Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Welcome to the Arms Race

Justin Isis Welcome to the Arms Race (2015)
Justin Isis is an enigma, at least from where I'm perched in Texas with the rest of creation perceived only through my little social media portal. I first encountered him when he sent me a friend request on facebook, apparently having read something I'd written - which is noteworthy because that sort of thing doesn't happen too often. He seemed to be either an Englishmen or an American living in Tokyo, and his interests combined with a slightly airbrushed looking facebook photo led me to assume he was probably some kind of idoru. Westerners fixated on the more lurid expressions of Japanese culture have historically irritated the living shit out of me, and yet Justin Isis seemed cut from a very different cloth to your average weeaboo.

I'm familiar with the term weeaboo because I'm down with the kids on the streets.

Actually, I'm not. I wasn't even down with the kids on the streets back when I was a kid on the street, or at least adjacent to it. I'm somehow in my fifties without quite knowing why, and new for the sake of new gives me a headache. I feel as though I'm stood on a beach, with all the proper culture safely behind on dry land. Before me is the ocean of all the shite that probably doesn't matter - Imagine Dragons, autotune, Japanese animation, Minecraft, YouTube commentators, drippy nostalgia, MST3K, cosplay, Doctor fucking Who, what a twenty-four year old thinks about almost anything, Pokémon Go, Chvrches, adult fans of My Little Pony, iPhone, eBook, anything else named by means of a self-conscious lower case vowel preceding an upper case consonant, and all other hopelessly passive distractions which have helped create the developmental vacuum in which evil fucking shitehawks like Breitbart, Infowars, and more or less all of our current political pantheon have been able to flourish; or, it's simply that I don't understand this stuff because it is of greater complexity than I have patience to decode for what I intuitively suspect may be very little reward. Either way, I know what I like - as the saying goes - and I find myself with an uncomfortable insight into those generations preceding my own whining that the bass is too loud, and I can't hear the words, and why don't you just put VH1 on or something, watch the Beatles or one of the classics - bit of Spandau Ballet, that'll do…

Justin Isis fascinates me because, stood on a possibly similar beach he gazes out and is able to understand what he's looking at and is able to deal with it, to reweave it into something of worth which carries what I feel to be the same weight as culture with which I'm more familiar. He is able to translate ephemeral culture in a meaningful way, and most crucially of all, he writes novels which aren't trying to be fucking films! In fact there's a couple of these which are probably unfilmable.

The lesser lights leaned backward on their own transmission-sculptures, indifferent to the performance fluids and ritual songs drifting down from the deep intervals. An and Non took broadcast armour from the lesser lights, rotating the transmission-sculptures into their own speech orbitals and adjusting their size, shape and cardinality to suit the local reign.

Welcome to the Arms Race comprises short stories, or short fiction, or possibly simply short pieces of writing, depending on which term works best. Most of these tales have a flavour as traditional as any Graham Greene you might care to mention yet without really resembling anything I've read before, utilising bold splashes of modernism and not even the faintest suggestion of mere technique being its own ostentatious virtue. Isis identifies as a Neo-Decadent writer, which is a thing you can look up, in addition to being author of the Second Manifesto of Neo-Decadence, in which it is written:

No precedence is given to the Decadent writers of the 19th century, their modes or milieu. Neo-Decadence is more likely to cross 1990s video game dialogue with the structure of a 16th century picaresque to discuss a drug deal in present day Mongolia. Fealty and earnestness can only hold back progress. We do not have saints, and we consume our idols.

...and while we're here:

Writing can be neither sincere nor authentic; these are the cliches of the ranks of the dead. Style is a mute scream in symbols - that's all.

