Crash Landing with five of my favourite novels

Ballard, Fiction, Landscape, Literary

I’ve been podcasted! Many thanks to Steve Aryan for having me on the ever awesome Crash Landing over at Geek Syndicate. Steve and I talked about the five novels I’d want to have with me if I was stranded on an alien planet.

Some of the books I chose are SFnal, some are magical, one comes from tenth century Japan and all of them are unputdownable. We had a great time talking about them all and much more – I hope you enjoy our chat:


Adam Nevill and Hari Kunzru meet the Process Church Uptown

Aliens, America, Fiction, Horror, Literary, Novelists

Noted 60s cultists the Process Church of the Final Judgement seem to be popping up all over the place just now.

I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.

First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:

Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…

And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.

Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.

‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.

Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.

Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.

But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.

That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.

In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.

And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.

And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.

Reviewing ‘The City and The City’

Fantasy, Fiction, Genre, Horror, Literary, Modernity, Poetry, Surrealism

Well, I’ve just finished China Miéville’s superb new book, ‘The City and The City’. It’s utterly gripping, a noir-ish police procedural with an Eastern European feel that both builds on, reacts against and moves beyond the concerns and achievements of his previous novels.

So you’ve probably worked out that I’d recommend it to anyone who shares the concerns of this blog. Whether you enjoy excellent, imaginative fiction, open-ended modern poetry (or even, I’m sure, experimental or improvised music), it’s well worth checking out.

And now I’m going to talk about it in more detail with MULTIPLE SPOILERS, so if you haven’t read it yet, and don’t want any surprises ruined, STOP READING NOW!

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Right, that was pretty unambiguous. Anyway, now that I’ve done that, I can start giving away plot points left, right and centre – and to talk about it properly, I really need to do that, because what it is and what it means are so carefully and effectively intertwined.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between two twinned cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. Both are very literally, and very substantially, intertwined; ‘crosshatched’, to use Miéville’s coinage. Much of the detail and action of the book comes from that relationship, and the way that inhabitants of the two cities have adjusted to it.

For me, the book’s central achievement is the way that it uses that crosshatching to literalise a metaphor set, one that both forces detailed consideration of twinned / opposing otherness, and refuses to collapse into any final meaning or commentary on them.

At various points as I read the book, I went from understanding the two cities as Christianity and Islam, the West and the East, to wondering if the whole book was a kind of coded intellectual / literary autobiography, via seeing it as a way of talking about splits between genre and literary fiction, then reading it as talking about left / right wing oppositions, and so on.

The imagery supports all of these readings, and – I’m sure – many more, without insisting on any of them as full or final. That’s something I really loved, for many reasons. Most immediately, it builds very directly on one of my favourite moments in his previous novels – the climax of ‘The Iron Council’.

As you’ll no doubt remember, the book ends in an image that simultaneously represents two directly opposed emotions – hope and despair – in a way that’s very directly inspired by one of the great Western comments on the distance between legend and reality, the final frames of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’.

For me, that image felt like the crystallization of an internal opposition, between China the Marxist (who believes in the possibility of radical, positive change in society) and China the Realist (who has a perhaps more nuanced and pessimistic view of human nature). I thought it was a wonderful presentation of two opposed stances; and I also wondered where he’d go from there, how he’d reconcile the tension between the two viewpoints.

My mistake was to see the choice as a binary one. Miéville’s built on the moment by finding a third way, and is now operating – far more effectively than at any previous point – as China the novelist, China the Image Maker. Rather than building narratives that endorse or discuss particular political viewpoints, he’s creating open image sets that resist simple, final conclusions, and instead encourage readers to think for themselves.

That creative maneuver is profoundly refreshing. It’s a reinvention of China’s root definition – he’s moved from being a novelist engaged in a very specific (albeit important) argument with genre, to one who uses the tools of genre to look out at the modern world – and it moves him into fascinating new literary company.

Previously I’ve pitched him to people as (in very glib shorthand) Britain’s leading Marxist Fantasist; now, his use of internally coherent but literally inexplicable image sets mean that it’s possible to read him in relationship with cutting edge modern poets like Jeremy Prynne, Lee Harwood and Ken Edwards, who work very hard indeed to balance that same clarity of image with opacity of final meaning, and even of language.

