Thursday, 7 August 2008

Contemporary Surrealist Classic no.1

Jesus Ignacio Aldapuerta: The Eyes

Right, roll up your sleeves. This is going to get very messy.

You may recall how, when I started this little blog, I made reference to the fact it would contain material of a contentious nature. That I would be going up to my elbows in stuff that dealt with the more extreme ends of human experience, real and imagined. Well the raw matter I'm about to discuss hails from that area. It's Serious Drugs. I present the following to you, not as a dare, not as some kind of macho pissing competition, but because I believe that, in the end, it's worthwhile. (Warning! WOOT! WOOT! Whacking great portions of the following will be NSFW).

Try this...

"We stopped the ambulance and carried her out of sight of the road, one or two of us sampling her roast flesh, pulling strips of her from her breasts, even before we had laid her to a suitably flat surface. I, uninterested in her as meat, was allowed a minute or two to sample her vagina with my penis. I scalded myself doing it: even internally she was boilingly hot. The congealed fat in my pubes I wouldn't be entirely free of for more than a day."

And this...

"I examined her now, laying her slack exhausted frame upon the floor of the cell and running my fingers over her for a place to begin anew. The gaping orifice of anus or vagina seemed a likely point, but my probing fingers could gain no sufficient purchase to begin the tearing out of her flesh. The piece of cement I had used in the breaking-open of her skull was roughly blade shaped. I worked out an edge for it, singing a little to myself to the rhythm of its reiterated rasp against the floor, and used it to begin cutting fillets from her pudenda."

The first excerpt is from a story called 'A La Japonaise' concerning the paedophilic and necrophiliac exploits of a party of sex tourist libertines posing as ambulance men in a heavily bombed city. The second comes from 'Armful' in which a paedophile, arrested and imprisoned with the scandalising object of his obsession, rapes, kills and eats her to dispose of the evidence. Both short stories come from a collection called The Eyes, by Jesus Ignacio Aldapuerta. It's not nice, I'm not even sure I recommend it, but it's lodged itself in my cranium, refuses to leave and I'm interested in why.

Here's a portion of the back blurb:

"A woman's severed head renders obscene sexual service beyond death to a blazing, petrol soaked visionary.
A Nazi rocket-plane rises from the Gotterdammerung of the Third Reich to enter an hyper-oneiric world of sadistic delirium.
An asphyxiated prostitute serves as an embodiment of an entire nation for an insane, necrophiliac American soldier."

Now bear in mind, I've read a lot of stuff not too dissimilar to the above. Like many a pale and interesting young boy I read Burroughs at 13 and progressed through the tried and tested route: De Sade, Genet, Guyotat, Artaud. Literary descriptions of extreme behaviour are nothing new to me. Like a horror fan whose palate has become jaded after watching one too many exploding heads, I consider myself to be pretty much unshockable, artistically speaking anyway. But there is something about The Eyes, something about its blank-eyed, uncaring malevolence, that scares me shitless. And I think its might be because I recognise something in it. Something scared and sad and not a hundred miles away from human.

From the biography at the beginning of the book, written by its translator, Lucia Teodora, we can glean that Jesus Ignacio Aldapuerta was born in Seville in 1950 and died, burned to death, in 1987. The introduction sets out the facts of a life full of perversion and petty criminality. Prison sentences, prostitution, rumours of AIDS and a fascination with human remains and sex tourism are all there. His fatal immolation is rumoured to have been the work of drug dealers; he stole a foreskin from a medical ward and later ate it; he owned a sex aid which he claimed was made from the femur of a child. He sounds like a complete twat, to be honest. A grubby snickering tosser, but I digress.

He is inferred to be something of a liar, who liked to embolden his stories with outrageous detail. Something he refers to directly in 'Armful.'

"That is if I, we, assume that this is not a sexual fantasy having no other existence than in my own imagination, in which case logic need not apply. But assume that it is not a fantasy. You will enjoy it more, assuming thus."

This strikes me as someone attempting to have his cake and eat it. One can imagine Aldapuerta (if he even existed, to be honest I have my doubts.) recounting some horrific tale before justifying himself with a sly "or did I?" Whatever, it's a pretty impressive way to implicate your audience, 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' style.

The book is subtitled "Emetic fables from the Andalusian De Sade" which doesn't really do it justice. Undoubtedly De Sade is an influence - you can't deal with sexually deviant libertinage without invoking the old gasbag it seems - but trying to compare it to other De Sade influenced books is a waste of time. The Eyes is thoroughly modern, having little in common with all those wankathons set in chateaus that regularly squirt out of the underground like steady drips from a flaccid cock. (I'm not naming any names. Apart from that tedious tosser Jeremy Reed. Do give up Jezza. There's a good chap.)

No there's none of that God-awful by-Christ-my-prick-is-hard-I'm-hot-for-this-wenches-arse-and-no-mistake dialogue, no swishings of the cat'o'nine tails, no tedious pontificating on the nature of morality and, crucially, no stories over twelve pages long. What The Eyes has to say it says quickly. Like a story printed in Penthouse or a scene in a porn film, it does the job and gets the fuck out.

Now, I can tell you that The Eyes reads like pornography (something that I'm sure wasn't far from Aldapuerta's mind when he wrote it) but whether it works as pornography I'm afraid I don't know. You'll no doubt be pleased to hear that I don't share any of it's character's sexual proclivities. I prefer my partners still breathing and above the legal age limit, thanks very much. So if The Eyes is basically the necrophile equivalent of that 'Roy Orbison wrapped in cling film' book, why am I drawn to it? Why am I spending a sunny day writing about it and not sipping Chablis on the roof-garden?

Good point. Let's you and I go further.

In the second story in the collection, 'Ikarus,' a WWII pilot flies a Nazi rocket plane into the hull of a passing B-17 (military accuracy not being the first thing on Aldapuerta's mind when he wrote it, I'm sure.). Inside the bomber he witnesses the evisceration of a young woman strapped into a vividly described torture device:

"It was a sculpture, a crucifix of broken and jagged spears and sheets of iron and steel and copper stretched between the floor and roof and walls of the fuselage into which had been set - nailed, clamped, impaled, pincered - the body of a woman."