In practical terms, Arms Race adds up to what all those William Gibson novels promised but never delivered, with the rich, texture of maybe Clark Ashton Smith and the firework display innovation of Michael Moorcock at his most outrageous - which is my scrabbling around trying to describe something I didn't expect would be able to exist in this century, more than it is necessarily indicative of perceptible influences or even sources. As literature it reminds me of vapourwave - another new fangled phenomenon I would not have encountered were it not for Justin Isis - the repurposed or even stolen blended into something new and bright and fizzy. Most of these stories concern themselves with fictions of one form or another, people who are written, without quite going the full Borges and directly addressing the reader, although the mood is similar - playful and pretty much fearless, not too worried about pushing any of your usual buttons, not even during the unrelenting narrative barrage of M-FUNK VS THA FUTUREGIONS OF INVERSE FUNKATIVITY, science-fiction in a universe where all of those Sun Ra albums were documentaries - the sort of thing which logically should have fallen flat on its arse as a bad joke, but which takes flight with such jerky grace as to beg the question of why no-one tried it before.

It will sound like hyperbole, but I don't really care: unless I missed something - which is admittedly not beyond the realms of possibility - this collection does what literature hasn't done in a long time, and what I'd forgotten it can do, and should do; and even with the cheeky steals, homages and general thievery, it does it in a way which feels absolutely new without any of the usual ooh ooh look at me, you won't have heard of this, but I have bollocks. I'm still not entirely convinced that Justin Isis isn't an idoru of some description, but maybe it doesn't matter.

The Gryb

A.E. van Vogt The Gryb (1976)
Well, I was warned that I might find this collection a little underwhelming, but the timing seemed good, so ahead I forged. It's an odd bunch of tales, apparently a slight reshuffle of The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind-Benders from 1971. I bought this copy from a second hand book store in Rockport, since destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, so it felt important that I should get something from it for reasons I can't quite define; and I tried, but…

The Gryb - here referring to the collection as a whole rather than to the short story of the same name - feels like a novella with a bunch of shorts plopped on the side of the plate as some kind of concession to value for money. The novella would be Humans, Go Home which was written in 1969, and quite conspicuously reads like late period van Vogt, contrasting with the rest - all earlier, shorter, and probably not to be counted among his better efforts. It isn't that anything here is actively poor, or even without enjoyable aspects, but not much of this actually reads like van Vogt. The prose is unusually prosaic for the most part, functional, and lacking Alfred Elton's typically startling images, abrupt swerves, or harsh grammatical angles; and the stories seem to lack his customary ambition, at least in places - The Problem Professor for example, which borders on being one of those Asimov tales wherein eggheads have a conversation about rockets and we get to listen in for twenty or thirty not conspicuously gripping pages. At first I wondered if these might be really early works written before he'd developed his characteristic techniques, but no - I checked, and Black Destroyer predates everything in this collection. The Invisibility Gambit and Rebirth: Earth were supposedly co-written with his wife, E. Mayne Hull, which might account for the stylistic variance except that there isn't anything much to differentiate them from the stories for which she isn't credited - which would additionally seem to support the theory that most of that which has been published under her name was actually written by himself.

The Gryb, more commonly known as Repetition, was recycled to better effect as part of The War Against the Rull; and both Rebirth: Earth and The Star-Saint are fun, and enough so to justify reading the thing; and many of his usual themes are present, unfortunately including his slightly peculiar attitude to women which is given full expression in Humans, Go Home; but otherwise this just doesn't feel like our guy. Maybe he was ill, or maybe he was reigning it in a bit just to see how it felt. The Gryb is an interesting collection in terms of this writer and his career, principally because it seems so out of character; but with another name on the cover, it's unlikely that anyone would have noticed.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Perdam Babylonis Nomen

