Wednesday, 17 October 2018
I was delighted when Anna Burns' novel "Milkman" won the Booker Prize for 2018. From my review video below you can see I was rooting for it to triumph.
However, I was surprised to see it so often described as an experimental book.
It's a novel that works entirely through its language, an everyday speech (albeit lyrical in parts) that is restricted whereby certain words and concepts are not permitted for political reasons. This is what i admire so much about the book, that everything emerges from its language. Anthony Burgess did a similar thing in his book "A Clockwork Orange", creating a whole new slang language for his youth gangs to speak in. But like "Milkman", the language remains consistent and it's a question of the reader getting used to the vocabulary of these languages and then passage through the novel becomes easier. Therefore I'm dubious that this makes either novel experimental. What they are is unconventional.
What do we mean by experimental novels? I'm not sure it's a term that has much use to us in terms of better understanding the literature we read. Often it is used as a term of abuse; that somehow the author didn't have a clear idea in her head where she was going with the concept, or where it was going to end up, or that it's somehow unfinished or just a doodle, rather than a fully realised work. I reject these for the following reasons; If author, editor and publisher deem the book fir to be published, then it is finished; while there are plenty of authors writing mainstream fiction who start their new work without having a clear plan from beginning to end of the plot, because they like to see where their dialogue with their characters takes them and the book. It's what we call 'Pantsers' as in seat of the pants writers.
Yet the concept of experimental is fraught with problems. How many formalistic conceits (or devices) does it take to make a book experimental? I loved Tony White's novel "The Fountain In The Forest", which uses mandated language it has to get into each chapter, in this case taken from the solutions to the Guardian Quick Crossword from a specific month during the 1980s. It also has chapter headings from the French Revolutionary calendar that briefly swept away the Julian one we use. But other than those two elements, it is a police procedural on the theme of policing dissent and political protest. Are those two elements enough to make it experimental?
Another thing about experimental books is that the formalist conceit can only be used once to be considered genuinely experimental. If those that follow use the same device, it is no longer truly pathbreaking. So BS Johnson's 1969 book "The Unfortunates", in which the pages are in a box and the reader can choose their own way through by choosing which chapter to read next, is I think 'experimental', though I have no idea if anyone beat him to the punch previously. Those digital novels where you can choose the your path through the book are the same, only they operate with digital rather than analogue technology.
BS Johnson himself is an interesting study in the concept of experimentalism. He called himself an avant garde writer rather than an experimentalist, but across his oeuvre, his books perhaps not unnaturally, varied in the amount of experimental conceits they employed. "House Mother Normal" for example is of similar form to Rashomon, many different perspectives describing the same event they all share as witnesses, but Johnson was beaten to the punch by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by 54 years. I made a video discussing the variable levels of experimentalism by Johnson across his oeuvre here.
Finally I would offer you the example of Mark Danielewski's novel "House Of Leaves" which I read as a highly experimental novel that used words and sentences as architecture on the page to give clues or echo the architecture of the house at the centre of its story. I wanted to see what other readers were saying and was surprised at how many lauded it as a great work in the Horror genre, a notion that never even crossed my mind. What could be better than a book that works both as a high literary formalist work AND a genre piece? And yet, I got to musing as to whether it does work for most across both; if it never entered my head that it was a genre work, just as it seems not to have entered the heads of many of its fans that it's a work of high literariness, then can it be said to have been successful as either, at least for each reader who had a blindspot as to its other literary face?
So while experimental work is never just tossed out in half-arsed fashion, the uniqueness of each experimental conceit disappears the moment it is realised, while there is no metric for when formal conceits weigh enough to render a book 'experimental'. I'm just not sure it's a useful term at all. And I speak as someone who has been called an experimental writer and whose current book "Three Dreams In The Key of G" has several formal innovations, but I have no idea if that classifies it as 'experimental' because there is no measuring gauge.