But how fully achieved is that transition? ‘The City and The City’ does hold true to relatively traditional narrative structures; it does have recognizable echoes of previous books, and of the habits of writing that have driven them. Two key examples for me are the collapse of the final Orciny myth, and the mass breach that leads to city-wide chaos as the novel draws to a close.

The former seems to me to be very close to the resolution of the Magus Fin narrative strand at the climax of ‘The Scar’. In both cases, we discover that a central, motivating myth – a Macguffin – is in fact a fiction, a fantasy generated out of neurotic personal need.

However, there is progression here too. The Magus Fin functions as a critique of reader expectations of genre, pointing up the gap between the cod-Fantasy motivations we’re often too comfortable with (Our talisman has been stolen! We must retrieve it, lest we face the anger of the gods!) and the more sophisticated, realistic drivers that make the political world happen (We’re economically exposed! We need to get our data back!).

Althought the Magus Fin narrative does throw a light on political myth making, it’s fundamentally an argument about genre, made from within genre. The Orciny event – although ostensibly similar – can be used to think about genre, but sits outside it. The meanings that can be derived from it centre more on the way that personal world fantasies are received, processed and responded to by the body politic.

So, I’m undercutting my own argument! Read in this way, the Orciny event becomes a conscious reflection on the Magus Fin, an attempt to include its concerns in a broader argument about the real world nature and reception of fantasy (rather than just Fantasy).

And then there’s the mass breach that ends the book. The Threat to the City is a repeated Miéville structural trope, one that is – for me – very directly derived from his genre roots.

Binary oppositions are fundamental to Fantasy; magical heroes need magical monsters, shadow selves that exist to help the hero shine. And, of course, the stronger the shadow, the more glory there is in overcoming it. So, the city gets threatened with destruction, to allow our heroes to save it – to define the terms of their achievement.

But, as I type, I’m realizing that there’s more to China’s repeated city destruction attempts than I’d previously thought. Not all destructions are equal; some, in fact, are to be encouraged – witness, again, ‘The Iron Council’. Breaking the status quo can be – or, at least, can aspire to be – A Very Good Thing.

Seen in that light, the mass breach becomes more interesting. It represents a moment of possible transcendence, an escape from an artificial set of limitations. That would destroy Beszel and Ul Qoma; but it could also liberate a new city, one that might provide its inhabitants with an easier and more fulfilled mode of living.

A shock, or a release? Such a change would be both, at once; and each has their costs, and their benefits. The mass breach forces consideration of such a transition as the novel climaxes, without committing to a final judgment as to whether it would be a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing. As such, it’s a very effective component of the novel’s broader strategy of constructive ambiguity.

There is one thing that the book is very unambiguous about, however. Unlike Miéville’s previous novels, there’s no magic in it at all, nothing of the supernatural. Beszel, Ul Qoma, Orciny, Breach; within ‘The City and The City’, all are entirely human constructs, very carefully sited in our world.

As such, the book has the same kind of relationship with the genre of Fantasy that slasher movies have with Horror. In (say) ‘Psycho’, or ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Horror is achieved; but its achievement is an entirely human one, making these films meditations on our shared capacity for evil, rather than abstract exemplifications of an external darkness.

Likewise, ‘The City and The City’. It’s an entirely fantastical book that has no Fantasy in it whatsoever. Where there is mystery – for example, in the precursor machine / culture – it springs from a very human lack of knowledge, and consequent fantasising, rather than from any sort of supernatural intervention.

At heart, it’s a meditation on the ability of the human imagination to build unreal worlds, and then to make them real by agreeing on them. Beszel, Ul Qoma; each city is a convention set that only exists because enough people agree that they’re there, consensual hallucinations that become real through that very consensus.

By contrast, Orciny’s failure is not untruth; rather, it lies in its inability to gather enough followers to give it life. If enough people used it as a tool for imaginative interpretation of the world around them, it would become real, just as Ul Qoma and Beszel are – within the book – entirely real, entirely non-fictional.

So, a book that contains much; and a book that is hard to review, precisely because of its refusal to settle into a single set of meanings. That makes the above necessarily provisional; it’s one interpretation, where many are possible, and none can be fully or finally ‘right’. And, of course, there’s a lot in the book that I haven’t mentioned at all.