Gregory Bull Perdam Babylonis Nomen (2013)
It means something about waging war on Babylon, in this case referring to the existence and purpose of someone whose eyes were opened to the perfidy of society by the wonders of punk rock and the opportunity it afforded some for a life outside that society, or if not entirely outside, then at least right on the edge inhabited by Crass, CND, the animal rights movement and others. The detail of the story is autobiographical to the point of placing the reader directly inside the thoughts, only vaguely ordered, of the protagonist, as he considers the innumerable ills of the world and tries to stay alive. It's a delirious stream of variable consciousness taking the form of what may as well be considered a hundred page epic modernist poem, so it's not an easy read by any description, but what fleeting flashes of clarity come through keep it interesting, at least enough to get us through to the last page without succumbing to the fatigue of undifferentiated information overload; and the imagery is very vivid, and there's a point of focus right at the end which makes sense of it all, and ultimately there's a point to reading the thing. As accounts of growing up punk go, I probably prefer Ted Curtis's Darkening Light, but this is noteworthy for its ambition, invoking an experience of its subject matter with all the intensity of a religious vision, albeit a religious vision somehow involving Special Brew and the music of Antisect.

I picked this up mainly out of curiosity, having enjoyed a couple of anthologies edited by Bull; and on the strength of this one, I'd probably liken Bull to a modern William Blake were I more of a tool than I probably am; except I'd be basing such a proposition on what is only a very vague impression of Blake's work because I've never actually read any of it and - in all honesty - I'm unlikely to start now.

Monday, 21 May 2018

War with the Newts

Karel Čapek War with the Newts (1937)
I had to pick this up on the strength of his play, RUR, from which - as we all know - the term robot was first originated. I haven't seen the play, nor read whatever printed form it may take, but its historical significance is difficult to deny. The robots of RUR are apparently more like what we might regard as androids - artificial humans rather than clanking things of cogs and screws - and the play seems very much of its era when we consider Fernand Léger's Ballet Mécanique or the Futurists' obsession with industrialised humanity. Of course, where Fortunato Depero and others aspired to map out a progressive future - at least aesthetically speaking - Čapek's play was a warning in which the robot underclass inevitably rebels.

War with the Newts seems to be more or less the same fable retold around the discovery of a dexterous and sentient amphibian species which is quickly enslaved and put to service as menial workers, just like the robots. Parallels with the slave trade as was are fairly obvious.

After all it is only natural that the Newts ceased to be a marvel as soon as there were hundreds and millions of them in the world; the popular interest which they had provoked while they were some sort of a novelty only lingered on for some time in film caricatures (Sally and Andy, two good salamanders) and on cabaret platforms, where singers and comedians endowed with specially bad voices appeared in the irresistible role of a croaking Newt poorly expressing itself in bad grammar.

Yet an odd note is struck a couple of pages later when we read of Louise Zimmerman campaigning for Newt rights and the education of the same by terms which seem equally satirical, leaving us with an ambiguity as to whether Čapek saw his Newts as a natural underclass or as victims of capitalism. A quick rummage through Čapek's credentials leave one in no doubt as to his progressive political sympathies, but this book is, I'm afraid, a bit of a mess.

Some of the problem may have arisen in translation, but even allowing for semiotic drift, War with the Newts still suffers from its basic structure shifting focus from one section to the next.

Of the three books into which the novel is divided, the first is so heavy with rambling inconsequential dialogue as to suggest he would rather have written a play. The whimsical monologues of a number of characters serve to map the discovery of the Newts as something occurring off stage, but the tone reminds me of those Marx Brothers routines based around someone saying something ridiculous too fast, then abruptly changing tack before we've had time to digest the first sequence of zingers; and it becomes exhausting after a hundred or so pages.

The second book further confirms that we'll be getting this story in anecdotal snippets, by intersecting its text with endless footnotes and faux newspaper articles reporting on the Newts as they are set to work on behalf of human society. Different fonts abound and the page occasionally divides into three separate streams of text. The technique was probably innovative at the time, but in 2018 it reads as a gimmick, even lazy. I ended up skipping about twenty pages of this because it was too difficult to follow and none of what I read seemed to matter.

Finally we have the third book which settles down into a narrative related in the manner of a detailed news report or an historical discourse, concluding in a highly unsatisfactory manner with a final chapter in which the author has a conversation with himself about whether the ending of the book is any good.

