Monday, February 25, 2013

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Despite all the resources at the hands of the modern novelist, certainly types of stories have become more complex to tell. In Chloe Hooper's "The Engagement" we have a contemporaneous sexual thriller, where our narrator, Liese, is lured into the countryside for a weekend with the man she has been having (paid) illicit sex with. This dark tale is very much in the territory of Daphne du Maurier or particularly Patricia Highsmith; yet its contemporary setting could cause all sorts of problems - one mobile phone call; one internet search and the the story is over. Yet, Hooper cleverly gives us a set up which deftly sidesteps these difficulties and delivers what in some ways is an old fashioned psychological thriller, albeit tinged with erotic power plays that seem very born out of a world of "swingers clubs" and "fuck buddies." Liese is English, whilst Alexander, ten years older than her, in his mid forties, is Australian; she is basically an urbanite, he is a country landowner. Coming up to the city (Melbourne) to search for apartments there is an immediate attraction between the woman showing him round, Liese, and him, and they begin to use the apartment "showings" as stage sets for their "affair" - complicated by the fact that after that first time he pays her, and, though she has not done this before, she accepts. The somewhat prissy title might have been better called "The Transaction" for it implies something more genteel (as does the cover) - a kind of dark Jane Austen anti-romance; when in fact the story is as suspenseful and unnerving as psychological powerplays such as "The Collector."

By agreeing to go away for a weekend with Alexander, at a time when she is due to leave Australia anyway, she is suddenly in a situation of intense excitement but also intense jeopardy. The money is the key to her staying but like that hoary 90s movie "Indecent Proposal", just because you accept money doesn't mean that you are the bad person in this transaction. For their relationship is a strange one of role playing and misunderstandings, and, told through Liese's eyes, we are never entirely sure at the full truth - though she is a compelling witness, the stories that excite Alexander about her "fallen" past are ones that she has admitted to fabricate. As the fabrications become more complex, we have to rely ever more on Liese's testimony, yet see that though Alexander is apparently keeping her trapped against her will, she is not making any great attempts at escape.

What Hooper does well is create a very believable modern scenario that offers up some tantalising questions about the "roles" that people create for themselves and each other - from "whore" to "bride" they are all fantasies. Alexander has his own dark past we find. He is a broken individual who is perfect for these fantasies - but his own cruelty is emotional as much as physical. He is like the religious playboy who has a past of sexual promiscuity but imagines a chase marriage to an imagined "wife." By setting it at the end of her stay in Australia (before she returns to an uncertain recession in Norwich of all places) and in a remote outpost that is also a sprawling 19th century ranch full of old furniture and old ghosts, she has given us a plausible retelling of old stories of lust and possession. Its a relatively short book, but though I think you could read it in one go, it took me a while, as  Hooper's writing has a forensic intensity which needs savouring. There's always the sense of something delayed - something suspended - whether its a sexual fulfilment or calamity, which makes it a very sexy book even though the descriptions of Liese and Alexandar together are told plainly, as if a script for a porn movie. For the sexiness in the book is in the regard that Liese - an architect by trade - has for "things." Hooper's writing has a real clarity about it, particularly when its describing things, and so though the book is all through Liese's eyes, those eyes are keen on showing the static detail of both Alexander's old house, and the dreadfully sterile apartments where there affair begins. Equally at home writing about a cow having a breach birth as interior decor, the descriptiveness is always used to power the narrative. If the trip into the country seems allegorical it also feels like a trip into the heart of darkness, and there's something of Conrad's twisting of the knife, in the slow unreeling of her story.

Its impossible to say much more without bringing in spoilers, except to say that in many ways Hooper prepares you only for the upsetting of your expectations. The book is at its weakest when it becomes too much like a nineteenth century tryst, and the tone of the dialogue never qutie convinces. Alexander speaks like an old English squire rather than the backwoods scion that he is, and Liese is occasionally coquettish and crude, but mostly her dialogue comes across as a little bland, especially compared with the knowing intelligence of the narration. Though "The Engagement" is the much darker book, I'm reminded a little of Rachel Cusk's city-girl-goes-country "The Country Life" where the change of scenario, coupled with an unreliable narrator creates the sense of dislocation.