So far so vile, and when it comes to the description of the woman's body being torn limb from limb we aren't spared any details. This is sexually powered transgressive fiction of a particularly nasty stripe. However, if it's simply meant to function as pornography, then what are the final paragraphs all about?

"Cradling her (head) in two hands, he walked over to the flak hole in the fuselage wall. The moon rode beneath him, a negative pupil in a giant eye of water. He sat down on the edge of the hole, legs dangling over kilometres of emptiness, and waited, dandling the head in his lap like a child, for the impulse to come to push himself and her out and down into the black, unending sea."

Unlike your average piece of pornography this sustains itself after the moment of orgasm, carrying on to a point of desolation. Whatever the author's intention, as an image that's up there with any piece of literary surrealism I can think of. Possessing an authenticity and clarity of vision to rival Magritte or Ernst.

Similarly vivid and surreal images appear at points throughout the book, and it's those moments that serve to elevate it above mere torture porn. An arctic scavenger rearranges the internal organs of plane crash victims into occult patterns on the ice flow; a nameless man drives across a nameless desert for a rendezvous with a celebrity car wreck; a survivor huddles under the wings of a crashed plane, waiting "for wings to sweep out black wounds in the star-cankered flesh of the heavens above him."

It's these images, and others, that serve to give The Eyes its sense of timeless melancholy. The aftermath of the sexual acts described nearly always end in isolation, as if the nameless protagonists suddenly become acutely aware of their distance from any kind of society, any kind of love. The emptiness after the orgasm.

In the story 'B.V.M.' a torturer recounts his philosophy of pain:

"Even if I were a woman, and could string orgasm on orgasm like beads upon a necklace, in time I should sicken of it. Do you think Messalina, in that competition of hers with a courtesan, knew pleasure as much on the first occasion as the last? Impossible.
"Yet consider
"Consider pain
"Give me a cubic centimetre of your flesh and I could give you pain that would swallow you as an ocean swallows a grain of salt. And you would always be ripe for it, from before the time of your birth to the moment of your death. We are always in season for the embrace of pain..."
"Consider" I said
"Consider the ways in which we may gain pleasure.
"Consider the ways in which we may be given pain.
"The one is to the other as the moon is to the sun."

Aldapuerta elevates the acts of agony to a religious level ("I seek only to sacrifice minds. There is no surer way than pain.") The employment of his dry dispassionate style increases the reader's revulsion. The prose rings with authenticity. It feels real, experienced. It is this combination of clinical, Ballardian prose with some of the most vivid surrealist imagery I've read that keeps me coming back to this book. The carnage depicted seems merely an adjunct, a twisted carnival distraction on the road to nowhere. It's this feeling of emptiness and futility that serves to give the grotesque erotica its sting.

The Eyes is not a book without antecedents, at various points it reads like Ballard, De Sade, Burroughs, or a combination of all three, yet I have never read anything quite like it in terms of foul, lingering impression. A hell is being evoked, one all the more scorching because of its prescience. The debauched libertines (or fucked up perverts, if you prefer) of Aldapuerta's fictions are all the more believable because rather than being disgraced aristocrats or night-haunting dandies, they are modern men - pilots, emigres, professionals, wandering through sexual hells of their own jaded designs. Doomed, after that ultimate orgasm, that final detonating fuck, not to follow their victims into oblivion, but to be trapped in lonely wastelands, forever searching for ways to escape. When you finally shut the book you can't help but feel that it's the least they deserve.

I hesitate to recommend The Eyes. This kind of book demands more than a simple "Like that? Try this!" However I will say that in terms of strength of imagery, surrealistic clarity and visionary brutality it's up there with the best post-second-world-war underground fiction, worthy of comparisons with Ballard, Burroughs and David Britton. Praise doesn't come much higher, nor has it ever come with more provisos. Those with strong stomachs, by all means take a swig. Just don't blame me if you end up being sick over yourselves.

Toward a new Surrealism.

Recently, while gazing from the roof terrace of my London bachelor pad, I've been giving some thought to the idea of canons. No, not the aggressively noisy things that men in spangly suits and crash helmets are occasionally fired from, but rather those boring lists of books, films and what have you that get trotted out semi-regularly in an attempt to uncover what really are the best, most exemplary, seminal (urgh) works in a particular field. Now everyone hates it when the usual Oxbridge tossers are asked for theirs and we end up with the usual round of Miltons, Blakes, Orwells and Shakespeare's, but it struck me that we dwellers in the dank passes have our canon as well. It goes a little like this: Burroughs, Ballard, Battaille, Artaud, Dick, Bukowski, Genet etc. All good stuff, undoubtedly but a little tired now, especially when such good work is still continuing on the margins.

Now all this talk of canons made me think of the Surrealists. In an issue of one of their periodicals, Andre Breton listed a series of books that were crucial influences on the movement. It included Lautreamont, Jarry, Roussell and a host of others that had provided the initial spark that began the great revolution. As someone who thinks that a vital new strand of Surrealism is long overdue in today's culture I thought it might be fun to begin to compile a similar list. You can see the first fruits of this search for new beginnings above. I will add more as and when they reveal themselves to me. Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Klaxons shmaxons: an alternative reading list for art-rockers

Rahoo! Hussah! And with a flourish of trumpet, fife and drum Klaxons storm the Mercury podium and drunkenly accept their well-deserved award. Well done lads! Top work! Take time to savour the delights of my bordello on the way to receiving the key to the Flying City. Awww, I can’t be sarcastic about it. I really like Klaxons. At least they look like they’re actually having fun being in a band and enjoying the delights of making things up, rather than blathering on about supermarkets and bus queues. Seriously, British guitar pop, Where did it all go wrong? NME’s shit these days an’ all etc etc etc.

Needless to say, I’m not here to moan about the state of guitar pop (you wanna hear me do that? Heart & Hand every Tuesday from six. You’re buying). I am however going to have a little pop at the aforementioned neon spangled pasty boys for an entirely non-musical reason: their reading list. One of the main reasons I like Klaxons is that they make no bones about how many ideas they’ve ripped off from various books. I have always liked bands with a bit of intellectual heft. My teenage years were immeasurably brightened by the Manic Street Preachers recommending Mishima, quoting Mirbeau in their sleeve notes, and generally acting like the kid at the back of English class who sneered at having to read Pride & Prejudice because he’d already discovered De Quincy (i.e.: me). Bands should be a complete package, and that should involve clothes, films, books, art, drugs, the lot.

