collection is, above all, is entertaining. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Kafka is actually very funny, which is not what one is usually meant by the popular word “Kafkaesque.” As Rudy Rucker, author of gothic identify-shift of “The 57th Franz Kafka,” observes in his pre-story reflection: “Kafka himself considered his stories to be funny. His friend Max Brod reports that Kafka once fell out of his chair from laughing so hard while reading aloud from one of his works, perhaps from Die Verwandlung, that is, ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Our puritanical and self-aggrandizing American culture tends to make out Kafka’s work to be solemn and portentous. But it’s funny the same way as Donald Duck comics.”

The one literary work I thought might have been included but wasn’t was an excerpt from Alan Bennet’s play Kafka’s Dick, or Bennet’s mordantly witty introduction, which explored the legacy of Max Brod and what it means to be talented and hard working yet overshadowed by genius (I do not know enough about Brod’s real life to know if this reflects reality, or if it is a Amadeus style myth).

Beautifully designed, typeset and presented, it is an example of what superb artefacts physical books can be. Even the less engaging or entertaining stories manage to provoke thought, to be part of a great conversation between Kafka, the authors, the editors, and ourselves. Borges described how Kafka both created and was created by his precursors; the stories in this anthology are not only to be read in the shadow of Kafka but modify our own perception of the master.

I posted this review of “How To Build An Android: The True Story of Philip K Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” by David Dufty on the SF Site in 2013 – I originally reblogged this on the fairly quiet A Medical Education, but here it is on my more popular blog….:

 

How to Build an Android:
The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection
David F. Dufty
Henry Holt and Company, 273 pages

Just over seven years ago, the head of Philip K Dick went missing from an America West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. A tired roboticist, transferring the talking robotic replication of Dick’s head from one tech presentation to another, left it in an overhead baggage locker. An incident which has already inspired a radio play (Gregory Whitehead’sBring Me The Head of Philip K Dick) and received substantial media coverage at the time, it initially seemed to me somewhat too slight to merit book-length treatment. Perhaps a long piece in Wired would do it justice. And indeed, surveying what other reviewers have made of the book (David F. Dufty has handily compiled prior reviews, including poor ones, on his website), I find that some have concluded with my initial impression. For instance, New Scientist‘s Sally Adee found “50 pages of detailed historical introductions to every last person involved in the android project… Dufty recounts conversations in exhausting detail, and finds nothing too small or insignificant to share with the reader: we learn where the Starbucks is at several convention centres, we learn of one room that “the frame was made out of timber.” We learn that Google created a famous search engine.”

I however found Adee’s criticism unfair, and somewhat beside the point. Dufty, a postdoc in the University of Memphis at the same time as many of the events described and therefore working with many of the personalities involved, has crafted a readable narrative which ranges from the nature of academic politics (and the grant applications that take up most of any senior researchers time) to the distinctions between Alan Turing’s and Philip K Dick’s visions of what distinguishes — or could distinguish — computers from humans. In the end, the book dealt with weighty themes, some of the weightiest themes we can think of. As Henry Markham of the Blue Brain project so eloquently describes in his TED talk on the subject, computational simulation of the human brain is one of the grandest challenges we can conceive (and possibly an unattainable one, although that’s another debate) Dufty may have a somewhat flat, deadpan style, but it reminded me of the dictum (possibly one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s) that extraordinary narratives should have an unadorned, simple style.

If the book has a protagonist, it is the man who left the head in the overhead luggage compartment on that fateful flight, David Hanson, a trained sculptor turned roboticist who passionately argued — contra to the prevailing wisdom in the robotics community that aesthetics don’t matter — that beautiful and lifelike humanoid robots were crucial in the development of robots that would truly revolutionise our lives. Hanson emphatically rejected the notion of the “uncanny valley,” the supposed phenomenon whereby, as robotic models and digital representations of humans come closer and closer to being lifelike (while missing the mark slightly), we are more and more repulsed. Intuitively the uncanny valley makes sense to many, yet as Hanson has pointed out there is a lack of empirical evidence to support its existence.

