Thursday, 27 November 2014

The man who grew behind a beard

Full title: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Author: Stephen Collins
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: NP, hard cover
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This book of comic strips is based on a narrative that grows. In a town where everything is tidy, where manners rule supreme, and where happily subjected citizens function like cogwheels in a well-greased mechanism, something unexpected brings the universe to the point of collapse. Dave (the name should say it all), a decent employee with mornings full of capitalist meticulousness, is horrified to see a beard growing on his face. Horrified? By a beard? Yes. Because in town beards are forbidden. They represent everything that's unwanted: untidiness, degradation, barbarity. So Dave, with the facial bush growing larger and larger, finds himself excluded from every civic setting that he used to care about. First the workplace, then his favorite eatery, then the neighbourhood, and finally the town, his very habitation.
In itself, the book rings certain familiar bells. The beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is the first one that springs to mind.

It sits well with the book’s beginning on several levels: the ordered universe, the linear urban architecture, the fences and the flowers breathing a bourgeois air of sweet laissez-faire. And then, of course, the fact that this empire of perfection and habit is shaken by a truth that lies hidden:
“Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.”
The metaphor of the crawlers and worms employed by David Lynch to convey the same message is here invested solely in the person of the protagonist, whose appearance is an outrage and a simulacrum: not only because of the unexpected facial hair, but also because of his complete baldness, which he covers with a wig (a make-believe, an artifice, a fiction).
Dave’s presence is very, very important. He features in extreme close-ups repeated a dizzying amount of times, for emphasis; his individuality made obvious, so as to counteract the collective invisibility of the other townspeople, who resemble each other like mechanical reproductions of the same prototype.
“Soon enough Dave, who had for so long lived on the edge of things, became the centre of attention.”
This individuality, this singularity from behind appearances, is what’s required to shatter the uniform unfolding of the town’s repetitive life. The beard grown on Dave’s face takes apocalyptical dimensions. It grows and grows (like the story itself), it stretches beyond his face, beyond his room, beyond his house, overflowing into the street, into the neighborhood, into the world at large.
Another reference that pops up involves, perhaps, George Saunders’ witty novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. There, the world is divided between two countries: Inner Horner and Outer Horner, one small (the country of one person), the other one terrifically large. There too, a character of an overly mundane name (Phil) puts the narrative machinery in motion and conquers the center-stage.

This reference to Saunders’ text is called for by the minimal geography featuring in The Gigantic Beard. As simple as the opposition between Inner and Outer Horner, the world in Stephen Collins’ graphic novel depends on a drastic contrast. The town is called, simply, Here, and it exists under the constant threat of There, the land beyond the sea, the dark side of a deeply alarmed collective unconscious. There is not even a presence – only a legend, a fantasy never confirmed. What’s really terrifying is the sea itself, the separation between Here and There, a contact zone and a menace at the same time.
“For much as [Dave] loved the street in front of his house, he hated what was behind it. The sea. All around the coast of Here, the houses were rock-bottom cheap and showed windowless walls to the great dark deep for a very good reason. Because Here, the sea… was a thing to fear. The sea led to There. There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil. In fact, There was a place to which nobody has ever even been. No one alive, anyway. The stories were enough for most people, including Dave.”
Notice how Dave’s beard and the place called There share fundamental attributes: disorder, chaos, evil. It’s because of this resemblance that Dave ends up floating towards that place of incertitude, putting a hopeful end to the story, and leaving the scene shrouded in an aura of legend (just like the legend of There). When he disappears from town (after the officials decide to attach balloons to the ends of his beard), Dave leaves a gap in the orderliness of the place; a gap eventually re-filled, but a gap that returns to haunt the collective consciousness, with the undermining insistence of things once thought impossible.
The book thrives on these critical approaches. A sense of standing out of the crowd, of overturning rigidity, of refusing uniform citizenship, dominates the discourse of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Language itself is called into question. Take the example of the toponyms mentioned above. Take also the example of the language of sense:
“’Because’ is a word used by ordered, order-loving beings about a world which they think is ordered. ‘Because’ is for storybooks. This is… Well, I know this is difficult to understand, Dave, but what we see here is becauselessness itself.”
Everything is turned upside-down this way. And all, because of a mere thread of hair.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sound poetry (in both senses)

