Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Wow, No Thank You

Samantha Irby Wow, No Thank You (2020)
I'll begin with the customary whining, specifically that I feel I'm beginning to see too much of this sort of thing, namely collections of wackily confessional autobiographical essays. While I'm aware that wackily confessional autobiographical essays existed before David Sedaris first began tapping away, it feels very much as though the current wave have been surfing along on the same ticket. I regard David Sedaris as unreservedly wonderful - although I generally prefer his readings of his essays to their printed form; and while I  enjoy wackily confessional autobiographical essays for the most part, I'm seeing a bit too much of a pattern here, and we've got to the point of the wackily confessional autobiographical essay as an end in itself*.

The books - many of which often began life as a blog - usually have some single knowingly peculiar image on the primary coloured cover, with a self-consciously quirky saying or phrase for a title, and it's all starting to feel a bit obvious. There was Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Samantha Bee's I Know I Am, But What Are You?, and David Thorne's I'll Go Home Then; It's Warm and Has Chairs, and about fifty billion others. My wife rates the Samantha Bee and Jenny Lawson books fairly highly. I tried Let's Pretend This Never Happened but felt my buttons being pushed in an effort to make me laugh, which would have been fine except that seemed to be all that was going on. I bought my wife the David Thorne book as a birthday gift because it seemed kind of funny, but turned out to be a collection of notionally comic emails by some guy who once wrote jokes for David Letterman - money for old rope. In publishing terms, it seems we may have reached a point equivalent to that year during which the field of stand up comedy was suddenly flooded with a million unfunny laddish cunts who'd doubtless gone down a storm in the work canteen and had decided to make a go of it.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened sold so well that Jenny Lawson was able to open up her own book store here in San Antonio, which is where I came across Samantha Irby's Wow, No Thank You. There was a bunny on the cover and a quick flip through brought forth chuckles, so it seemed like it would make a good anniversary present for my wife. She read it and laughed a lot, then insisted I give it a go, so here I am.

My first impressions were good - those being the impressions which inspired me to buy the thing on the grounds of it being something my wife might enjoy, which she did. My second impressions were more subdued, because a random paragraph read in the book store doesn't get chance to outstay its welcome; and despite initial promise, I found myself reading something by someone with whom I seemingly shared only a few points of reference. Samantha Irby is fifteen years younger than I am, black and female, and there's a lot about moisturiser, chick stuff, and the internet - and to the point of influencing Irby's style of writing which is full of net slang and contractions - LMFAO, hashtags, and things which work fine on a webpage but look fucking silly in print. If I'm reading a book, I like to feel some effort has gone into the writing, and that it isn't simply a copy-pasted treasury of - oh, off the top of my head - Simon's most LOLworthy facebook posts. I wasn't quite feeling this with Wow, No Thank You, but the thought was at the back of my head. It was confessional, almost gratuitously so, communicated with a shitload of sarcasm in the form of sentences which didn't quite seem to know when to stop. It was good, or at least I wasn't not enjoying it, but…

I skipped to the end, to an essay about how Meaty, Irby's first book came to be published, which seemed potentially a little too self-aware for its own good, but I wanted to get a handle on where the woman was coming from; and that's when it all clicked. Despite either appearances or my preconceptions, Irby seems to have been as much bewildered by her own success as anyone, and once you realise this, the rest makes a lot more sense. If her focus seems a little arbitrary, it's because she's writing what the fuck she wants to write about, when she wants to write it. There's no calculation going on here, no pandering to an audience, just scatterbursts of honestly righteous testimony seasoned with a wit that could take your eye out.

I can't watch This Is Us because even though the brothers are hot and the dad is a smoke show, in the first couple episodes the fat girl doesn't get to be much more than "fat," and wow, no thank you! Maybe there are fat people sitting around silently weeping about being fat every minute of every day, but that is a redemptive arc thin people like to see on television, and it's just not the fucking truth. And I like physical comedy as much as the next guy, but it's also super gross to watch a fat bitch just bounce off shit all the time? I don't know, dude, sometimes the chair with fixed arms isn't going to work for me, but it's not like every time I sit in a desk, I get up and take the whole thing with me, or I'm sighing wistfully as everyone else at brunch joyfully eats their quiche while I pick at a piece of boiled lettuce. The shit is called Meaty, and sometimes I hate my body not because it's fat, but mostly because I never wake up in the morning to discover it has transformed into a wolf or a shark overnight. When is the last time you watched a show with a fat woman who didn't at some point reference a new diet or some ill-fitting old jeans? Also this idea that fat people only get pity sex from recent parolees or whatever is bullshit; I've never fucked a repulsive loser ever in my life.

