Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The risk in the contemporary story is how quickly it dates, or how its specific concerns can erode over time. That may be why the best novels about wars tend to be a decade or more in the coming.

There have been few more historical events so quickly placed in the literature of the time as 9/11. The genre of "9/11 fiction" feels quite a crowded one, if, not a particularly inspiring one. Unlike other acts of terrorism, the affects of this one were not just localised, but global, and being an attack on Western soil provided a nearly unique event at which novelists (not only American ones) could take on. Yet those works that have been most evocative around 9/11 and its subsequent consequences have often been works of faction, with the ubiquitous live coverage of the event meaning that it was "experienced" if that is the word, by everyone around at the time.

Mohsin Hamid's second novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" couldn't have been written without 9/11 though the event itself is merely used as plot pivot. More of a fable than a novel, I read this Booker-listed work at one sitting, which seems only appropriate, as Changez, the titular character, tells his story to an American who has apparently come to speak to him in a cafe in Lahore. We suspect that this is a novel where 9/11 will play a major part from the very start, as Changez tells his story of coming to America as a top grade student, succeeding at Princeton and being head hunted by Underwood Samson, an elite management consultancy. It is a reminder that America - and its Ivy league universities, like Oxbridge in England - has always sought to educate the world's brightest. Whether as a way of spreading "soft power" or simply to ensure a steady stream of brilliant young men (and women) into the money-making businesses of New York, Hamid's novel cleverly makes the point that this world slowly changed after 9/11. Pakistan, of course, was an American ally long before then, and in his mix of economic brilliance and political naivety Changez is at first shocked, then worried, then angry that the country of his birth and the country where he was educated and works, are no longer aligned.

Changez is an engaging narrator, though his naivety seems sometimes hard to fathom with the necessary steeliness, brilliance and confidence that anyone graduating so high at Princeton and getting such a job on Wall Street would necessarily need. With the beautiful Erica, the troubled American WASP he's desperately in love with, he gets an entree into the best of American young high society at the start of the 20th century and is a convincing eastern prince in these scenarios. The book at times feels like its about to break out into broad satire - does Changez become a revolutionary, planting bombs, recruiting martyrs and quoting the Qu'ran as his attitude to America changes? None of this happens - he changes only slowly, as he begins to realise that his ethnicity (though not his religion - this is hardly mentioned in the novel) begins to separate him out from others in his adopted land. Away with his firm he realises he has more in common with the people whose jobs he is trying to analyse out of existence, rather than the firm that pays him. Seeing on the news that there seems an imminent war between India and Pakistan (a detail that didn't come over particularly strongly in the west at the time), he knows he must return to Lahore.

The story of an outsider being torn between two worlds is as old as literature itself. There's something Jamesian about Changez, happily working in the most competitive of American endeavours, before he realises that he is going against nature, family and natural justice. Yet "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" came out in 2007, when American-style capitalism had yet to fall off its own cliff. Reading the novel now, in 2014, one can't help but see that it is the rapacious nature of American capitalism - hinted at here - rather than American imperialism which is the threat to the world. Hamid was himself a Princeton man who became a management consultant, and like the lawyer in Zadie Smith's "NW", we see something of the brilliant outsider being co-opted into these traditional professions. In the post-9/11 world the real economy has slowed down and Underwood Samson is laying people off. The "hook" of Changez's accidental conversion to an anti-American stand (which is handled with quiet sensitivity) is played off against the small realities post-9/11. In those days, months and years afterwards, I imagine the atmosphere must have felt very different in New York for anyone vaguely foreign - a change that is still echoed today in the brutishness of American airport security measures.
Yet this wouldn't have been a Booker contender if it was just a polemic. There's another story underneath, of a young man who has fallen in love. His love for the unobtainable Erica seems a counterpoint to the political story. For Erica, somewhat unbelievably, is harbouring love for an ex-boyfriend with whom he simply can't compete: for Chris died of cancer. This has sent made her mentally unstable.

As I've said there's something of the fable about the book, and yet I'm a little  uncomfortable with this love story - it seems to come from somewhere else - a tragedy in its own right that helps us sympathise with Changez but also wonder about his fallibility. Erica is not just playing hard to get, but is herself in the midst of a very personal spiral of depression, incarceration and despair. Looking for meaning in his life, he is as in love with a "missing" person as Erica is.

In a little under 200 pages, Changez tells his story to the American who has come looking for him. We learn finally that there might be reason for this - but again Hamid's tale is subtly told, and the title is an appropriate one. Could Changez be one of those who are spirited away to Guantanamo by America and its "allies"? There's a very believable story being told here and the strengths of this short novel are there in that idea of how we perceive things. Hamid has given us an outsider-hero who, looking back on his time in America, now can hardly believe he was there; yet for a while he was living the American dream

Its a subtle little book, and I think is perhaps one of the more successful entries into the 9/11 fiction genre, but I never quite believe in Changez as a character. Again, there's a Jamesian sense that we have to take him at his word - yet could this slightly naive individual really be number one in his class? His naivety around women comes despite an $80,000 salary, and the confidence of the Princeton man. This is, after all, set in the early 2000s, not the early 1900s. The cultural references, as well, seem hackneyed ones, Top Gun and Star Wars. Compared with the complex characterisation of Oscar Wao in Juno Diaz's novel, Hamid's Changez seems something of an endearing cipher. We know that 9/11 is going to happen but when it does, Changez is not in New York, but watching it on television whilst abroad. That he feels exalted by it seems out of character - after all his job would have been in one of those Manhattan towers, those people would have been his peers.