It wasn't.

Nor was the rest of it anything special. There were some nice ideas here, but for the most part it reads like Čapek was pissing about in a desperate attempt to keep himself interested in a story he'd already told as RUR.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The Secret People

John Wyndham The Secret People (1935)
This was John Wyndham's first novel, originally serialised under a pen name in something called the Passing Show - which I hadn't even heard of until I looked it up in relation to this book; and I've just read a 1973 reprint with a painting of Shrek on the cover, despite that Shrek makes no appearance in the novel, and although the story prominently features fungus, none of it is growing out of anyone's forehead. This doesn't quite beat the spacecraft on the cover of  Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing - a novel in which vehicular space travel is very specifically treated as an impossibility - but it's the same ballpark.

The Secret People are a race of albino pygmies found to inhabit labyrinthine caverns beneath the Sahara desert, as discovered when the first ever jet plane is sucked down into a whirlpool in a sea newly formed by flooding the Sahara towards some sort of vaguely economic end, and the whirlpool strands our guy, actually the inventor of the first jet plane, in the aforementioned caverns beneath this newly formed seabed.

So it's basically Hugo Gernsback's scientifiction in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs but slightly better written with more of a stiff upper lip and less casual racism. Our man has invented the jet plane, and he has his woman, and he spends his time roaming his futuristic world and explaining all of its exciting developments for the benefit of both that lucky, lucky gal and whoever was paying attention back in the thirties. It's readable, but never quite achieves the escape velocity necessary to propel it beyond the limitations of being a first novel written to a formula. Wyndham made a better, and significantly more interesting job of infodumping than Gernsback ever did, and The Secret People is additionally curious as a document of when it was written, with references to Queen Elizabeth II made a couple of decades prior to her coronation, and Italy innocuously noted as having an interest in reviving the Roman empire in North Africa.

As underground societies go, Wyndham's is more coherent and, I suppose, marginally more plausible than those proposed by either Bulwer-Lytton or Richard Shaver, but once he gets his people down there, he doesn't seem quite sure what to do with them, and so the narrative just ambles on for another hundred or so pages of approximately Burroughsian scrapes and perils until someone finds a tunnel leading back to the surface. Being Wyndham, there's a lot of pleasing attention to detail, so The Secret People is better than I've probably made it sound, but unfortunately not by much.

Ghost of Chance

William S. Burroughs Ghost of Chance (1991)
Just to get it out of the way because it doesn't really have anything to do with the book, Ghost of Chance is apparently ideal for the supercool heavy-duty intellectual in your life, according to someone called Elizabeth Young who, according to Wikipedia, was a London based literary critic and author who championed transgressive fiction. It also says that she wrote for numerous papers and periodicals, so I assume this quote must have come from something she had published by either the Daily Mail or People's Friend, because it's probably the most gormless endorsement of Burroughs I've ever read, unless she was taking the piss or something.

Anyway, Ghost of Chance revives Captain Mission from the pages of Cities of the Red Night, and - so it turns out - reality, seeing as we apparently have no good reason to doubt his having existed. Mission was a pirate who seemingly set up a short-lived but generally progressive libertarian colony on an island off the coast of Africa back in the 1700s. Burroughs pins his interpretation to Madagascar whilst using the island's lemur population as a barometer for mass extinction as related to humanity and our bewilderingly shitty conduct. Being Burroughs, we inevitably fly off at a few obtuse angles here and there, notably with a discussion on disease which posits the existence of a Jesus Christ virus which causes one to turn the other cheek and so permit the propagation of evil; and we even get a few nods to Alfred Korzybski, of whom A.E. van Vogt was quite the fan.