Which, in the end, makes the responsibility for finding ‘meaning’ in the book an entirely personal one. The above is part of my own take on ‘The City and The City’ – what’s yours?

Why Fantasy isn’t crap, and SF isn’t better

Fantasy, Literary, Metafiction

Hal Duncan has been posting very interestingly about sub-divides in genre lately; in particular, that (and other, related conversations) have made me think about the divide between Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has led me to articles / books which seem to position Fantasy writing as being innately conservative, and Science Fiction as being innately radical.

This seems to be based on a particular argument about the nature of Science Fiction. SF is a literature rooted in the procedures and achievements of scientific method; scientific method is driven by an entirely rational quest for a true description of the universe; that understanding, once instrumentalised, will lead to transcendent change of one kind or another.

Therefore SF is at least the most effectively exploratory fiction we have, at most a key component of a broader, transcendental project that has major implications for our development as a species. Of course, SF can play a strongly critical role in that project (witness ‘Frankenstein’, for example), but the project itself remains both valid and exciting – humanity’s last, best hope for progress.

Fantasy, by contrast, is perceived as being innately conservative. It is rooted not in engagement with reality but in abstraction from reality; further, for the most part it takes its content cues not from the future but from the past. Its view of the past – the argument goes – tends to be both idealised and politically naïve, frequently endorsing dubious strongmen, cosy dictatorships and an over-fluffy view of feudal life in general.

Even where it enters the present, it escapes reality rather than engages with it, by privileging unreal powers / events over actual engagement with actual things. Harry Potter is not a scientist, and in fact is anti-science in that his narrative problem solving is rooted in things that could never happen, rather than things that are demonstrably and rationally true.

This kind of condemnation of Fantasy hinges on a contrast between SF and Fantasy that – for me at least – is based on both a misunderstanding of what fiction is, and a failure to engage with the world around us as it currently works.

Taking the first, first. Fiction is not real; it is not the world. It is ink on paper, arranged to create story; it is a partial refraction of one person’s understanding of the world, an imitation of reality created to communicate a given narrative argument. It is inevitably subjective and partial. It can include science, but it is not in itself scientific, because it can never achieve the objectivity of exploration that is core to the method of science.

As such, Science Fiction can act as propaganda for science, but it cannot honestly lay claim to the realist authority that is innate in science. The fundamental aims of science – the development and propagation of an objectively true, reproducible worldview – are in opposition to the fundamental aims of fiction – the development and propagation of a personally true, unique worldview.

In this context, the claim that SF is superior to Fantasy because it is a more accurate reflection of the potentials and realities of the world is meaningless. Science can seed fiction, but it can’t (by definition) be fiction.

Given this, how can one argue that a science fiction novel that explores the political and emotional ramifications of (say) a certain set of assumptions about the possibilities of science (as, for example, the Foundation series does) is superior to a fantasy novel that explores the political and emotional ramifications of a certain set of assumptions about political theory (as, for example, China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels do)?

Taking the second. We live in a world where fantastic rhetoric is far more successful than scientific rhetoric. You don’t believe me? Watch some ads. Rooted in Surrealist shock tactics, the language of advertising is built on entirely fantasised imagery that presents individual brands as the kinds of crusading , transcendental superheroes that critics of Fantasy condemn. More broadly, check out modern political rhetoric. There, too, is fantasy; a conscious, ongoing project to present the world as politicians would like it to be, rather than to engage with it as it is.

Here – and elsewhere – the unreal is overlaid on the real, in service of entirely partisan ends. Science is powerless here; scientific method presupposes an innate respect for a commonly accepted, demonstrably true and entirely objective set of truths. That’s a respect that modern public fantasists just don’t have. Science is a truth that cannot hurt or hinder them, because they feel no need to even acknowledge the results of its judicious researches.

Fantasy is more directly useful here. Writers of Fantasy – by definition – spend much time pondering the relationship between Fantasy and Reality. At it’s most basic level, it’s in service of questions like ‘How can I keep people reading the adventures of Thringor the Barbarian when he’s acting in a world that people have no real reference points for?’.

As it becomes more sophisticated, it leads to questions like ‘How can I use these transparently unreal things Thringor faces as a means of commenting on / amplifying the very real emotional, political, or other issues he has to deal with, which are in themselves reflections of real world arguments I find engaging or important?’.