Moreover, reading the book now, it does feel a long time since 9/11 - and its "uniqueness" lessened by our understanding of what followed in London and Madrid; in Afghanistan and Iraq; and in a Pakistan which saw Benazir Bhutto assassinated not long after this novel was written. The contemporary novel - when so connected to events and attitudes - quickly becomes a slightly awkward historical one. Do we also expect less somehow of our global writers? It is the specifics of Hamid's narrator, and his descriptions of New York and Lahore that make the book engaging, whilst the political backdrop seems somewhat forced - a story placed on top to give it contemporary value. The book was a bestseller, has been made into a film, and according to wikipedia is "formally experimental", yet I found it a little too comfortable in its handling of its material, a little too sure-footed in its monologue. If it really owes something to Camus's "The Fall", its colloquialism and humour seem to act against any genuine attempt at existentialism - its an engagingly easy read, that I felt pushed my buttons a little too easily to be a genuinely challenging novel, and though the voice throughout is a joy, there's little in its language that goes beyond a somewhat superficial melodrama - the troublingly underdrawn character of Erica a case in point.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bad Girl, Gone Good

There was a time when every new worldwide pop star would not just face the spotlight of the media, but also the forensic interest of the cultural intelligentsia; feminist academics and middle-aged male novelists used to fight it out for interviews with Madonna in her heyday.

Perhaps we should be glad the entertainment business has gone back into one giant P.R. exercise, but on the other hand we might be missing something, and the broadsheets, though always happy to pepper their magazines and front pages with photographs of pop and film stars, aren't that likely to get anywhere near the over-represented stars of the 21st century. Only when there's a very public breakdown, Britney Spears or Justin Beiber style, do things move to the commentariat pages.

So, that brings us to Rihanna, and having listened to her constantly for the last couple of days, I'm somewhat surprised how the Number One Liked Person on Facebook, and the person with the 4th highest amount of U.S. number one hits in history has been both ubiquitous and uncommented on. Its true that though there are Rihanna songs that they could sing in the more obscure places on the planet its doubtful whether more than a couple have risen above the pop cultural currency worth of the contemporary R&B singer. In this, its easy to dismiss Rihanna as simply the most successful of the producer's age-old need for a malleable voice. Yet there's something about Rihanna that seems to be missing from such pen portraits - and probably explains why she has been able to sell a phenomenal number of "downloads", collaborate with everyone from Jay-Z to Coldplay, and even finesse the latter into an appearance of the otherwise-Brit dominated Olympic closing ceremony.

In less than a decade, and at the still tender age of 25, Rihanna has gone from being an unknown amateur singer from Barbados to probably the 21st century's most consistent megastar. A well-handled career, a badly handly-personal life, a mesmeric, but somehow fluid beauty, a good, but by no means unique voice, and a canny choice of songs and collaborators have combined to make Rihanna perhaps the embodiment of 21st century celebrity. Unlike Beyonce or Britney Spears, who emerged from the collective endeavours of Destiny's Child and the Disney Club, and unlike Lady Gaga who appeared fully-formed as "the Fame Monster", Rihanna's success has been gradual. Her first couple of albums were relatively minor R&B records; she could have easily been another Brandy or Monica, a hit or two then diminishing returns. The song that took her to another level, the auto-tuned "Umbrella" is neither her best song, nor that indicative or her style. Her best records are often derivative in some way (Tainted Love quoting "SOS", the Pink-ish "Shut Up and Drive", Aguilera-style ballad "Unfaithful") or collaborations where she can be seen as the minor part (to Coldplay, Eminem or Calvin Harris) yet throughout this her voice and image provide a formidable counterpoint to what surrounds her. Perhaps this is Diana Ross remade for the 21st century, where it is the celebrity producer or rapper-collaborator rather than the girl group and Holland-Dozier-Holland that matters. Yet if anything, the sense of Rihanna the "artist" have reduced rather than increased as each album has been released, so that on 2013's "The Monster", a song where she is featured artist with Eminem, she is reduced to the role of a compelling sample, like the Dido song "Thank You" on his mega-hit "Stan."

Rihanna's success is also fascinating given that she is from Barbados, an island whose previous musical fame was the Typically Tropical carnival song "Barbados." Part of the Commonwealth, Barbados is musically lighter than Jamaica, though soca and calypso are not dissimilar to some of the more partying forms of Jamaican reggae. This lilt is very present on Rihanna's first two albums, though her initial breakthrough hit "Pon da Replay" is a more modern dance party anthem. As her career has progressed, there's been less of these traditional rhythms in her work, yet her voice still has an individuality to it, even when singing standard pop rock ballads like "Take a bow" or house bangers like "We Found Love," which makes her able to take these somewhat generic numbers and make them her own. Though collaborators like Eminem, Coldplay, Calvin Harris and Drake may be drawn to Rihanna as a useful, all-purpose foil, a pretty human sample with her own fan base, what she brings to even these collaborations is a purpose and individuality that makes them as much her song as theres. Most surprising perhaps was the collaboration with Coldplay, for contemporary R&B and the slightly staid, maudlin stadium anthems of Coldplay might seem a million miles away; but as probably the only non-niche rock superstars of the 21st century, Coldplay should be praised for not entirely giving up on the idea that a rock band can make the charts. In that sense their co-opting of Rihanna to be their "Princess of China", a song that either has no choruses, or three different ones depending on your point of view, was one of the highlights of both their careers. Again, she makes the song her own - being a very believable princess, as her appearance at the Olympics showed - but also provides Coldplay not just with a contemporary R&B edge, but forcing them to up their game a little.