Also included is a sequence of illustrations by Burroughs which intersect the narrative with an almost musical regularity, like bursts of white noise. They're abstract, splatters of something like watercolour suggesting repeating patterns without actually containing any. I had a feeling they might have been inspired by dream machine usage and so tried looking whilst rapidly blinking my eyes, and in doing so I found that the images take on an almost three-dimensional sense of movement, which is odd. They suggest crepuscular things half seen against the backdrop of one's inner eyelid, which is similarly how Burroughs' writing works - not so much by telling you what happened and thus imposing a narrative, as by describing blocks of cause and effect which invite the reader to make connections.

This is only what Burroughs did for most of his career, but here the technique particularly benefits from the focus facilitated by a relatively low page count, rendering what seems an unusually direct and punchy statement for old Billy.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


A.E. van Vogt Renaissance (1979)
In reference to his later novels, John Clute apparently described van Vogt as a man who awoke from a dream but could not remember the glories of the night - which Mark Ricard drew to my attention as I don't actually have a copy of Clute's book. Anyway, it's certainly true of this one.

As I've noticed in a few of his seventies novels, Alfred Elton seemingly became preoccupied with the inequality of the sexes, although it should be noted that his model of inequality was massively subjective and somewhat screwy. On the surface of it, it looked a lot like an old dude resenting that he hadn't been getting much action of late, and rationalising this as a power imbalance with all the cards being in the hands of those accursed sexy women with their big ol' titties having it off as much and as often as they like, the fuckin' bitches. I say on the surface because that's how it looks from the viewpoint of someone reading in 2018, and when I say someone I mean me, obviously; and I also say on the surface because such a judgement probably isn't entirely fair on van Vogt and any resemblance of Renaissance to The Worm that Turned - as serialised on The Two Ronnies way back whenever - shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Anyway, this is one of those future worlds invaded by an alien species, in this case called the Utt, and the Utt have come because they saw something wrong with human society and thought they should put it right; and because the wrongness stems from male human sexuality, the Utt have changed everything so that women are the dominant sex and men must wear chemically treated glasses. Either the precise point of these glasses isn't mentioned in detail, or else I missed that paragraph, but I'm guessing it's so that men don't go on a rampage, having been driven to distraction by women's tits wobbling around like big sexy jellies on plates. For such a mannered society, there seems to be quite a lot which A.E. prefers to imply rather than state - which is probably a mercy - although the world of Renaissance seems so riddled with half baked contradictions that I suspect it may simply be that he hadn't fully worked it out himself, or that he had but wasn't entirely comfortable with his own conclusions.

The woman of Renaissance are polarised as Mila, the unhappy punishing wife, or on the other hand, your stereotypical young, unavailable lovelies, and we're never quite sure whether this latter group should be considered angels or whores, and if whores, whether that's a bad thing. I'd say Freud would have had a field day, but it probably wouldn't have taken much more than a couple of minutes.

The Utt and the new laws they impose upon their human subjects therefore read a little like political correctness gone mad, although that probably wasn't quite the author's intention, at least not exactly. My apologist take on this is that his views seem so personal - and not a little messed up - that there's not much point in mistaking any of it for a manifesto.

It occurred to him for the first time in their long business life together that she had a most excellent figure.

As the door closed, he jumped a little. And realised that he had had a forbidden male-type feeling; and that he should be experiencing a strong guilt reaction.

But what he actually felt was a fear of being found out.

As is fairly common with later van Vogt novels, our man chances upon a rebel group, in this case, men who dress as women so as to go undetected, and the general tone made it difficult for me to read on without visualising scenes from the Dick Emery Show or the aforementioned Worm That Turned.