Full title: Inspired Notes
Author: Tomas Tranströmer; translated by John F. Deane
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 80p, paperback
Publisher: Dedalus Press (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The poems in this collection grow out of something like a struggle with silence. They intensify their rhythms gently, they don’t disrupt, don’t do violence to the world. And yet, they do cast lights that renew the reader’s view of the same world. As if, through some mystery of language, they wake up with their eyes inverted, or with their ears replaced by other organs of sense.
What’s really worth pointing out is that Tomas Tranströmer is set to do poetry without shying away from the big things of his art. Life and death, for instance:
“In the midst of life it happens that death will come
taking the measurements of man. The visit
is forgotten, life goes on. But the costume gets
sewn in the silence.”

(“Black Picture Postcards”)
Many of his poems carry with them this shadow of ancient wisdom, like hieroglyphs from a pyramid or like runes on stones up north. Some of them sound like chants, others sound like riddles, others still like aphorisms. What unifies them is a massive presence of the narratorial “I,” which dominates almost all the poems in this collection. Autobiography grows out of this pronoun intersecting close-up observations and anecdotes. In the latter, the self of the poet is spotted living in corners, where it can safely enjoy its own powers of observation.
At times, the world is so great it becomes impossible to handle.
“I drag like a grapnel over the bottom of the world.
Everything that I don’t need gets caught.”
At other times, however, the “I” grows strong. Very strong. It does so with the help of the poet’s tools: language, words, verses, sounds. Mostly sounds. Tranströmer has a hunger for sounds and for their uttering – a poet who comes out of silence to produce poems whose utterances are exact, sharp, almost scientific, almost capable of generating a science of signs. I say almost, because there’s something that keeps these poems from becoming scientific specimens: the fact that they don’t stand examination. They are too concerned with parallelisms and comparisons to pay any lip service to a rigid science. When they handle measurements they do so in order to create reference points for the metaphors that will follow. As for instance here:
“Four billion people on the earth.
And they all sleep, they all dream.
In every dream faces crowd in, and bodies –
the people dreamed of more numerous than us.
But they take up no space…”
(“Dream Seminar”)
Wondering at the number of inhabitants of the earth is only a poetic trick here, of course: through the mimicking of surprise, a channel is built, through which the readers are drawn inside a familiar territory. And there, in that territory, they are left to ponder, while the rest of the poem unfolds, like armies on battlefields or like shoals of fish in deep waters. In the case of “Dream Seminars,” these shoals move direction with every instance of dreaming and with every reflection on the “perpetual new rehearsals.” These – competent specimens of oneirology – make reality fly at the first opening of an eyelid (or, to keep close to the poet’s words, of “the eyelids’ monastery walls”).

Tomas Tranströmer. Source: The Drift Records
Sometimes (quite often), Tranströmer’s poems take the rhythms of prose. There is a sense of narration going on. Take the example of the very first poem in the collection, “Short Pause in the Organ Recital.” The verses tell a story. They tell it with the breadth of long-winding lines and the breath of proper story-telling.
“The organ stops playing and is deadly silent of the church but only for a few seconds.So the faint humming passes through from the traffic outside, the greatest organ.”
The first line and a half put into words the motions of the world and the silence of the church. But they do nothing poetic. They resound like a glass ball in an empty glass: tautological, if you like, scene-setting at best. It’s with the arrival of the second half of the last line that poetry creeps in; it’s the metaphor that awakens us to this fact of poetry. And once that’s established, poetry comes in waves; it comes with thunders and seisms, with more metaphors:
“There glides the outside world like a transparent film and with shadows struggling in pianissimo.”
And so the two worlds (the outside and the inside) get mixed up and confused, as it should happen under the spell of poetry; memory hops on stage – but only to place the individual even deeper inside history:
“and as near to me as my blood, and as far away as a memory from a four-year-oldI hear the long-distance truck go by, causing the six-hundred-year-old walls to tremble.”
One could talk forever about these lines, because they inspire chatter in the reader, a sort of questioning of the grounds of the real, and an inspiration to look for similar anecdotes in one’s own life. That’s why Tranströmer’s poetry is captivating. Captivating as its discrete sounds.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The scandal of an imagined murder

