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.

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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 Waxwing Slain – short story from Nthposition.com, 2004

 

This was the first story I had published on the now defunct nthposition.com. It owes a little too much to a certain J G Ballard story, but re-reading it I am rather favourably impressed with its spin on literary jealousy and ego.

 

 

THE WAXWING SLAIN

 

 

Traffic had been light, so running into a string of cars at the Goatstown crossroads was disappointing. I was driving against the main bulk of traffic coming away from Dublin, which had built up quite considerably – at least my line is small, I thought, as I looked at the solid mass of unmoving cars beside me, travelling in the other direction. It was High Summer, one of those days when the sun almost nauseates with a rancid, piercing light. Both my windows rolled down all the way, the airconditioning set to the highest setting – despite all this, the smell of melting plastic persisted.

As I eased into the end of the line of cars, indicating right for Stillorgan, I heard a strange sound which, nevertheless, nagged at the edge of familiarity. It took a moment to realise what it was. It was my own voice, reciting the poem which I had published a few months before, The Waxwing Slain. I must explain that this poem was not entirely my own work, though we’ll come to that later.

My voice was coming from about six or seven car stereo systems scattered among the line of traffic to my right. All the cars driving in the opposite direction also had their windows down. With recordings of The Waxwing Slain being played on stereos scattered at various points in the block of traffic, a kind of polyphonic speaker relay was set up. Each listener was at a different stage in the poem, though all were within a minute or so of the start. One driver actually started playing the recording just after I realised what was going on; the opening line, “I was the shadow of the Waxwing Slain/By the false azure on the windowpane” chimed into the ether. Most of the others were about a minute further along. All this created a canon effect. At certain points, just as in a musical canon, the babel of voices – my own voices – resolved into a harmonic. One came as I listened, deliberately keeping my gaze at the car in front of me to prevent recognition – the point when I read “Was it Sherlock Holmes who/Reversed his shoes?” I seemed to have read these lines with particular emphasis, and a succession of explosive “Was it“s came from the stereo relay.

It’s a platitude that one’s own voice sounds odd, sounds faintly ridiculous, when heard recorded. My own voice always sounded gloopy and bland to me, but this canon of Waxwings did not sound like my voice. It sounded robotic and musical at once, which was why it took me some time to recognise it as my own. Or, indeed, to recognise the words as my own (as they ostensibly were), although we’ll come to that later. Before I can tell you about my life as a literary success, I must tell you about my life as a literary failure.

The history of literature – the movements filled with lofty ideas, the endless manifestos and counter-manifestos, the all-too-serious sense of mission – can be considered a history of envy. Or rather a series of envies – between supposed friends and fellow writers. That has been my experience both as literary failure and success.

Since some stage in mid-adolescence impossible to pin down, I have considered myself a writer. And not just a writer, but an artist. A literary artist. The person who awoke my never-sleeping envy threatened that sense of self; because, at an age when I was still constructing elaborate fantasies of my glorious literary career, he had not only written but published three novels. And he stole my name.

The literary fantasist constructs an entire career in their reveries. The ecstatically received debut, a mould-breaking work that sets the tone for new fiction. Interviewers cast themselves worshipfully at the feet of my wit. Casual remarks that achieve the status of aphorisms. The speculation mounts for the second novel. Can he deliver? It hardly seems possible. That first novel, after all, was a stunning condensation of twenty-something years of experience and an eternity of timeless insight. And then the triumphant return, the sense of a richness and maturity that surpasses the previous work. The literary fantasist daydreams trenchant and controversial interviews that establish him at the peak of the profession.

Of course, the literary fantasist prefers to consider the interviews, the reviews, the covers, the blurbs far more than the actual business of sitting down to write. I saw “Andrew Browne” on covers and frontispieces, in an austere, tasteful font. I saw phrases like Andrew Browne… the best novelist of his generation, blurb quotes like “another triumph for Andrew Browne” or “it is not too soon in Andrew Browne’s career to proclaim him… possibly the best writer in the English language today.” I even, in time, imagined the name “Andrew Browne”, like JD Salinger, spurning these impedimenta of the literary-publicity complex and standing, naked and alone, on the cover of his books.

Imagine when a contemporary, and what’s worse, a somewhat despised contemporary, begins to achieve literary fame – perhaps not with the hyperbolic excesses of my imagination – but a genuine fame. What’s worse, imagine that contemporary has a name that differs only by a silent “e” from one’s own. Andrew Brown, a writer to watch this coming year. Andrew Brown’s third (third!) novel builds on the success of his previous work.

