Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Irish Writing Boom

Good discussion with a number of people involved in Irish publishing on the Granta podcast, such as Joanna Walsh, Sarah Davis-Goff, Amy Herron and Susan Tomaselli. Touches upon how the climate has changed for Irish women’s writing and how journals can encourage more experimental prose.

D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace

D.T. Max having an extended discussion on the Granta podcast about what he learned about David Foster Wallace after having written a biography on the man, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.

Don DeLillo at Shakespeare and Company

Don DeLillo put in an appearance at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop n Paris on the publicity trail for his newest novel Zero K. In the first he talks about Underworld and reads a short story based on his experience of the 9/11 attacks, and in the second he talks in detail about Zero K.

 

Ben Lerner reads John Berger’s ‘Woven, Sir’

Ben Lerner and John Berger have been two guys on my to-read list for a very long time, and here one of them is, reading a short story by the other. Short story is very good, though I might say the post and pre-reading discussion is even better.

http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/ben-lerner-reads-john-berger

The Eugenics Theme in J.G. Farrell’s ‘Troubles’

I’m usually loathe to read an Irish novel exclusively as a national allegory, having been drilled during my degree to avoid such lazy readings, but occasionally a novel will come along that absolutely begs a particular reading, along otherwise retrograde lines. J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles is one such text. First, its deceptively simple title refuses to make the distinction between the troubles that are then beginning to take root across Ireland during the war of independence, and the more interior troubles of one Major Brendan Archer, a veteran of the first world war, journeying to and taking up residence in Killnalough, County Wexford.

It is there that he meets his fiancée, Angela, her father Edward, and a number of other old-aristocracy Protestant eccentrics, marooned in a disused hotel at a time when history, modernity and political upheaval looks to be deposing them into irrelevance. The house begins to crumble at its foundations, trees grow in under the floorboards, the young and old all seem to be afflicted with either cognitive or physical ailments, and worst of all, a statue of Queen Victoria is detonated by a local Shinner’s IED.

As we can see, the way is clear to see Troubles as a allegorical look at the fallen state of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish upper middle class. To accentuate this, Farrell intersperses the narrative with a number of newspaper reports and parliamentary exchanges, inviting us to see Archer’s attempts to maintain the Majestic hotel, the building and its inhabitants both in a state of disrepair in conjunction with the turmoil engulfing both Europe and Ireland, then under assault from the Black and Tans.

The effect of being faced with an existential threat posed to those of a certain class is one of the crucial facets of the novel, and that is the effect that it seems to have on the libidinal impulses of the men. It is clear from the outset that the Majestic is a synecdoche of a kind of a failed state, even only from a demographic point of view; most of the men and women are aged and beset by physical and mental ailments; with Angela’s death and Archer’s passivity, emotional isolation (a subtle by-product of his post-traumatic stress disorder) , it is fairly obvious that the Majestic will be, from the perspective of its population, non-viable fairly soon. This is highlighted in a scene in which Edward and Archer stage a social at the house, attempting to bring the Majestic back to its glory days. Archer takes a long, considered look at his guest’s appearances:

“This was the fact of Anglo-Ireland, the inbred Protestant aristocracy, the face, progressively refining itself into a separate, luxurious species, which had ruled Ireland for almost five hundred years: the wispy fair hair, the eyes too close together, the long nose and protruding teeth…”

Yet this does not prevent the fact that the primary dramatic conflict in the text is between Edward and Archer, essentially sparring one another for control over, and sexual access to, Sarah Devlin, a local Catholic girl.

This lack of viable options for the men, leads to a perpetuation of the sort of incestuous, (and, indeed, paedophilic, at times) practices alluded to in the above quotation. Angela has two younger sisters, the twins, Faith and Charity, who are nearing adolescence. At one stage in the novel, they recover some records, and convince Archer to dance with them, keen to practice their waltzes and suchlike. Finding himself unable, he decides to watch them, along with Mr Norton, who appears in the novel as a kind of comic-relief pervert, which might have been funny in the seventies, when the novel was published, but now reads as yuck:

“(the Major changed the needle and wound up the gramophone as quickly as he could, so that they would not stop this enjoyable display) they gradually became flushed and flirtatious. Their eyes sparkled. They flashed lingering smiles at the Major as they danced round. They licked their lips with delightful pink tongues”

etc. etc. etc, for about a page.

Mr. Norton’s attraction to, and flirtations with, the children are written off as the caprice of an older man trying to hold onto his youth, but it is not this, nor the fundamental weirdness of someone fancying the underage that slights the esteem in which Archer holds Norton. Rather, it is Norton’s mistaken belief that he, rather than Archer, who is the target of the girls’ affection. He allows the dance to proceed, confident in the knowledge that it is the girls who fancy him.

This is a synecdoche of the wider plot, wherein Archer believes himself to be a sure match for Sarah Devlin, only to find that she has been having an affair with Edward. Nothing lasting comes of the relationship, but the age-gap, in both contexts, twenty to thirty years at least, reveals the desperation at the heart of this segment of Irish society, and its bleak prospects for assuming the role of ‘the ruling class’ over the course of the next century.

The creepy habits of those in charge, of course, mostly remain intact going forward.

Eight Good Songs and Why

Burial & Four Tet – Moth

This is a song that has an immediate calming effect on me, probably as a result of having some of the most finely contrasted and all-round chill textures of any song that I’m aware of. Whether this be a consequence of the affected vinyl crackle, perceptible at I think all stages of the tune (guaranteed to make any song sound that bit warmer), or the two percussion tracks, just slightly out of step with one another. The beat composed of thicker percussive elements, the more melodic one also has that sleepy quality induced by sounding as though someone keeps on raising or lowering the volume on it. Finally, the vocals reach into something of that mark of bittersweet eternal longing/the sense of the finitude of all human experience sort of a way.