One can go back to Madonna for the archetype of the female solo artist sustaining a pop career over the decades. Madonna has frequently collaborated with other producers and writers, but has always been very much in control of her image. In the mid-80s she successfully broadened her sound to include Motown ("True Blue"), latin ("La Isla Bonita") and even rock balladry ("Crazy for You") but despite this she never lost sight of the dancefloor - finding her most successful later albums with cutting edge dance DJs. Yet though Madonna remains a formidable model, its not one that is entirely viable in the 21st century. Madonna never veered off into a new direction such as rock, or easy listening, aware that part of her appeal was always going to be as a club artist. Rihanna hasn't had that advantage: she's not necessarily an R&B artist; despite being signed to Def Jam, being in a relationship with the abusive Chris Brown, and recording with rappers like Jay Z and Eminem. Her output has been far more pop, but also refreshingly diverse. Whereas Lady Gaga's career seems to have already faltered on the narrowness of her musical template, despite the many costume changes, Rihanna's albums (none of which has sold over 5 million copies, and which rarely stray beyond 50 minutes), are pop smorgasbords, peppered with anything up to six or seven hit singles, but rarely coherent works - with the list of collaborators representing a who's who of contemporary production. Not for her the producer-muse of Kelis and the Neptunes for instance. The Caribbean influence on both her voice and lyrics remains one of the things that makes her albums a cut above some other R&B records, and lesser known tracks like party song "Cheers" from "Loud" are better than forgettable ballads like "Take a Bow".

What we see is an artist for iPod and download, and like those artists of the fifties and sixties, very aware that careers can be short, and that fans are potentially fickle. From "Pon de Replay" to "Diamonds" in 2012, Rihanna has rarely been away from the charts, often competing with herself in an array of "featured artist" roles. Of her albums, the EBM focussed "Talk that Talk" and breakthrough record "Good Girl Gone Bad" (especially in the reloaded version which adds hits "Disturbia" and "Take a Bow") are perhaps her best, though "Loud" seems her most consistently strange record. Listening to her collected works, the artist she most brings to mind is ABBA, whose albums were littered with great songs, many of which were released as singles, often in a myriad of styles (rock on "Does your Mother know?", latin on "Chiquitta" for instance), and the albums - released in quick succession as was the seventies way (and which Rihanna, almost unique among major contemporary artists has been doing since 2005) are less style changes, and more little concept pieces in their own right.

At the age of 25, with one trauma hopefully behind her - the highly public domestic abuse by her ex-partner Chris Brown -Rihanna's continuing success is remarkable. She remains an artist beloved of her fan base, and appealing to a much wider audience. (I mentioned on Facebook that I was putting together a compilation, and was surprised who wanted to hear a copy.) The modern record industry has re-perfected the Brill building mix that dominated music before the Beatles, with the additional understanding that artists need to contribute ideas and lyrics to the mix these days. The model for Rihanna's continuing success is surely predicated on the charts worldwide not having any major format or style change - this is a music of reactionary times, not revolutionary ones. At home collaborating with the new hipster and the street hustler, Rihanna could seem to be a cynical concoction, but compared with the over-ambitious and underwhelming Kate Perry for instance, or with ideas-starved pop bands like Maroon 5 and fun, or the ever-reducing circles of contemporary R&B, this Barbadian singer remains one of the iconic artists of the age. She brings cool to Coldplay, empathy to Eminem, and softens the hard edges of Jay Z. With a new album due in 2014 and further collaborations no doubt coming along in its wake, I'd not bet her against her just yet. Eight albums in, you feel her big album will be one entitled "Greatest Hits", though she already has enough to fill one of those two or three times over.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Whatever Happened to the "Repetitive Beat Generation"?

I picked up "Repetitive Beat Generation" in London. Its a book of interviews - on Rebel Inc./Canongate - by Manchester academic Steve Redhead with the writers who appeared in the wake of Irvine Welsh's success with "Trainspotting."

For younger readers, its worth a bit of a recap. In the early 1990s British fiction was in one of its regular troughs. The most lauded "younger" writers - the generation of Rushdie, Crace, Amis, Barnes, McEwan - were getting on a bit, yet were still far edgier than the rest of British fiction, which, with the odd countercultural exception (Martin Millar, Iain Banks) had very little of the verve of younger American writers like Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Fiction seemed particularly slow to respond to the contemporary experience, and those books that maybe did (such as Pete Davis's satirical novel "The Last Election" (1986), Douglas Adams' ostensibly SF but often hilariously mundane Hitchhikers novels, (1979-1992) Sue Townsend's "Secret Diary of Adrian Mole" (1982) Ben Elton's "Stark" (1989)) owed more to the British sitcom and skit show than any literary precursors. After "Money" and "London Fields" even Martin Amis had left behind twentysomething readers with the bourgeois middle life crisis of "The Information". Anger at Thatcher came out in music, TV shows and stand-up comedy, but rarely in the gentrified fields of contemporary fiction.

