Sunday, 28 October 2018

11th Century Forest Folio - Flash Fiction

In the days before their wood was pulped for paper to record our stories and lore, the trees ranged tall and proud. Their canopied shrouds woven so dense as to shutter the pagan sun and shackle its chains of stippled light like that inside a cathedral. Thus was it hallowed and christened a Black Forest. The heathen wind beat at the foliose awning demanding its own profaning passage, but it too was unable to part the green sea’s verdant vault. Its bellowing huff only gusted voice to the boscage, stirring the leaves prattle and prating. Suspire and susurration. Their steepling descant the canticles of the forest. Cowled monks up in the gods looking down on the Mystery Plays enacted on the apron of the forest floor. Their incantational exegesis prompting the actors yonder, the same as ants palpated the aphids marching up and down their bark.

Who be those actors? Why they are the shadowy figures without shadows, moving across the leaf litter in the perpetual crepuscular gloom. Red crosses embroidered the length of their surcoats. Or crudely bodkined into the coarse jerkins of their peasant retinue. Emblazoning the furious stigmata of a turn-the-other-cheek god. Their hearts basted in Christian love and Jesus' blood. And then this tenebrous cortege is gone like dissipated rime. Confettied under the wedding troth arch, without any especial espousal nor sermon from the congregation above. For all the inflorescent chatter, do you notice what is absent from among this frondescence? Not a single birdsong to counterpoint the sonorous umbrage. For even a goshawk would be hard pressed to navigate any arrowed path through the copious legion of tree trunks. The aerial choir has been denominated utterly for the arboreal and to stand no avian parishioners.

Without birds, the forest floor was assigned the unchallenged kingdom of insects. Beetles, spiders, woodlice, weevils, earwigs, ticks, grasshoppers, crickets, centipedes and millipedes, patrolling the fallen leaves of oblation. In light of the lack of wind to disseminate the pollinated spores, and the dearth of birds to have the seeds strewn from their brimming maws, the insects are bringers of life and futurity to the trees. But still they also retained their customary character as equerries of putrefaction. The leaves they worked on the ground were desiccated, shrivelled and withered. Wizened blades curled back over, in contorted supplication for vain grant of continued life. Culled and purged, adrift of their ligneous lineages. Packed down upon one another. A tumultuous tumulus. A more brittle rustling patter under the tread of unseen trespassers, than that of the crepitation high above. Parched voices. Dried out and arid, their swathed wreaths are not those crowning triumphal evergreen firs and pines, rather those marking death. Preserved, frozen in the convulsive bearing of their deathly descent. A stopped up scream, released and reprised solely under the boot of human tread, or the padding of insect tarsus and palp.

Yet they are not solely respiring about their own demise. They have preserved an echo across their wan brown corpus. Victim speaking unto victim. Every crispy purl a murmured lamentation to a person slain by those shadowy knights. The hatred locked in their cruciform breasts, passing down like sap through their stride and graving its impression into the skein of the leaf litter. Each sepal a memorial flame for those who have no altars or grottos of their own to hold any such candles of commemoration. The Jews’ churches having been razed, their quondam settlements erected in clearings in the forest, now themselves cleared and returned to the bosom of the earth, the bones of their people to the soil. Soon there would be no sign that they had ever dared to carve out some land for themselves they had once called home. It was as if the knights had been summoned up by the forest to reclaim its dominion from these trespassers. Their sacred mutual blood bond to extirpate all usurpers both here and in the holy land. Each year retold by the tramp of the local villagers, the woodcutters and charcoal burners, the poachers and smelters who are deaf to the tale drummed up by their own boots. A fresh carpet folio of leaves each year, though gradually more of the forest would be cleared, greedily gobbled up by the town of Mainz, where in time the printing press would arise to preserve a definitive record and the leaves would have to recite the litanies of death for the People of the Book no more. But in a deeper time, considerably removed from before trees were culled for printing paper, their ancestors lay pressed and pulped far subterranean and submerged. A fuel source markedly outstripping that of charcoal and timber and one that would power the factories of death that would burn the descendants of the surviving Jews of Mainz, Worms and Trier. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Stay Tuned - Flash Fiction

The Television beamed a white singularity at its dark star epicentre, while broadcasting an emergency peal to extinguish it from its late night oblivion.