But let’s have a look at the writers recommended by the Klaxons as essential past-lights-out-illuminated-by-a-glo-stick reading matter. Ah, who have we here? Why, it’s William Burroughs! And Ballard! And Thomas Pynchon! Well fuck me sightless, exactly the same (male) writers recommended ad infinitum by rebel intellects since the late sixties. Obviously I have nothing against any of these writers. Two of them I adore, and have done since I was a kid, one of them, to be honest, I find a bit clever-clever (I’m sure you can work out which one). But whatever I think of their relative merits the basic principle stands. If you want to make out that your band is a cut above the beer-and-fags brigade just stick a William Burroughs quote in your song and Mektoub! U is intellijunt!

“Alright, Savage”, I hear you cry, “there’s the bouche, ou’est le dosh?” “Well, my impatient Myrmidons,” I gracefully bat back, “take out your spotter-jotters, ‘cos here it comes.”
Yes, in the interests of pushing things forward, if only an inch, I hereby present an essential cut-out-and-keep primer to the writers that all you miss’s and misters should be name dropping in your NME interviews, whereupon they will probably stick their names in a two inch tall yellow sidebar and write a series of one sentence critiques involving lots of exclamation marks. They are writers from a variety of genres who, while squarely belonging to the same tradition as Burroughs/Ballard et al (experimental in form, concerns with sex, drugs and the architecture of control, mostly dead etc), are just that little bit different, just that little bit wilder, just that little bit less predictable than the usual crowd. Read, enjoy, consume, change. I hope you find it stimulating.

Kenji Siratori
Japan has a rich and varied tradition of sub-cultural dissent, which often focuses on extreme body manipulation and sadistic erotica. From this basis comes the comic form known as Ero-Guru (erotic grotesque, popularised by the comics artist Suehiro Maruo, who I’d recommended to the strong of stomach. Track down a copy of ‘Ultra-Gash Inferno’ on Creation books), the music of Merzbow and the cyber-punk sensation Kenji Siratori. Siratori is not an easy read. Indeed, calling him a ‘read’ at all is a challenge when faced with prose like this:

“I invade the black vagus of a chitin-driver::Level zero::of the mass of flesh//Invade//The penis of the rape drone of the machine mechanism penetrated microns of thorax of the bug-dogs in the cadaver place::the living body of ecstasy scrolls like the bacteria::multiple revolution//I copy the mass of flesh that turned into the crucified memory that reflected bondage of the ADAM Doll with the rapid stream of<>/”

This hyper stylised prose jettisons common notions of plot entirely and instead acts as a kind of download. By the end of ‘Blood Electric’ (also Creation books) you won’t have a clue what’s happened but you’ll have a bloody good idea of what colour it was, how loud it was and how glad you are that you only had to read about it. This guy is trying to take common notions of science-fiction to pieces, using influences from Artaud and, particularly, Pierre Guyotat. ‘Blood Electric’ also makes you look well cool in front of your friends. Which, let’s face it, is a prerequisite of every book on this list.

William Hope Hodgson
While H.P. Lovecraft has been (deservedly) lauded to the skies by musicians for years (and notice how the academics are only just beginning to catch up. Truly, Metallica are quicker of the mark than Alain De Botton), his near contemporary (and influence) William Hope Hodgson has been sadly neglected. His masterpiece is ‘The House on the Borderland’ a mesmerising account of a solitary dweller in a house that straddles several parallel realities. Though at times confusing (Hodgson’s antiquated prose style can be as equally befuddling as Lovecraft’s) it retains a near hallucinogenic pull on the imagination, and contains dark overtones of incest, paranoia and solitary death. I would also unreservedly recommend his ‘The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”’, a more straightforward tale of nautical horror, although ‘The Night Land,’ which is longer and much tougher reading, requires a good run up to get through. Interesting Author Fact! William Hope Hodgson was also a world renowned body builder. Aaand TENSE!

Anna Kavan
There is no sadder omission from the cannon of great writers than Anna Kavan. Born in the early 20th century (although no one is sure exactly when) and a heroin addict by her early 30s, she is responsible for one of the great corpuses (corpii?) of the literature of addiction. Works such as ‘Change the Name,’ ‘I am Lazarus’ and ‘Ice’ suggest a woman most at home dealing with isolation, fear and control. ‘Ice’ is generally regarded as her masterpiece, but I would recommend her 1948 novel ‘Sleep Has His House’ as an unparalleled work of the imagination. Broken into short, dream-like passages and veering between autobiography, surrealism and reverie it retains all the haunting power of a whispered, half-understood conversation, and recalls the twilight landscapes of De Chrico.

Langdon Jones
You’re going to have to scour a few second hand bookshops (or just do that boring e-bay thang. Seriously, where’s the fun of buying old books if you’re not inhaling toxic fungus fumes while up to your knees in yellowing jilly Cooper novels?) to find a copy of Langdon Jones’s ‘The Eye of the Lens’ (Savoy books) but you’ll want to buy me kippers after you’ve found it. A collection of short stories from one of the staple cast who ran 60s sci-fi mag ‘New Worlds,’ these six pieces are some of the most out there fantasies of their time, and truly deserve the title ‘Psychedelic Sci-fi.’ Jones is one of the originators, along with Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison, of the New Wave of science fiction that changed the genre forever during the 1960s, and that thirst for innovation and change resounds from every story included here. Particularly recommended is the three part title story, a thoroughly groovy trip that encompasses madness, drug-mania and religious ecstasy in a seemingly disconnected series of vignettes and stays in the mind long after reading. There is a possibility Savoy might still have some of these hanging around. Try contacting them through their website.

