March 31, 2009

Tony White, Albertopolis & Green Beer

Went to the launch last night of a new pamphlet/book/story which Tony White has written as part of his duties as Writer-in-Residence at the Science Museum. Tony is probably best known for "Foxy T," which is generally considered to be one of the best books ever written about London. He is perhaps less well known for "Charlie Uncle Norfolk Tango" which is one of the best books ever written about ignorant, evil grunt policemen being abducted by aliens. His new story, "Albertopolis Disparu," is a sly and funny little pastiche of steam-punk, taking in Moorcock, difference engines, early telegraphy and the idea of the Listening Post (derived from this excellent installation, in front of which the launch took place and which the story is partly a response to). Five thousand copies have been printed, to be given out free at the Science Museum, but you can also get a pdf of it here. But that is not all (no that is not all). Tony also ran a series of workshops with writers during his residency and four of them read from the work that resulted. I haven't read them in their entirety yet, but the tasters were good and you can also download them from the same place. Ended up going to the pub afterwards, witnessing the horror of green beer and arriving home drunk and hungry. My stomach is a cauldron of regret.

March 27, 2009

Bolaño, N+1 - The Bad and Ugly

Two slightly contrasting pieces from N+1, which have been around for a while, both of which seem as interested in the US "canonization" of the dead Chilean as they do in the work. There's a proper bit of Devil's Advocacy going on here, though this one decides he's worth it and this one decides he ain't. Full marks for contrarian zeal, but I can't help feeling that the "No" camp gets a little carried away, making much of what a hard read the book is and spouting this kind of vile insult: "2666 is a desert of negative space covered with smudges and chaotic scrawls." To me that just makes it sound even better. Maybe that's where I part company from both the sanctifiers and hired oppositionalists.

March 26, 2009

Post-Lasdun & Post-Apocalypse

So the next James Lasdun story on R4, "Totty," was a disappointment after the magnificence of "Annals of the Honorary Secretary". It was fine as a fairly conventional short story, I guess, but, unless I missed something, offered little more. Mind you, it was read by Greta Scacchi and she wasn't a patch on Bill Paterson's deadpan delivery, so maybe the comparison is unfair. Shame, I guess, but not the end of the world...

Incidentally (what a segue!), AbeBooks have just put up a mini-feature on post-apocalyptic fiction. What larks!

March 25, 2009

James Lasdun on't radio

It's not often you hear anything that doesn't set your teeth on edge on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. However, last night I happened to hear a short story called "Annals of the Honorary Secretary," brilliantly read by Bill Paterson. It was superb. You can listen to it here, plus Monday's story. There are also three more to come this week, at 10.30pm each night, or on the same link. The stories are by James Lasdun, who I think I have confused in my head with someone who wrote airport novels about samurai. I don't really know anything about him, but he apparently won the National Short Story Award last year and lives in New York. His new book is called "It's Beginning To Hurt" and seems like it should be worth a look. Though, as he's all over R4 he hardly needs me to tell you that...

March 24, 2009

César Aira - "Ghosts"

So, I finished "Ghosts" this morning - my first César Aria - and I'm not completely sure what to make of it. The book tells the story of a family of Chileans living on top of a high-rise set of condos being built in Buenos Aires. The father of the household is one of the builders and is paid a small additional sum to live there and guard the site. He lives in a small two room apartment on the roof of the building with his wife, four children and his step-daughter Patri. Oh, and a lot of ghosts, who are all male, float around naked, apparently covered in building dust, laughing a lot. The story takes place on New Year's Eve and follows the family from morning until midnight. And over the course of the book, these ghosts begin to take a special interest in Patri and she has to decide how to respond... The first fifty pages were pretty plain sailing, the tone reminding me of Queneau - funny and erudite and unpatronising about "ordinary people". But from page 57 to page 67 there is a very strange meditation on "the unbuilt," kind of disguised as Patri's dream. Now, I have no head for theory so I don't know whether it's accidentally gobbledegook or supposed to be gobbledegook or genius-level philosophy. It certainly made no sense to me. But once I'd got used to it making no sense the story got going again and I enjoyed it right to the end (which, I won't spoil). Sticking to Aira's principles about the necessary inexplicability of stories I feel under no pressure to make sense of the book for you. "How I Became A Nun" is next!