I think we all confuse experimental for 'non-conventional' and it is perhaps an indictment that all us wordsmiths can't come up with a better word for just what it is we do than 'experimental'
Saturday, 29 September 2018
The Iron Age woman preserved perfect but leathery in the peat bog, now lay preternaturally mute on the temperature controlled examination table. Yet it was peremptorily determined she had to be the bearer of a story, so the reconstruction bard with a scalpel for pen, was charged with divulging it. To unfold the telltale signs of her composition. The graphology of her biography; her story; her history; his version of herstory. Using his nuclear tools to penetrate her unclear make-up.
Her tattoos professedly painted her an aristocrat, so she was dubbed a princess. An anthropological one rather than one borne of fairy tale, though no less mythic. A carbon-dated apologue from modern science’s non-apologists. Her backstory back-dated 28 centuries to compound the public’s interest. The voice from and of the past, the mother of the nation, itself bogged down by present day economic realities.
The hempen ligature around her neck excited proclamations of a summary execution. The expostulations centring on whether she had been dispatched as a human sacrifice, renouncing her life to put the tribe in good odour with the gods, or as mere criminal, which would give the lie to the previous cast of her caste. Less a matriarchal figurehead, more a primordial victim of domestic abuse. Competing modern day fablers speaking for her in a myriad tongues, when she herself possessed none; it having been removed around the time of her death, so she could not report from the afterlife and cavil with either god or carnal authority.
Her tattoos were, in actuality, geometric. Imparting as much narrative delineation as the chance creases and folds of her flesh under the force of the fusty water. Though the bog had held decay at bay, the word in today’s parlance comes to stand for baulking progress. As has become the word ‘story’. (S-)tale.
Thursday, 27 September 2018
To look at them, you wouldn’t necessarily figure them to be brothers let alone twins. There is a significant height differential, while one has his mother’s blue eyes, the other my brown. The only physical trait they share, is the same coloured hair tone. But twins they are, ‘double trouble’ and ‘double the work’ we were cautioned. Not one bit of it, except at the very beginning. Double the fun was my experience as the main child-rearer.
But those first six months were indeed challenging. They were born five weeks premature so were very small and impossible to wind them after feeds since their systems were so underdeveloped. Feeds could last three quarters of an hour, the vast majority of which was trying to expel the air from tiny pockets in tiny bodies. With two mouths to feed, it would be virtually constant during the night once you include changing. My wife and I hit on the strategy of sleeping in separate rooms, with a Moses basket in each. In the middle of the night we’d meet in the kitchen on the way to the fridge, and zombiefied all we could muster was “Yours awake?” and a grunt in the affirmative. When the feed frequency slackened off a tad, my wife and I adopted a new approach; I would do the midnight to 5am shift and she would take over from then. I was a lifelong insomniac, so being up through those small hours wasn’t that discombobulating to me, but in 1998 there wasn’t much on through-the-night TV to keep me company.
“It will get easier” counsel those who have been through the process before. And it does. They started to go through the night without feeding. They graduated from Moses Baskets to cots in their own room. The separation anxiety expressed through crying could not possibly work on us; with twins there was no real option to resort to the easy life option of taking two wailing babies into the parental bed. We were strong by circumstance only. We avoided virtually the entire ‘Terrible Twos’ simply through adopting the strategy that whenever one of the boys threw a tantrum, we went and lavished love and attention on his brother. Pretty quickly they learned that there was no benefit to having an almighty strop, whether through our impervious attitude, or glancing over at his twin to see that he didn’t seem to be labouring under the same perceived injustice.
While battling to get on a bus or tube train with a double buggy always presented a challenge, we benefitted from the fact that they were both at the same developmental level and sharing similar interests. If you have young children of different ages, it is much harder to split your focus and keep them both entertained at their respective levels of interest and ability. Ours could genuinely play together. And I think they were able to entertain each other at a much earlier age than if it were two differently aged siblings. My twins represented two-sevenths of their junior football team and with such a block vote, perhaps it wasn’t wholly surprising that I ended up managing their team. We did probably err in doing too much for them that they should have been doing for themselves. For when you’re just trying to get out the front door to meet an appointment, the tendency is for you to put on their coats and shoes just for speed. Sometimes that would extend back to getting them dressed completely. It probably explains how one of them to this day is extremely lazy and expects others to do everything for him, but then his twin is the opposite so, where does that leave the Nature versus Nurture debate?