Andrew Brown and myself have much in common. We both are well-built, rather beefy in fact – and thereby give an impression of robust good health. We both look like hearty chaps, just about to head for a couple of steaks after a day’s rugby or rowing or foxhunting. This is not an advantage when one is spending one’s college years attempting to look like one is wrestling with the major issues of existence. Poets and philosophers are stereotypically consumptive, anguished looking fellows, and the literary fantasist is a great man for stereotype.

We were both members of the college literary club, under the auspices of which weekly meetings were held. Here dreadful poems on loss of faith and tepid prose vignettes of drunkenness would be read out, before the real fun began of praise or blame, carefully considered for maximum impact. Both Andrew Brown(e)s kept silent; I wrote some poems that were read out anonymously and unjustifiably excoriated. He probably did too.

I got to know Andrew Brown from the trips to the student bar after these evenings. The underlying discontent with the literary club we shared must have drawn us to each other, that and the shyness with girls neither of us ever really shed. It was a long time before me realised that we shared a surname – he went by “Andy” those days, whereas I have always been an Andrew, irreducible to any diminutive. Andy, as (for the sake of clarity) I will refer to him, was never less than friendly and polite to me. In the early days of our friendship, I saw this friendliness and politeness as fear, as symptomatic of an inner weakness. Of course, I was still at that adolescent stage (that some never leave) that confuses obnoxiousness and arrogance with strength.

Andy was generally unpretentious, but he had a small stock of what I would call “party pieces.” These were declamations on some literary or aesthetic subject that he had, evidently, rehearsed before, probably alone. I heard some at least four or five times. One particular favourite was provoked by any discussion of the alleged decline of literature. These discussions are of course beloved throughout the ages – the self-selected few, mourning the unstoppable conquest of barbarism, derive great pleasure from the thought that they alone keep the flame of culture burning. The barbarians are always at that gate. Andy was rightly sceptical of this. One of the passages of his monologue concerned the trivialities the authors of antiquity concerned themselves with (this was part of an argument that any contemporary fixation with trivia was nothing new) – “the great themes – the transformation of people into animals and animals into people, various sexual positions, the glorification of whoever happened to be paying the writer at that particular moment…” Like all similar monologues, delivered with an air of authority it managed to convince the listener that here was someone who knew what he was talking about.

I kept in touch with Andy in a desultory way after graduation – an email or text message every couple of months, meeting in Dublin every four months or so for strained conversation revolving around mutual acquaintances. We both eventually started work in jobs hardly commensurate with our Bohemian leanings; he as a sales rep for a drug company, I as part of the public relations team of a major bank.

One day I got a text message from Andy, obviously not sent to me individually but sent to many, telling me that his first novel was to published three months later by a major international publisher. There would be celebratory drinks in the Stag’s Head the following Friday. It was the first I had heard of a novel, let alone that it was ready for publication.

In the Stag’s Head on Friday an assortment of hangers-on, people from college neither of us had seen in years turned out. I was surprised that there was hardly anyone from Andy’s life beyond college. In that crowd, I suddenly realised, it was very possible that I was Andy’s closest friend.

The novel was called Sweet Science, a solid, well-crafted story of a failed boxer’s decline and fall. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, although nothing (to my thinking) particularly memorable either. While I congratulated Andy to his face, privately I felt confident that whenever I would finally get round to writing a novel, it would make far more of a mark.

With his second, Land of Lost Content, Andy began to garner more serious attention. It was an inventive variation on that most worn-out of topics, the coming-of-age story. It followed the conventional path of these novels – the protagonist, from a comfortable middle-class background like the one both of us shared, went to college and had the usual romantic and intellectual experiences – first love, crisis of religious faith. Rather than maturing, he regresses to childhood, which was the slight twist on the formula. There was a freshness and vitality about the writing that marked out Andy as a genuinely promising talent. A third novel, Mercy, a short, simple tale with Gothic overtones, set during the Civil War, consolidated his reputation. Around this time we began to spend more time together. We still had the same rather strained rapport, the same wariness. It says something about his essential loneliness that I realised around this time that not only had I been his closest friend at the Stag’s Head gathering, I was his closest friend in the world.

Perhaps Andy occasionally detected some resentment on my part. There would have been a sharpness on the phone, perhaps the occasional noticeable blankness as I drifted into my own thoughts as he went on about some issue with his agent or other. On the whole, however, I managed not to show this resentment, and felt suitably guilty. There was a politeness, a formality about our relationship. I could never imagine us teasing each other about anything – romance, work, literature.