Artificial intelligence has evolved to become focused on specific tasks, often those of intellectual prowess (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) rather than the overall simulation of human mental functioning in all its manifestations. This has lead to great, headline-catching successes (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) but has arguably lead away from a visionary, transformational view of the possibilities of AI. Hanson advocates approach to robotics grounded more in a gestalt view of humanity and human-ness than the mere performance of tasks in isolation, and one which emphasises the aesthetic nature of the whole android concept. For Hanson, leaps of scientific progress are as much artistic and aesthetic as anything else. Dufty describes the combination of sculpting craft and high tech that goes into the creation of a Hanson style robot very well.

Philip K Dick was an ideal candidate for potential immortalisation as a robot head in many ways. Obviously, his fiction had dealt explicitly with themes of humanity and humanoid robots, and the difficulty distinguishing between them. Empathy, rather than Turing’s imitable intellectual functioning, was the key. Dick has become more than a cult figure and is now widely regarded as a key American author of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Any Dick related project will garner attention, and the project coincided with the production of the Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly, and indeed was identified as a publicity aid for the film. Also, Dick’s reputation as a sort of neo-gnostic eccentric meant that elliptical or cryptic responses which might otherwise be seen as failures of artificial intelligence would be seen as just typical Philip K Dick.

Another characteristic of Dick made him an ideal subject for such a project. Although he was dead and therefore his head couldn’t be directly modelled from life, there was a vast archive of conversations he had had with all comers in his California bungalow in the 70s, when his house had been a sort of perpetual symposium of dropouts and outcasts with whom he would hold court. These conversations covered a vast range of topics, esoteric and everyday, which allowed the team to create a bank of possible responses to a great deal of questions. They also programmed some standard responses to questions such as “what is your name?” They never programmed Dick with a response to “do androids dream of electric sheep?”

The head was a hit at the various conferences and exhibitions it was displayed at, to the extent that each member of the public who patiently queued up to meet it could only have a minute or two of interaction. Dick’s daughters were consulted about the project, and after being convinced of the good intentions of those involved agree, but had an understandable ambivalence about it. The head did tend to get caught in infinite verbal loops, which the roboticists tried to manage by creating a “kill switch” to terminate logorrheic conversations. In its exhibited life the head was, to a certain degree, something of a Mechanical Turk, with a human behind the scenes desperately trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneous conversation.

I was reading the English psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissaryaround the same time as Dufty’s book. McGilchrist’s book is a massive, sweeping, visionary book which argues that the division between the two hemispheres of the brain — the one which is grossly simplified into the dichotomy of logical left brain and creative right brain — has been not only a determinant of human history and culture but THE great determinant. McGilchrist has marshalled an enormously impressive range of philosophical, empirical, artistic and other forms of evidence for his argument, and while it is not utterly persuasive in all respects and hemispherical specialisation is itself far from a binary, dichotomous phenomenon, it is a book worth arguing with. In any case, McGilchrist again and again assails what he terms the left-brain tendency towards decontextualized analysis and away from an appreciation of holistic and of nuance. Artificial Intelligence’s turn to a task-focused approach is, in McGilchrist’s terms, a classic case of the triumph of the left brain.

Dufty’s book is deceptive. Initially it seems a rather bald account of the story of Dick’s head, but it builds into a thought-provoking book. Dufty marries the exciting, speculative world of contemporary AI and robotics with the prosaic reality of grant applications and presentations at noisy, busy, conferences. There is an amusing thread of Talking Heads references throughout — indeed David Byrne is a not insignificant player in the story . One of these references is slightly off the mark though — while Talking Heads did do a version of “Take Me To The River,” it is originally an Al Green song. Why does this come up? You’ll have to read the book to see.