Full title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 242p, hard cover
Publisher: Fourth Estate (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s kind of hard to talk about Hilary Mantel’s latest collection of short fictions, after the rave and the anger created by the title story. Declaring that at one point in life she’d imagined assassinating Margaret Thatcher is, in some minds, almost equivalent to Mantel’s being guilty of the former PM’s death. Although the story I am talking about is straightforwardly fictional, it has managed to bring significant sensitivities to the surface, and thus turn all attention away from the obvious facts of the volume’s narrative significance.
Narratively put, therefore, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” depicts an old killer-meets-narrator situation. It’s about a radicalised sniper of Irish descent who enters the strategically situated apartment of a seemingly incautious woman, where he knows he can get the view for a perfect shoot. He’s determined to pursue his plan. At the same time, though, he is pursued by old habits, patriotic discourses, conventions of political martyrism, which seem, at times, to burden his conscience. One sentence describes him beautifully:
“He carried his own tea in his left hand and his gun in the right.”
The story is also about the inhabitant of the said apartment, a woman who gradually finds within herself the seeds for a similar radicalisation. Under the pressure of similar motivations, she grows steadily fond of the sentiment of wanting to kill the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Her reasons are commonly found, and because of this they are also merciless and acid-like:
“You can’t force pity from a government like hers. Why would she negotiate? Why would you expect it? What’s a dozen Irishmen to them? What’s a hundred? All those people, they’re capital punishers. They pretend to be modern, but leave them to themselves and they’d gouge eyes out in the public square.”
Here, in Mantel’s story, the demonization of Margaret Thatcher is performed to an extent where her becoming a target is no longer a moral problem but a statement of political retaliation.
“I thought there’s not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bust stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey.”
The story carries with it this constant moral tone of radicalism, mixed with the sarcasm and rhetoric of good old militant speeches. And that, indeed, makes it an interesting narrative. But “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” is not the only story in the collection. Things can be said about the other fictions too, because they have aspects in common. As is the case with the issues of place and space, for instance.

Hilary Mantel. Source: The Guardian
Un-settled characters roam Hilary Mantel’s stories. They advance into their destinies with a sense that the places they inhabit are too unpleasant to be liked. They seem to cherish the idea of being somewhere else. Some other place, maybe some other story too. The protagonists of “Sorry to Disturb” find it difficult to live in the city of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia (“this crazy city,” as one of them calls it). The narrator in “Harley Street” has the same problem of inadaptation to an urban setting that’s not quite up her alley:
“One day I’ll get further out of town. Somewhere just big enough for me. Somewhere small and quiet.”
Another thing these stories have in common is the theme of memory. Here, memory too (concerned not with space but with time) is a faulty mechanism. Throughout the volume there are plenty of occasions to prove it. In “Terminus,” the narrator struggles to remember a significant event in her relation to her dead father.
“My mind tried to provide occasions to which it could go back, but none occurred. I coveted something sweet, a glass of hot chocolate to warm my hands, an Italian wafer dusted with cocoa powder. But my mind was cold and my intention urgent.”
It is this urgency that produces the effect of anxiety at the thought of not being able to recollect what was meant to be meaningful; and Hilary Mantel’s protagonists (most of whom bear the burden of the narrator’s role as well) bump into events as if they had appeared there in an out-of-space-out-of-time fashion, or as if they were meant to stay hidden, like untold stories.
“Even after all this time it’s hard to grasp exactly what happened. I try to write it as it occurred but I find myself changing the names to protect the guilty.”
(“Sorry to Disturb”)
And speaking of memory, in “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” it’s highly significant that memory is of an event that never happened. So significant, it makes for a good reflection on the nature of chance; chance which, in essence, is a narrative matter – a matter of combinations:
“History could be otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity; the day, the hour, the slant of the light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near the bypass.”

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Hygiene porn: a new genre?

Full title: Wetlands
Author: Charlotte Roche; translated by Tim Mohr
Genre: Fiction, novel, erotica
Attributes: 230 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Grove Press (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

What’s interesting about this book that pretends to be pornographic is that it sheds its layers of porn gradually, like an onion. Charlotte Roche is a clever young writer in this regard. The novel starts off abruptly, shockingly, attention-grabingly, and she acquires the desired effect from page one.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids. For many , many years I thought I couldn’t tell anyone. After all, only grandfathers get hemorrhoids. I always thought they were very unladylike.”