The great shame is that if one is able to get past van Vogt failing to get to grips with his own forbidden male-type feelings, Renaissance isn't actually a bad book; or if it is, then it's at least bad in an interesting way. The narrative is unusually coherent and clearly-defined, despite all of the sexual elephants in rooms we're not going to talk about in 1979; and when our man encounters the extraterrestrial Orsolite at the very end, everything suddenly comes into focus and we remember what made van Vogt so great in the first place. It's probably best not to remember him this way, but even for all the faults of Renaissance, A.E. still looks marginally less of a pillock than Pat Mills after Sex Warrior.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Sex Warrior

Pat Mills, Tony Skinner & Mike McKone Sex Warrior (1993)
Before we get bogged down in dreary consideration of Sex Warrior, let us briefly turn to Whoopee, and specifically the issue of the children's comic dated to the 12th of January, 1985. The cover was a parody of 2000AD with Leo Baxendale's Sweeny Toddler masquerading as Judge Dredd. Chris Browning posted a reproduction of this cover on facebook, inspiring the following exchange.

Lawrence: I had no idea Whoopee endured beyond the seventies.

Chris: Mid-eighties is when great news for our readers! meant it was eaten by Whizzer and Chips, itself eaten in due time by Buster which was the final one of the stable...

Lawrence: I remember those great news issues. They never were. I'm still slightly pissed off at losing Star Lord after all these years, and even Tornado come to think of it.

Chris: My friend with whom I cooked up the Cheeky-ITMA theory was the one who pointed out that after the first time you saw great news!, you were pretty much cynical about the words from that point on. Kind of prepares you for the adult world, I guess

Lawrence: I jumped ship at prog 181 with 2000AD. It just seemed to be repeating itself, plus I'd left home and gone to college so it was an all around upheaval, and the quality of paper on which it was printed seemed worse than ever, and then came Meltdown Man and The Mean Arena...

Chris: 2000AD tends to work well when half of it repeats itself allowing for slightly madder flights of fancy. This is why Dan Abnett is the Terrance Dicks of 2000AD. Old safe hands occasionally manage something miraculous, mostly are just very good at writing variations of the same stuff whilst not becoming stale - see Pat Mills who, with a few exceptions, feels like a lunatic who got obsessed with paganism and anarchy and is just bellowing at you. The current Tharg, Matt Smith, is good at this ratio. It's why we've had Brass Sun and Scarlet Traces and some variety snuck in behind the back of the luddites

Lawrence: That's a great description of Pat Mills, even though that's sort of why I enjoy his best stuff. There was a Grant Morrison interview in which he was weighing in with his thoughts on the comic book profession, overcoming his characteristic reticence, and in which he said something like, that was when Pat Mills took a bit of a funny turn, which always amused me. I mention this mainly because I've just picked up the two issues of Sex Warrior which Pat Mills wrote for Dark Horse, and in which he tries far too hard, as usual.

Chris: Occasionally you read a bit of Pat Mills where you go, That’s it! That’s the one I liked as a kid! - the most recent ABC Warriors and Savage stuff has been a bit more focused because he's enjoying Howard Quartz as the big bad and channelling his usual bugbears into all that. Even the last Slaine was readable; but then you get Blackblood talking about fake news and it's like being bludgeoned all over again.

Lawrence: He's like the nutty friend of a friend who sets bus shelters on fire and is massively funny despite how hard you might try to dislike him, and yet you kind of don't want him as your own actual buddy.

Chris: Yeah, pretty much. I mean Finn, Black Siddha and American Reaper are among the worst things I have ever, ever read; but then there's this:

Lawrence: I vaguely remember disliking Finn because he reminded me of half of the people I knew at art college. I'll remain blissfully ignorant about the other two.

Chris: American Reaper is photo realist nonsense which, bizarrely, featured comedy metal band the Darkness in it, briefly. Black Siddha is basically Finn, but Asian and with jokes about corner shops and curries among the wanging on about the Goddess

Lawrence: That whole deal of identifying with Asian culture by explaining how much you love curry always irritated the hell out of me.

Chris: Black Siddha turned up in the free floppies with the Megazine, surely as some sort of keep Pat happy contractual obligation. Someone recently wrote in asking why the prog was publishing two Pat stories at once, saying surely one is enough at the best of times? A brave, brave man, that.