Yet earnest English graduates weren't reading Anita Brookner and A.S. Byatt, but genre writers like Stephen King, Harlan Ellison and Micheal Moorcock or "cult books" like "A Clockwork Orange", "1984" and "Catch 22" or world writers such as Kundera or Marquez. There was a verve here that was missing in British fiction. Where was the punk fiction? The new wave fiction? The hip hop fiction? The clubbing fiction? Youth culture as fed by older writers like McEwan and Amis was invariably out of step.

The shock of the new came for me in a few books - 1985's "The Wasp Factory" which despite its isolated location on a Scottish island was clearly set in a contemporary space; and how much more isolated it was it than my Midlands commuter village anyway? Then there was Will Self's 1991 debut collection "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" and, not far behind, Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel  "Trainspotting." These were books that seemed to have been published not that far from the time in which they were set, and which were written in a very different style than the majority of contemporary novels. Perhaps less important personally, were early 1990s Booker winners by Roddy Doyle and James Kelman, and Nick Hornby's football memoir "Fever Pitch."

What happened next was that literature briefly had its punk rock moment. When "Trainspotting" was made into a film it was soundtracked by a mix of techno and Britpop. Even though Oasis's Noel Gallagher can still to do this harp on about never reading fiction, he seemed to be the only one; and suddenly new books with a heady mix of sex, drugs and clubbing were appearing with a rapid frequency. A collection of these chemically enhanced writers "Disco Biscuits" (named after one of the slang terms for E), was hastily put together by journalist Sarah Champion in 1997, and books like Welsh's "The Acid House" (1994), Alex Garland's 1990's beat novel "The Beach"(1996) and Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar"(1995) became hip bestsellers. More remarkably, book readings moved from the bookshop or literary festival to the nightclub, and the Canadian author of 1991's "Generation X" Douglas Coupland, or Welsh or Easton Ellis were as much "event" bookings as hip bands or DJ Fatboy Slim.

The urban nature of many of these books went beyond clubland. Jeff Noon's Manchester SF "Vurt"(1993) and "Pollen"(1994), John King's hooligan odysseys  "The Football Factory" (1997), even Nick Hornby's record shop novel "High Fidelity" (1994), or James Hawes' thriller "White Merc With Fins" (1996) soon occupied a corner of every bookshop. If this was cult fiction, it was now attached to large advances, and colour spreads in lads mags like "Loaded" as well as the broadsheets.

It was a strange time to be trying to be a writer - as many of these books were already in the shops whilst I was struggling to write a first novel. I'd written a clubbing story as far back as 1988, but its style wasn't as chemically enhanced as those that would follow, rather, it was a more gentle coming-of-age piece. These writers were my generation - but usually, crucially - a few years older. Also, though I had to admire some of the writing, over the course of a whole novel they often felt under-edited and over-wrought, like stretched out magazine pieces. And where, one wondered, were the female writers? The Donna Tartt's to these Brett Easton Ellis bad boys?

Crucially, I was also thirty in 1997, and many of these books were targetted at a late teen/early 20s audience. Having read "Last Exit to Brooklyn" or "Naked Lunch" years before, I wasn't particularly impressed by drug tales or wide-boy crime capers, though Self's stories, Iain Banks first few novels, "Morvern Callar" and parts of "The Acid House" struck me as excellent. More exciting in many ways was that small presses like Pulp Faction, Serpent's Tail and Rebel Inc/Canongate were the imprints where some of this new writing was now appearing. As I aimed to get my own stories into print, I tried unsuccessfully to write more urban tales, before a few quirkier stories appeared in small magazines.  Rather than open the doors to new fiction, it seemed that the brief success of this chemical generation had closed things down again for anyone who wasn't writing an edgier fiction. At the same time - the pop cultural novel had morphed into the "chick lit" and "lad lit" of Helen Fielding and Mike Gayle, pleasantly funny soap opera novels, that had little counter cultural edge to them and even less politics.

Yet reading through that list of titles, there's quite a few interesting novels that came out in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Yet reading Redhead's badly named "Repetitive Beat Generation" I'm struck by how quickly this generation suddenly stopped dead at the millennium. A further book from Champion - "Disco 2000" spread its net wider bringing American writers into the mix of this millenial collection named after a Pulp song. Welsh remains a bestseller, but he's been increasingly revisiting the characters of his debut "Trainspotting." Roddy Doyle, who like Welsh was born in the 1950s, has continued to build on the fan base that came with his wryly comic Barrytown trilogy, and the more serious books that followed - though he too has revisited his classic characters lately. Alan Warner, a reluctant interviewee here, and never keen on being tagged as a "chemical generation" writer (based on a few clubbing scenes in his first keenly observed novels), continues to write well received novels. Outside of those three, other names like Nicholas Blincoe, Duncan Mclean, John King and Gordon Legge seem to have virtually disappeared, whilst Jeff Noon only recently returned after a long absence. Perhaps any list is going to be like this. But considering how big a deal was made for these writers at the time it seems strange how this popular nineties fiction never really lasted - though you'll still see kids reading "The Beach" or "Trainspotting". Alex Garland (missing from these interviews) now writes films. Stewart Home (also not interviewed) continues to be a cult iconoclast.