While I wouldn't say the book is exactly free-range, it swings around wildly from one page to the next, requiring that the reader acclimate to its rhythm - but is worth the effort. For what it may be worth, I additionally enjoy the fact of Wow, No Thank You being the testimony of a chunky black lesbian from an economically impoverished upbringing who communicates without recourse to any of the usual reductive box ticking so beloved of middle class pronoun wankers; and ultimately it becomes apparent that Irby and I have a lot in common, and that which we don't have in common, I can at least understand - even the moisturiser, sort of.

I began with the suspicion of there being too much of this sort of thing, but on close inspection I realise I was wrong, and that there isn't anything like enough.

*: I'm aware this may seem a little hypocritical given that much of what is said here might just as well be applied to my own self-published An Englishman in Texas, amongst others. My defence is that I generally regard such material as secondary or supplementary in the wider context of my writing, and as such the only buttons I'm bothered about pushing tend to be my own.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021


José Saramago Blindness (1995)
Ursula LeGuin seemed to think this was something special and it sounded great. Happily, I chanced upon a copy at Half Price and Ursula was right, as usual. The quick version is that Blindness is Day of the Triffids had it been written by Borges, but deserves a somewhat more thorough account. Our story begins when everyone in the world - so far as we're able to tell - is suddenly unsighted for reasons which remain undiscovered and which probably don't matter. The blind are at first quarantined in an abandoned asylum, with food left sporadically at the gate in the hope of their being able to fend for themselves without infecting anyone else; except, whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be a disease and the food deliveries soon cease. Naturally, it doesn't take long for civilisation itself to cease, and human existence becomes a vision of hell as all that we take for granted is stripped away - electricity, running water, law, order, food, transport and working toilets. Blindness is potentially one of the most harrowing things I've read, except Saramago clearly understood that what he wanted to say about human nature might be lost to the visceral horror of its telling. In fact, he specifically states as much near the end of the novel while additionally describing one of his solutions.

Ah, you were in quarantine, Yes, Was it hard, Worse than that, How horrible, You are a writer, you have, as you said a moment ago, an obligation to know words, therefore you know that adjectives are of no use to us, if a person kills another, for example, it would be better to state this fact openly, directly, and to trust that the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible.

Additionally, as you may notice from the above, Saramago utilises his own conventions of punctuation and grammar, embedding dialogue within the text without indicating quotation or even direct attribution to the speaker, instead trusting the cadence of the words to distinguish speech. He abruptly switches tense or makes occasional authorial observations, even speculating what may happen next, and there are plenty of commas, not many full stops, and very few paragraph breaks. It's initially disorientating - not least because we never learn the names of any of our people, persisting with identification such as the doctor, the doctor's wife, the boy with the squint and so on right up until the end - but it soon becomes absorbing by somehow placing the reader at the centre of the horror, so it feels as though the book is occurring around you rather than simply on the page; and it really is horror of the most harrowing sort, the kind which occurs here in the real world when we reduce ourselves to living garbage. Yet Saramago keeps his emphasis firmly focussed on the positives, even when those positives constitute just the faintest glimmer of hope in a brutal world of blood and shit, forging a powerful parable about human nature without it reading like transgressive body horror drivel, and yet without pulling any descriptive punches. Blindness is honestly not like anything I've read before.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Amazing Stories July 1961

Cele Goldsmith (editor) Amazing Stories July 1961 (1961)
Whenever I pick up one of these old digests - and usually because Murray Leinster is promised by the cover - the story within nearly always turns out to be something I've already read, and usually one of his series featuring Doctor Calhoun, a sort of spacefaring version of the district nurse. Pariah Planet is thankfully not one of the Calhoun stories with which I'm familiar, although it's fairly typical of the series, meaning it may as well have been written by Hank Hill and comprises a sequence of Asimov style narrative puzzle boxes which the reader is invited to see if he, or she - but probably he, can solve before our man gets there. So it's pretty dry and this one isn't helped by a ton of speculation as to what Calhoun might find before he's actually found it, which tends to diminish the potential for surprise and threatens to muddy the distinction between what's happening and what may yet happen; but on the other hand, Leinster is rarely, if ever, a chore, and this episode borders on being a western with planets as frontier towns and our man Calhoun solving medical mysteries on a world overrun with cattle, so I'm not complaining. Also, Virgil Finlay's line illustrations are gorgeous.