Overall, its a fine, intense novel that successfully marries a powerfully seductive template common to much older fictions with a very modern sensibility.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hot Writers

Have you ever been hot? Writers are like other creative athletes, they have streaks, they hit their groove, they sometimes can't do any wrong. All creatives know this; and its important to recognise this. We all know that between 1965-8 the Beatles could do no wrong; or think of the Clash from 1979-80... or that initial period of songwriting by Noel Gallagher that fuelled Oasis's first two albums. For writers its the same sometimes. Martin Amis through Money, Time's Arrow and London Fields, before it came crashing down around The Information; John Fowles from The Collector through French Lieutenant's Woman, the Magus and the Ebony Tower. For poets: think of those midnight writing sessions that fuelled Plath's tragic Ariel poems; or going back, the year of Keats' Odes.

Hot writing is the most exciting kind - its not just about a steady career or an accumulation of skills, but some kind of breakthrough from what went before. There's little in Chatwin's work before In Patagonia to suggest he was about to hit  a hot spot, yet there'd been plenty of people who'd seen his potential: for publishers and editors and agents surely the job shouldn't be about shoring up writers who are predictabley competent but ideally spotting the hot spot and going for it. Zadie Smith was clearly hot around the time she was signed up prior to White Teeth, but since then has she merely been competent? Hot is a particularly conflation of risk taking, ego, opportunity and zeitgeist. It might happen "overnight" but an overnight sensation is usually a decade or more in the coming. In the visual arts we often see it more clearly as the first time a painter paints in what we later know as their clear style (think of Pollocks splatter paintings for instance). Grab artists whilst they are hot - and work their asses off; they'll enjoy it as there's nothing better than being a creative person when you get in the zone.

I was hot for a while, I think - perhaps '96-'99 whilst I was both learning my stuff with fiction, getting a few things published, and moving on. I felt at the time that I could do anything with my material, that I was brave enough to keep getting better. It's something I hope will happen with poetry - and there's been moments over the last two or three years where I've felt the sizzle, yet there's such a gap between you as the artist and the world your art comes into. You know you're hot, but few of us have that entree to capture that heat and do what's necessary. Didn't Chatwin have a book contract for a novel he'd never write when he sent that famous postcard "gone to Patagonia?"

That's the thing: did Plath realise she'd made a fundamental breakthrough? or did she think this stuff was useless and moreover, how could anyone publish it? This is where the business end of the industry needs to step in I guess. Are publishers and agents looking for what's hot? I sometimes think so, but more often think they're just keeping their fingers crossed that their newst prodigy is not going to fuck up. The thing is the real leaps you find in "hot" writing - which is the zeitgeist defining Money rather than the funny, but little novels that preceded it - can sometimes be prophecied and sometimes not. Its only in retrospect, when the writing has gone lukewarm again, that we notice it's gone. Maybe that's why late career writers like Amis and Winterson take the University shilling? Because they want to feel the heat again and new writing is always where it's going to come from.

Hot writing is not just good writing, not competent writing, not even successful writing - it can even be bad writing at times - but what it is, is when a writer seems to get everything right - the subject, the form, the execution, and over not one thing but two or three. I'm sure some very good writers have never been hot - and also sure that some hot writers have burnt out tragically or been spectacularly unsuccessful (hello, Franz Kafka), but also that if there's anything that we as writers should be looking out for amongst our peers is when they start to heat up; catch them whilst they can, or as Snoop Doggy Dogg said, drop it like its hot.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Glam at Liverpool Tate

Glam rock is as seventies as power cuts, Watney's Party six and the Sweeney. Yet the "decade that taste forgot" has recently had a bit of a revival. Statistics show that we were never as equal a society as the early 70s, and the  music scene from the early seventies (before everything went off the boil prior to Punk) has rightly been lauded for its diversity.

But was Glam a movement? In some senses the 70s seems the art-less decade. Literature was in the doldrums, the American new wave of cinema had begun to peter out by its middle years before "Star Wars" changed the game for good, and its hard to think of a single visual artistic great associated with that era; no Warhol (though he was still very active), no Picasso, no Dali.

Liverpool Tate in its latest show Glam - the Performance of Style, has put together a portmanteau show that puts the "glam" of the era to the forefront. A mix of V&A style pop culture references and juidiciously chosen art from the collection, there is certainly much to engage and admire, but whether it entirely convinces as a show I'm not so sure.

