Mr & Mrs Smmc

Nowadays, particularly living in a large city, it’s hard to imagine a time when one’s profession was a unique enough identifier to be the source of a surname. Cooper – your maker of barrels and other wooden vessels, not to mention his assistant Hooper. Fletcher – arrow-maker and medieval arms dealer. Butcher – your go-to guy for the slicing and dicing of tasty, dead animals. Smith – the basher and shaper of heated metal. All reasonable and logical enough, though I think the Kings were probably getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Even though the English language as a whole is ever-changing – new words and grammar brought in and others dispensed with by the language’s capricious users – surnames are staunch hold-outs from the past. Perhaps that’s a reason to treasure them, they provide a link to our history, which the popularity of genealogy-as-hobby surely shows is something we value. However, let’s suppose we wanted to refresh this aspect of the language too and bring it into line with modern circumstances.

One option is to do as they did before and base them on current job areas. Consultant. Actuary. Programmer. The problem is that maybe there are now too few job areas to usefully name everyone. So, we could be more specific, for example, social media marketing consultant or the infamous and barely-fictional self-facilitating media node. For those reluctant to completely rid ourselves of the historical connection, as a compromise position we could artificially age these words with some retro spelling: actuary, now actuaerie.

This process of going from an occupation to a personal identifier is one of the principal functions of language – the naming of things. Perhaps now is the time for names, or our naming of things, to give something back to language? Some of these names, in their multi-word form could get long-winded and tedious, so let’s abbreviate. Social Media Marketing Consultant: SMMC. Primary school teacher: PST. Self-facilitating media node: SFMN. Ignoring capitalisation convention in the name of innovation we arrive at Mr Smmc, Miss Pst, and Mrs Sfmn. Hard to pronounce, agreed, but they’re new words, a contribution to the language and as Wittgenstein said:

A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.

They might look like nothing now, but from them could sprout fresh, new argument.

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,
It’s commonly said, more or less, and attributed to many (in more than one language), that “if I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter”, and this could be true here too. So too the reverse, it could become a thesis. I have form. Though it would be a brave student indeed who began his dissertation so cheekily with the words “Dear Examiner, I hope this thesis finds you well.” Not to be outdone nor forget my manners, dear reader, I hope this letter (please, play along) finds you well.

The letter is truly a stalwart, not just of literature, but of life – both of our individual and collective lives. Dear John letters. Letters sent home from soldiers in the trenches. Letters that constitute the epistolary novel. The collected letters of the famous writer or artist. Clearly even the highbrow of society engage in the voyeuristic eavesdropping of others’ lives.

And now a rejuvenation of the form is underway at The Letters Page, a new literary journal run by the good people of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. The past issues are available free to download from the website here and they’re well worth a read. To return to the beginning, but altered for the experience, in the first letter of Issue One the author declares that regrettably he has no time to write a letter. I sincerely hope that you are never forced to write the same.

Until we meet again,
The Author

“A Half-Forgotten Book of Erotic Memoirs”

What would be a shame is if this erudite and hilarious sketch by Fry and Laurie were to become half, or worse, fully-forgotten. Not just a parody of a certain kind of intellectual television show, it contains a wonderful monologue that is both about, and itself embodies, the sheer delight of language. “A Half-Forgotten Book of Erotic Memoirs” is one such treasure contained therein. I won’t spoil anymore of them, but merely insist that you watch for yourselves.

Finally, thanks to everyone for reading my blog over the past year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Gutenberg 3D

Not the title of a Hollywood blockbuster about the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, chock full of CGI special effects that bring to lurid life his system of moveable type, but rather a reference to Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, that will come with a limited edition 3D-printed cover.

On Such a Full Sea

So is this perhaps the first signs of a revival of interest in the printed book as an object to be desired and cherished? Or is it merely the autonomic twitches of a dying form? In the jargon of stock market analysts – did we just watch a dead cat bounce?

This particular piece is certainly well executed, with the interplay of the title on the book and its continuation into 3D text suggesting motion and a dynamic quality to the words. Limited edition status aside, the suggested current price of $90 alone indicates that this is a niche product.