My own writing had ground to a halt. Various ideas and plans fizzled out for want of persistence on my part. Andy’s success had stoked my ambition. Now I wanted not only to be published, but to stun the literary world. There was, as always, a plethora of young literary aspirants. I felt I needed to rise above them all, Andy included, in one motion.

All potential subjects seemed hackneyed, played out. I decided that what was needed was the creation of something utterly new. I wanted to write something sui generis, the first of a whole new genre. What is it, to create something utterly new? Something absolutely original? Is it even possible? I would seize on an idea and, in short order, exhaust it.

I tried, Lord knows I tried. I conceived of Tyranny Considered One of the Fine Arts, a series of essays on lesser-known but nevertheless impressively bloodthirsty tyrants. Following de Quincey’s argument – that when murder is done and the guilty punished, a sort of connoisseurship can take over – I applied it to tyranny. Queen Ranavolana I of Madagascar, Heliogabalus of Rome; such was my human material. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really believe that tyranny was a mere art. Over the years, I’ve often liked to see myself as a rather amoral, insouciant figure, a Wilde or Baudelaire casting elegant poses on the brink of hell. Yet earnestness kept breaking in.

My other attempts to forge something new revolved around science, more particularly mathematics and physics. I read a few popular accounts of the various theories of Infinity – Galileo’s realisation that an infinite set is one which contains an infinite set, Cantor’s discovery of the transfinite, and his fruitless search to prove the continuum hypothesis. I conceived a mathematical novel, one whose protagonist was the mystical idea of Infinity.

I came up against the insuperable obstacle that Infinity is not exactly a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps an abstraction can be made the hero of a story (and I mean the actual abstraction, not a personification of it), but it eluded my craft.

I moved on to what struck me, initially, as more fertile ground. Could God have created the world any differently? Could there be a world where the gravitational constant, or the boiling point of Mercury, or the laws of plate tectonics, be any different? Moving from the theoretical to the particularly, could there be a world without New Zealand, or Wlliam Ewart Gladstone or Nabokov’s Pale Fire?

I was working on these ideas – working on a series of meaninglessly complex diagrams of the new theory of non-existence. I hadn’t actually written anything at that stage. I had reached a point where writing was pointless, lacking any plan of attack – I had nothing to write about, only grandiloquent fantasies. Deep down, I knew that I was thrashing about, with no direction.

One day Andy gave me a box of odds and ends he was throwing out, trying to “declutter” himself, as he said. It was a nice gesture, though I don’t think he realised the implied condescension. Maybe he did – maybe my conception of Andy as someone well-meaning and kindly who unjustly aroused my resentment is wrong. Perhaps he was really a Machiavellian manipulator of human desires, obligations and aims. I am more or less entirely without what could be called “political” guile, and sometimes tend to see it in every action of everyone else. Perhaps Andy shares this trait with me, too.

One of the objects in the box was a blank notebook. At first glance it was an old, worn notebook, but on closer inspection this was a trompe l’oeil. It was a new, rather heavy notebook, whose carefully cultivated look of being worn was a trick of the marketing trade. Like all writers – both real writers and literary fantasists – I have an inexhaustible appetite for the how-to tips of other writers. One piece of (to my mind unhelpful) advice that I once read was to buy some expensive pens and some expensive paper, and to use these to plan your work. By some sort of sympathetic magic, the materials were supposed to elevate your creative mind. I always thought it rotten advice, too redolent of gimcrack ideas of what’s “artistic”. Which is not to say I rejected it.

Thus I decided to play with the notebook. I wrote a few sketchy phrases. First some automatic writing – I set a pen (a cheap biro) on the paper and began to write “Rome did not fall because the depredations of barbarians, but fell for other reasons. It fell after some years of pain.” I stopped. The automatic quality had disappeared from the writing, in my mind I had begun to try to construct some kind of meaningful sentence in my account of Rome’s fall.

I wrote a few more random phrases and words. “Tubetrain. Tubetrain.” I doodled a little, creating a grid, encircled by a serrated line. I wrote “Andy Warhol never existed.”

Why the last, the negation of Andy Warhol? What I had written in the notebook had reflected the varied preoccupations of the time, although I’m at a loss to explain “tubetrain.” There was a small Warhol exhibition coming to Dublin. I meant to check it out. I had often been in the habit, especially during boring phone conversations, of doodling phrases with an at best tangential connection to the conversation. That I should randomly write such a phrase did strike me as odd, but not exceptional. Nevertheless, it stayed in my mind.