The book that comes with the show is more helpful in some ways. Essays by Micheal Bracewell, Simon Reynolds and others pull together particular strands of seventies aesthetic from glam rock, to queer art, to the conflation of consumer culture with art. The exhibition itself is split into a UK and American section, with a little bit of European political art at the very end. Glam rock of course was a nearly entirely British phenomenon, and I've always seen it a little as a mainstreaming of the King's Road (where Malcolm Maclaren's shop, in its frequent renaming from Let it Rock through to Sex, nicely maps the changed aesthetics of a decade) - as for many people the "sixties", the pill, gay liberation, the women's movement, and the music and the fashions, only made it to the English Midlands and North in the early 70s. In this sense glam rock can be seen as a more down-to-earth and working class version of the hippy culture, ditching the politics and upping the sparkle.

Emblematic of this is the 2nd Roxy Music album, For Your Pleasure, their musical high point was also an aesthetic high - a gatefold sleeve with Amanda Lear on the cover, and the band dressed in outlandish costumes, mostly designed by fashion designer Antony Price, on the inner fold. Eno and Ferry's costumes are here in the first part of the show, and Price himself photographed by Karl Stoeker as a catwalk Teddy Boy. Stoeker's photos are a revelation, taken from the context of the album, and put alongside the images of Price and Lear, there's the aesthetic of the glamour shot but through a dark and decadent reversioning. They feel both bright and stark at the same time. The early 70s most iconic pop moment may well be the hugging of glammed up Bowie and Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops, and it is Ronson - who in another life might have been a northern bricklayer - dressed to the nines, but ever the hard man, as if its the most normal look in the world which is as telling as anything. Basically, in the simple aesthetic of the 70s provincial high street you can be as glam looking as you like, and nobody would think there was anything gay going on, as mainstream Britain has always preferred camp. There are some fascinating pieces of social history. A student film of Roxy fans attending a Bryan Ferry show at Manchester Opera House in 1977 are a perfect template for Blitz kids three years later; an early Derek Jarman film sees his aesthetic already in place in a cheaply shot vignette; and some early Martin Parr shots of Osmonds fans, nicely captures the awkwardness of British youth.

The art of the time is more difficult in some ways. Allen Jones' Table from 1969 and David Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy are perhaps the two most recognisable works; yet the rubberised fetishism of the former (echoed in Roxy's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache") and the slightly chilling formalism of the Hockney speak of different things than "glam." Here is where the exhibition seems more a portmanteau than a genuine movement. The "best" art is from before glam was articulated; yet its not clear that it led to "glam" except indirectly; Richard Hamilton's work - an SF aesthetic of cut-up and post-modern appropriation for instance speaks of a starker world than the artifice of glam; its more akin to the bleached colours of Roeg's films "Performance" and particularly "The Man Who Fell to Earth." The most interesting exhibit in many ways is the "scatter room" that recreates a piece of work that has been shown since the early 70s and looks like a display of bric-a-brac. In some ways the art of the early 70s, particularly British art, has almost disappeared in this show, either because it is was ephemeral in some way, or because it was contrary to this glam aesthetic.

The American story is a different one and is wrapped up with gay rights and feminism. Here we see familiar pieces, such as Cindy Sherman's different personas or Nan Goldin's photographs of performers. Glam never made it in the US, at least until it was unpicked and turned into cabaret by Alice Cooper or Kiss. Whereas middle Britain has always had bit of a flirtation with gay culture, as long as its Larry Grayson or John Inman rather than anything too out there, in America it has rarely gone big except without attaching itself to something else: Broadway for instance, or disco. It was chameleon Bowie who came out remember, not Elton John or Freddie Mercury.

Glam, American style, comes out of the post-Stonewall freedoms of New York, San Francisco and a few other cities and because of this was much artier. The Cockettes were just one of a number of "cabaret" acts that we find in the show, rescued a little from history here. It is the aesthetic that fed into the big mainstream success of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though absent from this show, Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" seems perfectly set in this moment - where straight America comes up against its fears. Films of that era, such as the Lumet film, John Waters' "Pink Flamingoes" and "Rocky Horror" are surely key to unpicking this show, and the Waters one is one of three being shown in tandem with the exhibition at FACT in March. 

The final room of the show lets another story in, and its a welcome one. Works from European artists like Polke and Paschke are politic in tone; and its a useful (and overdue) reminder that glam didn't exist in a world of plenty, as much of a world that needed some kind escapism. Baader Meinhoff, Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, the cold war, these are the real world events underneath all of this. What we are seeing is how we often follow personal freedoms even when the social or national picture is darker.