But let’s look ahead slightly to the days, surely not long in coming, when 3D printing and 3D printers in the home, have become, if not ubiquitous, then at least commonplace. This kind of slipcase could be produced much more cheaply and even printed by the end-user by downloading the requisite CAD files from the publisher’s website.

That said, it’s my hunch that the electronic versions of books available for download on Project Gutenberg became a lot more popular with the arrival of e-readers. Even though printers were a feature in most homes and offices, it was never that appealing or convenient to print out novels at home. This idea could fall prey to the same inertia.

On the plus side, even if it doesn’t see widespread adoption, in this long-tail age of the internet it doesn’t need to become a mass-market idea to be successful and enduring. And these 3D slipcases are just the beginning.  Surely there is room for all manner of innovation in the combination of 3D printing and the printed (by whatever means) word.

Perfect Pitch

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, and the belief lost all sense of self and together they spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches nonchalantly scrawled in thick, black crayon were the kindling, and when elaborated in structurally-benign balsa wood models the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient to smooth over the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Perhaps followed by CGI visualisations that take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one the idyll might exist. But for how long will it remain? The odds are not favourable. What is more, there is non-virtual footage that insists on proving the point. But that comes later, at the end, and too late, it should be there at the beginning, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out over time, and do it virtually, without ever risking a brick. Hand over these pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, and the demolition man and graffiti artist, then wait.

The first thing to go? The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform blue – almost perverse to include it for buildings in the UK, even the ugliest place can be bleached to freshness by an intense, summer’s sun. The true test of the building’s character is found in the desolation of a thunderstorm or underneath the chromatic monotony of clouds – variations on a theme of grey – to which the blocks of flats match perfectly to create senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward through time, through the daily wear and tear of existence, and opening-day show homes are forgotten. Their once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, persistently stained with brown streaks of the rusty rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an organic trim, but one that’s sadly unwelcome. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied the inviting blank canvas of off-white wall and in turn this erstwhile art has itself been defaced by the encrypted squiggles of tag graffiti.

On the other side of the wall a hooded figure sets his back to the dysfunctional CCTV camera and unleashes a stinking, liquid Slinky down the cracked, concrete steps of the stairwell. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by the half-hearted fluorescent lights, which seem to be forever on the verge of getting going, but don’t. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome touch of colour to the forgettable shade of concrete. The steps it seems, though half-crumbled, remain hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

In the outdoor gloom, the three healthy children propelling the roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the three swings adjacent, only one remains operational. One dangles forlornly at half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward, we, go, backward.

Yellow-hatted men have taken to assaulting the tower blocks with probing drills so as to infiltrate these concrete skeletons with mile upon mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake to euphoric hangover, then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea and whistle. A perfect pitch.

To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

World Dystopian Literature Day

The name of Orwell has been much mentioned recently, a product of society’s collective word-association – to each mention of Edward Snowden and his leaking of the pernicious spying activities by the NSA (and US government), come the words George Orwell or Big Brother. Whilst not exactly inaccurate, these reflexive responses are perhaps an exaggeration or rather an over-simplification, and by repeating them mantra-like, we block ourselves from truly engaging with the issues at hand. I believe they deserve proper examination, and not mere caricature.

My solution is to propose a World Dystopian Literature Day, with an inaugural date of the 2nd September 2013, on which citizens and readers from around the globe can come together, virtually or otherwise, and (re)read a classic novel from the canon of dystopian literature. By doing so we will refresh our memories of the potential horrors, rekindle in ourselves the fires of protest and will initiate a continued and informed debate about the nature of our free society. Perhaps that way we can avoid ever drifting too close to the darkness of an illiberal police state, to a state of dis-Enlightenment.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction.

Front covers of five great works of dystopian fiction – The Trial, Seeing, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

After all, a free and democratic society needs to continually rebuild and refresh its liberties to every new technological and worldly challenge, otherwise it will inexorably deteriorate into totalitarianism. Centralised power begets power.