M. John Harrison
Or, as we know him round my gaff: The. Fucking. Man. Came to semi-fame due to his ‘Viriconium’ series of fantasy novels and another stalwart of ‘New Worlds’ magazine (I’m sure you’re beginning to notice a slight bias by now). This unpresuming fella has been quietly writing the best novels and short stories in the English language since the late 60s. His recent sci-fi epic ‘Light’ came out in 2002 and, in a perfect world, would’ve made everyone else in the genre take up a career in supply teaching. His meticulous prose is never less than exceptional and his sheer scope and ambition is unrivalled. I would particularly recommend his collection of short stories ‘Things That Never Happen’ which contains, for my money, one of the scariest stories ever written, ‘The Incalling,’ which is the only thing I’ve ever read that forced me to sleep with the light on. That he is not more recognised by the literary establishment makes them all look like the bloody great dunces they are. But we don’t need their recommendations, do we? For we know that all the great work exists in the margins. Which brings us careering headlong into:

Pierre Guyotat
Woof! This dude is a bad ass. Amongst the many, many reasons for loving the French (apart from the cheese, the comics and their unstinting dedication to high-minded avant-gardism. Not sure about all those really long talent shows they have on TV though) is the fact that they see Guyotat as a major intellectual talent and cultural force. A former criminal, which is not the only comparison we could make with Jean Genet, Guyotat spent a lot of his early life in various institutions. Upon release he set to work on a series of novels of exceptional power. Two of these, ‘Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers’ (1965) and 1971’s ‘Eden, Eden, Eden’ (both translated and published by Creation press, who deserve medals if you ask me, and, no, I don’t work for them) are shocking meditations on violence, sexuality and war, that are gradually becoming even more relevant as the 21st century unfolds. At the time the Abu-Ghraib photos were leaked I was reading ‘Tomb…’ and had to stop. It was just too intense, too close and too fucking real. That picture of Satar Jabar standing on a box, hooded, looking for all the world like a New York performance artist, or some kind of electric wizard, comes vividly to mind when reading Guyotat’s feverish novels. Stylistically he’s tight yet fractured, with an almost filmic sense that recalls Burroughs. ‘Tomb…’ is perhaps the most accessible (although it’s the longest) whereas ‘Eden…’ is shorter but much more dense. Personally, I say read ‘em both.

Kathy Acker
I remember when Kathy Acker was hot stuff. Just before her death, from breast cancer in 1997, I remember her on the front of the Guardian magazine looking cool as fuck: the tough punk auntie to Burroughs’s paranoid uncle. When she died I read a bunch of her novels in quick succession (‘Empire of the Senseless,’ ‘Blood and Guts in High School,’ ‘Don Quixote’) and sat back, confident in the fact that soon everyone would be talking about her and I’d be able to join in. Y’know what? Nothing. I re-read ‘Don Quixote’ now and wonder aloud to anyone who happens to be passing: “Why have people forgotten her?” Like Derek Jarman, Acker is one of those figures about whom we can say that they are much missed.
As a writer, Acker takes Burroughs’s cut-up technique and plunders from every source mercilessly. From Dickens to Cervantes, Rimbaud to Proust, hacking and slashing as she subverts their work into her own world view. She was restless, experimental and very much of her time and ours. ‘Don Quixote’ remains my personal favourite.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Punching the Glass Teat.

Sorry about the delay since my last post. I’ve been spending my time standing in front of the mirror, practicing my Hard-as-a-howitzer gunfighter stare. Y’see, I’ve been reading Harlan Ellison’s ‘The Glass Teat’ again.

If you don’t know who Harlan Ellison is then that’s ok. It’s is not your fault. The reprinting of his multi-award winning work in sci-fi, comic books and criticism has been nothing short of a disgrace (especially in Britain). The sheer madness of taking the collected works of an author, hugely regarded and long out of print on these shores, and re-pressing them in three enormous hard-back books, retailing at over twenty quid each, in a way that will price the casual reader completely out of the runnings, doesn’t need stating. What is shameful is that this has meant that some of the greatest science fiction stories of all time have only been available to those willing to hunt high and low in the back rooms of those wet cardboard smelling second hand-porn shops that dot the greater Manchester area.

Make no mistake, Harlan is a giant of science-fiction. He was the anthologiser of ‘Dangerous Visions’, which is generally regarded as one of the finest SF anthologies of all time, and was instrumental in bringing the hot feel of the New Wave to the states. Writer of countless short stories, scripter for Star Trek, ex New York gang runner, the man who stood up to Frank Sinatra and lived to tell the tale, Harlan is huge: An angry sci-fi supernova. Outspoken, opinionated and fiercely, flamboyantly anti-establishment. That there are not more pictures of him in people’s wallets, ready to be looked at for inspiration at a moments notice, is a crying shame. But it’s those crying shames that this blog is all about. That right, dear hearts?

Let’s name-check us another bunch of mavericks: Savoy books. I’ll not go into detail now, ‘cos I’ll be writing something long and overflowing on them real soon, but these Manchester based sci-fi-rock-n-roll uber-fiends are big players in my personal mythology, and it was they, wondrous they, who published ‘The Glass Teat’, Harlan’s collection of walk-tall teevee crit.

Harlan Ellison began writing his regular TV column for the Los Angeles Free Press in late 1968. At the time the US was still catapulting piles of young soon-to-be bodies over the sea in its fruitless fight against unseeable enemies, while those of warrin’ age who remained were being painted red and better dead. Harlan, as an enthusiastic proponent of counter-cultural ideals, sided with everyone he saw under the police cosh. He’d already marched with Martin Luther King, and he was spitting mad at what he saw as a lack of lessons learned by those in the higher echelons. A Spiderman fan since he was a kid, the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” must’ve been echoing round his dome a lot during the days of tear-gas.

Cos’a’dis, because of the tension and fear surrounding him and his need to express through brutal, throat punch prose, ‘The Glass Teat’, in its collected form, is less a book about the goggle-box, more a state of the nation address: a summing up, in minute detail, of where the heads were at. Our cultural histories are selective: we know, us 6ts spods, that in 1968 the Beatles released ‘The White Album’, that the dreams dreamt so hard during ’67 were showing cracks and being mirrored by the gradual disintegration of their four young figureheads. We know about the Prague spring, and the Paris riots and the tensions on US campuses, we know all this, because we are reminded of it time and time again. What we rarely, if ever, see, is how these confrontations were mirrored through the flickerings of the glass eye: the minutae of countless forgotten pilots and documentaries; the censorship and hounding of the Smothers Brothers; the banality of the soap operas and chat shows. You can judge an era best through its popular culture. If, in 40 years time, our offspring want to know what was going down in the early thousands, then give ‘em a copy of the Kooks album, some Eastenders DVDs, hundreds of hours worth of adverts and a selection of NME back issues. Then sit back and watch the wreckage. It won’t be pretty, but it’ll be pretty close to the truth.