I'm not sure Glam entirely succeeds either as social history or art exhibition, but its probably the latter that's more problematic - in that this portmanteau show places different things together under a single banner. The accompanying book reflects this honestly, but the show itself seems sometimes confused and partial. More difficult I think is that we are now at the point where the art of the last third of the twentieth century is facing a more critical judgement: that of posterity; and its not that its found wanting, but that there's a curatorial desire to hijack the better works and artists for myriad reasons. Liverpool Tate has previously had a Summer of Love exhibition from the late 60s, whilst the V&A has comprehensively covered Post-Modernism; individual works and artists are being rolled out to answer different questions, and not always satisfactorily. There's a political point here as well - though this is more about the social history: glam in Britain was a working-class movement in many ways, and therein lies its historical fascination; whilst in the US its intimately wound up in gay and women's liberation; these, rather than the allure of the glitterball, are the key themes of the art and popular culture of the era. Its a show full of interesting works, though some may be over-familiar, and the book is excellent and answers, to a large degree, my criticisms. Go see, but perhaps read one or two of the essays first.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dear World and Everyone In it ed. by Nathan Hamilton

In her review of Sam Riviere's "81 Austerities" Ruth Padel describes his poetry as being developed through (a) the internet (b) university creative writing courses. Riviere is one of the 60 young ("more or less (under) 35 ") poets featured in this substantial new anthology "Dear World and Everyone In It" edited by Nathan Hamilton. Asked by his publisher why certain young poets aren't included he says, repeated in his combative introduction, "some new Young Poets still write Old Poetry" But this is not the old mainstream v. non-mainstream argument retrod, more that the techniques and subject matter of some of the best contemporary poets don't seem to owe much to the generations that come directly before. The 2004 "next generation" poets were very recognisable to the crop of 1994's "new generation" poets, so something has clearly changed. There are few poems in this selection that owe much to Duffy or Armitage or Heaney or Hughes. A decade ago, it was like poetry - and particular the main presses - had closed their doors to new voices and new poets. Rather than conform to get heard, we've seen a sprouting of  a "networked" culture where live events, magazines, websites and pamphlets, and university creative writing course have combined outside of this "mainstream." More recently, pamphlet series from Salt, tall lighthouse, and even Faber amongst others have filled the publication gap, and those poets are amply represented here. And it is this networked culture, rather than the "internet" which has created that gap between new and "Old Poetry."

What of the poems though? This elegantly presented Bloodaxe book has reassuringly wide pages, enabling longer poems, prose poems and experiments alongside lyrics. Hamilton's introduction, a series of "Dear so-and-so" interjections that is both irreverant and combative, sets the scene. Flicking backwards through the book I came upon these lines:

"..."They were eating omelettes with dry bread."
It isn't 2 way: I read their questions in their eyes' laptops:
"What? WHAT? WHAT?! WHAT?! WHAT?!"
They sign the guest book grudgingly, like bears..." 

Easily recognisable as Luke Kennard, one of the prevailing voices of this generation. Kennard, like Armitage before him is an easy poet to copy, a difficult poet to copy well. Luckily, if there is a School of Kennard here - perhaps Riviere, Underwood, Berry might be lined up alongside him - its one with few rules. Returning to the beginning of the collection, Éireann Lorsung may seem an untypical poet to begin with; coming out of America-Nottingham; feminist in perspective, but imaginative in style, her opening poem "The Book of Splendor" is a beautiful choice. If Hamilton is setting his stall out, its for good poems and good poets over a particular style or subject. If the collection has a centre of gravity then perhaps its eastwards - East London, University of East Anglia, east coast of America - but that's only a partial telling. The crop of hybrid nationalities - frequently Americans or Europeans studying in the UK or a British poet, Amy De'ath, studying in Canada - is clearly one of the key characteristics that has fed into this 21st century poetry. At last we are moving away from the prevailing voices of Heaney and Hughes, Armitage and Duffy and O'Brien; poetry is urbanised, not so much rooted in the poetics of the Celtic fringe. Not that such distinctions are in anyway total, though there's no place for Faber Heaneyite Nick Laird, Michael McKimm's elegantly formal "The Annals of Antrim" won't scare any Irish horses.