March 19, 2009

César Aira, The Quarterly Conversation, Rodrigo Fresan etc

A huge series of fortuitous coincidences here. I'm somehow on the emailing list for something called the Daily Dose, which is affiliated to,which is a listings guide to New York (where I lived for zero years some time in the early no-ties). Anyway, the Daily Dose is a rather good cultural supplement and ran a piece about César Aira, a new translation of one of whom's books is/was about to be published by my old friends (in the sense that publishers of books you like are your friends, not in the sense of people i know and go and have drinks with when i'm - not - in New York) New Directions. With it was a link to a piece about Aira from Bomb magazine, which I enjoyed so much that I googled him and found this essay about him by Marcelo Ballvé on a site called The Quarterly Conversation, which turns out to be just about the best literary website I've ever come across. Not only is there that Aira essay (which I'll come back to in a moment), but I immediately stumbled across a really interesting piece about Rodrigo Fresan's Mantra, a book which, unfortunately no one has yet had the good sense to publish in English. And before I'd even done more than dip into that I found an essay on Enrique Vila-Matas' excellent Bartleby & Co, a book I think I've blogged about here before... (ah yes, here). And that was just the essays about Spanish-language writers...

Anyway, back to Aira. Beyond his books (which I'm waiting for Amazon to deliver, so maybe more on them later), his immediately most appealing trait is that he rarely gives interviews and when he does he tells lies. This may sound a little tired, but in the BOMB interview he lies quite heroically, expending considerable imaginative juice on how he sources his writing paper from a particular, high class supplier (I can imagine Safran Foer wanking vigorously and repeatedly over this passage - although I do not want to imagine it, if you see what I mean) and going on to say how little and rarely he writes. Yet, in the Quarterly Conversation piece it transpires that he has so far published 63 books (only four so far translated into English). But the Quarterly Conversation also offers a potential reason beyond mischief for this tactic of mistruth which ties directly back to his work. Ballvé quotes Aira saying that “the real story, which we have grown unaccustomed to, is chemically free of explanation... The story is always about something unexplainable."

This chimes with me, both as a reader and a writer. I don't read novels to understand them or for them to explain things for me - a war, poverty, emotions, marital breakdown, the stockmarket, the 16th century coffee industry. That seems an intensely reductionist attitude to the true pleasures of reading. Nor do I write to explain, or expect what I write to be explicable. That's why, on the few occasions I've been interviewed about my writing (both less often and more often than I would have liked), I've either fended off questions about what my book is supposed to "be about" and come over as surly, unhelpful and confused or, even worse, I've tried desperately to play along and, like a puppy with a very long neck, ended up biting off my own tail. Pynchon's solution to this problem is clearly the most elegant of all, but for those of us too needy (and too poor) to turn down all offers of publicity, here's another solution: lie. And in this act of setting out to lie - baldly, obviously, almost honestly - maybe you can hope to do yourself some sort of justice. Or have fun, anyway.

March 13, 2009

J. Robert Lennon on David Foster Wallace

Great post from J. Robert Lennon on the death of DFW: "The lesson to take away from this, for all of us who write fiction, is to stop being such wimp-assed pencil pushers and get out of our comfort zones once and for all. Wallace isn't going to cover us anymore. If contemporary literature is going to be taken seriously, we're going to have to make literature worth taking seriously, even if it fails, as so much of Wallace's brilliantest stuff did. Otherwise we'll be relegated to the cultural footnote the film industry has been stuffing us into for years. Fiction writing should not be an amusing affectation. It should be the ultimate expression of being human, as Wallace thought it should be. Try harder. That's what we all have to do."
Read the whole thing plus much more at the blog he shares with Rhian Ellis and Ed Skoog, Ward Six.

Empty Woolworths

Irving Brecher and the Brothers Marx

There was a fantastic (if that's the right word in the circumstances) obituary of Irving Brecher in yesterday's Guardian. Along with many, many other jokes he was the sole writer on two Marx Brothers pictures, "At The Circus" and "Go West!" The latter included this cracking line for Groucho: "Lulubelle, it's you! I didn't recognise you standing up."

March 09, 2009

More Scutenaire

So, I posted a few months back about Belgian Surrealist and mate of Magritte's Louis Scutenaire. The post was spotted by Robert Archambeau who, as well as being a poet and critic whose books include "Home and Variations," "Word Play Place," and the forthcoming "Laureates and Heretics," is Professor of English at Lake Forest in Chicago (I think?) and blogs at Anyway, in his spare time Mr Archambeau is something of an authority on the Belgian Surrealists (or, at the very least, more of an authority than me) and he and Jean-Luc Garneau bashed out a rather fine translation of this document... Remember, it was the catalogue essay for Magritte's Periode Vache paintings, painted in 1948 apparently with the sole aim of pissing off the Parisian art world...