As Harlan himself says, in the books intro:

“…Make no mistake. I am not really talking about TV here. I am talking about dissidence, repression, censorship, the brutality and stupidity of much of our culture, the threat of the Common Man, the dangers of being passive in a time when the individual is merely cannon fodder, the lying and cheating and killing our “patriots” do in the sweet name of the American way.”

Sociographical conundrums aside, what really pulls with Harlan is the prose. The motherfucker can WRITE. He writes like an aging bare-knuckle boxer throws k.o. blows, with a confidence learned through countless bust knuckles and broken jaws. Sure, some of the hipster speak has dated a bit (referring to women as ‘chicks’ certainly doesn’t go down quite so well now), but the power and anger of his delivery is unmatched. Whether he’s berating the Writers Guild of America (of whom he was a member) for turning in yet more soggy porridge, or steamrollering his country’s misguided belief in the myth of the Common Man, what strikes is that the dude cares. For him ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ is not simply a turgid, laugh-tracked abomination, to be ignored and scoffed at from afar, but an insult to his and his country’s intelligence: a sop to keep you clapping while the bones pile up.

Now, you probably think that at this point I’m going to make like my Jodorowsky piece, and bemoan the lack of kindred spirits at work today (and, incidentally, I had no idea that the great Jodorowsky revival was about to start when I wrote that stuff. See that bendy thing panting to keep up with me? That’s the curve, mate). Not so, for there is one chap, regularly working, who has a surprisingly similar modus operandi. As you may have worked out, the dude to whom I refer is Charlie Brooker.

Brooker has been doing his regular column in the Guardian Guide since 2000, and, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then he must feel like Henry VIII. You cannot open a magazine now without happening upon someone aping the unfortunately all-too imitable Brooker style. Thing is, writing like him is a bit like playing the sitar: a moment to learn, a lifetime to master. His prose is violent, scatological, hilarious and has proved very successful. The price we pay for this breakthrough is a parade of no-mark hacks constantly making references to blowing trombones out of their arses. Just like I did then.

In the introduction to his ‘Screen Burn’ book, Brooker sets his stall out pretty well.

“I picked an interesting time to fall into (TV criticism). The first series of ‘Big Brother’ was broadcast in the summer of 2000, marking the start of the reality TV boom, and, in a roundabout way, the beginning of an era during which TV finally jettisoned any pretence at being an important, socially beneficial medium and simply concentrated on sticking its bum in our face and giggling.”

What Brooker and Ellison have in common is anger. A sheer abhorrence of the sort of filth they are forced to sit through in order to fill in their reports from the cultural slag heap. With Brooker this has generally been for its own sake. He is furious at the inexplicable popularity of Vernon Kaye and Paul Ross because they are a waste of his time. He does not share Ellison’s commitment to utopian politics or his overtly politicised, as-above-so-below world view. His fury is impotent, internalised and bloody funny. He’s not a gunslinger, he’s Ren beating up Stimpy.

Or so I thought. This is Charlie Brooker on our soon-to-be-departed Prime Minister’s recent appearance in a Catherine Tate sketch for Comic Relief.

“When he unexpectedly delivered the “Am I bovvered?” catchphrase, his timing was immaculate – for a second, I guffawed so loudly I almost forgot about the teetering stacks of skulls, the foaming geysers of blood, the phosphor burns, the pictures of young children with their arms blown off, and the constant metronomic background tick-tock of lie upon lie upon lie upon lie upon lie.”

That piece, with its none-more-Ellison contrast of the horrors of Iraq and a popular comedy catchphrase, appeared in the Guide just two weeks ago. It still stands up as one of the most powerful passages I’ve read so far this century, and a brilliant encapsulation of the madness that breathes down our neck every time we turn on the telly.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, in my usual drunk-by-teatime sort of way, is that we need critics who are prepared to pull back from the simple vagaries of their preferred medium and look around them. People who can see the connections between destructive foreign policies and endless repeats of ‘Friends’, dudes (which is a non-sexually denominational word in my book) who look to their TVs, radios and computer screens in order to skry out something of meaning about the movements of a planet that seems increasingly hell-bent on sodmising itself into kingdom come. You shouldn’t rely on such people to tell you your gospels, but you should be able to use their words as barometers, to check the public temperature and give us some clues as to where we’ve been, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

To come on all Harlan Ellison for a moment: we need our critics hip to the fact that low-art and mass-murder are inseperable.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

You dirty, DIRTY surrealist!

Recently, while browsing the portals of a certain message board, I came across an enquiry from a chap (sorry “Male Identifier”) who was setting up his own publishing concern. Not just any publishing concern, mark you, but a publishers of decadent erotica (by which is generally meant “Porn with a Man Ray cover”).

Now, in my time searching through the highways and byways of what we are still dumbly calling “The Underground” (I’ll come up with a better name soon, I promise) I’ve stumbled across quite a lot of this haughty brand of grot. Creation books have published a fair amount of it in their time, as have companies like Daedelus and Atlas, and, as something of a completist, I’ve chanced upon a few superb examples with which to line my oak bound drawing room (which is, of course, well hung with erotic etchings and always has a half-full decanter of brandy to pounce upon).

I suppose the classic example of decadent erotica would be Bataille’s peerless (geddit?) “Story of the Eye”, a masterpiece of unsettlement, ranging as it does from a violent pornographic assault on a priest, to beautiful evocations of adolescence, to vividly rendered fetishisations of eggs, eyes and full moons. Incidentally, it also remains my favourite summer read: once a year without fail. Make up your own minds about that one.

Other examples would have to include Mirbeau’s astonishing “Torture Garden”, Aubrey Beardsley’s “Under the Hill” (of which I have a fabulous Olympia Press edition, which you are welcome to come round and look at, but must handle while wearing gloves), Pierre Louys’ “The She Devils” and Apollinaire’s “Les Onze Mille Verges”.

(You may have noticed that De Sade is notable by his absence. This is because I, along with many others, find him incredibly fucking dull. His philosophies are fascinating and influential, certainly, but his novels are yawn-fests.)