A new generation of novelists did arrive just before or after the millennium. Writers like A.L. Kennedy, Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, David Peace, Magnus Mills, Ali Smith, Toby Litt, Gwendoline Riley, Zadie Smith, Jon McGregor and others have often had some of the same verve of the chem-gen writers, yet their subject matters are more diverse, their literary styles less biddable, and their careers showing more diversity. I'm sure some of the excitement of eighties fiction (as well as some of the money from "Trainspotting" and "The Beach") helped some of these get deals, and I imagine that seeing such home grown contemporary novels was more inspiring than the poor crop a decade before.

The Steve Redhead book is published by Canongate who are still very much with us as a key independent; and there's obviously a bias towards some of the Scottish and Irish writers that they picked up as a counterbalance to a London-centric publishing world. Most of the books above are pre-internet novels as well - and there was a brief flurry of digitally enhanced dot com novels such as Matt Beaumont's "E the novel" and Coupland's  "J-Pod". More recently there's been a bit of a revival, I think of the Bildungsroman, and again novelists from outside of London, such as Gwendoline Riley, Chris Killen and Joe Stretch have written promising contemporary novels set in a post-millennial Britain of call centres, temp work and 24-hour drinking. Reality TV and social media has probably filled the space that briefly saw writers as media celebrities; and an early generation of Amis-Barnes-Kureishi-McEwan etc. are still churning out novels of varying qualities. I wonder if the readers of "Trainspotting" all got married, had kids, and spent the next decade reading the childhood fantasias of J.K. Rowling - if so then maybe there'll be a ready audience in a few years for 90s nostalgia novels.

Being a "struggling writer" in the late 90s was weird - because on the one hand I felt I'd missed the boat, as yet another streetwise urban novel came out, and I was still struggling to escape (in life and in my fiction) the suburbs; on the other hand it felt there was a lifeline of possibility in that these books weren't exactly a million miles away from what I was writing. Though my relationship to the chem-gen was very tangentional at best. I reviewed Stewart Home's "Suspect Device" anthology for PROP magazine; and had my story "The Four Hills of Manchester" in Ra Page's City Life Manchester Stories 2 (Noon and Blincoe were in Manchester Stories 1); collection that gets a brief mention in Repetitive Beat Generation. I studied with Mark Powell who had two late "chem gen" novels in the gritty urban crime stories "Snap" and "Box" and Lee Rourke who gathered around him a similar 21st century "offbeat generation" in online magazines before leading to his debut "The Canal." I'm wondering whether Salt's call for novellas of "modern dreams" - urban fiction for 18-25 year old - to be published electronically - is an attempt to kickstart a similar edgier fiction movement to the 90s one.

If there were few great writers to come out of this generation, I'm at least glad that there was this brief period when British fiction embraced a crude, chemically-fuelled urbanism in its fiction. Like the stock market rising to new heights just before the millennium before crashing to earth, or a one off firework display on millennium's eve, it meant that the 20th century didn't just end with good old British complacency, but with a few paperbacks that tucked in boxes in people's lofts, or passed on to charity shops or lying unloved in family bookshelves, will be a memory of a time when drug fiction briefly went as mainstream as the Ecstacy pills that fuelled the stories.

"Taking Shots" William Burroughs Photography at The Photographer's Gallery

A decade and a half after his death, I wonder if we are starting to see William Burroughs' life and work in new contexts. There is certainly still interest in Lonesome Cowboy Bill, as the Velvet Underground styled him, as shown by "Taking Shots" an exhibition of his photography at The Photographer's Gallery which sits him beside shows by Andy Warhol and David Lynch; not a bad positioning for a writer.

Burroughs was never in any way a professional photographer, and his work was invariably developed in drugstores rather than darkrooms, and used to illustrate particular ideas, or as possible material to inculcate into some visual cut up experiments with sometime collaborators Brion Gysin or Ian Sommerville. This exhibition, expertly curated by Patricia Allmer and John Sears, and accompanied by a series of essays by Burroughsologists such as Barry Miles, seems to have a duel role: to use the ephemera of his poetry to look at his life afresh, via a fragmented photo essay - in a sense co-written with Bill himself - and to explore and make the case for the development of his cut up technique and how photography was an important marker in that.

The pictures themselves are the fragile originals from the archive, except in a few cases, where contemporary prints have been taken from undeveloped negatives, and this decision gives us a more intimate viewing experience. In a large room, tiny photographs, many smaller than the 5 x 3 inch of our own memories, are mounted and sequenced, requiring the audience, even at a busy private view, to get close to the work. Anyone who has gone through a shoebox of old family photographs will recognise this "domestic" experience of photography. Burroughs himself is mostly absent from these photos, yet a picture of him with camera, anonymously taken in Tangiers, is used to remind us of his gaunt watchful figure, surely a model for the otherworldly watchers in the recent SF series "Fringe"?

Burroughs' life seems to be too often taken in "fragments" - the troubled early life from which he escaped, the beat writer in New York, the libertine in Tangiers, the drug user in Mexico, the literary celebrity in London, and then the old man of letters and "uncle" to the avant garde. One value of this exhibition is that it enables us to look at Burroughs life as a whole. Some fascinating ephemera connects up his mother's flower arranging pamphlets (published by Coca Cola) with some of Burroughs own snapshots of flowers; the few photos from the Beat Hotel give evidence of his early collages, much of which disappeared in his many moves. Then, from the archives, we find sequences that seem purely artistic, even if accidentally. A film of a car accident in New York, is like a photo-montage of a Burroughsian scene, raw material for one of the fragments which fill his novels; a series of photographs of a bed before and after sex are surprisingly evocative in a gallery context, both pre-Emin confessional, and a rare insight in Burroughs the homosexual man living with his lover John Brady in a post-legalisation England, not that far from where this exhibition takes place. There are also some fascinating shots of Gibraltar and of a return to St. Louis, which offer a tantalising view of what Burroughs found fascinating about different places.