It’s a cliche that we who learn nothing of our past are condemned to repeat it. No surprise then that the fictional warnings from literature about potential futures receive similar short shrift. It shouldn’t be thus, not when the novel reveals to us the very real human pain and suffering that such manipulative and oppressive states can cause, not when the novel as a storytelling medium can make us empathise with these people and do so perhaps more keenly than any non-fiction account of historical atrocities ever could.

The specific aims of World Dystopian Literature Day are therefore:

  1. To guard against complacency in society regarding our individual rights and freedoms.
  2. To encourage debate around the themes explored in these novels.
  3. To promote a critical appreciation of this genre of literature.
  4. To raise awareness of the continued abuse of human rights by governments around the world.
  5. To provide a check against the growing power and influence of transnational corporations.

So, which book to read to accomplish these goals? Orwell is one such precautionary voice, but there are many others of equal importance, and I mention only a few here.

There is perhaps an obvious sort of dystopian literature, especially common in science fiction, in which the author describes a self-contained and fully-realised world that is clearly different to our own, and there are often myriad futuristic details to reinforce this sense of otherness. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, excellent and famous books all, and ones that belong to this sort of dystopian literature.

But there is another kind out there, one more subtly defined, in which the fictional world is our world, or rather, is recognisably and substantively the world extant at the time of writing, with perhaps one key change. To my mind these stories are just as relevant, in some ways more so, and can project a sensation of utter terror. Examples of this second category in my opinion include, The Trial by Franz Kafka and Seeing by José Saramago.

Though The Trial speaks to a deep and painful sense of social isolation and misunderstanding, and permits many other readings besides, it can also be taken straightforwardly as an exposition of the horrifying and inhumane nature of a secretive, and potentially unknowable, justice system. Perhaps this is made more terrifying when one considers the rulings on certain aspects of the US’s treatment of security laws, namely the Patriot Act, whose interpretation by the executive office is allowed to be secret. And this in a democracy!

Seeing by Saramago is not at first sight literature of the dystopian class, but in its chilling tale of the cynical and antidemocratic response by a government to a democratic challenge to its authority, whereby the citizens return masses of blank votes, it reveals the lengths to which power will go in order to preserve its own power. Morals, truth, citizens – all will be sacrificed in the name of the preservation of the state. A powerful allegory given the revelations of the previous weeks, in which grave, potential abuses have been deemed necessary for the security of our society. And yet, we had no say in this, democracy was subverted and ignored. Our permission was not sought, for the simple reason that they knew it would have been denied.

So it’s clear that dystopian literature, though providing extreme visions of possible worlds, is still highly relevant today. If, like me, you believe the idea of a World Dystopian Literature Day is a worthwhile one, then please share this article via whichever means you prefer and let’s see if we can make it a reality. Please do add your thoughts and suggestions below, and if it does receive enough interest I’ll setup a separate website to promote it.

But whatever happens, come the 2nd September I’ll be rereading Seeing to remind myself just what’s at stake here. I do hope you will join me.

Andrew Cookson

Note: a list of dystopian fiction can be found on these wikipedia pages.

Cultural Architects: Saramago, Byrne & Le Corbusier Partners

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia for a day, just so that I could experiment with different pieces of music and observe the shifting patterns of colour, the dynamic lines and shapes that come and go in response to changing pitch, timbre and volume. Hallucinogenic drugs aside, perhaps the closest I’ll come to this mental light show is when listening to the brilliant song Don’t Worry about the Government by The Talking Heads:

Though hardly a piece of 60’s psychedelia, almost every time I hear David Byrne sing the following lyrics,

That’s the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience

I automatically see bright images flash in my mind – I see a tall building viewed from a distance, bathed in a cleansing, brilliant sunlight. Following it comes,

It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

and I’m seeing his sunny picture of optimism, which brings to mind the Modernist movement in architecture, and its ideological belief in the power of architecture to improve lives. This stack of evoked images and sensations isn’t the only thing I think about. A whole other set of associative connections fire in my brain. When I hear that lyric, it’s as if I’m hearing Le Corbusier himself say:

The house is a machine for living in.