What sets decadent erotica apart from less floral company is its heightened sense of aesthetics. Never merely concerned with the contorted pumpings of imagined couplings, it seeks to plunge the reader into the realm of the senses. Here the smell of posies or sight of blood on a knife can be enough to set brains and (to use a charming piece of period terminology) engines a-tingling. Decadent erotica is founded on the state of delerium: an occasionally violent sensorium where pleasure and pain are inescapably bonded. Sex and death, innit?

Of course as a genre it contains its fair share of clichés. I swear if I ever read another high-minded romp set in a chateau again I’ll spunk myself inside out. But the best examples (such as the ones I’ve mentioned above) transcend cliché to occasionally staggering effect.

One book I came across during my browse through the shelves was Louis Aragon’s “Le Con D’Irene” (oh, come on, you don’t need me to translate that for you surely?), a book I remembered reading a few years ago but decided to pull down and read again. Aragon was one of the main architects of Surrealism: one of the more committed communist members who split from Andre Breton in the late 20s to further his revolutionary aims, and his is still one of the first names thought of when conversation turns to that most essential of all early twentieth-century art groups.

“Le Con D’Irene” is one of the harshest stories of sexual obsession I’ve ever read. Relatively short (you could read it in about an hour) it is nonetheless dense and opaque, almost to the point of bloody-mindedness, and needs patience and perseverance on behalf of the reader. It concerns the travails of an unnamed narrator, who, due to financial dire-straits, has been forced to move back in with his family in a similarly unnamed town. Locked in a bell jar of tedium, his imagination begins to take hold, and he finds himself obsessed with the cunt of an imaginary woman, the titular “Irene”.

So-far-so-good, but what sets this little gem apart is its style. It swings radically from unexpurgated automatic prose to descriptions of nights spent in dingy brothels. From descriptions of dreams to wholesale imaginings of Irene’s family situation. Curiously enough, the life he invents for his imagined love is described in almost documentary detail, giving the reader the impression that, despite her imaginary status, Irene and family are the only touchstone to the “real” in the whole book.

With the leaps in style come leaps in authorial voice: from the presumed authoritative narration of the young man, to the unforgettable scenes narrated from the point of view of Irene’s crippled grand-father: sitting watching the sexual couplings of the people around him, unable to do anything to assuage his desires as he lusts after his own grand-daughter.

As a study of sexual obsession it is second to none. Aragon’s prose drips off the page and he proves himself adept at taking on many different voices and styles (and hats of to the books translator, Alexis Lykiard, as well). Reading the brief but excellent introduction at the beginning of my edition also throws light of Aragon’s personal life at the time. When he was in the throes of obsession following a suicide attempt, after the collapse of his relationship with muse, writer, publisher and activist Nancy Cunard. This failed affair cannot have been far from his mind when he wrote the following:

“I sometimes tried desperately to see you, by shutting my eyes or just the opposite, by opening them very wide upon the darkness of the room. But you were there suddenly. Your walk. Your dress. It seemed you chose to come at precisely the time when I was writing at my narrow table, with only the wall facing me”…..”Sometimes you’d draw near to me. My heart would pound. I knew that to turn around would make you vanish. I did not turn around. I wrote. Little by little you grew bolder. I felt your breath. I did not turn around.”

What sets the book apart from the other examples of this kind of erotica is its lack of sybaritic excess. There is very little cruelty in “Le Con D’Irene.” The pain described is all the worse for it being deflected inward, giving the story a feeling of hopelessness and loss that can be quite overwhelming.

However, the book is also pretty funny at times. No more so that during Aragon’s inspired rant celebrating the erotic lives of fish, which comes out of absolutely nowhere and leaves this unforgettable little couplet:

“Fish fish fish fish
But man also sometimes makes love”

Cheers, Louis.

Normally I would recommend a novel this rich to be read in small doses, but unfortunately, due to its short length, that isn’t really an option. No, best just raise it to the lips and drink it down in one. preferably out of some kind of bejewelled goblet while watching eunuchs dancing naked to lute music. Mmmm, feel the decadence.

“Le Con D’Irene” can be found in the anthology “Flesh Unlimited”, published by Creation books.

Monday, 12 March 2007

"Master, this is serious..."

Killer 7 and the psychedelic screen
A couple of years ago, my good and clever friend Antony Banks and myself went to Brighton’s much missed Cinemateque to see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’. The film, in case you haven’t seen it, and, if not, I urge you to, is one of those sprawling early 70s mind-flays that you would hope was being made on a weekly basis during the freaky period, but which research unfortunately reveals as being a bit of an oddity.

Pretty much plotless (and for a good period pretty much dialogue-less as well, until the staff at Cinemateque remembered to click the subtitles option on) it concerns the wanderings of a character (played by Jodorowsky himself) known simply as “The Alchemist”, who blunders from destitution and vagabondage to the quest for the titular holy mountain, in the company of a group of eccentric fellow travellers, sideshow freaks and mystics.

Along the way he encounters wisemen, lunatics, political leaders and exploding frogs (and, believe me, if there is a ‘No animals were hurt during the making of this film’ disclaimer during the credits then it is a barefaced lie) all of which are treated with an almost po-faced seriousness: Jodorowsky the visionary’s cold-as-flint stare in action, daring you to laugh.

The film is never going to be remembered as a masterpiece of tension, plotting, characterisation, or indeed anything that’s generally required for a satisfying night out at the Odeon with a honey. It’s wilfully obscure, piling on allusions to Buddhism, the tarot and esoteric christianity with all the the hey-hey-here-we-go carelessness emblematic of its period. It’s stuffed with ridiculous (and, in the case of the laughing beggar spraying milk from his jaguar’s head shaped man-breasts, hilarious) imagery: gasmasked soldiers parading with totems made of barbecued animals; a man being castrated with a four foot pair of scissors; the I-want-one-of-those Love-in gun. It is also incredibly beautiful: shot in rich, luxuriant technicolor which lingers over deserts and mountains, and with sets that look like the kaleidoscopic fever-dreams of whoever did the interiors for the Batman TV series.

Needless to say, I was impressed (and, as an aside, I still find myself wondering what would have happened had the director’s proposed filming of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ occurred. The other day I started daydreaming about just that, only to rouse myself from my reverie and realise that I’d been fantasising about it for over an hour. Who says I’m a time waster?)