Elsewhere, we're very much reminded of the space race transpiring right outside the reader's window with an article on escape capsules of the future, and Gordon Dickson's efficient but underwhelming account of lunar heroism. Thankfully we also have Dan Morgan's implausible but satisfyingly disgusting Father, and The Coming of the Ice by G. Peyton Wertenbaker.

I hadn't heard of the guy, and The Coming of the Ice is significant as having been the first original story to be commissioned and printed in Amazing back in 1926, everything before that having been reprints of Wells and the like; and it turns out he lived in San Antonio, so that's interesting - at least to me. The Coming of the Ice isn't life changing, but it's snappy, well written, and deliciously suggestive of that short window in publishing history during which no-one was quite sure what science-fiction was supposed to be, and the notion of an idea being too wild was yet to take hold. It concerns a man who is made immortal by scientific means, describing his experiences over the millions of years to come as humanity evolves around him even as he himself remains essentially unchanged. The influence of Wells is obvious, but it's got enough of a spark to get me on the hunt for more Wertenbaker, and more than justifies what little I paid for this magazine.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Women in Love

D.H. Lawrence Women in Love (1921)
Women in Love has been hailed as Lawrence's greatest novel in certain quarters, and while it's undoubtedly up there, I'm not convinced. As you may already know, Women in Love began life as the second half of The Rainbow before evolving into its own thing, and so continues the lives of Ursula and Gudrun whom we met in the first book while inevitably reiterating certain themes of the same, notably expressing the then revolutionary notion of women as capable of leading an independent existence, or at least one not entirely reliant upon the goodwill of men; but I'm not convinced that this is all it's trying to do.

Rather, if we take The Rainbow as a summation of human progress, society, and ethics dating from Biblical times to the modern era - as represented by the stratified generations in the novel - then Women in Love is principally looking forward to speculate on where we go from here.

It was written as a modern novel in a world wherein electric lighting was still very much a novelty, and accordingly borrows from adjacent modernist territories, particularly the visual arts which reoccur as sign posts - or possibly scratching posts - throughout the book, which itself orders its chapters in a sequence suggesting pictures at an exhibition with the reader moving ponderously from one scene to the next as most of the actual narrative motion occurs somewhere off the side of the page. As with individual paintings in an exhibition, each new chapter brings a different emphasis in terms of mood, colour and subject. Chapter six opens with what could easily be a description of a painting by Manet or Toulouse-Lautrec, introducing Minette who is unmarried, pregnant and fearless - much like Boccioni's similarly employed Modern Idol of 1911. If she seems a harshly lit character, it would probably be more accurate to suggest that she is simply described without sentiment, a description underscored by the then fashionable African totems and Futurist art at the house she shares in Bohemia, as such providing contrast to the tradition and conservative values espoused in chapter eight. Further to this contrast, the stately Breadalby House is acknowledged by Gudrun as resembling an old aquatint, while in chapter eleven the larger estate inspires Ursula to comment that one could have lovely Watteau picnics here.

The divide - here referring to culture and tradition as much as to class - is further emphasised by the mechanisation of the mine workers described in chapter nine, as a new sort of machinery in terms which echo the Futurists whilst unfortunately foreshadowing both Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher. Lawrence was clearly aware that where we go from here would be violently mechanistic, having written at least some of the novel during the first great war. Women in Love spends much of its page count engaged in destruction as a creative act, specifically destruction of the old order right down even to basic Victorian sentiment and the comfort of tradition. Gudrun and Ursula are school teachers, modern women teaching the science which has given birth to the twentieth century and even the possibility of the future being more than a simple continuation of the past. Even the title, Women in Love, seems possibly ironic, either a focus shifted to those who were traditionally the object of love and so denied autonomy in the socially sanctioned expression of the equation; or perhaps a bitter comment on love as a more violent and visceral institution than Victorian society would have had it.

Even if, as has been pointed out by Kate Millet, Lawrence's women can never be more than Lawrence's idea of women - an accusation which I rather feel misses the point - the sheer balls of this novel being titled Women in Love in 1921 shouldn't be taken for granted, nor that Ursula and Gudrun are the principal characters, the ones who react against everything herein, not least being the views of the author as voiced through Rupert Birkin. Lawrence was here attempting to cut through the bullshit, including his own bullshit.

