“You’re no good at reading, then, mate.”

While I am partial to a a bit of Amis, Kingsley, when it comes to Amis, Martin I have never quite found it to “take”, so to speak.

I came across this gem of an Amisism (of the Martinian subspecies) in a comment on an article in The Dabbler. Or rather, “Brit” (AKA Andrew Nixon), the author of the comment, came across i. Anyway, here is Brit’s comment:

In the Grayson Perry edition of The New Statesman I mentioned in my Diary last week there is an interminable ‘conversation’ between the aforementioned transvestite potter and Martin Amis.

If you wade through the endless batting back and forth of their pre-prepared parcels of de Bottonish ‘insight’, you will find this gem from Amis:

A book, anything that’s got quality, is incapable of depressing the reader or the viewer. When people say, “I liked your last novel – depressed the hell out of me, though,” I think, “You’re no good at reading, then, mate.”

That strikes me as an excellent rhetorical device, and author’s version of invoking Sumai. If anyone criticises your novel, you simply say: “You’re no good at reading, then, mate!”

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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.

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.

“Not Chess” by Gordon Cash

From Fabula Argentea, here is a nice little vignette by Gordon Cash:

In a rare idle hour, I watched the two ancient-looking men play chess. The Parks Department had installed several granite tables, each incised with a chessboard and flanked by two concrete benches and enough space for kibitzers. Players needed only bring their own pieces. At one table, the two men sat.

It was such fine weather—bright sunshine, clean-smelling air, sounds of breezes ruffling the nearby trees—that many people were in the park, playing checkers or chess or backgammon, jogging, or just sitting. Something about these two men was different.

After maybe ten minutes of watching, I noticed one thing. They were not playing chess at all. My chess is beginner-level at best, but I know how the pieces move. The men concentrated, exchanged a few words between moves, sometimes took a piece from the board, but their moves were random.

I thought they were just too senile to know what they were doing, so I hesitated to move closer. Finally, I did anyway. Within earshot, I discovered that, if their moves were random, their words were clear and focused.

The first ones I made out plainly were, “The doors into the movie theater were directly under the screen.” The speaker moved one of his bishops, not, as always in chess, along a diagonal.

The other man responded, “The Florey Theater, named for an early real estate developer.” He took one of his knights, not in the path of the bishop, from the board and set it aside. “Good one.”

Errant-bishop smiled. After a minute’s thought, One-knight ventured, “Free parking lot off a one-lane, one-way street that nobody knew about.” Less than confidently, he pushed a pawn forward.

What is going on? Read the whole thing at Fabula Argentea.

Fiction (and poetry) update

It’s been a while since I posted a fiction update – Jan 2017 to be precise. The one before that was two years ago. Alas, the pattern of outlets I write for ceasing to exist continues.

Reviewing those last two updates, not much happened. However I have submitted a story and a poem to Non-Binary Review’s anthology of pieces inspired by Dante’s Inferno. And I am trying to think something up for the “Still On Patrol” call I blogged about earlier.

And I have also retooled a couple of stories which have been bounced back a few times by various publications – submitting one to Willow Zine and one to Fabula Argentea. So let’s see what . happens!

“Still on patrol”

I came across this call for submissions for an upcoming anthology by Otter Libris:

There is a tradition in the United States Navy that no submarine is ever truly lost at sea. Those boats and the crews who don’t return to port are considered “still on patrol” in perpetuity. Active duty sailors would never dream of leaving their still on patrol shipmates behind, so every year, usually at the Christmas holiday, sailors manning communications hubs ashore and at sea send out a message. They send holiday wishes for health and happiness to those they know will receive it, and the same wishes to those listed as still on patrol.

What if those submariners who never returned are still out there? What if it’s the energy of the yearly good wishes that keeps them going on their eternal patrol? And what if their eternal patrol protects the living against threats more otherworldly than mundane wars between nation states?

What about other military men and women, disappeared or lost at sea, in the air, or on land? Is there a Roman Legion still manning Hadrian’s Wall? Are there ghostly flight crews who herd hapless aircraft away from the Bermuda Triangle? Tell us stories about military men and women who continue to protect humanity long after they’ve taken their last breath. Tell us what happens when they take the oath to protect their people not just from threats foreign and domestic, but supernatural as well.

I hadn’t come across the “still on patrol” concept before. From Wikipedia, here is a memorial plaque from the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia:

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It sounds like an interesting anthology at the very least….reminds me of J G Ballard’s One Afternoon at Utah Beach (the text of which is not, as far as I can find, available online)