That knowledge of the uses of Fantasy is key to unpicking the fantastic in the modern world; in some ways, the fantasised is so prevalent in modernity that it demands Fantasy, rather than SF, as a response to it. Fantasised fables of modernity from writers like M. John Harrison and Joel Lane, J. G. Ballard and Conrad Williams, offer guides to modernity that are as pertinent and revealing as anything more SFnal writers have created.

So anyway, that’s enough for one blog entry. In writing the above, I’ve realised that there’s a whole lot more that can be said about the relationship between Fantasy, SF and Fiction in general, but unfortunately that’s going to have to come out in future posts, as time is limited today. Hopefully the above is thought provoking; and hopefully it also works as the beginnings of both a defense of Fantasy and an attempt to break down any argument that posits SF as an innately superior mode of fiction.

Spontaneously effusing

Fantasy, Literary, Narrative, Short stories

Well, a lovely weekend in Paris – visiting friends, hanging out in the 6e, and once again failing to get to the Sainte Chapelle, one of the finest pieces of Late Gothic architecture in Europe. Hey ho, one day I’ll get there, tho’ I’ll be cursing Dan Brown as I do so. He mentions it in the Da Vinci Code, so there are now permanent queues to get in. Hmmph.

Anyway, I’m whizzing around at high speed today, so it’s a very quick post. I’ve just been listening to a Neil Gaiman / Susanna Clarke interview courtesy of The Guardian, in which he defines a certain kind of short story as ‘miserable people having small epiphanies of misery’.

That’s a great comment, at once a definition and criticism of a certain kind of Modernist / more generally literary writing. When it’s well done (Katherine Mansfield!) it’s fantastic; when not, it’s turgid, depressing and futile. Minute, miserable subject matter becomes an end in itself – questions of quality of writing (‘how well is this done?’) are ignored.

Which raises a very interesting question. Why is subject matter rather than quality of writing so often seen as the only value needed in defining a book’s literary worth? For me, it’s because of a lack of understanding of the craft of writing.

And I’m not sure where that lack of understanding comes from. Perhaps one explanation is that, for all the talk of Modernism and Post Modernism, our approaches to judging writing remain trapped by the great Romantic pose of the spontaneous effusion.

By definition, spontaneous effusing (what an ugly word!) privileges content over form. ‘I was so moved that I had to write this…’ – so content is all and form is ignored, at best a neutral quality, at worst something profoundly restrictive. What matters is the quality of experience that drives the piece, not the quality of the piece itself.

Which throws critical negativity onto anything that’s not directly realist. Whether detective fiction, fantasy, romance or whatever else, such fiction comes not from direct observation of reality but rather from a much more mediated process of working out – of crafting. And, if you believe in spontaneous effusion, you mistrust crafting.

So, much as the Romantic pose is very attractive (‘bring me my opium, my catamite, my quill – I must compose!’) perhaps it’s time to step beyond it and acknowledge that direct observation and subsequent effusion is an aesthetic choice only, and has nothing to do with the qualitative.

Which, come to think of it, once you’ve been to a couple of poetry readings built around dodgy confessional poets is something you really don’t need to be told.

Becoming Norma Desmond

Escapism, Fantasy, Film, Literary, Religion

Out and about on Wednesday night (at an event run by the estimable Poet in the City, which everyone should know about – they do fantastic poetry events round the City of London), and, as it does in pubs, the conversation turned to fantasy and sf.

As it also does when you’re around people-whose-genre-is-literary, someone came up with the question – ‘why do you write genre fiction when it has nothing to do with reality, and therefore has no point to it?’

Of course this is a red rag to a bull for me; my answering rant went on for about half an hour. In fact, it only ended when I paused for breath and noticed that the bar staff were putting the stools upside down on the tables and everyone else had left.

One of the points I made was that modern literary fiction is a pretty late arrival on the literary scene, really only beginning in the 19th Century. Fantasy has been around forever, from Homer on.

But thinking about it, that’s not such a good point after all. Much of the writing that foreshadows or powers the modern fantastic – archaic Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse and other myth cycles, Christian narratives from ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, Renaissance magical tracts, and so on – were written as fact.