 

 

Review of “Tom Harris”, Stefan Themerson, Nthposition/SF Site 2011

This review originally reviewed on the now defunct nthposition.com, and with a few tweaks re appeared on  SF Site  which is still online but not active. Re-reading this review, I recall enjoying this book and finding the formal innovations were in harmony with the story, rather than seeming artificial:

Successful novelists are impresarios. I choose the word “impresario” deliberately, rather than, say, “theatre director,” because of its connotations of old-school music hall theatre and indeed rather hard-headed commercialism (oh, and by “successful”, I mean of course successful in achieving the objective of the writing, even if that objective be abstract or unknown to the author, rather than any commercial consideration). As he wrote the sequence of novels that would become known as the Sword of Honour trilogy, Evelyn Waugh found himself creating one of the immortal comic characters of twentieth-century literature — the thunder-box owning old soldier Apthorpe. A secondary character who threatens to overwhelm the action, Sibthorp shuffles off the stage, victim of tropical illness, relatively early in the sequence. Waugh compares the decision to that of an impresario knowing when a beloved, but perhaps domineering, character should leave the stage. The novelist-as-impresario may seem an unusual, even irrelevant comparison for an avant-garde or experimental or modernist writer. Yet the successful writer of experimental fiction will have more in common with the old-fashioned creator of “well-made” novels than one might think.

Tom Harris has the form of a detective story, one that consistently throws the reader off kilter, does not allow complacency or certainty, yet a detective story nevertheless. A detective thriller, even. A detective story that suddenly breaks down, for this is a book of two halves, the second very different from the first. Some questions are answered but most aren’t. This is no classic whodunnit, partly because we don’t quite know whatwozit in the first place.

We begin with an unnamed, unknown narrator, recounting the time in 1938 he waited outside Paddington Station where the eponymous Harris was being interrogated. Why? And why do his interrogators let him go, to take the train to a small village where Harris has a mysterious encounter with a woman and her lover — followed by the narrator and two detectives? We don’t find out, at least not at this early stage. On his return to London, Harris manages to purchase a monkey and to break the invisible barrier between himself, the men trailing him, and our narrator.

Next we are in Milan, Spring 1963, and our narrator is on a train. Opposite an older man and a younger woman canoodled — “to me, they looked refreshing. Especially as just the day before, a young Italian poet, whose father owned a cinema and whose sister was a teacher, had sighed and said his grandfather was the happiest of us all: a peasant in Calabria. This remark whetted my appetite for any human being that looked happy; all in vain… til I saw them.” We soon discover this happiness is illusory too. This is one of the recurrent themes of the book — the disparity between appearance and reality, especially in the everyday way we make judgements and decisions based entirely on initial appearances. Why do we see some faces as “noble,” “honest,” “kind,” etc. and others as their opposites? Mirrors, appearances, beauty, truth, goodness — all are in the mix. Harris himself is a detective, a self-appointed one whose mission is to discover the truth behind appearances. Or is it?

This is to jump ahead, to mix the detective story style plot with the later metaphysical speculations of Tom Harris. Perhaps this jumping ahead is appropriate. The rest of part one is an enjoyable read, an immersion into a world of passion and intrigue, set in Northern Italy around the time of the death of Pope John XXIII. Part two consists of attempted reconstructions by the narrator of Tom Harris’s notebooks. The stream-of-consciousness of Harris’s notebooks (or rather, our narrator’s reconstruction of those, we think) would not be nearly as effective without the intrigue of the first section. As it is, Tom Harris’s thoughts are fascinating, irritating, sometimes a little boring, answering some of the questions posed by the first half of the book but by no means all or many.

Tom Harris, we learn eventually, was a working class boy, “a dull boy,” who had exactly the kind of face people expect to be coarse and stupid, who rather liked being thought dull because people tended to leave one alone and therefore drifted out of school into hairdressing. He stole an encyclopaedia once which becomes the foundation for his transformation into an autodidact. His thought processes, as represented in the reconstruction, have the fascinating, tangential, somewhat obsessional quality that the self-educated often have.