Suitably dazed, Antony and I walked from the cinema toward the pub, which, as we all know, is the only place to intelligently critique a bit of cinema, where, pints in our fists, we discussed the film in depth. Now we see eye-to-eye on many things, but this time the one thing we both agreed on wholeheartedly can be summed up in the following cliché: they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

And they don’t, do they? Okay, strange (or worse arty. Was there ever a more needle-in-the-eyeball annoying way of describing something?) films get made all the time, but films with ‘The Holy Mountain’s verve, fearlessness and sheer fuck-the-torpedoes-for-a-toffee-apple attitude (which at times verges on the childishly-belligerent) are a dead breed. Films that are completely unafraid of what an audience thinks and, more importantly, don’t tell an audience what to think. Okay, there’s David Lynch, who I love whole, but he knows who his audience is by now and must have become somewhat used to the critical reception each of his films gets. David, I love you, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe you as a risk-taker.

Now, I was a bit depressed by this conclusion, as anyone I love and trust would be, until, months later, I found myself open-mouthed in front of a piece of work that ticked almost every box described above. Lavish sets: Yip; large budget: yip; dense religious and political allusions: yip; utter bloody-minded nonsense: hoo, yip.

The ‘piece’ in question was, however, not a film, but one of that most distrusted of breeds: a computer game. The game was Killer 7, on the PS2.

When it came out on the Gamecube in 2005, Killer 7 divided gaming audiences like few games before or since. This was mainly due to the control system, about which I won’t go into in too much depth as there are plenty of reviews online which do, which was radically simplified. Put plainly you simply hold down a control button and your chosen character moves in one direction. You do not have the power to decide at what rate or in what direction you move until you come to one of the games many junctions, at which point you simply indicate which one you wish to travel down and off you go again.

This annoyed quite a lot of experienced gamers, many of whom said that the gameplay felt like an afterthought: an adjunct to the games atmosphere and story. A point the games developers, Capcom, refused to deny. In doing so they threw out the first law of computer gaming, playability first, in favour of dazzling with a complex, violent and confusing storyline with an atmosphere straight from a psychedelic Japanese spy thriller.

It’s one of the best defences ever isn’t it?

“But…but you’ve broken the rules! It’s unplayable.. it’s like you didn’t even care about making it playable!”


“Oh…” (Fucks of back to Halo 2)

The story, such as it is, involves an alternative present day in which peace between nations has been achieved, but is threatened by the appearance of a terrorist group known as ‘Heaven Smile’ and their foot soldiers, the Heaven Smile themselves, a mutant breed of cackling human bombs who may or may not exist.

Into this odd premise strides, or rather wheels, Harman Smith, a paraplegic assassin, capable of physically manifesting each of the seven facets of his multiple personality into violent life and killing people with them. Killing lots and lots of people with them.

The story line has been picked over in ridiculous detail elsewhere on the internet. There are some exhaustive explanations of all the different political, religious and psychological resonances that are alluded to (or not, as the case seems to be) during the games course. This does not really concern me. People are welcome to try and explain these things, of course. I have always preferred to let my weirdness be just that: weird, without worrying about explaining it all away. And believe me, this game gets seriously weird.

Let’s have a gander at some of the characters you’ll meet.

One is the ghost known as Iwazaru. He pops up to offer helpful clues to the many puzzles you’ll come across. So far so normal, and pretty much a staple of any adventure game you care to play. But can anyone explain to me why he appears dangling from a harness in a red leather bondage suit and speaks in the kind of gibberish previously only heard in Twin Peaks’s Red Room?

What of Suzie? The decapitated head that keeps popping out of cupboards and washing machines to tell you a story about a murder she may or may not have committed. Does the murder have anything to do with the game? Does it Moses! It’s simply another level of bizarritude piled onto the fire.

And what of the player avatars themselves? Well, you play each of Harman’s seven personalities (known collectively as the Smiths). Who range from Dan Smith, the typically Japanese good looking gun man, to Kaede Smith, who in order to uncover secret messages in certain environments, slits her wrists and dances around in a shower of her own blood, to Mask De Smith, a giant Mexican wrestler. Yep, a giant Mexican wrestler. I’m enjoying imagining the production meeting when they bought him into the equation.

The game looks stunning. Beautifully cel-shaded graphics bringing the deserts, deserted hotel rooms and sun-dappled villas of the story to screaming comic book life. You’ll spend an awful lot of time simply staring at the many environments and wishing you could send postcards from them. That is before one of the Heaven Smile piles into you and blows you to smithereens.

Ah yes, the violence. The violence in Killer 7 is quite shockingly brutal on occasion. Innocent characters are slaughtered without a by-your-leave (not that I imagine a by-your-leave would do much good if someone wanted to slaughter you, but hey-ho), people jump off roofs, are blown up and are pulped by heavy machinery, occasionally leaving quite a nasty taste in the mouth. In one memorable scene a chap’s game of squash is interrupted by some wag throwing his daughter’s decapitated head at him. Zelda’s Ocarina of Politeness this is not.

Plot lines take in paedophilia, organ trafficking, terrorism and religious mania and are dusted with a heavy sprinkling of faux-philosophical musing (often framed by that most overused of profundity signifiers, the game of chess. No-one ever picks Pass the Pigs, do they? Or, in the case of the killer 7, perhaps Guess Who would’ve been more appropriate? Hmmm, deeeep). That these differing plot lines have about as much depth inferred to them as your average Bruce Dickinson novel is not, in me’ ‘umble, much of a problem. It’s not about whether it succeeds but about how it tries to get there.

Make no mistake, this game is a failure. It reaches ridiculously high at times, struggling to infer a sense of psychological and philosophical depth, before simply sinking into orgies of squalid, thoroughly enjoyable, bloodletting (and, in one scene in particular, which got the game into trouble with American censorship authorities, a bit of girl-on-paraplegic action. Quite why this was a problem I’m not sure. I would’ve thought it rather a good example to be setting. Memories of Alan Partridge interviewing the crippled golfer: “I can have sex, y’know!”). So why go on about it? Well, let me explain.