The In Crowd – Back a Yard

A song that I like, propelled perhaps by my partial misunderstanding of the lyrics, or at least, an overreading of them, alongside my immediate belief in the fundamental goodness of all reggae. From my point of view, it is on a par with soul in terms of its quality; even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

The chorus or hook which keeps returning to the line,  ‘Back a Yard’ is what makes the track as good as it is. For me, it advocates the notion of partial disengagement from every and all action or activity, taking the notion of knowing one’s country, licking some caly, (I have no idea what that is) or visiting one’s parents while remaining ‘Back a Yard’ into the realm of a categorical imperative or an ethical mandate. And the melody is very bouyant and timeless also.

The Magnetic Fields – World Love

Picking one song to valorise out of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs would be almost impossible for me, it’s the kind of album that has me listening to at least eight, sometimes twenty tracks whenever I go back to it, with just one in mind. In their discography though, ‘World Love’ strikes me as unique, distinct from all those other lachrymose ballads in rhyming couplets about death, suicide and depression, (which are, by the way, fantastic, they will never not be fantastic). It is nice, nevertheless, to hear them taking a different tack, and invest their lyrics and varied instrumentation in a more hedonistic and celebratory world view, the revolutionary aspects of music and things like love, music, wine & revolt. It is also probably one of the few genre songs on the record which isn’t recorded ironically, which one can also dig.

All Saints – Pure Shores

Great metaphor, great sounding dream-like ambience, one of the best choruses of all time. Vocal performances on point, particularly as they outline a wish for a place of dwelling, rather than just an absent love-object, it is a song concerned with having a place of one’s own, which I find much more comeplling. Barest traces of surf-rock type melodies in the slide guitar furbelows, which complement the more bluesy things, not to mention the extravagant synth.

Boards of Canada – roygbiv

It can be difficult to articulate why I enjoy this song so much, or articulate why I like Boards’ music to the extent that I do. Seeing as they deal primarily in contemplative instrumentals, there can seem as though there isn’t a whole lot to deal with, I had to wade pretty deep into their discography before I started to reckon with what their music was. It strikes me as though their samples and instrumentation seem to be trying to communicate a particular vibe emanating from twenty or thirty years ago, kind of an unearthly Cold War-era local access television, or a symphony from Fischer-Price instruments, but in no way do I mean this as a criticism. The point being that nostalgia is what this song is structurally composed of, Boards being a sort of experiment in shading tones of elapsed time. If the sampled kid’s voice is saying ‘play,’ something which I recognise there could be debate over, the effect is only heightened.

Philip Glass – Mad Rush

Philip Glass is one of those contemporary composes who I still struggled with, having not quite yet adjusted to music that, as Foster Wallace puts it in Infinite Jest, is ‘going precisely nowhere.’ The minimalistic concatenations that form a lot of his works absolutely wouldn’t bother me, if it wasn’t for the instruments he deigns to use to elaborate them – I think the original version of ‘Mad Rush’ was played on an organ which sounded as though it was mocking itself. In any case, this version appears on piano, and does away with the confrontational honking of the original by encompassing a far greater range of dynamics, from the tenuous opening notes of any given movement, to the key vortex to which it builds, the explosion-refractory pace that defines this piece. Forcing the name of a piece onto the material when exploring the significance can be dangerous, but in this case, it’s hard to not read it as some manner of exploration on the pace of our lives, how it precedes unsteadily, unpredictably, without time for thought or reflection, just as, in this song, one isn’t sure whether the next ‘big’ moment is the last or not.

Maschine – Kersal Massive

This is a mash-up of a video that went viral some years ago of some pre-teens rapping into a camera phone and a jungle-influenced percussive track. Full points for the confidence and delivery of the vocal perofrmance, though it would be hard to envision it melding so seamlessly with the above. It’s an extremely varied and complex agglomeration of percussive effects which recalls Aphex Twin in its confutation of percussive/melodic effects, capable of straddling the fine line of ‘banger’ and something more ambiguous and exploratory, as is seen best in the extended ambient synth parts, which are curiously evocative.

Skepta, Wiki – That’s Not Me

Not the version that appears on Skepta’s recent album, but an extended video version with Wiki of Ratking. As aggressive, confrontational and percussively inclined as the best of the mainstays of the grime genre, it sometimes seems as though grime, in its imported form, may ascend to being more gangster rap than gangster rap itself, especially in a post-Drake, post-EDM-influenced landscape. Like a lot of grime, from a lyrical point of view, Skepta keeps things simple and the various ictuses he deploys tend to fall on monosyllabic rhymes, which, even when the rhyme is slanted, depend on simple -ack and -at sounds. This blunt-force approach serves him extremely well relative to the beat, and he manages to interweave enough variation to prevent things getting monotonous. The way in which Wiki’s unconventional delivery, not to mention backtracking on Skepta’s attempts to stay defiantly on message in his lyrics, make for a satisfying contrast, and confirm the track’s eclecticism, sitting next to a fairly bald manifesto of intentions, i.e. making a definitive break from the ways in which his career, and by extension, grime, has been developing in recent times.

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and the difficulty of endings

For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.

For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions on Ulysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.

The final lines of the Wake read as follows:

“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”

The beginning reads:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.

Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.

“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’

Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.

The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,

Though thy Glass to day be run,

Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low

Find the last poor Pret’rite one…

Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,

All through our crippl’d Zone,

With a face on ev’ry mountainside,

And a soul in ev’ry stone…

Now everybody-“

I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:

“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”

which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:

“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball…

Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die…”

This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.