Sex Warrior began life in the pages of Toxic! with somewhat muddy-looking art by Will Simpson, and I have an anomalous memory of having sold a Dark Horse reprint of the same on eBay - anomalous because this version is drawn by someone else, is the only limited series to feature the character outside of Toxic!, and I have no memory of ever having read it. Anyway, assuming that this was the thing I once flogged on eBay - allowing for someone having mucked about with the time stream or summink - I now understand why I didn't feel the need to hang onto this one first time around. The art significantly improves on what I recall of the Simpson version which, if not without merit, always seemed to have the chromatic palate of playgroup Plasticine after a few months heavy usage; but otherwise everything you need to know is more or less covered in the above conversation. The premise of a war waged between the young and the old had potential, but for all intents and purposes, Chris Donald did it better back in the October 1985 issue of Viz.

Also, the cover of issue two is awful in ways even Rob Liefeld could barely manage.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Journey to the End of the Night

Louis-Ferdinand Céline Journey to the End of the Night (1932)
I'm sure I remember hearing that it was Céline who first came up with the three little dots signifying a pause, although I don't seem to be able to find any sort of confirmation for this. Never mind.

Anyway, I've been meaning to read something for a couple of decades now, at least since discovering his writing to be an influence on that of Billy Childish, and of course Bukowski, and - as I've eventually realised - pretty much everyone else I'd consider worth bothering with. His innovations mainly seem to have been in introducing a crude - although not lacking eloquence - working class voice to literature, and a willingness to examine all of the gritty details, stains, and skidmarks from which we extrapolate reality at least as much as we do from prettier, less disturbing sights. He was never too worried about delivering a crowd pleaser.

I hadn't found out yet that mankind consists of two very different races, the rich and the poor. It took me . . . and plenty of other people . . . twenty years and the war to learn to stick to my own class and ask the price of things before touching them, let alone setting my heart on them.

Journey to the End of the Night is roughly autobiographical, kicking off with our man's experience of the first world war and the unpleasant truths accordingly revealed.

People moved flabbily about like squid in a tank of tepid smelly water. From that moment on we saw, rising to the surface, the terrifying nature of white men, exasperated, freed from constraint, absolutely unbuttoned, their true nature, same as in the war. That tropical steam bath called forth instincts as August breeds toads and snakes on the fissured walls of prisons. In the European cold, under grey, puritanical northern skies, we seldom get to see our brothers' festering cruelty except in times of carnage, but when roused by the foul fevers of the tropics, their rottenness rises to the surface. That's when the unbuttoning sets in, when filth triumphs and covers us entirely. It's a biological confession. Once work and cold weather cease to constrain us, once they relax their grip, the white man shows you the same spectacle as a beautiful beach when the tide goes out: the truth, fetid pools, crabs, carrion, and turds.

Driven to the end of his rope, Céline sits out some of the war in an asylum before being sent to French colonial Africa, itself only another variant of hell, from which point the narrative becomes oddly Swiftian, or at least more blatantly allegorical as he becomes a galley slave, rowing to the Americas.

Talk of surprises! What we suddenly discovered through the mist was so amazing that at first we refused to believe it, but then, when we were face to face with it, galley slaves or not, we couldn't help laughing, seeing it right there in front of us…

It's probably just me but this passage immediately put me in mind of Bernal Díaz describing the Spanish forces first arriving in the Valley of Mexico in his True History of the Conquest of New Spain of 1568.

With such wonderful sights to gaze on we did not know what to say, or if this was real that we saw before our eyes.

Of course, if it isn't just me, then the parallel probably constitutes weapons-grade sarcasm, given Céline's time in the Americas representing only a minor improvement on his time in Africa, and that it is characterised by escalating absurdity.

'I believe in the enumeration of fleas! It's a civilising factor, because enumeration is the basis of the most invaluable statistical data! . . . A progressive country must know the number of its fleas, broken down according to sex, age group, year and season . . .'

Indeed, this part of the novel might be taken as a descent into an underworld newly industrialised in the wake of the first world war.