The gramophone’s stylus had obtained the run off grooves at the end of the cloverture and each revolution brought it back with a crepitant entreaty to put it out of its Sisyphean agonies. 

The spun bottle for a party of one, had ceased its vorticing having discharged its Dutch Courage truths and dispensed its incontinent dare. Happenstance it had come to a stop with its unsealed orifice supplicating the gap at the bottom of the back door, so that each time the breeze got up, the glass aperture fluted a wheezy invocation. 

The deadweight and gravity had conspired to silence the creaking twirl of the musician’s suspended corpse by comporting it to plumb line stasis. However, the periodic cracking of the distending leather belt syncopated the gouge of the stylus across the vinyl. 

Would the cadaver be discovered by the estranged wife returning their young son from an outing treat, before the reproductive cycle of flies burst bombinating from their pupal husks? 

Stay tuned… 

Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Author - Holy Fool or Underground Revolutionary?

Dr Rowan Williams did a fabulous TED talk about a Russian novel in the tradition of the nineteenth century greats and in particular the concept of the ‘yuródivyy’ or holy fool. Now the concept of people acting as fools or jesters persist in many cultures, Stewart Lee writes about the Pueblo Indians’ function within their societies as fools to both delimit and permit the boundaries of behaviour within that society. But while Russian holy fools also performed a social function, their’s specifically were to offer new ways of coming to Christ. Their unconventional behaviour and acts, was as Williams offers, utterly selfless, for the holy fool has renounced worldly trappings in order to serve others to come to Christ. 

So these holy fools sacrificed themselves, their egos and were ascetics in an absolute sense. I don’t think writers necessarily sacrifice their egos, after all which writer doesn’t want to head a bestseller list in their category or win a literary prize? But in a sense they do, at least during the writing of a novel, have to give up their own sense of self (or at least take it down a notch or two), in order to open up channels to be able to write others, that is characters, who might be very far removed from their own being in life. They do a service to mankind, they must be or why else would people read fiction? Williams’ introduction gives a fair perspective on what this service might look like to readers and what fiction offers.

But then there is another credo or articles of faith, also from nineteenth century Russia, that might be applied to fiction authors. Revolutionary nihilism. Below is the first part of the “Revolutionary Catechism” composed by nihilist Sergey Nechayev:

1. The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

2. The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilised world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.
3. The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order. 

Now, just replace the word ‘revolutionary” with the word writer, and the word ‘revolution’ with the word writing. (I have had a T-shirt designed with just this. I wore it for the launch of my new book).

For point 1 of the catechism, the writer effectively minimises his/her attachments because he/she stays in to write instead of going to the pub or the cinema. Writing is a solitary occupation, at least until the manuscript is delivered to the editor. As to point 2, some writers do take on established truths in their writing and critically dissect them in a way that may completely undermine them from thereon. Point 3 is both that the writer cannot be dogmatic in his/her approach, that is cannot restrict themselves through treating existing knowledge, values and ideas as sacred cows; but also that he/she must do their research in many fields of knowledge. 

So like the holy fool, the revolutionary too is an ascetic. He/she too operates outside the norms and codes of socially acceptable behaviour. He/she too is to have no sense of self, other than a pure embodiment of revolution. However, fiction writing is a poor instrument for politics and political change. Fiction writing is first and foremost entertainment and unlike say television, by and large only a small percentage of the population are reading novels. Though I regard myself as a political author writing (non-party-) political books, I also acknowledge that being an author is to political activism, what the sniper is to the battlefield; ensconced 3 miles safely behind your own lines, picking off victims who have no awareness of your existence and no right to return fire (our characters and society's holy cows we may take aim at).

Though not precise matches of course, I think these two models are reasonable models for considering the role of the fiction author. What do you think? 

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Is Booker Winner "Milkman" An Experimental Novel?

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'