We were members of TEMBA (The Twins And Multiple Births Association) and met up with other families of twins in our locality. It was a really useful support network, but could be a bit sci-fi experiment, when you’re sat in somebody’s lounge among a constant parade of different identical twins passing in front of your eyes. Mind you, if we thought we had it tough with twins, meeting parents of triplets soon put that into perspective. We settled for our twins as our complete family in one fell stork swoop, as we did think that it would be incredibly hard for a younger sibling to break into the tight bond between twins and could end up feeling isolated. To help twins develop their own separate identities, the advice is to dress them differently and to try and do activities with them individually as well as together. I would offer one further instance of this, in that when I talked to them, I was very careful to address each one directly and not to just aim my words somewhere in the space between them. Even if that meant I then had to repeat what I had just said to his twin, it was good discipline to find some different words.
The only time their being twins has since posed a problem was when it came time to choose universities. I ended up doing a mini tour of the United Kingdom as each were visiting five or six. Open days that were scheduled for the same day at opposite ends of the country and my wife would divide the escorting duties with me. But when they both attended the same university open day, only for different courses, then it proved trickier as each demanded that I attend the key presentations with him and I couldn’t split myself in half. Those days did not run smoothly. Fortunately they have solved the dilemma of graduating on the same day at opposite ends of the country, as one decided to transfer so is now a year behind his twin.
Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK
Friday, 14 September 2018
The undertakers were professional enough to keep the high wheeled bier sufficiently oiled so that it did not squeak, but the downforce of the wheel caused the wet grass to part crepitant beneath its plucking tread.
With the tapered geometry of the coffin squared flush to the scooped earth’s breastwork, the rain rapped dull knocks on the roof of the wood as if devilkin demanding ingress.
Those vertical, aligned to the perpendicular, began their horizontal assault of mosaic effacement, as steel shovelled clods of earth lapidated the pine with a reverberant timpani.
Amid the straining coarctation against the confining coffin, could be heard the tiny scritchings of various mocking phases of the life cycle of flies; the hatching of larvae from the eggs; the chirr of the maggots at feed and the bursting out from the pupa of the imago.
What was wholly absent was the swish of angel wings or the thrash of devils’ tails. No sweet soul music emanating from the vaporous excretions of decomposition.
Tuesday, 11 September 2018
I do most of my reading on my 45minute Tube train commute to and from work. When I do read at home, chances are it’s during a long soak in a nice hot bath. Anything up to an hour, or until the water turns too cold. All the years I’ve done this, (not being a shower person, ever!), I have only lost one paperback to the water. Can’t remember which one it was now. Mind you, should be easy to spot in my bookshelves.
Being a long-suffering insomniac, I am always on the look out for cures. One of my booktube followers Jacqui McMenamin shared that she was also a sufferer and recommended Epsom salts in a pre-bedtime bath to relax the body sufficiently so as to be unable to resist sleep.
Now you can’t oversoak in a bath designed to relax the muscles and the body as a whole. Instructions on the back of the packet advise 20 minutes. So no more hour-long reads during this experiment. Can’t have the radio or music playing, since I go to bed later than most in my household, so any noise risks waking them up.
I came up with a solution. A dedicated bathtime reading book. One that is sufficiently light so as not to overstimulate emotions or thoughts when the whole aim of the bath is to wind down towards sleep. Something with nice bite-sized chapters so that they fit into a twenty-minute reading window. Something I’m reading in parallel to my main read during the commute, so that it has to be totally different so they don’t bleed one into another.
The book I hit on that meets all these requirements was one already sitting in my TBR pile. It’s non-fiction so no clash with my daytime read. It has the requisite short chapters and is humorous which is always good for lightness. It’s Mark Thomas’ “Extreme Rambling – Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier For Fun”. A book that does what it says on the tin, in which an Englishman undertakes that very British activity of rambling, only in a conflict zone, and all the people on both side of the divide that he meets and talks to. And very entertaining the first 37 pages were last night too. Could be 20% of the way through the book after tonight’s immersion.