Putting a Foot in It
Louis Scutenaire

Essay to accompany René Magritte’s “Period Vache” Exhibition in Paris
translated by Robert Archambeau and Jean-Luc Garneau

However you run the race — on foot, on horseback, in a car — you win some, you lose some. This time, we win.

We’ve had it with this living deep in the forests and in our grassy pastures. We said — without the usual hangups, the envy, inferiority complexes and our other asshole attitudes — we said to each other “Well, those guys with their fancy paved streets, their indoor plumbing, their trellised gardens, they exaggerate. They want to lick our asses? To suck us off? To massage our temples? The nerve! Still, it opens our asses and swells our heads.”

And then it happened: Mag found it, the thing that really worked. No matter how much you guys play with your own balls, try to whitewash your shacks, shake the shit down in your shit-bucket, aggravate your ulcers, play lovebirds, poke at your adverbs and ablatives, bleach your straight jackets, or spit-shine your dirty dreams, your shorts still have skidmarks. So you can’t give us any shit. Not any more. So there!

Don’t worry, guys. Don’t freak. See, we don’t want to hurt you. That’s why we put on our big, black, American minstrel show. It puts you at ease. We’re willing to talk shit to you politely, in your fake-ass language. Because we, the cow turd-munching peasants, we don’t understand etiquette, right? But we want to be nice, and speak to you like your little kids: gaga purty tinky, rinkyroo and picopoo, coochee be-bum zim-boom tra-la-la, itty bitty Célinie doggy missus kitty mister ah ah kiss kiss oh but but but but butt butt see you ploppy-plop!

So you’re okay, right? Still with me? Don’t get crazy and think we’re Dadas. We ride the little rocking horse Dada gave us, right? Real cavaliers.

So, Mag grabs me one day (not by the ass, don’t misunderstand me — just because we speak the same language doesn’t mean we go around fucking each other the same way), and then he lets me go, saying:

“It’s as good as done. We go down to Paris (“city of slights”), we show them our work, a good little show. I’ll make an effort, and you’ll really kick it in gear.”

“Glue and bird-lime!” I answer, “Screws, bolts, and sticky jam! Let’s do this!”

And voilà.

We lay it on and lay it on, then we double it. So we’re happy. Everything’s cool.

We know, we know: you look at it with your heart in your mouth, your pupils dilated, your eyeballs rolled into your head, your fingers fanned out in shock. “That isn’t something you see at any old circus,” you’ll say, “It can’t be! This hayseed? You can do something with this! Seriously—it puts the capital to shame! Ah! Yeah! Right there! But then again, who is this monkeyboy coming to eat our lunch? And what about tradition, revolution, research, revelation, proportion, irrationality, concretization, systematization, and the subconscious, and analysis, and reality, and myth, what does this eccentric do with them? No, it’s not kind to say so, but, all the same, why do we make it so easy on lowlifes like this nowadays? I mean, really: don’t you see how they exaggerate the forms and the nuances? They couldn’t find their own cocks, or their assholes, even if they fell into them. See, General? Put your nose up to it and have a proper look. It’s just politics, that picture. We don’t want politics — that’s over with. Long live Franco-Pança, long live Proutman, long live John Foster Dullness, long live Saletzariste and the Great Turk, but down with the politics, right darling? Yes, my little treasure, let’s go back to our public urinals, and to our cruxifixes.”

It’s sad, how weak your public urinals and your cruxifixes will look after this parade of fire, these skies of gold, myrrh and wine, these roads of ebony, of milk and of rose-wood, these sumptuous emeralds and rubies, these objects whose freedom shows us how we should carry ourselves. They’ll look so bad that you may just throw up on them, the way Ned Beaumont used to puke in the gutter after eating someone’s fist for lunch.

And you will vomit, if you are not completely rotten, and after vomiting you’ll say: “Yes, it’s over. Someone has won, and not us. We lost. But why? How?”

Why? How? We have no idea. And, anyway, fuck it. Because this time, we know there’s nothing left to prove. We have eyes. We can see. This one time out of a thousand we don’t have any doubts. We ask the questions. You tell us why you’re the losers. We’ll be honored to hear it. And a little surprised.

Freedom guides our steps. We laugh at all the busted corsets, broken rhetorics, blown-out trouser-seams, and all the burst belts and terrors.

That being said, let’s set aside these earthly sorrows and end with good-humor: painting, like salt, the trapeze, flowers, and Madame’s thighs, is a means of knocking the universe over. That’s the way Magritte sees it.