I think what it is, is that networked culture has provided an alternate range of influences and stakeholders, and the poetry world is the better for it. There are, as Padel noted, a prevalence of university based poets.  This selection is confidently middle-class, confidently London/SE, confidently academic. It does make you ask: where are the working class voices? (No William Letford for instance.) Where are the Asian and black voices? Are writers like Kei Miller and Sandeep Parmar representative, or simply poets, cultural differences no longer as vital? Perhaps the next wave will be Anglo-Polish poets, disciples of Adam Zagajewski; for now we've Anglo-Hungarian Ágnes Lehóczky.

In the choice of poetry I think we're seeing a development of this generation. Attending a Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives event a few years ago I enjoyed some of these poets - it was a lively entertaining evening if a little solipsitic. These poets aren't actually now that young (many are 30 or over), and Hamilton has been judicious in his choice of work. What are they writing about is now as important as how they are writing it. Thank God we've moved from the anecdotal poem that seemed to dominate English lyrics for a decade or more; here we have stories, digressions, philosophy, even politics on occasion - an art in discussion with itself but not just about itself.  There are longer poems, prose poems, experimental and visual work alongside  the more formally lyrically. There aren't really any "giants" here or presiding voices - its as if the 35 age cut off has deprived us a little of some perspective (a Richard Price for instance, a Matthew Welton.) This generation now has Salt Younger Poets, Lung Jazz, Dear World and other anthologies... it may be time to tone down the ageism - after all they're all getting older. With perhaps the exception of Keston Sutherland, who is perhaps too niche to be any generational lead, the majority of the poets have only published this century - there feels a gap in the narrative - between this generation and the new and next generation poets.

As I said, its a substantial book and generally the poets are given plenty of space rather. A couple of quibbles. The acknowledgements at the end seem only partial - how many of these poems have appeared in books? Some are mentioned, others (like Tim Cockburn or Sam Riviere) aren't acknowledged directly - and those are the ones I know. Also, similar to the Lumsden anthology "Identity Parade" not all the poets are represented by their best work. Whether this is to do with rights, or the desire of editors and poets to include recent work, I'm not sure, but "New Lines", for instance included many of the iconic poems of the day - the Chris McCabe poems included, for instance don't really do justice to his range, for which I'd recommend his debut collection "The Hutton Inquiry", and  Lehóczky's prose work included here, means that we have no room for her excellent "Budapest to Babel".Still working through the book as a whole, but I already have my favourite poems anyway:"Immediately on Waking" by Tim Cockburn is stunning, alongside that opener from Éireann, Emily Berry's "Shriek", and the chosen extracts from "81 austerities."

This book grew out of a series of mini-anthologies in the Rialto, and is published by Bloodaxe. Michael Mackmin and Neil Astley deserve full credit for handing over to a younger editor to map this changing scene. There are omissions of course; as well as Letford I'd have found room for my fellow Salt modern voices Claire Trévien and J.T. Welsch, and one might quibble at some of the more out there selections. Good as Nat Raha and Holly Pester are, their work might be better experienced live, in audio, or over a longer selection.  The internet may not have been invented in 2004, as Padel seems to think, but at least its well represented in these poems: though rarely as the subject, more often as the material. With perhaps the exception of the polemical "Jo Crot"'s fun, but meandering "Poetsplain", and one or two other poems, Flarf and its cousins, and the Ken Goldsmith school of poetics haven't made much of an impact here; and though the Cambridge influence of Prynne hangs over some of the more experimental poets, they seem among the least interesting in this company. 

Where is British poetry nowadays? I'd like to think at a good point, its certainly not "dying" as was recently said (though slam poetry may well be the least interesting of the performance genres currently appearing at a pub near you.) Many of these poets cut their teeth live but are not "performance poets" in the slam sense.   It may seem easy to draw a line with what's gone before, but I know that many of the poets here have benefited from the generosity of older poets as academics and mentors, and mainstream techniques, by their very nature, can end up showing diminishing returns over time - how else are new poets to define themselves other than through accessing a wider palate? If critics of these poems and poets might complain about their "newness", their "novelty", their "meaninglessness", then Hamiltons selection refutes most of these complains: these are substantial works, and some are substantial poets. If there is less of the anecdotal, less of the "I am" poem, less of the nostalgic, then that's a good thing - they all have plenty of time left to write their elegies.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Holophin by Luke Kennard