The next day, in town, I picked up a free gallery guide. I noticed that the Warhol exhibition was no longer advertised. Unusual, I thought. Later, I looked at the gallery website. Again no mention.

A couple of years before, I had lent my copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album to a girl I was trying to impress who I had since lost touch with. Various rather embarrassed emails (one drunken evening, I had made completely unreturned advances to her) had failed to produce a response. Thus, a few days later, I decided to buy another copy when I saw it discounted. It was only when I got home that I noticed that the song ‘Andy Warhol’ was missing. Presumably this was some kind of money-grabbing scam, a new release leaving out one of the tracks to force one to buy a compilation. Trying to track down some information on this on the web, I did an search for “david bowie”, “hunky dory” and “andy warhol.”

I got no results. Refining it to “david bowie” and “andy warhol” produced none either. Then “andy warhol.” None. Presuming that the arbitrary god of the Internet had struck again, I tried another search engine, then another. It was strange, Andy Warhol had been deleted from the ether completely. I tried various art sites, and again Warhol was completely absent.

I went to the bookshops, looked in directories of art and found the same result. Andy Warhol had been written out of art history, indeed all history. Oddly, there didn’t seem to have been such a seismic shift in the art world. No other artist seemed to have disappeared from view, and his ideas, such as they were, seemed to have become popularised anyway. For instance it was Truman Capote who said, in 1973, that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.

There was only one source of information on Andy Warhol extant, and that was in my own small collection of art books. It will surprise you how calm I was about all this. I did not doubt my sanity, and as I still remembered my little scribble in Andy Browne’s notebook, I didn’t doubt what had happened. With great equanimity, I accepted that I had access to a supernatural power of some kind. It’s amazing, when this actually happens, how calmly, indeed almost languidly, one accepts this. After all, it is no longer supernatural but natural, part of the world.

At first I assumed that this was a once-off, some kind of aberration in space-time. I doodled some more in the notebook, stating the non-existence of prominent and not-so-prominent people living and dead.

Gradually I discerned that some things had their own necessity, and some things didn’t. Named living persons, and the artistic creations of named living persons, were immune to the notebook’s power. After some more experimentation I realised this applied not only to people – I managed to negate the existence of the dodo, of Halicarnasuss, of the Falkland Islands. What exactly happened to the population of the Falklands I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps there was a slight rise in the population of Britain. I managed to reduce the number of extant works of Aeschylus from seven to four, but the tragedian himself proved stubbornly resistant to elimination.

What was equally striking was the fact that, while the world seemed to lose these creations and indeed creators with surprisingly little change, they continued to exist in my library. I carefully kept my eye on a copy of Pygmalion while negating it in the notebook. It continued to exist, but the play itself did not have an existence in the outside world (oddly, My Fair Lady did, “based on an idea by George Bernard Shaw”, an unpublished, fragmentary outline for a story)

One day I wrote “There was never a book called Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov.” I enjoyed Nabokov too much to try and negate him, but was amused by the possibility that my favourite of his books would become a private pleasure for me. I assure you I had no thought of personal gain.

With Nabokov’s book duly expunged from libraries, from bookshops, from the collective memory (it seemed) of book-lovers, I settled to read the book. It is a rare pleasure, one denied us in this age of mass production, the joy of reading a work of art created just for oneself.

As I read, a thought struck me. I had always felt that the central poem around which the work is based was itself a fine piece of literary art. It deserved appreciation in its own right. It may strike the reader as blindingly obvious now, but the sudden realisation that nothing whatsoever prevented me from publishing the poem Pale Fire as my own work only hit me then. It was simply a matter of typing.

The rest you know – the long poem The Waxwing Slain which was universally praised and whose enormous commercial success resurrected poetry as a mainstream art form. Within months there were numerous audiobooks, a film adaptation in the works. The imaginative leap for a young Irish scribbler to convincingly inhabit an ageing American professor mourning a dead daughter was widely commented on. No one knew the leap was via a Russian émigré author, still well-known for Lolita..

Thus The Waxwing Slain audiobook, blaring at me from all available speakers on the Goatstown crossroads. I smiled to myself at the moment, the feeling of one’s fame being crowned. The lights changed and I drove on. Looking back, this was the highpoint of my career, the moment when I felt most satisfied with it all. I felt Nabokov himself would appreciate the turn of events.