Women in Love destroys nineteenth century sentiment without mercy or favouritism, even revealing newly embraced notions of progress as red in tooth and claw, with Gerald Crich exposed as a ruthless objectivist machine in The Industrial Magnate; with the supposed innocence of even children shown as essentially cruel in Rabbit.

What, one might wonder, does Lawrence presume to build in the wake of all this revelation and destruction? I don't know, and I'm not sure he knew, instead finding himself obliged to settle with approximations of what he didn't want and a vague notion of the direction in which we should probably be heading. Inevitably some of the proposed way forward allows for Lawrence's poorly quantified desire for a relationship which allows for a big strapping male friend on the side, but this is a personal preference rather than a manifesto, and I don't think the retroactive application of fashionable gender related neologisms is likely to help anyone in this instance. Otherwise, he's mainly asking questions which no-one had thought to ask in the presumed hope of getting an answer which wasn't too stupid.

There had been some discussion, on the whole quite intellectual and artificial, about a new state, a new world of man. Supposing this old social state were broken and destroyed, then, out of chaos, what then?

The novel is the response, I guess, approximately summarised thus:

'You can only have knowledge, strictly,' he replied, 'of things concluded, in the past. It's like bottling the liberty of last summer in the bottled gooseberries.'

Women in Love was a massively ambitious undertaking, a novel which, in stylistic terms, seems to map rather than describe the emotional and symbolic meaning of that which befalls Gudrun, Ursula, Rupert, and Gerald; so it isn't a realistic novel and arguably has more in common with symbolist art or even Boccioni's states of mind paintings than with the nineteenth century page turner. Unfortunately it's also much longer than it really needs to be to express that which it expresses, which is possibly a hazard of the exploratory nature of its composition - itself a doubtless deliberate echo of Lawrence's own life at the time, particularly as he leaves England in search of whatever may be out there. So if it's not Lawrence's greatest novel, then it was at least his most daring as of 1921 - assuming The Lost Girl, which I've still to read, doesn't turn out to be five-hundred pages of potato prints with rude words written around the circumference. It's also a bit on the chewy side.

Monday, 23 August 2021

Words Are My Matter

Ursula K. LeGuin Words Are My Matter (2016)
Ever since I first read LeGuin's review of Jeanette Winterson's Stone Gods in the Gaurdani, I knew she was one of the good ones, someone who understood in a world of complete fucking idiots. She found a lot to like about The Stone Gods but spent a couple of massively enjoyable paragraphs rolling her eyes and sighing over Winterson's refusal to acknowledge that a novel in which someone colonises an alien planet can be termed science-fiction - on the grounds that science-fiction is such a boy thing or some such bollocks amounting to the usual snobbery one tends to experience with proper authors. The review is reprinted in this collection, along with a few similarly righteous and massively satisfying truths fired off in the general direction of Margaret Atwood; so I couldn't not buy the thing.

I'm not usually too stoked at the prospect of a writer writing about writing, but LeGuin's essays are packed with insights of the kind which I'd assumed were just me and probably no-one else in the universe. She dissects the relationship between proper writing and that which has come to be termed genre, bursting a multitude of self-important bubbles along the way, and even tackles the myth about whether people really are reading less these days and which people we're talking about when we make such generalisations. For what it may be worth, she doesn't believe that we are reading less, which is encouraging.

LeGuin proves similarly fascinating when discussing the work of other writers - both as reviews and dedicated essays harvested from various literary mags. Here she sheds fresh light on H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard and others with such clarity and enthusiasm as to have inspired my purchase of a novel by at least one of the names I hadn't heard of - and naturally there are a few. She brings a refreshing feminist perspective to her subject while remaining even-handed and generous throughout, preferring to focus on positives even when dealing with books she clearly didn't enjoy and so eschewing the didactic tendencies of Atwood and Winterson.

Finally, we end with a diary written while at a writers' retreat on some island, with pleasing emphasis on the wild bunnies she encounters. It's not often I find myself wanting to hang out with an author as a result of having read their work, but Ursula really does come across as having been a genuinely wonderful person. We could do with a few more like her, generally speaking.