In his SF novella Holophin Luke Kennard posits a future world where our memories are aided by the Holophin, a kind of Babel-fish of the mind, that cutely branded as a dolphin allows us to enhance different aspects of our presence. Its most practical element: that it can attend "virtual" board meetings on our behalf is the killler app that makes it so successful. Yet the Holophin and the corporation that designs it is not so much an industrial megacorp as a benevolent cooperative, development of their soft-hardware taking place in their school for geniuses, where much of the short novel is set. Hatsuka and Max are students of the school, and as well as there studies, they are involved in various secret projects which may or may not be with the permission of the school's enigmatic leadership. So far, so good, this is a pithy SF tale, set in that notoriously Asian millieu that we find in books like The Wind Up Girl, and in much of Murakami. In a fucked up world, corporations of various kinds have replaced the nation states we were used to and a certain pan-Asian sensibility is a default setting for this new world.

Yet, this is Kennard we are talking about, a poet who, in his books to date has shown an admirable desire not just to have his cake and eat it, but to let us know that is what he wants. Like David Mitchell, he seems to have assimilated a wide range of influences in such a way that whatever he lays out, he has considered all the angles. In this case, what starts as a tight, imaginative flight of fancy, soon collapses in on itself. Hatsuka, the girl genius, is carrying her own secret with her, the Holophin as novelist, who narrates the tale to us, whilst her "boyfriend" Max is increasingly absent from the tale. Wondering why he has left his own Holophin behind, in a nice twist on the reading-his-diary scenario, she quizzes the Holophin and finds a dark, grim(m) bedtime story which is then embedded in this manuscript. Asking to be placed in the story herself, it also changes and we are moved from a standard SF tale, into the halls and mirrors of Kennard's poems, which often tell a story then step inside or outside the story to let us know (or at least partially know) we are being "had." Here it is Calvino that most readily comes to mind; and there's a wonderful sense with Kennard, that even at his most wayward, he's more interested in jumping into the next place, than worrying about what that might actually be or entail.

Coincidentally (or not - it prompted me to read Holophin, which had been sat on my shelf for a while), Kennard read at  Poets and Players yesterday.  (alongside Sandeep Parmar, whose poem about her mother seen through an "archive" of her life, had a contrasting take on memory.) Though now turned 30, he is every much the well-spoken young poet-academic, but he disarms us with a poem from his latest book which confronts his affectations and lampoons them. Reading a number of poems from across his various books, his knowingness, which could appear wearisome, seems at one with the playful uncertainty of his work. As he says, when asked to write a wedding poem and being criticised afterwards for it not being poetic enough, "it has rhythm, form, assonance and alliteration, what more do you want?"

It is this sense of playful self criticism which I think gives Holophin a charm that lasts beyond the last page; for the "bedtime" stories that the device tells us are merely different "doors" into a consciousness that then gets corrupted and affected. Here is Orwell's forever war between competing armies, but replayed by corporations (Apple v. Microsoft perhaps?) as Hatsuka gets head-hunted by the open-source enemy of the Takin Corporation whose own logo, more glitzy than the plain dolphin, is a nautilus. The simple sea creatures are metaphors in the extreme: Hatsuka's father was a fisherman; but the seas have long since been polluted beyond being fishable. In this short, wayward but fascinating story, Kennard wants to show us more than a single possibility. The stories we are told - like the memories we hold - are unreliable, but may well be all we've got. The Holophin is in a nice pulp tradition of "life changing" devices - whether its Douglas Adam's Babel Fish, the horror movie The Stuff, the Adipose in Dr. Who or Carl Tighe's Kssss - which in itself seem to hark back to an older world of magic lamps and monkey's hands; and the story within a story here brings these echoes back full circle.

Holophin is still available as an e-book from Penned in the Margins. 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Friday, February 01, 2013

Where is the 21st Century Literature?

What did the future look like 100 year ago? Culturally it was very interesting, for Stravinsky must have been putting the final touches to the new ballet he was working on with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes which would premiere in May 1913, the crates containing the art works that would appear as "The Armory Show" in New York in February were probably en route or already docked; Ezra Pound was presumably collating the poetry that would appear in 1914 as "Des Imagistes."