A few words on the author, one who is largely unknown but has his knot of devoted devotees. Themerson was Polish, who during the First World War lived in Russia with his parents before returning to Poland after the Revolution. He began and then abandoned studies in physics and architecture, but left both to devote himself to avant garde film making. In 1938, he moved to Paris and thence to London. He successively wrote in Polish, French and English. Like his compatriot Conrad, his achievement in not merely mastering but excelling in a foreign tongue is humbling. And in some respects, while Conrad’s English always bore a somewhat French, abstracted stamp, Themerson has the demotic quality of Harris’s inner monologue and of English discourse down perfectly. You can believe that the younger Harris is a man of the 30s, while the narrator is one of the early 60s. Themerson and his wife founded and ran Gaberbocchus Press, whose mission was to produced “best-lookers rather than best-sellers” and published Jarry and Queneau in translation. Gaberbocchus became a sort of collective at which artists, scientists, philosophers and others could meet and discuss common ground. Tom Harris and the unnamed narrator, as well as other characters, reflect these preoccupations, and there is an eerily predictive quality to some of the discussion of neural nets and what sounds like chaos theory.

From a literary point of view, the experimental features seem necessary and organic to the story. There is experimentation, there are games played with narration, with characters overlapping — but none seems like a literary game. The detective thriller touches suit the theme, just as the stream of consciousness does. Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the novelist-as-impresario is that you cannot see the joins, that the work seems as logical and necessary as a theorem. Tom Harrisamply succeeds on those terms. Even if, reading purely hedonistically, the latter stages in which we enter Harris’s febrile, disjointed, creative and rather sad thought-world are harder work than the elegant, William Gerhardiesque world of absurdity and chaos of the first part, it is worth persisting with. Part of me wonders if the whole was written in the style of the first half, would it have been overall more successful as a novel — but perhaps then Harris’s mind would never have been unveiled for the reader. Bertrand Russell — who struck up an epistolary friendship with Themerson in the last years of his life — described another novel of Themerson’s as “nearly as mad as the world.” Tom Harris — the novel — is nearly as chaotic and exciting and sad and lonely as life.

Review of “The Raw Shark Texts”, Steven Hall

A book from way back in 2007 which I initially reviewed for Nthposition and then a slightly different form on SF Site.

A relatively grumpy review. From his Wikipedia page, it seems Steven Hall’s main focus now is writing for games and ads such as Nike’s “The Last Game.” Which about fits.

Edgar Allen Poe was once described by James Russell Lowell as “three-fifths genius, two-fifths sheer fudge” (and who reads James Russell Lowell today, one might ask?). It might be a stretch to call any segment of The Raw Shark Texts genius, but the second three-fifths certainly pass the fudge test. The first 130 pages, however, are gripping. “Gripping” is one of those over-used terms of critical (or indeed sub-critical, being largely a staple of the blurb writer) praise, but every so often a piece of prose exerts a physical power to keep one reading. The Raw Shark Texts has this in spades, until typographic tricksiness and rather stale pseudo-avant garde ideas about texts and communication intervene.

We begin with Eric Sanderson. He wakes in an ordinary yet unfamiliar suburban house to a new life, in the literal sense of dissociative amnesia. He finds a card from “The First Eric Sanderson,” the man he was, giving him directions to a local psychologist, Dr. Randle. She tells him he has dissociative amnesia, and in a neat scene explains the condition very well:

Can you give me a line from Casablanca?” (asked Dr. Randle)
“Sorry?”
“A line from Casablanca”
I was in danger of being seriously left behind but I did what I was told.
“‘Of all the gin joints in all the world, she has to walk into mine.'”
“Good,” Randle nodded. “And who says that?”

“Bogart. Rick. The character or the actor?”
“It doesn’t matter. Can you picture him saying it?”
“Yes.”
“Is the film in colour or in black and white?”
“It’s black and white. He’s sitting with a drink at…”
“And when was the last time you saw Casablanca?”
My mouth opened and an almost-sound happened in the back of my throat. But I didn’t have an answer.
“You see? All that seems to be missing, Eric, is you.”

The Raw Shark Texts is generally written in a rather matey, blokey style. In the beginning, this is part of the appeal, reinforcing the what-if-this-was-me effect that most adventure stories evoke. However, as the book comes by, and especially as the mythological and semiotic baggage gets heavier (more of which anon), the style grates. At first, however, it captures perfectly the suburban dullness of Sanderson’s house and town:

I walked over to the bedroom window. The outside world was a long street and a facing row of terraced houses. There were regular lamp posts, irregular telegraph posts and the sounds of a distant busy road — constant car engine hum, truck band-clatter and occasional bass box thump, but — I squashed my nose up against the glass and looked left and right — no people. It was a cloudy day, grey and edgeless.