Monday, 16 August 2021

The Golden Age of Marvel Comics

Bill Everett, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon & others
The Golden Age of Marvel Comics (1997)

I'm still half-engaged in researching the history of Marvel for something I'm soon to be working on, which I probably shouldn't mention in case I get bored of the idea and it never happens; but thankfully it's a loose form of research allowing for general impressions picked up from a greatest hits collection such as this. I'm not sure I have the patience to hunt down expensive reprints incorporating everything right down to the adverts for sea monkeys. I'm not sure I would have the patience to read them, for that matter.

Marvel, as you probably know, began life as Timely Comics publishing its first title just a year after Superman first hit the news stands, so the myth of Marvel having been the lively young marmoset stealing the dinosaurs eggs derives mainly from their having changed the name so many times prior to Stan Lee - or possibly Jack Kirby - introducing acne and difficult homework assignments to the traditional superhero strip in 1961. This is what some of that stuff looked like before the characters took to agonising over teenage concerns.

It's probably fair to say that Lee's big idea - or possibly Kirby's big idea - at the beginning of the sixties was to shift emphasis from story to character, prior to which we had illustrated equivalents to the radio serials of the time wherein mostly hard boiled heroes identify bad guys before punching them squarely on the jaw, thus saving the day. The bad guys here were mostly boggle-eyed Nazis, shifting to boggle-eyed reds after the war, so it's fairly repetitive, trades mostly in clichés, and you can usually see the punchline forming before you've made it to the second page. About three quarters of the stories collected herein revolve around the theft of secret plans. Nevertheless, even within this fairly limited formula, there was a lot of invention, some truly screwy twists of imagination, and even at its most peculiar, the art is rarely less than arresting with panel after panel slapping the reader in the face with its relentless dynamic action. Later Marvel favourites such as Captain America, the Human Torch, the Vision, and the Sub-Mariner began here, and the latter is particularly interesting as he evolves from a triangular headed morally ambiguous enemy of mankind - more or less Tarzan underwater - to whatever he became in the sixties, which at least remained a far cry from the square-jawed guy who foils diamond heists to a daily schedule.

I'm not massively familiar with this era of comic book publishing, and for all their early promise, I guess Marvel were never quite so wild as - for one example with which I'm familiar - Planet Comics, and if there's some weird stuff here, there isn't anything which comes close to the like of Fletcher Hanks; yet there's a lot of charm, even if a little goes a long way, and I'd still rather look at this than Roy Lichenstein's version - or even Neil Gaiman cleverly subverting these tropes towards the usual ends.

Also, having read this lot, Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot now makes one fuck of a lot more sense.

Monday, 9 August 2021

The Ubu Plays

Alfred Jarry The Ubu Plays (1900)
1968 translation by Cyril Connolly & Simon Watson Taylor
It's hard to know where to start with Ubu. I started while taking drama 'O' level when I was seventeen or possibly eighteen, and it made a huge impression on me. It seems fair to say that Ubu made a huge impression on twentieth century culture in general, and if anything can be credited as the singularity from which modernism was born, it's probably Ubu. It's difficult to imagine there having been Dada or Surrealism without that formative kick up the arse provided when Firmin Gémier greeted his theatrical first night audience with a hearty cry of Merdre! back in 1896. Ubu Roi was hardly the first instance of artists thumbing noses at punters, but not even Rabelais did it with quite such riotous enthusiasm, using outrage almost as an end in itself.

Ubu Roi began life as a puppet theatre by which Jarry and his juvenile pals took the Victorian piss out of a hated school teacher, so any parallels one may happen to notice with Viz comic and the like are entirely pertinent. Jarry himself matured whilst ensuring that the scatological purity of his characters remained inviolate even as they moved from puppet theatre to the actual stage, by which point Ubu's focus had expanded to take the piss out of the entire Belle Époque and everything it held dear, not least its ruthless optimism. Pere Ubu achieves this by conquering Poland in the first play, then debasing himself in a peculiarly enthusiastic quest to become the lowliest of slaves in Ubu Enchaîné, the final tale. None of it really makes any fucking sense whatsoever, and that's sort of the point. I may have got more out of these plays had I been armed with a more thorough understanding of European history of the time - and I assume the treatment dished out to the Polish is supposed to be insulting for a reason - but the jokes still work so maybe it doesn't matter.

That being said, this book assembles the three Ubu plays, and although they're mostly entertaining, they work better on stage, as the author intended.