Yet, the world at large wasn't yet aware. The 1890s had been an odd decade. The spoils of Empire were being shared around the European capitals; mechanised culture was becoming commonplace in our cities; nationalism was on its march to disaster; America was yet to ascend, though its East Coast wealthy were apeing the European bourgeoisie. For art you had to look elsewhere than England and America; the art of Fin de siècle, was a sign of the times; safe; genteel – or in the word that stuck to it, decadent. Henry James and Joseph Conrad's new fictions were doing extraordinary things but these were 19th century novelists moving beyond the books that had first got them noticed into a new and unusual place; the late Victorian poets collected in Quiller-Couch's 1900 anthology "The Oxford Book of English Verse" – were, Tennyson aside, an insipid bunch.

The modernist sensibility cannot be said to be have been conceived in one particular place at one particular time, yet by 1913, the conception was about to lead to the birth. "The Rite of Spring", "The Armory Show" and Blast! (which published in 1914 would include the first chapter of Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier") weren't to prove anomalies, but summations of the new style. The devastation of the First World War would take many great artists and writers from us, alongside the rest of their generation, but there was already an art appropriate to the challenge of giving some sort of explanation.

So, how have we got as deep into the next century without finding a similar point of entry? Our "war" - on "terror"  - following on from the Twin Towers is a proxy one of course; for we are not really combatants or victims of it. For the Zeppelin, let us replace with the remote controlled drone. A literature that could reflect that terror may well be being sourced in the hills of Pakistan and the deserts of north Africa, but will it be ours?

Fundamentally, the innovations of over a hundred years ago - from social innovations such as Marxism and Freud to the growth of "mechanical reproduction," may well dwarf the innovations of the last twenty years, yet our "information age" is still in its infancy - we are, in some ways, redrawing the systems of our forebears with data (Google maps to replace the A-Z; email and twitter to replace the twice-daily post), rather than anything more fundamental: yet that will come. The art of the time reflects this change in two ways; a conservative nostalgia for old forms and old histories; and a frenetic activity that reflects our information age sensibility but rarely offers a fundamentally new art. In other words, we are hankering after the times gone, or simply drawing pictures of the latest innovation. Not so dissimilar to one hundred years ago. The art of modernism in the end soon diversified from the documentary attempts of the Futurists into something more abstract; modernist poets went back into antiquity in a reaction against the times; the music of Schoenberg and others was already reflecting a world where the symphony orchestra or the tea room quartet were anachronisms, or easily enough preserved on shellac discs.

When we look back in twenty or thirty years in this first part of the century I don't think it will be rushed fictions by middle-aged men about the impact of 9/11 or nostalgic poem sequences about dead loved ones or even novel sequences about the Tudors that will speak of the age; these are leftovers in many ways from a generation that is growing old slowly. Technology is both ubiquitous and in some way forbidding: how many of the X Factor youngsters have been taught any more than singing like Whitney Houston? Do they understand the mathematics and the science and the technology behind the auto-tuning or the compression techniques that blasts the new Calvin Harris production out of the radio? A hundred years on from modernism its "usefulness" as a term seems less obvious. There were writers with the same sensibility before it was named; there were writers who did different things who came afterwards and would have been impossible without it - whether or not they reacted for or against it. In many ways, literature is as much a social more as an artistic one. The soldiers coming back from World War II to educational grants because of the American G.I. act weren't just Mailer or Vidal, but a ready audience. Heaney would have surely succeeded in any age; but his role was probably consolidated by the Troubles, as was Coetzee writing in and against apartheid South Africa. The baby boomers generation are hitting retirement age and to put it simply: the generation born in the 70s is smaller, less wealthy and in many ways straddles the pre- and post-digital eras. In some sense we might be the ones to make sense of it: in other ways perhaps it requires "digital natives" born with a mobile phone at their fingertips to create the art of the 21st century.

And talent has a tendency to carry on regardless; to find a way - whether its a troubled Edward Thomas turning to poetry in the last couple of years of his life, or Kafka struggling between the expectations of his class and family and the realities of his uncompromising work. But also, we should recognize the qualities of the age. The contemporary media that has given us the ensemble art of the Sopranos, the West Wing, Breaking Bad, the Wire et al, is hardly one that has no new artistic surprises in it after all. Few artists are able to fully understand the technological age that we live in, or even realise that we’re still at the start of a period transformation not the end - and we are therefore yet to see fully the artistic advances of the disruptive technology.

The 21st century literature: it will come; it will come, as sure as night follows day. Forgive me for thinking that it has not arrived yet, but I'm enjoying the looking.