Before he made the Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky (ah, there he is again! You were wondering about him weren’t you?) made a fabulous film called ‘El Topo’. It concerned the spiritual quest of a cowboy-cum-seeker of enlightenment and was, again, loaded with bizarre imagery, faux-profound statements (“The desert is a circle”. Oh, is it?) and thunderous bloodletting. It is required watching and has been a cult film forever, although it is criminally unavailable on DVD at the moment. Anyway, what has all this to do with Killer 7? Simply this, my dear melodious reader, a film like ‘El Topo’ (or ‘The Holy Mountain’) could not be made now. It would cost too much money. It would be granted a limited release. It would baffle anyone it came into contact with. It would be, to put it bluntly, a bit too 60s counter-culture for many people to relate too.

Thing is, that was exactly the same bunch'a problems that, Jodorowsky’s films had then.

Back then funding could be got for films such as those. Mainstream studios simply didn’t know how to tap into the burgeoning youth market without coming across as patronising and horribly out of touch (seen ‘Psych Out’ recently? Don’t). As a result they dished out money to young mad ‘uns like Jodorowsky and looked the other way, hoping that some of this heathen’s shit would stick.

It didn’t. Jodorowsky’s films are glorious failures. Colourful, trippy failures that paint nightmares in all the shades of the Mexican rainbow, but failures none-the-less. Same as Killer 7. With both Jodorowsky and Suda 51 (the enigmatic creator and director of Killer 7 and the Resident Evil franchise) the beauty is in the aiming for the impossible, in simply saying “what happens if we try to do this” without any compromise other than their own limitations. Both products have similar feels and world views (indeed ‘El Topo’ would make a fantastic computer game), both are distinctly trippy and both are equally ham-fisted, gloriously so, leaving the viewer drowning in the distinctive smell of burnt brain. Once-in-a-mind-time experiences all.

So, could computer games take over from where the avant-psychedelic film makers of the 60s and 70s left off? You would hope so. Games have taken on pretty much every genre going and are firmly into their middle-youth period (y’know, the period where you stop leaving banana skins to dry on the radiator overnight, but start reading Baudelaire and carrying it about so the title peeks over the top of your jacket pocket). This should be the time of great experimentation, where game designers seek new ways of dishing out their thrills to a hungry public. They have the imaginations, the technology and, in some cases, the money to take a few chances and risk losing people along the way. I wouldn’t want to put too much pressure on it, but it felt like a lot was resting on Killer 7’s reception from the wider public as regards this type of game being made again any time soon.

Unfortunately Killer 7 sold about 6 copies.

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Monday, 26 February 2007

I Eat Fog

Steve Aylett: Lint

One popular way of starting a review is to say something along the lines of "I approached this book/film/album/fruit with caution, scared that it would dissapoint/appal/enlarge my thumb etc". This review will start in the opposing manner: I was really looking forward to reading this. From the first moment of reading the back blurb (excitingly peppered with glowing quotes from Heroic God heads Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock) and finding out that it was Aylett's biography of "Cult-figure and pariah", sci-fi author Jeff Lint. The genius behind such classics as 'Jelly Result', 'The Stupid Conversation' and the strangest comic book ever created, 'The Caterer'.

The fact that Jeff Lint never existed and was, of course, the whimsical creation of Aylett himself just made the whole package even more irresistable. I'm a sucker for invented histories and hoaxes and this one, with it's overtones of psychedelic sci-fi, cult fiction and subcultural strangeitude, sounded so up my street that it could've been knocking on my door asking to borrow a teabag.

I've got a lot of time for Steve Aylett, not that I would call myself a particularly big fan of his books (although I enjoyed his millenial, Invisibles-style romp 'Shamanspace' a great deal), but rather because he has that un-fakeable air of one-of-us-ness about him. Someone who's record collection probably looks a bit like mine, likes the same books and whom I'd enjoy sharing a pint with.

My problem with Aylett is his writing style. For those that haven't read him it can be summed up very swiftly thus: Steve Aylett likes jokes. Really likes them. And it helps if you like them too as every book of his features great scads of the bloody things dripping off the page like jam off a baby's bib.

This is not a problem in itself of course, who doesn't like a joke? Misers and popes, that's who. None of who's company you'd want to be in during a lock-in. The problem with Aylett is that his delivery, which rivals that of a tennis server in terms of speed and accuracy, gets in the way of other aspects a good novel needs, namely characters, plot and empathy on the part of the reader.

This is especially true here. For the conceit to work you need to at least partly believe in the existence of his protagonist, Jeff Lint: loner author of 'Doomed and Confident', 'I Blame Ferns' and (my personal favourite) 'I Eat Fog'. However dear Jeff is never really spotted at all. He has no character to speak of and simply announces his presence through a series of escalatingly strange events, such as becoming obsessed with placing ramps everywhere, inventing the world's strangest cartoon: 'Catty and the Major' and writing a script for a Firbankian comedy of manners, 'Frightful Murder at Hampton Place', that later got sold to MGM, relocated to New York and filmed as 'Shaft'.

It is obvious that Aylett is a phenomenal ideas man, and the descriptions of Lint's published works are very tantalising indeed, making one wonder if Aylett has simply used Lint as a dumping ground for some of his more unworkable book ideas. Lint's proposed Star Trek script, in particular singles itself out as a minor masterpiece, and all the novels have that 'just believable' feel that a good spoof needs. Also here in abundance is Aylett's obvious love and respect for the genre he is sending up, essential for any good literary piss-take.

Of course the problem with reviewing a book like this is that any criticisms simply evaporate under the weight of the jokes, which are nearly all hilarious. The scene ends up something like this:

"Oh, I'm not sure he should be using so many...HA!...jokes. Maybe he should...HAHAHAHAHA!!!...try restraining himself a...SNORT!...bit. I'm not sure all the characters are that...HOHAHAHAHAHO!!!...believable"

Y'see? Silly, isn't it? I was up half the night reading exerts from this to my girlfriend, who was trying to get to sleep at the time and still found them funny. This is practically unheard of, so Aylett is definitely on to something here.

In the end sheer weight of ideas wins through (as, I suppose, it always should. Well, certainly if you're a science fiction fan anyway). There is simply no way I can think of that you will not enjoy this book. It's fast paced, hilarious and dosed to the eyeballs with comic invention. I just can't help but feel a little dissapointed that in the end, after 182 pages, I still didn't feel I knew anything about its strange protagonist. The biggest emptiness at the heart of Lint, it seems, is that of the titular character himself.