Apparently it’s been claimed on the internet that Sanderson’s house is in Derby, England.

Dr. Randle attempts to counsel Eric, but further postings from the First Eric Sanderson warn him off the increasingly sinister psychologist. I don’t want to set the scene too much more, as these early chapters, with their sense of menace amidst mundanity, are by far the best of the book. In the early films of M. Night Shyamalan, the thrill was seeing a hoary comic-book conceit worked out in humdrum everyday life. In Unbreakable, we saw what having superhuman powers might mean in everyday, dull life. What holds the attention so viscerally in the early pages of The Raw Shark Texts is how closely Eric Sanderson’s attempts to make sense of his life tally with our own attempts to make sense of what is going.

Reviewers of the book have gone straight to the multiplex (the headline of Tom McCarthy’s generally approving review in the London Review of Books) in search of anchors of comparison. On the blurb, we have Mark Haddon pronouncing it “the bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The Da Vinci Code” while other anonymous critics invoke Jaws, Donnie Darko and Memento. A particularly hysterical Scotsman raves “Steven Hall’s brilliance aspires to Bach”, which is putting it pretty steep. As McCarthy observes in the LRB, the book reads like a movie treatment, and a less than innovative one in these post-Matrix days when Reality Is Not What It Seems has become one of the great clichés.

The slew of movie comparisons provides a clue as to why I felt so let down by The Raw Shark Texts. The 130 pages read like watching Memento — the heady sense of disorientation accompanying the gradual development of personal theories about what the hell is going on. “Tricksy” isn’t always a pejorative term, and Memento showed how a hoary old convention — the “experimental” or “non-linear” narrative — can sometimes enhance a plot, especially what is essentially a mystery or whodunnit. The problem is, Memento told a fundamentally simple story of lost love and of corruption. The Raw Shark Texts includes a simple story of lost love and bereavement, but actually tells a story of conceptual sharks.

Yes, you can’t beat an old conceptual shark story, can you? As an aside, I’m not ruining anything by telling you that Jaws is referenced and more than referenced pretty heavily throughout the book. These sharks are virtual and yet not virtual, for the world itself is virtual. Virtual sharks are made from bits and pieces of the detritus of human interactions. Eric is cursed by, or rather with, a Ludovician. A Ludovician is the Great White of the conceptual shark world, feasting on memories and thoughts belonging to a vulnerable mind.

How does the Ludovician manifest itself in The Raw Shark Texts? Firstly, in the relatively old fashioned means of purplish prose:

The dark shape glides up into the flow of conversations and stories, swims through the word-hum of packed Saturday night bars, circles the loops and edges of exchanged mobile numbers.
A telephone call is misdialed and, miles away, my unconscious self shifts in sleep, disturbed by a ringing bell.
From four degrees of separation, the shadow under the water catches the scent. A curved, rising signifier, a black idea fin of momentum and intent cuts through the distance between us in a spray of memes.

Heavy, eh? But more directly, we get to see the Ludovician, as well as a variety of less fearsome conceptual fish, in textual format. In the manner of the self-conscious conceptual cul-de-sac that was concrete poetry, pages and pages of the book are festooned with gobbets of text made up to look like sharks.

There is a sterility to these typographical experiments that leaks into the human story of the book. Once you’ve seen one shark made up of characters on the page, you’ve seen them all. Readers who persist with The Raw Shark Texts and who, like me, are tiring somewhat of the whole proceedings can be of good cheer. Towards the end — just at the stage when you have read so far that ’tis more tedious to go back than to go o’er — we are treated to 40-odd nearly blank pages. Blank except for flick-book style representations of a looming shark coming closer and closer.