For their original creators and consumers, they weren’t fantasies at all; they were factual components of a coherent and internally consistent worldview. We use them as source material for fictions that know they’re fiction, but that’s absolutely not what they originally were.

The modern Western European worldview is a profoundly scientific one. So, it favours narratives that engage with reality in a way that’s based on quasi-scientific observation. Seen in this light, fantastic narratives can be seen as a hangover from an earlier, discredited way of understanding the world.

From this point of view, Fantasy writing becomes Norma Desmond; a glamorous, pointless relic. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, she’s a leftover from the great days of silent movies, eking out a ghostly living in the LA of the 50s.

And if we look at Fantasy like this, then Norma Desmond becomes a very relevant figure. She’s a useful index of how less conscientious critics can perceive the genre; and her personal trajectory is an incredibly potent warning against both bombast in general (‘I AM big. It’s the movies that got small’) and the specific genre sin of letting fantasising become an end in itself, rather than a mirror with which to confront the world.

And so, to conclude, here’s Norma herself in the final moments of the film, in all her deluded, tragic magnificence. Broken, maddened and desperately alone, a murderess about to be arrested, a haunted and futile relic of a forgotten world, she steps in front of the cameras and stops the show, one last, unforgettable time.

(Un)Real city

Fantasy, Fiction, Genre, Literary, Science Fiction

Just been reading over yesterday’s post about Zola, and I realised that there’s an unstated assumption about the actual process of writing underlying it.

I don’t think that any writer pulls something from nothing. Rather, I think that the act of writing is an act of interpretation. Details of the world are pulled into fiction and made artificial. One component of that artificiality is the context that they’re given, a context that makes them part of a broader, truth-reflecting argument. Fiction makes truthful interpretation happen by stealing from and falsifying the world.

That process of re-contextualisation starts with observation, both direct and indirect. Direct observation means watching the world, listening to people talk, taking in the look and sound and touch of things. Indirect observation means reading and research; finding out about style, gathering content, understanding the possibilities of fiction, learning from those who’ve gone before you.

I can’t imagine writing happening without such a process. Zola, for example, combined direct observation of the people and places of Paris with in-depth reading and research about the modern times he lived in. He’s a Realist in part because he worked very hard to understand how his 19th century reality worked.

The thing is, seen this way, every good writer’s a realist. The most colourful fantasist; the most operatic science fiction writer; all build their fictions through the same careful process of engagement with the world and its products. Direct and indirect observation combined underpin all effective fiction, because fiction, being a mirror, needs this world to look at in order to create its reflection.

So yesterday I argued that Zola was really a fantasist; today, I’m arguing that fantasists are really realists. Both statements are equally true, and both point to the tension between the real and the unreal that lies at the heart of any decent piece of writing, regardless of genre or aesthetic intent.

A mirror and a window both

Fantasy, Literary, Narrative, Psychology

In ‘S/Z’, his wonderful, word by word dissection of a Balzac short story, Barthes notes that ‘in the text, only the reader speaks.’

There’s a fascinating point about the process of reading to be drawn out of that. When we read a book, he’s saying, we read it in our voice, hearing the words in our head as if it’s us speaking.

That’s an index of a broader readerly solipsism. Any book only has meaning for us inasmuch as it taps into experiences we’ve already had. Once it steps beyond our emotional experiences – whether actual or fantasised – it leaves us with nothing to engage with. Without engagement, we’re unlikely to keep reading.

We tend to regard books as externalised artefacts, bringing intellectual and emotional novelty into our lives. In fact, in many ways they can only ever present our selves back to ourselves, connecting with us through our own voices and experiences that we’ve already had. A book isn’t a window; it’s a mirror.

But perhaps that’s not quite true. Books do introduce novelty into our lives – new information, new understanding, new ways of seeing. Our ability to grasp novelty may be limited, but nonetheless it is real. The voice may be ours, but the words we are reading aren’t. A book is neither mirror nor window, but a complex set of tensions between the two.

That’s a complexity that M. John Harrison picks up on, in his magnificent short story ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ (latterly re-titled / re-edited as ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’). It’s the concluding story of his 70s Viriconium sequence, and it very literally enacts the window / mirror tension.

A small group of characters discover a portal to the ‘magical’ world of Viriconium in the toilet of a café in the provincial English town of Huddersfield. It’s a mirror that they can climb through, and so they do.