For although the written work is sparingly extracted here, Burroughs the writer seems subtly present throughout the exhibition. In  his own work he often undertakes a disappearing act. He is there, or in disguise, "the Kid" for instance, and then he is gone, observer on an otherworldly scene. In Tangiers the local boys knew him as "the invisible American", so quiet were his arrivals and departures. This cool detachment is one of the consistent joys of his written work, whether in the forensic documentation of "Junky" or the cut ups of his sixties/seventies work, or in the more woven fantasias of "The Cities of the Red Night" trilogy.

Because Burroughs' photography was rarely kept or preserved, and exists now through the obsessions of archivists and collectors, it doesn't immediately reduce to the status of "material" for his work that a more self conscious visual artist's pictures might, and neither have we "finished" or "exhibited" work that we might find from a traditional visual artist. These are not "studies" for later works but perhaps part of the work in progress - particularly in the photographs of infinite collage, where photographs were linked together and photographed, which then formed another photograph. In an age of instant digital cameras we sometimes forget the joys of discovery of the undeveloped film. There's one specific section when Burroughs had used cut up techniques to recreate his own version of "Time" magazine, a consciously artistic collage which is indicates, alongside the Brady sequence, that Burroughs considered photography a small, but vital piece of his own art practice. Sensationalists might be disappointed to find no pictures of guns, syringes or naked boys; and indeed, apart from a brief selection of portraits taken in the 1970s, very few pictures of the key figures in Burroughs' life. Yet sensationalists are often disappointed when they encounter Burroughs' work, which is so determinedly literary despite some of its graphic content.

With a life that spanned most of the "modern" twentieth century, (1914-97), our appreciation of Burroughs is both as an outlier - the beat outsider living in his "Interzone" - and as an exemplary modern; the obscenity trial of "Naked Lunch" pushing the envelope for what possible in a literary work. The avant garde of the 2nd half of the 20th century had very real reasons to be transgressional in a (Western) society that was still pushing Victorian and Christian moral standards in a world after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Yet Burroughs, far more than many contemporaries of his, was as equally vital in terms of the work itself. The language experiments in "The Ticket That Exploded", "Naked Lunch", "Wild Boys" and others surely find an appropriate content for their increasingly experimental forms, that are far more readable than, say, "Finnegan's Wake" or "The Making of Americans." Burroughs, like Anthony Burgess, found a second life as a writer in middle age, yet with his proclivities it was a necessary outsiderdom that means his best work is linguistically exciting in a way that many of the heirs to the beats, and sixties experimentalists isn't.  This exhibition provides a useful alternate biography that benefits from being as fragmentary as his literary work.

In the essays in the accompanying exhibition catalogue essays are attached to particular photographic sequences in the exhibition. There's a risk that too much is made of certain things; after all these were non-exhibited work - and the connection between his work and the photographs is often very tangential. What it does do, I think is move Burroughs a little away from the "myths" and "mythos" that have grown around him. Yet some of that mystique remains. In the 1970s a bad experience at a coffee bar in Frith Street saw a vindictive Burroughs "trolling" the venue for days and weeks on end, taking photographs and standing outside, creating a bad vibe that eventually led to the venue's closing. A series of photographs documents this somewhat unflattering story; the cowboy-outlaw using Marshall McCluhan rather than Smith & Wesson to clean up his part of town.

Taking Shots is one of three exhibitions, alongside industrial photographs and soundscape by David Lynch, and photo sequences by Andy Warhol, concurrently taking place at The Photographer's Gallery in London until March. My first time since the venue has moved, its an impressive space over several floors and well worth a visit. A symposium on the "cut up" will take place on 15th February. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year Growing Pains

January, I've always felt, is the wrong time to take our resolutions. The new year's weather is miserable; the return to work is never a "new start" (and with a financial year ending at the end of March, often feels like the last act), the pre-Xmas overdose on events turns into a new year hiatus, with gallery shows only sluggishly opening next week - and very few bands or readings.

So, I was very pleased to be asked by Anna Percy to be the guest on her internet radio show for Fab Radio this coming Sunday from 1pm-3pm. Page Turner  - so listen in if you have the opportunity. I'll be reading a few poems, my own, and my influences; and we'll be talking about an issue of the day.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Me, the Machine and the Mainstream

I've had some reflective time this Christmas, which was needed after a year where I was alternately busy and ill. If I've not entirely got my mojo back over the last couple of weeks, I've slowly leveraged myself back into some creative positions, though I sometimes feel I need more winches and pulleys to hold me there than when I was younger. I've talked before about how creativity requires not just physical and intellectual but also emotional energy.