The only shortcoming I see with the Epsom salts bath, is washing your hair. I don’t think it’s great to get Epsom salty water in the eyes, so probably going to have to forego the infusion on hair wash nights. But other than this slight snafu, I’ve rather taken to the concept of a bathtime read, separate and distinct from whatever book I happen to be reading.
Do you read in the bath?
Tuesday, 4 September 2018
Why do we have children? A simple enough question. After all we uniquely of all species have liberated ourselves from biologically-driven seasonal reproduction. We have instituted choice in the matter. Most likely having a child together with a partner is the ultimate expression and affirmation of that loving relationship. A creation of new life bearing elements of both partners, but which is a being in its own right, whom the parents can guide and educate to set them on a path of life that may even eclipse their own achievements. Geneticists would probably tell you such sublime rationalisations are us fooling ourselves, since at base we are still propelled by a biological instinct to pass on our DNA.
Yet there are plenty of bad reasons for bringing a child into the world. To help try and save a relationship. To preserve the numbers of a race or a religion in a demographics war. To produce someone who will love the parent back unconditionally, because that love doesn’t seem available from adult sources. As an expression of your own status as you may hothouse a child to follow your profession, or exhibit as a clothes horse, or to push towards securing a lucrative contract as a sporting superstar. Or perhaps the worst reason of all, no reason. An accidental, unplanned conception taken through all the way to birth in the same aimless manner.
It’s pretty difficult to say whether early 21st Century Britain is a worse place to bring children into than previous eras. Statistics of child poverty still can’t compare with the degradation of the Victorian era workhouse. Headlines of historic child abuse that abounds in the media, revolve around the key word ‘historic’, that is, it is not new. However Rotherham suggests that with social care starved for resources, though we are a society more enlightened about children’s rights, in practise we are little better at affording true protections.
While children today benefit from technological advances that allow them to overcome social isolation, such connectivity manages just as easily to force them into further retreat in their bedrooms. There is a dearth of real-world meeting points for collective activities, as youth clubs close and playing fields are sold off. The adverts and calls to consume with which they are bombarded is as never before, because it is both remorseless and virtually invisible as their metadata is harvested from their social media ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ in order to profile them as consumers. Children’s mental health is being threatened by this assault upon their senses, to buy, to conform, to perform. The notion of a job for life has been shredded, so that the pressures to achieve an education in order to secure decent employment, enabling the purchase of a house, foreign holidays and the latest tech, probably have increased in the face of these anxieties. Then there is the pressure from children themselves, to foreshorten the period of their childhood and attain adulthood at an earlier and earlier age. To have spending power as consumers. To be sexually active. Children have imbibed an amorphous vague sense of their rights and make demands accordingly as they compare themselves to what they see their parents do.
Taken altogether, I would posit that our society is probably not ideally set up for bringing children into it. The break-up of the stable family unit, with kids bouncing from pillar to post between the houses of biological mother and biological father and not infrequently being held out as the stakes for which warring parents are playing for, taken together with the break up of communities which used to provide extended child care, mean many children have a less stable, less reliable home environment. Even when parents stay together, they are working longer and longer hours, meaning less time spent at home, prodded by the same employment and money anxieties that will afflict their children on attainment of adulthood. Bringing children into the world I think demands a certain amount of commitment to spending time with them to help their development. With so many things available now to take parents away from their children, through work, leisure, consumption and perhaps having to re-devote time to affairs of the (broken) heart, children may slip down the priority list. It’s a bit of an old fashioned concept these days perhaps, but children really ought to come first and that may involve an element of parental sacrifice. Of course the child’s precocious demands to be recognised and treated as an adult cuts against this, since the parent may give into it and allow the child to fend for itself much more than is healthy.