Let me tell you another little story that has more to do with my argument than you might think. Mr. Man was saying to Mrs. Woman: “I heard your husband’s a painter — I bet he makes beautiful things!” “Oh no,” she said, “he just does portraits.”

March 07, 2009

New Short Story

I have a new short story up at Beat The Dust. It's called "Doorsteps" and is rather odd. Please read...

March 06, 2009

Twitter for Depressives

My dear old friend Nymal kindly introduced me to the joys of FML aka, a site dedicated to the confessions of Americans whose lives are going down the pan in short, sharp bursts of humiliation and stupidity. A kind of Twitter for depressives, every terrible incident is relayed in a sentence or two, with the sign off "FML" at the end - an Amen for fuck-ups: "Today, at the dentist, I was getting my teeth cleaned. Looking up at his nose, I saw runny snot dripping onto his lip. I tried to slowly move away. He told me 'Stop!' The movement of his lips caused the snot to fall right into my mouth. FML." At first it's very funny and also formally rather beautiful, as if Perec has been reincarnated as a fat girl somewhere in the Mid-West who can't get a date for the prom. After a few pages, though, it begins to make you feel a bit queasy. Everyone has terrible body image and their insecurity is constantly being reinforced by friends and family. Everyone's boyfriend is cheating on them, usually with their best friend. On the other hand, it is kind of great. "Today, a creepy man on the subway said he liked my eyeballs. It was the best compliment I've received in months. FML."

March 05, 2009

New Foster Wallace

Many thanks to my dear friend J-Credit for pointing out the story I missed in the Guardian despite reading it every day. It seems that David Foster Wallace's wife found a 200 page manuscript of an incomplete novel in the garage when she was going through his stuff. Called "The Pale King," it's set in a tax office in the mid-West and is slated to be published in full early in 2010. The New Yorker have printed an extract, "The Wiggle Room," which deals - in those long, snaky, rollercoaster sentences - with boredom. Once you've oriented yourself it's very funny (and very Pynchonian). Apparently, it's supposed to be a move away from the "audacious 'maximalist' style" of his earlier work to "a new, more straightforward technical direction," but it still reads very much like David Foster Wallace to me (which is no bad thing). There's also a very long accompanying essay by DT Max which I only just found. I haven't read it yet, but it seems, if the Guardian is to be believed, that it paints Wallace's decision to quit his medication (which ultimately led to his suicide) as an attempt to break out of a "creative impasse" and finish the book. Maybe I'll check that and come back to this. Or maybe I won't.

March 04, 2009

The Longest List

For one rather disorientating moment I thought that "The Heritage" had made the long list for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Which it has. In a way. You see it's a very, very long long list. That's because the long list is the list of all the books which are eligible for an ACCA. So I may well have come last of all eligible books. Which is probably worse than being ineligible (take a bow, all those prizes for youngsters which I undoubtedly would have won - haha - if I weren't already TOO FUCKIN' OLD). However, the screen doesn't lie and I'm up the top, thanks to the marvel of having a surname that begins with an 'A'. I'm sure Malcolm Gladwell has something to say about this but I'm not sure I can be bothered to wait and find out what it is. Anyway, I have no chance of reaching the short list, so tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999. i.e. hide under the bed with my industrial cache of baked beans and wait for all the computers to crash.

March 02, 2009

Uncrushed, Non-recyclable (and still angry..)

I've been really surprised and pleased by the reaction to the download of "The Heritage". Thanks to all the people out there who have linked to it, to all those who have downloaded it and even to those who have complained about the formatting. I hope those of you who can cope with A4 pages enjoy reading it, too... And if not, well, it's free innit??! What have you lost?

I've particularly enjoyed all the "shame on you, Faber" stuff, mainly because it's so funny. Come on, people, what are you all so surprised about? The book didn't sell so they decided not to waste more money on trying to build me an audience. What would you have done if it was your money? And if you feel like that now, wait until you've read it...

What else? Have been on a break from the crime books, instead reading Pankaj Mishra's "An End to Suffering," "A Handful of Dust" by Mr Waugh (came highly recommended, don't ya know?) and something else which I seem to have forgotten. Ooops. I expect it was very good, anyway. Meanwhile, have been listening to "Checkmate Savage" by the Phantom Band, a promo of the superb Micachu album and Ornette Coleman's "Complete Science Fiction Sessions," the last courtesy of Spotify. Oh, and I finished a first draft of a new book, which, as I haven't sat down and re-read it, I'm still very pleased with. And now I'm listening to the new record from Juice Aleem, one of the true veterans of Big Dada. Pure pleasure. So don't worry, my friends, I am not crushed!