What novels start this way? Where else have you seen (apart from Etgar Keret who, with his dedication to storytelling, would make a subject for a ‘short’ out of almost anything) a piece of fiction concerned with hemorrhoids? An entire novel, no less? When has literature indicated that there may be room in it for such subjects?
This is the point, at the very beginning, when the first clarifications are being made, when the reader decides: is this for me, or is it not? The ones who decide to go on will go on. Some will find awful things in the novel, the way ugly things are expected to be found in forbidden lands. Some will cover their mouths in disgust. Others will rejoice at the encounters with the human body like they've never seen before. Since it keeps in line with the genre of pornographic literature, Wetlands is a book full of bodily exposures and descriptions of intimate organs, functions, fluids, solids, smells, tastes, touches, sounds, sights, ejaculations, masturbations, excitations, orgasms.

A book said to have sold more than one million copies was very likely
to inspire some film adaptation, Set to be released in 2015, Wetlands,
the film, has big boots to fill. At least in terms of popularity.

Simply put, this is a narrative about a young woman who goes through a surgical procedure for the removal of her hemorrhoids. Given the topic, there must be no surprise. You've been worn, dear reader, from the very first page! You’ll have to put up with a protagonist who calls herself an “ass patient,” and who gives it her all to describe every single detail that can make a puritan’s reading experience a nightmare: not only things of sexuality but also things of religion (yes, she’s an atheist, and one with a very strong disgust for religious symbolism) or things of risky adulterous inclinations (there’s an Oedipal complex alright – how could there not be one?).

And so, along with a seemingly compromised narrator, the story advances. Little they know, though, the puritans and the handkerchiefed, how much more there is to be found in Wetlands. There is, for instance, a sense of claustrophobia, whose strong cultural roots are easily made apparent. The action takes place exclusively is an urban setting, in the enclosure of a hospital room, where lives are dictated by functions rather than proper relations. Helen, the protagonist, leaves the room for the first time at page 139. Her real task is not to come out of the operation rejuvenated, but to fix a problem: to reunite her separated parents. The theme may sound familiar. It has been used millions of times in fiction. But there’s something that stands out in this type of porn whose justifications are moral: the text poses questions; the reader is invited to ponder. Wetlands speaks of false idols. It speaks, for instance, of hygiene in order to expose the fabricated symbols of the discourse:
“This idiotic notion of washing pesticides off fruit and vegetables is the biggest joke there is. My dad taught me. These days you learn it in schools too. In chemistry. The chemicals that are sprayed on produce to keep away vermin and fungus are so strong that they penetrate the skin of tomatoes and grapes. You can wash them until your fingers shrivel. Nothing comes off. If you don’t want to eat pesticides with your fruit and vegetables, you shouldn’t buy them at all.”

With a passage like this the entire discourse of public hygiene, with its civic connotations and its educational strongholds, is placed under an enormous question mark. The point is highly significant in a novel that claims its descent from good old pornographic literature. Cleanliness opposed to filth, obedience opposed to revolt, language opposed to bodily fluids, a hospital opposed to the patient, a family opposed to its own unity – all these things come to the surface one by one; a series of binary oppositions that cannot go unnoticed. And as they do so, the glaring pornography in the text loses ground. Wetlands becomes a moral novel, a text calling for ethical readjustments in the name of a protagonist that’s so individualizes she cannot possibly fit into standards. I like to think about this novel like this: not by pointing out the unceremonious treatments of the human body, but by seeing in it a text where a little emancipation takes place with every single irreverence.

With a little bit of philosophy and attention to similar details,
Slavoj Zizek touches on something very much present in Wetlands:
the suspicion that beyond hygiene there must be something else.

Of course, there are pleasures to be gained by the reader who expects to enjoy a text from the species Erotica. Of course, there are taboos, banned topics, prohibited body parts. It would be unfair not to have them at all. But what’s more important is that Wetlands manages to call into question even its proper genre. At the end of the day, let’s be honest: what respectable pornographic novel has ever discussed hemorrhoids?