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.