I knew from quite a young age that I wanted both to have children and to be heavily involved in their upbringing. I was fortunate enough to achieve both and adapted my circumstances accordingly. By mutual agreement with my wife, I eschewed any notions of a career and worked part-time so I could do the majority of the childrearing for our twin boys. We have no car, have taken no holidays and live in a small house. I don’t view any of these as a sacrifice, but were made as rational decisions with regard to our household economy. I saw recourse to public transport in place of a car, as conferring a practical and self-reliant ability to navigate around London for my boys. And though they complained mightily as the school run was performed by bus, even they have both now turned twenty, neither has ventured to undertake driving lessons. (Of course we are privileged to live in a major metropolitan area which has good public transport, such an option isn’t readily available in many parts of the UK). While they are still unencumbered by responsibilities, the boys are taking advantage of travelling and discovering other countries for themselves and don’t seem to have missed out too much on not having been dragged around visiting galleries and museums that their parents view as interesting, or being palmed off with child activity reps as mum and dad just wanted to vegetate around a swimming pool. I always viewed holidays as necessitating the same logistics and catering for the boys as when we were all at home, just without the familiarity and ready provisions of our own house. I don’t have my books around me because the house is too small to allow for wall-to-wall bookcases, which instead reside in a garden shed at the foot of the garden. But with property prices as they are, I feel fortunate to be a homeowner at all. However one of my sons told me he scarcely invited friends round from school, because he was embarrassed how our home stacked up against theirs. So you’re never going to get it right 100% of the time.
To become a parent is one of the biggest decisions and accordingly ought to be an informed one. But whatever detail we apply to the task as parents, I can’t help but feel our society doesn’t support us in bringing the maximum to the role of being a child rearer.
Monday, 27 August 2018
Splicing Biology with Politics has not spawned happy outcomes for mankind. Social Darwinism and Eugenics led to racial justifications of imperialism and the racial purity policies of the Nazis. Alongside all the hopeful medical prognostications made for the Human Genome Project, were also bathetic questions as to whether we would discover the gene for left-handedness, artistic creativity or homosexuality.
Yet in addition to the dividends of pathological prevention, our understanding of the human genome perhaps surprisingly also offers models of organisation that can be applied to our rather careworn and fraying political frameworks. The human body is a republic at the cellular level. Stem cells are basal structures, from which any of the some two hundred different cell types that make a human body can develop. That they have such potential to provide such a diversity of specialisation is truly compelling.
Then during the development of the foetus, we have cells that are purely structural support cells, that is they form the scaffolding that allows cells to shuffle along and fall into position. When those cells are in place, the scaffolding cells turn themselves off through apoptosis and die away. Consider the gaps in between your fingers, if the programmed cell death of apoptosis fails for some reason, those scaffold cells remain as webbing between the fingers. While hardly promoting for a campaign of voluntary suicide, such ‘selfless’ sacrifice again embodies the true egalitarianism of cell division and development.
Of the three hundred million genes contained in our genome, at the latest findings, only some 19-20,000 actively code for proteins. The rest are dubbed ‘junk’ or ‘pseudo’, implying they are without function. However, to dismiss them linguistically as such, overlooks valuable contributions they may hold. Firstly they may bear witness to all the diseases long since defeated throughout human evolution, serving for our biological logbook. But more pertinently, as indicated above, human structural development is spatial as much as chemical. Just because a gene seems to have no overt activity, does not mean it fails to supply an important role as a spacer, for the more active genes to reach across in order to turn their fellow genes on or off. Chemical valency, that is the concentration of atoms which determine chemical bonding, is crucial to the development of the foetus. Cells clumping together may be inert, until the valency of the clump is such as to throw the genetic switch for the next phase of sculpting form, or to initiate the next cell division. The structural development of the foetus allows follows the same order through time, unless the code is damaged or the structure compromised in some other way. The spatial arrangement of all cells in any locality of the form is crucial to the common weal, therefore every cell has a purpose and a stake. The same holds for genes, demonstrably active or not.
It is these concepts of locality and community, of egalitarianism and diversity rooted in singularity, that I believe are worth further thought as to whether they can be applied to our ideas on politics and political systems. A role for both the scientists as they continue to probe the human genome, but also for artists with their metaphorical input that sometimes can short cut the process. After all, everyone one of us are part of the body politic and we each model it within our very biology.