As someone interested in systems, I've never been quite sure of my own part in them; or rather, I've been sure enough that I'm a loose nut, something not on the inventory, that might serve a purpose but doesn't fit seamlessly into whichever machine I'm meant to be part of. You'd think that in a post-industrial economy, the loose nuts would be exactly what was needed as we develop creative malfunctions, that are the equivalent of mutant genes in the biological world. Yet, even creative malfunctionaries - to coin a term - need somewhere in which to function and that's in many ways where the breakdown in the machine has taken place these last few years. Its not merely that the financial system stuttered, collapsed, then needed resuscitating at the expense of everything else; but that the financial system has infected pretty much everything else. The "raw material" of financial products is cash generative businesses; the "collateral" that allows the smoke and mirrors to exist. When you see the number of large speculative office block developments in Manchester - some like Piccadilly Place, still empty after quite a few years - you have to wonder at the dysfunction of the machine. We read about houses in London that are a "reserve currency" for international elite cash buyers. Something here is wrong: an enabling capitalism wouldn't be about developing incoherent housing and businesses purely to feed the financial products it makes the real money on; but the other way round. I watched "Its a Wonderful Life" again at Christmas and there's a run on the bank. "Your money's not here in the bank," says James Stewart, "its in your neighbours houses." Oh, for a modern banker to be as transparent about the magic of their "prosperity".

In the city is where these jobs exist and are centralised. You don't get financial institutions in small market towns (at least not since the rubbing away of the building societies), nor do you get vacant office blocks there.  In this sense the city is the kernel of the machine; the mainframe for the network. Yet I moved to the city many years ago not because I wanted to be part of that machine (though I worked in the financial industries for nearly nine years), but because I wanted the other things that exist in the city: the back streets and the urban murkiness; the poetry and the loud music of the dive bars and alternative shops. Yet, when we talk about "high street renewal" or "regenerating our cities" it seems that those organic alternative spaces are in retreat yet again: you feel that if it wasn't for the recession the machine-greed of finance would have torn down every building and replaced it with some new block, of unlettable flats or shell offices where even the council finds its planning largesse can't squeeze out a business rate of a building without services. Like those "unfinished" homes you used to see in Greece, with the top story "incomplete" as only finished buildings paid taxes; our financial madness squeezes out malcontent buildings just as much as it squeezes out malcontent individuals.

Don't get me wrong: I want the safe streets of European towns; the open plazas where people can sit out and drink and eat as well as just go to work or to shop. Yet I'm suddenly aware that rather than a "long tail" of many interests being satisfied, there's a constant push to only monetise those things that can be mainstreamed. And the mainstream is more deafening than ever. Much as I've benefited from the internet, much as I love the social communication networks it has provided, I can't help but notice that the chit-chat is so often that of the public bar rather than the private room. I begin to envy those who through money, isolated location or temperament are able to construct a world that is their own machine, not just an adjunct to the greater one. As a writer I've always been keen to engage with the contemporary world with all its noise, as I believe the writer's role can be as a bit of a weather vane, taking different readings to predict or even to map the course of the storm. Yet the information is constant, and unrelenting. What lacks is room for contemplation; expertise; specialisation - except where it comes with a commercial value.

How to negotiate a capitalist mainstream that is as intrusive, and increasingly as intolerant as a non-democratic junta state? I can only speak as that creative malfunctionary, aware that the nearer I get to the machine's mechanism and purpose, the less useful I am, the closer to being shaved into a useful square peg that wrong-shape or not gets jammed into a round hole and can't easily extract myself from. We're not so far from Orwell's utilitarian world of "1984" with all our aspects tied to that of the machine: and its clearly going to get worse, before it gets better. Yet it doesn't have to be this way; in many ways, we are the infant stage of the information revolution, and its been co-opted by a powerful, but possibly redundant ideology. For if capitalism can't deliver good pay, good homes, good lives, then it stops being the "best" or "only" economic way. Yet its the very consumptive nature of capitalism - a kind of intensive-farming of human potential so that there's just scorched earth and dustbowls left in its wake - that is what I feel I'm reacting against. I remember the difficulty of getting hold of obscure or alternate records back in the early 80s, having to scour obscure record shops on the edge of cities, or send off mail order for cassette tapes and 7" singles and fanzines. The difficulty of access didn't make you give up and stock up on whatever was in the local Woolworths; rather it created a blindsiding between your world and the mainstream. Like the two cities in Mieville's "The City and The City" we "unsee" a world that has nothing for us. Its why we look on with a wry knowingness about Jimmy Saville,  he seemed an absurdity to us back then, and unsavourily so, yet the "mainstream" was his millieu and his protector, and would look down on punks, post-punks, goths and the like. Yet from our "unseeing" perspective (and this was before Walkmans and the private electronic spaces where you could shut out the world), that world hardly existed. Its partly growing older, (and not having the time or energies to look), partly a valueing of certain civic institutions (the art gallery, "The Guardian", even the BBC), partly the self-ghettoisation that seems to create ever more wilful sub-niches (which my 15 year old self may have been enamoured by for a while, but would still have grown out of), but it seems harder than ever to resist the mainstream discourse.

The past we see frequently through the prism of now. So that we look at old football photographs of 40,000 on the terraces, and wonder what has changed when we've 40,000, paying much more per ticket, in the grounds. Yet, its not just that there's more money now, but that there's more everything. More people for a start; the population of these islands was 50 million in 1950, now its closer to 70 million; longer life of course - as expectancy continues to rise. We should be able to harness this, in ways that are yet unclear: is it the case that as populations grow they also have to homogenise, or is that the apparatus that was built for one type of society begins to stretch and strain - democratically, demographically and economically - as society changes? I have no answers, of course, and don't even want to look too far in that direction - I'm too old to be making manifestos, let alone sticking to them; yet I'm feeling conscious that in order to make my own role in the machine more palatable, then I have to not get absorbed further into that mainstream, but begin to repattern things so I'm no longer as absorbed by it.  