To return to the plot, once the conceptual sharks appear, the taut mystery of the early pages disappears, and we embark on a rather tedious exercise in a thriller of memes. Essentially, Eric Sanderson goes in search of Dr. Trey Fidorous, a supposed expert in the conceptual shark world. His search is aided by Scout, a girl of the irritating pseudo-sassiness with which male writers encumber their attempts at strong young female characters with. It turns out that Scout has been stricken with Mycroft Ward. Mycroft Ward (note the hat-tip to Mycroft Holmes) was a Victorian who vowed to cheat death. This proved physically impossible but psychically quite straightforward — Ward cataloguing the key aspects of his persona, and then transferring them to a widowed doctor, who in later life began to repeat the process with two other subjects. The personality of Mycroft Ward begins to take over more and more people, and becomes an online entity, a gigantic self feasting off the selves of others. The only thing that can destroy Ward is the Ludovician. Imaginative readers can perhaps work out the terms of the final, Jaws-influenced climactic battle. Baffled readers will probably never bother finding out.

The mythical ballast is as heavy as the conceptual one. The first Eric’s girlfriend is called Clio (muse of memory, don’t you know) The tender, funny, ordinary love story sequences are set on Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne. There’s a boat called the Orpheus. Was it Philip Larkin who objected to the lazy use of classical allusion to evoke what should properly be described? Hall is trying too hard to give his love story some resonance, to act as a balance to the conceptual sharks and Mycroft Ward and such. It may make more sense in the multiplex, where the conceptual sharks may find their natural home in the world of CGI, but on the page they remind one once again that the avant-garde tricks of the early 20th century were an artistic blind alley. The genie’s bottle that is Reality Is Not What It Seems is a little like the “It Was All A Dream” ending that all schoolchildren are taught to avoid for their stories — it imposes a narrative sterility, making it hard to take anything entirely seriously. When everything is possible, nothing is at stake. When nothing is at stake, all the fish in the conceptual ocean won’t make your story interesting.

(This review first appeared on nthposition.com.)

“the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation” – my thoughts on “record store books”, March 17th 2005 SAU Blog

On St Patrick’s Day 2005 this piece appeared on the SAU Blog. It is somewhat in the spirit of my grumpy thoughts on book clubs from 2006 in the same online publication. Re-reading it, I didn’t lake for definitive pontification – see my dismissal of Catch-22 below.

Have things changed? Alas, conformist anti-conformity is even more prevalent now. Of course, the record store is now an endangered species. James Hamilton’s comment, the first on the site, is on one level of its time, on another as relevant as ever in our age of bourgeous-bohemian virtue signalling:

I too have wondered why record shops should stock those books in particular. I can only come up with one, rather weak, explanation. The supersized record shops of today sell what approximates to every CD, in every genre. Thus, everyone shops there at one point or another. How to stay “edgy” and countercultural, therefore? The books serve as a sign to the customers that the (huge, corporate) store they are in is, in spite of appearances, against “the man”; it’s as young and fancy-free as they are.
I’ve never actually seen anyone buy a book in one of these places, which lends some substance, if not much, to that view of things.

Anyway, here is the review:

“Airport novel” is a derogatory term conjuring up images of the latest Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy schlockbuster piled up high in Terminal B. It is shorthand for a weighty pot-boiler with just enough sex and violence scattered throughout to make Heathrow to JFK bearable. Mass travel has brought about changes in reading habits – the French had their romans du gare. My own reading is perhaps too much influenced by commuting on the bus. If there was such a thing as the “bus novel”, it would be a bitty work, divided into handy chunks that one can read between stops, with a typeface large enough that one doesn’t lose one’s place when jostled.

“Airport novel” seems an obsolete term now, although the masters of the genre continue to churn them out; anyone who has been in an airport recently will know that the bookshops now resemble the average high street emporium. Surprising, serendipitous titles may not lurk on every overlit shelf, but neither do airport book stores stock only the soon-to-be-a-major-movie books. There are a lot of self help books of varying quality, from the sensible to the silly, and how-to-make-a-million-by-next-week type books – but after all every bookshops’ Mind, Body, Spirit section (what a curious formulation!) is equally groaning with stock.

Record stores, increasingly, don’t just sell musical recordings. Video games, DVDs and assorted hi-fi paraphrenalia are also available; indeed, Our Price dropped “Records” from the end of their name some years back to emphasise the fact that they sold far more than records. “Record store” is, therefore, perhaps something of a misnomer nowadays. Nevertheless, the record store gives a good idea of what media is aimed squarely at the all-important yoof demographic.