Andy, who I must admit was the first living person I tried to negate, had found work on his next novel increasingly difficult. “It isn’t the same” he said, “before I had seemingly endless ideas and no craft, and now I have all craft and no ideas.” He surprised me by getting married. I was his best man. It was one of the last times we talked. At the wedding, I felt uncomfortable with is obvious resentment of my literary success. It was how I had been to him, I saw now.

I’ve written two more novels. The Violent Bear It Away and Day of the Locust. Reviewers worldwide have lauded my versatile imagination, my ability to inhabit entirely different linguistic worlds. They are a little puzzled how at my works American setting, set in a specific time without any apparent awkwardness, or the air of a period piece. Of course, I typed those two novels, directly transcribing (occasionally with very slight editing) from the only extant copies in my own library.

But there was no joy in their creation, or in the reception they received. The moment had come when I realised that literary success as an end in itself was a sham. The elaborate daydreams when I dreamed of rave reviews and blurbs were revealed as rather tawdry fantasies. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to write a story, regardless completely of the sensation it would create, the reputation it would forge for me. I began to write this story.

And who will understand me, now that Andy Warhol and the dodo and Pale Fire are not only not with us, but their existence has ceased? There comes a time in anyone’s life when to confess – to a loved one, in a religious ceremony, or in the full glare of the world in a book or television programme – becomes an unbearable need. I, alas, have no audience that can comprehend my acts; all will assume this is merely a clever fiction. Even Andy will think it merely a tasteless literary in-joke, so I intend changing the names of all concerned. Only I, or an ideal and hence non-existent reader, will know that this is a confession.

Non-Binary Review call for submissions on Dante’s Inferno (deadline 24th Oct 2018)

More info here:

NonBinary Review is a quarterly digital literary journal that joins poetry, fiction, essays, and art around each issue’s theme. We invite  authors to explore each theme in any way that speaks to them: re-write a  familiar story from a new point of view, mash genres together, give us a  personal essay about some aspect of our theme that has haunted you all  your life. We also invite art that will accompany the literature. All submissions must have a clear and obvious relationship to some specific aspect of the source text (a character, episode, or setting). Submissions only related by a vague, general, thematic similarity are unlikely to be accepted.

We are open to submissions which relate to Dante Alighieri’s 14-century epic poem The Inferno, which you can find herePlease bear in mind that we’re looking for pieces that relate to the BOOK ONLY. References movies or television shows will not be accepted.

Submissions which do not tie into the plots or make use of characters/settings from the book WILL NOT be considered–there needs to be a clear connection to the source material. 

We want language that makes us reach for a dictionary or a tissue or  both. Words in combinations and patterns that leave the faint of heart a  little dizzy.

From “The Book of Silences” Introduction to Volume 1

The Book of Silences, Volumes 1 – 23343

From the introduction to Volume 1

… the editors have found the task of compiling all the silences of recorded history a challenging one. Firstly, we had to set some kind of beginning point for our work. However, we did not to limit our task to this century, or the post war years, or even some remoter start point of early or high modernity. All beginnings are arbitrary, and exclude, and this was to be the first truly inclusive book in existence. The written word has recorded utterances, speeches, debates, thoughts expressed in suspiciously neat prose and lofty poetry, thoughts expressed in suspiciously down-to-earth and populist argot, but has not before collected silences. We do not mean contemplated silence, or debated silence, or defined silence. We mean recorded silence. Authors have reflected that silence is an absence; we treat it as a presence. In this book, we record the silences of our texts, from Sumerian cuneiform tablets to blogs and wikis. The first few thousand volumes, of course, only get us some of the way into Classical Antiquity, and work has to be recommenced as archaeology reveals further writings, but our universal history of silence has continued implacable, expanding, perhaps never to be utterly finished but equally never to be utterly abandoned …

From “The Transfinite Codex”

The Transfinite Codex

From the Introduction

The Infinite Annex is an annex of this library which consists entirely of infinite stories. The annex, via the use of an innovative filing system, contains an infinity of volumes. Each volume, via the use of innovative printing techniques, contains an infinite story, one with a beginning and then no middle and no end, just continuance. Every story imaginable; romance, adventure, comedies of manners, tragedies of morals. Of course, each infinite story will eventually contain every one of these stories, perhaps with different names, or with the events in a different order.

There is still another story possible, one which does not exist in the Infinite Annex. Take the first line of one story, the second line of another story, the third line of another, the fourth of another, and so on. In this way another infinite story is created, but one which differs from any particular infinite story. Because it has one and only one line in common with each story, it has an infinity of lines that differ from each particular volume. Thus the Transfinite Codex is a single volume which possesses an infinitude beyond the infinitude of the Infinite Annex.