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Stoner by John Williams

"Stoner" was 2013's literary sensation, a bestseller across Europe - firstly in France - of a book that was first published in 1965. It tells the story of William Stoner, a bright boy from a poor farming family who becomes a student at the University of Missouri in 1910. His family want the best for him, but he initially goes to the university to study agricultural methods. During his first year there he takes a class in English Literature, and can't begin to understand it - and in that gap of understanding comes a lifelong passion, that sees him drop his original Major to study a field of the relatively arcane. His Professor realises that his love of the subject is ideal for further study, and this he duly undertakes, becoming a graduate student, then a tutor, and then a tenured academic at the same institution. He lives through the first half and a bit of the 20th century and Williams tells us the story of his life.

Emerson once wrote that the "mass of men live lives of quiet desperation" and William Stoner is unknowingly one of Emerson's sons. Yet, he has found a place in the world - even if its one that exists somewhat outside of the world, in the cloistered ivory tower of a University. Though the 20th century is there in backdrop - both World Wars take someone from his life, whilst the 1929 crash impoverishes and destroys his father-in-law - Williams wants to give us a very different kind of novel. This is a "campus" novel only in terms of its subject. Stoner's commitment to his work - to his vocation - is almost religious in its intensity, even as it becomes humdrum or distancing. We see his life in intense psychological detail - a sort of localised third person, which occasional strays to the perspective of others, but always comes back. His subject - the influence of the classical on renaissance literature is deliberately arcane, and when a particular student - a chancer who has no love or knowledge of the subject, but a great way of bluffing his way through - calls into question whether or not ancient figures can really be "influences" on greats like Shakespeare who may not have read them, there's a positioning of opposite worlds. If Stoner has echoes of a Casaubon, poring over his arcane texts, in reality Williams is giving us a character study of a minor hero in the midst of a dreadful century. Stoner is a toiler, not just in terms of understanding knowledge - but, as a teacher for 40 years, his research neglected as he falls foul of the University's politics - a disseminator of knowledge to generation upon generation of students. It is this quiet dignity that Williams so successful gets over; yet we are being asked not to just applaud this toil, but to wonder what kind of man Stoner was.

For this is a life story where the incident is slight. Like the brothers in Chatwin's "On the Black Hill" he rarely leaves home; and poor choices in terms of marriage and his stubborness about playing at University politics, means that his life is one that hardly deserves a telling - and that is Williams' brilliance in this quiet novel. For here is a life that at the very beginning he points out would not seem much to the younger colleagues and students that knew him, yet is as valid of our attention as that of a more heroic creature. Although there is something Jamesian about his accumulation of the psychological detail of Stoner's life, I'm also reminded, particularly in the first half of the novel, of Sherwood Anderson's small town America in "Winesburg, Ohio." Here too is a life that is not so much constrained by events, as unaware that it has any chains. Yet, Stoner himself is a strange amalgam of the determined and the devastated. Like many a self-made man, it is his lack of a sense of entitlement that sees him stay with Edith, his distant, mentally-unstable wife; or fall stubbornly foul of the English department's manipulative head, Lomax. If this was the American century, Willy Stoner sees very little of it. There's not a mention of any of the usual signs of modernity - cars, films, travel - and like Ishiguro's butler, we have not so much an everyman as a dogmatic loner.

Is Stoner a good man? The reader certainly roots for him; yet also despairs a little as he lets life happen to him - for in many ways he's selfish and unbending. His lack of communication at crucial points seems almost pathological - yet a contemporary anti-hero like Walter White in "Breaking Bad" has some similarities you feel. Here's a man trying to keep the one pure thing in his life - this love of a particular subject of human knowledge - against the crassness of the world. It is a heroism of sorts, even if he's well aware that what he's added to the world is so much less than he had hoped.

Williams is a sprightly writer, elegant sentences are on every page, and if there's an occasional Jamesian hubris to certain sections, its quickly shaken off. The novel, in many ways, is anti-modern - and I wonder whether this was both part of its relative obscurity, and it now returning to unexpected popularity? There's not a linguistic trick in the whole book. You can see why writers like McEwan, Barnes and McGahern have praised it, for it seems to be the kind of natural morality tale that our post-ironic age will hardly allow anymore, yet which books like "On Chesil Beach" struggled to achieve.

Its in many ways a sad book. For Stoner's life is one that seems curiously unemotional - a life of duty and dedication, in a world where such virtues are still preached but are out of fashion. When his old friend never comes back from the war, or his grown up daughter becomes an alcoholic, there's no sense of a world that could have been changed. In this - Stoner's the coldest of cold fish's, yet Williams portrays this man without sentiment; an everyman, yes, but also a unique man. In this sense its a highly humanist novel (is it notable that religion is entirely absent from these pages?)

One can only wonder at our need for such unadorned stories in the second decade of the 21st century, but having read it in a single sitting, I think "Stoner" resonates because its simply an excellently written novel, a quiet, powerful tale, that's perhaps more relevant now than when it was written half a century ago.