They find themselves in a seedy and blasted semi-urban landscape. They scratch together a living for a while, before being forced to return to our world by a combination of sickness and lassitude.

The world they find themselves is authentically magical; but it’s also authentic to their situation in our world. Taking themselves through the portal isn’t a magical solution – rather, it does little more than give them a different context within which to confront the same issues that they have to deal with here.

For M. John Harrison, there’s no such thing as escape; only reframing. And perhaps that’s the best way to understand where novelty in fiction comes from. Fiction helps the self see itself in a new light by giving it a means of reframing itself. Simultaneously mirror and window, it creates new worlds for us to step into by forcing us back on what’s already there.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you – literally.

 

Viriconium!

The diamond cutter

Landscape, Literary, Poets

Much reading and writing over the last few weeks, and in amongst it all I’ve been particularly enjoying (and enthusing about) R.F. Langley’s ‘Journals’. He’s a poet, a (far more bucolic and less intense) disciple of Jeremy Prynne’s, bending language in strange and interesting new ways.

What’s valuable about his journals is the precision of observation therein. Langley’s obsessions – the natural world, small rural churches, tiny private moments – emerge again and again through absolutely committed, jewel sharp prose.

The book is a masterclass in concise, exact evocation, and also in the deep sensual engagement that supports that kind of evocation. More broadly, it’s one more demonstration of the writerly skill of just looking at the world that goes all the way back to Homer, and no doubt beyond.

It gives the lie to an often-made criticism of the kind of poetry that Langley, Prynne and others write. They’re accused of not engaging with the world, of purposely obfuscating it. The depth and quality of Langley’s journals easily and absolutely refute that.

Prose of this quality is documentary proof of a deep concern with the floating world, a concern that cannot but suffuse and animate every single line of his poetry. If we miss that deep engagement, then it’s our fault as readers, not his weakness as a writer.

If you want to check out the Journals, there’s a sampler here – well worth taking a look at. And here’s a little poetry – some Langley, and some Prynne. More to be said on these two as poets, I think – but not today!

Flesh eggs, scarlet tracings

Essayists, Landscape, Literary, London, Novelists, Poets

Bringing Iain Sinclair’s book of poems, ‘Buried at Sea’, into work this morning made me think about the impact his selected poems ‘Flesh Eggs and Scalp Metal’, and his novel ‘White Chappell Scarlet Tracings’, made on me when I first read them.

I was at a very conservative boarding school in Dorset; every so often Ted Hughes’ ‘The Thought Fox’ would get dusted off by some corduroy jacketed English teacher as an example of the finest, most dangerous poetry that modern Britain had to offer; appreciation of the contemporary novel stopped at Ford Madox Ford.

After Hughes’ tepid, self regarding, bankrupt Romanticism – a poetry that had and still has all the allure of a fly-blown egg salad sandwich rotting in an over warm chiller unit in a barely used Little Chef just off the A303 – and FMF’s (admittedly excellent, but simultaneously) seventy years gone Modernist novelising, Iain Sinclair was a revelation.

I’ve come to read his work as a driven Cockney response to writers like Ezra Pound and Charles Olson; people obsessed with the way history and geography combine to create an environment that the self cannot but rely on for definition.

He built on their methodologies, marrying berserk pulp mythologies with the seedier scrag ends of the Matter of London to look at how popular culture and mythology shape us.

London becomes a dense palimpsest of experience, a place where figures as diverse as Jack the Ripper, Stephen Hawking, Mithras and Nicholas Hawksmoor create intertwining narratives that echo in an absolutely contemporary way through the lives of all Londoners.

Within it we are are perpetual slaves to our environment, unknowing flaneurs being perpetually remoulded by the city that we are always strolling through, always observing, always being observed by.

There’s an obvious political edge to this, as well; those with the power to shape the environment have the power to shape us. Picking up where the Situationalists left off, riffing off the pulp innocence of H. P. Lovecraft and Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, Sinclair forces us to beware of such designs.

Iain Sinclair was using fictions I was deeply engaged with to build an argument about the nature of place, memory (both personal and cultural) that I found very exciting and relevant. Set against Ted Hughes and his dustily savage nature poetry – what took him a career to achieve was done better by Tennyson in four lines in 1849 – there was no real competition.