The hall where the business was done was likewise of marble. A kind of swimming pool, but drained of all its water, a fetid swimming pool, filled only with filtered, moribund light, which fell on the forms of unbuttoned men surrounded by their smells, red in the face from the effect of expelling their stinking feces with barbarous noises in front of everybody.

The power of Céline's testimony is such as to deliver something pithily quotable on more or less every other page, hence my thus far having used more of his words than my own. If there's a single theme to the novel it would seem to be humanity revealed as reduced to an industrial resource for the first half of the book.

'But you know, doctor, I'm an educated man. I even studied medicine at one time . . .'

At that he gave me a dirty look, I saw that I'd put my foot in it again, to my detriment.

'Your studies won't do you a bit of good around here, son. You're not here to think, you're here to make the movements you're told to. We don't need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again! We'll think for you, my boy! A word to the wise.'

...and at the risk of hammering this one into the ground:

It's sickening to watch the workers bent over their machines, intent on giving them all possible pleasure, calibrating bolts and more bolts, instead of putting an end once and for all to this stench of oil, this vapour that burns your throat and attacks your eardrums from inside. It's not shame that makes them bow their heads. You give in to noise as you give in to war. At the machines you let yourself go with the two three ideas that are wobbling about at the top of your head. And that's the end. From then on everything you look at, everything you touch, is hard. And everything you still manage to remember more or less becomes as rigid as iron and loses its savour in your thoughts.

All of a sudden you've become disgustingly old.

All outside life must be done away with, made into steel, into something useful. We didn't love it enough the way it was, that's why. So it has to be made into an object, into something solid. The Regulations say so.

The second half of the book describes Céline's return to France where he sets up a medical practice, which in narrative terms allows for further exposition and reflection on both his misanthropy and its attendant self-loathing. Unfortunately, this second half lacks the dynamic of the first, pinning its narrative to events of lesser consequence, and so feeling a little formless in places, at least to me.

Anyway, the significance of Céline should hopefully be apparent from the quotes, in so much as that as a writer he clearly strove to get to the bones regardless of stroked egos, sales, or pleasing images, and yet without going too far the other way and serving up what may as well be Lovecraftian disgust. That he is not so well remembered as might be the case is unfortunate but understandable given his later antisemitism, and not just the sort of thing we tend to pass off as being of its time, but properly antisemitic material written as a vocal supporter of Hitler and the axis powers.

In his defence, or at least in the defence of Journey to the End of the Night, there's nothing antisemitic here, and not even anything particularly racist, which seems noteworthy given the African setting of a few chapters, and when it was written. In fact, given Céline's generally poor view of authority figures, it's far from obvious how he could ever have ended up as cheerleader for the Third Reich. The key is most likely to be found in his enduring misanthropy.

It's no use trying, we slide, we skid, we fall back into the alcohol that preserves the living and the dead, we get nowhere. It's been proved. After all these centuries of watching our domestic animals come into the world, labouring and dying before our eyes without anything more unusual ever happening to them either than taking up the same insipid fiasco where so many other animals had left off, we should have caught on. Endless waves of useless beings keep rising from deep down in the ages to die in front of our noses, and yet here we stay, hoping for something  . . .

Sadly it seems to be a thin line which divides this sort of general realism from that which gets so thoroughly pissed off at everyone apparently wallowing in their own shit as to get misty-eyed over anything punishing which just so happens to entail jackboots; so Celine's slide to the far right should probably be considered reactionary in the literal sense, a move facilitated by the desire to attribute blame - as he himself once acknowledged.

When men can hate without risk, their stupidity is easily convinced, the motives supply themselves.

It's a fucking shame, and that whole argument about whether it's possible to divorce a piece of art from the shithead who created it is more complicated than I have time to really consider right now, and is an issue which should probably be settled on a case by case basis; but for what it may be worth, Journey to the End of the Night is a genuinely great book, or at least the first half is a genuinely great book, regardless of anything else.