Monthly Archives: December 2016

Chris Morris’ Blue Jam Monologues

CW: Everything, all the bad things

Chris Morris’ television show Jam was originally a radio series called Blue Jam, in which five to ten minute ‘sketches’ played out above an ambient soundtrack bed. When it was imported to television, the actors lip-synced to these pre-recordings, intensifying the surreal effect that the show gave off. Jam is subversive, hilarious, absurd and if you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to keep it that way. Every episode contains at least one thing that is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, let alone the worst thing I’ve ever seen in show that it supposedly a comedy. In one episode, a couple are only slightly irritated that their child has been abducted and murdered, in another, a woman near fatally maims a cyclist in order to have someone to talk to, and in one of the show’s legendarily creepy cold openings, a homeless man is abducted and forced to wrestle pigs for sport. These are some of the milder scenarios of the show’s one-season run.

One of the running sketches that appears in Blue Jam never made the transition into the television show, one in which an unnamed character relates a narrative in monologue. Based on the addictions he outlines, he seems to have a neurological disorder of some kind. We only get snatches of his backstory; his narratives are far too fragmented to provide any specific detail. We might get some bits of information regarding the narrator’s wife and his childhood, but this isn’t to say that can necessarily trust what it is that he says; take this example:

I began to remember the time when I was seven and a gerbil had started swearing at me. Amongst other things it had told me that my dad was having an affair. I told my mum and soon afterwards the family had split up.

While none of these sketches made it into the television show, one of the monologues, in which the narrator is goaded by a talking dog, supposedly acting as his lawyer, goads him into doing various things, was adopted into a short film My Wrongs 8245–8249 & 117 in 2002, starring Paddy Considine. It’s not quite successful however, the original medium in which these sketches appeared, discontinuous monologues within the context of a radio sketch show, are definitely more suited to rendering them. The short film brings the viewer too close to the psychosis by representing the dog as actually talking, and loses the overall effect of having the listener dependent on the narrator’s perspective, however unreliable. Added to all this, it isn’t really one of the best monologues, one has the feeling that the joke is going on for too long.

The most successful pieces are the ones rooted within social comedy while maintaining the surrealist vibe, in such a way that is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Flann O’Brien, which has had I think, a far greater impact on UK/Irish comedy than is generally acknowledged. Compare the fundamental uncertainty touched upon in these monologues with the opening of Beckett’s novel Molloy:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got there thanks to him. He says not.

with the third episode:

I had been in the pub three hours talking to a guy I used to work with named Ian before I realised he wasn’t called Ian at all and I was in the wrong pub. By that stage he was very cross. He poked me in the chest and asked me if I was some kind of puppy squeezer.

And another one because it’s rather good:

I had wandered into a children’s park under the influence of Prozac and I had beaten up an ostrich while several toddlers looked on and cried…I begged a little girl to kill me. She left with her mother shortly afterwards.

It is in the second instalment of the show that the target of Morris’ satire becomes a bit clearer, as the narrator is mistaken for a piece of conceptual art after he goes blind. His blindness is a side-effect of his codeine overdose, it should be noted. Morris is clearly taking aim at 1990’s Britain, and the growth of ‘Cool Britannia,’ not to mention the urban chattering classes who propagate it. In this New Labour era, almost every character the narrator encounters is more a bundle of shallow affectations than a real person; when he is exhibited in an apartment, they are reported as saying things like: ‘this is what art should be. Moving in a relevant way.’ Novelist Will Self even makes a cameo, declaring that he ‘has never seen a more kleptomasturbatory entropoid.’ One can imagine Morris, an increasingly feted, critical darling in this media landscape of this era, casting an eye on his peers who lacked his critical eye regarding the media establishment.

In another, he meets a comedian named Tony at a party, ‘standing next to a huge ice sculpture of his head.’ One thinks of David Baddiel and Rob Newman playing Wembley Stadium, and the belief that British comedy in the nineties was to be ‘the new rock n’ roll’. Merely by being in attendance, the speaker’s career seems to be getting off to a good start:

By the time I got back to the crab tartlets, I had an agent, a transmittable pilot, a five year development deal and someone with a mobile phone told me Jarvis Cocker wanted to meet with me.

The highlight for me, is probably ‘The Suicide Journalist,’ in which a journalist named Clive has announced in his weekly column, his intention to commit suicide, and to document process over a number of weeks. The column is a big hit among the bright young things, who all attempt to impress Clive at a dinner party with tales of their own mental anguish and self-harm: ‘Look at my scars. They are beautiful, but not as beautiful as your columns.’

Goby Jovler (in theory rather than execution) is another probable highlight, as a parody of a vapid Pinter imitation, responsible for a play called Fuckers: ‘critics had said it was the devastatingly accurate play that will ever be written about sex,’ which tackles the subject of urban alienation ‘as a sexual malfunctioning zeitgeist.’

It’s worth reflecting on these sorts of media edifices Morris satirises in amidst the nineties nostalgia arising in our current era of political turmoil, and remembering that, while they might have been a good time for journalists and cocaine users (significant overlap here) they weren’t a golden age of affluence for everyone. The seemingly homeless, indigent and drug-addicted narrator is probably not there are a means of furthering the show’s social critique, but serves as a disembodied presence through which the era, in all of its absurdity, becomes clear. He’s at his best when used as a foil to the absurd commentariat, as in the quotation below:

I said I’d had no money for a bottle of wine and the homeless bloke at the tube station who usually subs me a couple of quid because he says I look worse off than his dog was being mugged when I’d asked him this time, and hadn’t given me a penny. And then I’d got lost because I’d forgotten whether Susie’s house was opposite some trees or opposite no trees at all. Several conversations had started by the time I’d got to that bit.

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Will Self’s Umbrella and post-modern modernity

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As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.

But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.

The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:

The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —

Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.

My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.

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Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.

Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.

Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:

The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?

The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.