This hopefulness shines through in the song, even if there is a hint of a darker under-current of meaning. That’s not the end of it though, more reflexive associations pile on and automatically assemble themselves into a dialectic argument.

In The Cave by José Saramago, we encounter the tale of Cipriano Algor and his daughter Marta, potters both, who must contend with the capricious nature of The Center, the chief purchasers of their pottery. The Center is an ever-growing cloistered city within a city; one that leaves the original host crumbling under an extreme gentrification pressure. When David Bryne sings the praise that his building has every convenience, he is summarising perfectly the nature of The Center, containing as it does, accommodation, entertainment, employment and food. Who wouldn’t want all that within easy reach? While he may be happy, the Algors are increasingly suspicious of The Center, an unease which doesn’t dissipate when they are left with no option but to move in. Who could blame them for their misgivings, when faced with such unsettling slogans as:

We Have What You Need, But We Prefer You Need What We Have.

Still it’s only fiction, so there’s nothing to worry about, or is there?

Earlier this year I visited Cardiff, Wales where, in the city centre, there is a building in this model. Luxury shopping forms the base, interspersed with food outlets, and all topped off with expensive apartments. It’s an attempt at concentrating all the functionality of a city into the same land area as a hamlet. So is this the start of the progression, is this a new Center, a building that will expand ever-outwards and upwards, subsuming everything in its path?

If this building, and this trend, is to be stopped, I doubt that it’ll be protests or organised rebellion that does it, but rather the unruly Internet. Why move to live where the shops are, when the whole world of shops can be brought to you? It hardly needs stating that one can work through the internet, socialise through it, even send a virtual instance of ourselves into Second Life and nest ourselves in it at one level removed.

So perhaps Saramago will be wrong in the detail, but the consequences might turn out the same. It could go either way; the Internet could provide our means of escape, or equally could seduce us into our own imprisonment.

For the purposes of Saramago’s message it probably doesn’t matter. The alienating and impersonal nature of this emblem of pure, efficient capitalism, is preserved whatever. Moreover it is this influence on one family, a father, daughter, son-in-law, and dog, and their attempts to adapt to a new reality, that is the important and universal concept. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is Saramago’s delicate and insightful rendering of the tender, playful relationship between father and daughter, workers of clay, yet both of them, with Saramago’s guidance, shape beautiful words of wisdom in their conversation.

And this Saramago suggests is the key to our salvation, to embrace our humanity and, as simple as it sounds, stick together. On this Byrne and Saramago agree:

I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

And family too we might be inclined to add. If The Talking Heads are saying we don’t need to worry about the government, then in The Cave, Saramago agrees. It’s capitalism and blind materialism that are the prime threats. Saramago provides few solutions to these and we can’t blame him for that, but whatever they might prove to be, the first step, the foundation, is to stick together and value your friends, family and the stray dog that tags along.

I don’t doubt that a man can live perfectly well on his own, but I’m convinced that he begins to die as soon as he closes the door of his house behind him.

The path disappears around a corner, and veers who knows where, but Saramago at least shows us how we should start the journey.

An Incisive Remark About Samuel Beckett

He believes in the cadence, the comma, the bite of word on reality, whatever else he believes; and his devotion to them, he  makes clear, is a sufficient focus for the reader’s attention. In the modern history of literature he is a unique moral figure, not a dreamer of rose-gardens but a cultivator of what will grow in the waste land…

The critic Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett (quoted on the cover of Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works).

“The bite of word on reality”. Is there a more incisive or lucid piece of criticism than that? And one so neatly expressed at that. It evokes a certain vitality of words, which possess a visceral danger when let loose to describe our world.

Cover of The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett

Biting.

The word association it provokes is insightful too. Bite. Teeth. Incisors. Incision. Cut. With words, he cuts open the world, peeling back the layers, to reveal both the glorious complexity and terrifying gore.

But most of all, contained within this quote is the suggestion that the world, that reality, will show the bite marks and forever bear the scars of its mediation through Beckett. Read him, and things won’t ever seem quite the same again.