Most largeish record shops now sell books. And far more than “airport books”, record store books share a grim homogeneity and sameness that depresses, especially when one considers that this, one supposes, is in someway characteristic of “my generation” (I’m 26).

There is a surface diversity to the subject matter of record shop books. Naturally, there are a lot of books about popular music. The vast majority are either bland pap or wildly pretentious pap, although there are some gems (such as Peter Guralnick’s rise and fall of Elvis diptych – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presleyand Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) amongst the dross. It is always an interesting exercise to pick up any magazine devoted to popular music – especially the more ostentatiously “intellectual” of them – and read the reviews therein. Adjectives pile up, awkward metaphors and similes congeal together – lacking the common language that enable writers on classical music to at least communicate something, however imperfectly, about the music they described. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac, it’s not writing, it’s typing.

But just as music is less and less important to the activities of the record store, books about music are less represented in bookstores than one would assume. Increasingly dominant are books about gangsters, drugs and football hooligans. Some, such as Howard Marks’ hugely popular Mr Nice, combine one or more of these categories. Someone once told Alan Coren that the most popular categories in publishing were golf, cats and Nazism; thus his next work was entitled Golfing For Cats and featured a putter-wielding moggy wearing a Nazi uniform on the cover. I presume a book on a drug-dealing gangland boss-cum-football hooligan has been done – if not, a fortune looms for the reader who wishes to steal the idea.

Novels sold in record stores are either written by stand-up comedians or are “cult” novels. “Cult”, of course, has become a completely meaningless term. In Your Face Here, their rather repetitive account of various “cult” British films (repetitive because it follows a predictable pattern – underappreciated British genius makes transcendent film underappreciated at the time only to gain later “culthood”), Ali Catterall and Simon Wells describe how the makers of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels deliberately set out to make a cult movie. “Cult” novels include some awful stinkers, such as the wildly overrated Catch-22 (the same not terribly funny joke told again and again and again. And again.) and such ludicrous “counter cultural” tosh as The Dice Man.

Then we come to the what could be called the anti-Bush, anti-capitalist shelves. Michael Moore is one of the great capitalists of our age, for he has made a wildly successful career through giving the people what they want. The shelves of all bookshops groan with his many imitators, all hoping to get in on the immensely lucrative isn’t-America-terrible-bandwagon. A few years ago, most of these books would have had slickly-designed covers and been written by photogenic young women (cf. Naomi Klein), and decried the West’s suicidal obsession with slicky-designed, photogenic branding and such evils. Now, would-be zany cover montages and clumsily wacky titles abound. The anti-American bestseller now is a cousin of the McCarthy’s Bar type book, a constant and ingratiating barrage of jocularity that ultimately exhausts.

There are some other categories of book one comes across in a record store. Tower Records have shelves groaning with occult manuals of various kinds, and books about tattoos. They also have a section of erotica, which looks to be anything but erotic in any meaningful sense.

Why is all this so saddening? For all the surface variety of theme and tone, record shop books are truly homogenous. Like anything ostentatiously “alternative”, there is much more conformism here then anywhere else. These books are conformist aesthetically, socially, and politically. The books sold in record stores reflect the fact that self-conscious transgressive tastes are the most truly conservative of all.

There’s a real sense of ahistoricality about the shelves. Aside from a few novels of sufficient culthood (The Catcher in The RyePortrait of An Artist), nothing written before 1960 seems to feature. Unless they were lucky enough to enhance the gaiety of nations by using hallucinogenic drugs, ancient civilisations may as well not have existed. Religion exists to be debunked, or denigrated in the name of “spirituality”.

Contemplating the books available in a record store is a bit like contemplating what used to be called men’s magazines but now can only really be called lad’s magazines. Even the ones that used to be somewhat “quality” – GQEsquire – now plough the same thematic furrow. Men of around my age, it would seem, are only interested in clothes, pornography, gadgets, criminality, the acquisition of “rock hard abs” and more clothes. It’s not a comforting thought. Neither is it comforting to contemplate the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation.