Category Archives: literature

Milkman / Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain

One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.

After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.

The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.

Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.

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Hush! Caution! Echoland!

It’s a cliché to speak of Ulysses as an endpoint, the culmination of the nineteenth century novel, finally bled dry of plot and incident and to a certain extent character (we only feel that we know Stephen and Bloom so well because we spend so much time with them) and erupting into a monstrous growth of period detail and stylistic parody. It’s not the last station on the line, but at least, unlike with Finnegans Wake, one can still pretend it’s something like a readable work of fiction.

But Ulysses was my gateway into mainstream literature: before that, excepting what I was forced to read for educational purposes, I’d only read science fiction and fantasy. Literature was too boring, just a bunch of normal people doing grown up stuff. Ulysses was different: the first handful of chapters were pretty slow and contained a great deal of matter relating to Thomas Aquinas which I let slide by in peaceful incomprehension. But once the newspaper headlines started in the seventh chapter it started to get fun, if not easier to understand.

So for me, it’s always felt like a starting point, not a conclusion. It’s not exactly a friendly introduction to the Western canon, but there’s a lot of writers I first heard of, or was exposed to parodies of, under its influence. And its attitude of “hey, keep up with this if you can”, the sense you get of being complicit with someone taking everything they knew about every book they’d ever read for a dance, is exhilarating.

This post started out as another very short science fiction story, which is what I usually post here on Bloomsday, but it felt like it was getting into territory I’ve covered too often: a sort of dystopian scenario where after the Singularity, or some parody thereof, the AIs really do reconstruct Dublin from Ulysses, and put a bunch of human consciousnesses in it, and it’s terrible, like being trapped in a Bloomsday costume party for all eternity. I gave it up because, for one thing, I was unconsciously plagiarising part of a short story by Ian Watson from the 80s called, I think, “The Bloomsday Revolutions”. (I thought of Ian Watson for the first time in years the other day. He’s a good writer, look him up if you get the chance.)

The other reason I stopped was that I’m weary of science fiction being about computers and AI. I think that the real event underlying the Singularity is the collapse of the sf imagination into the computational. Too many of my own attempts to write longer pieces of fiction have gotten stuck or faltered for the same reasons.

I was remembering Jorn Barger, the guy who coined the word ‘blog’ and had a kind of internet celebrity which then dissolved into anti-Semitism and silence. Barger was an autodidact Joyce fan and had a site called “IQ Infinity”, the central thesis of which was that in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce had solved AI, that through sheer brainpower he’d comprehended how the human mind worked. I don’t remember, if I ever really understood, exactly in what sense Barger thought that the works themselves constituted artificial intelligence: could one create the personality of “Leopold Bloom” from the text if it were somehow transformed into software? As another Joyce fanboy I can understand Barger’s reverent awe — without sharing it to that extent. And looked at dispassionately, it’s a ridiculous and self-infatuated idea: if only everyone else loved my favourite author as much as I do, they’d understand how consciousness works, too.

I was also thinking of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project, the origin of the term ‘hypertext’: I’d known about it for decades, and based on what I’d read of his writing at various times, I thought of him as a crank, embittered by the success of the web. Xanadu proposes a much more complex way of linking and embedding documents within one another, with links that go both ways, and an elaborate system of building a top-level document from a variety of sources. Having come across this summary by a recent participant made me sense, in an obscure way, the allure of this vision of a global network of interpenetrating words. But in another way, it feels nightmarish.

In my mind, Xanadu’s “transclusion” is a codified and rigid version of the sort of association of ideas which the reading mind does in a flexible way all by itself. All writing depends on this, but it’s essential to a text like Ulysses, and even more so Finnegans Wake. Rather than narrating, “Stephen thought about Aquinas’ doctrines of sense perception as he walked along Sandymount”, Joyce interpolates “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and so on, all those weird terms I didn’t understand the first time, leaving it to the reader to either follow the echoes, if they are aware of the reference, or, if not, to fold the unusual texts into their own memory, to be echoed later or in other texts.

I love this process: to some extent, what I’ve just described is what being literate means to me. But I enjoy doing it with my own mind, or letting my own mind do it for me, and the thought of it being made explicit, with coloured markers joining the texts in different columns, makes me queasy, as do the very few working xanalogical demos.

I should add that sometimes just reading Joyce gives me the same feeling of vertigo. There’s a central image, or nightmare, behind these different incarnations, a cousin of Borges’ total library, the idea of mind as a sort of infinite glossary. It makes sense that my imagination, in trying to come up with a response to Ulysses as Bloomsday comes around each year, would return to the machines with which I work, and the fantasy that one day they’ll be able to read our favourite books so well that they’ll bring them to life.

I often get the same feeling reading blogs from the rationalist and AI risk communities. I suspect that these are not so much a school of philosophy as a literary genre, in which people with a very particular form of intelligence — discursive, articulate, fond of numerical arguments, insistent that any discipline can either be reduced to economics or physics, or is empty or misleading — imagine, with the same kind of self-infatuation, that magnified forms of this form of intelligence will either save or wreck the world. Earlier this year, I got so compulsive about reading this kind of thing that I had to use a site-blocking extension to stop myself.

I console myself with the idea that Joyce, had he lived in our era, would have been very bad (one imagines with glee his towering contempt and exasperation) at using computers.

You Should Come With Me Now

M John Harrison, 2017, Comma Press

The first collection of Harrison’s short fiction since Things That Never Happen in the early noughties. I think it would make a very good introduction if you haven’t read him.

One way of looking at fantasy and sf is that they are about incursion. Something new, wonderful and frightening, enters the character’s world. Often it’s an obvious metaphor, especially in popular forms, for sex or the racial other, bureaucracies both private and public, but leave that aside for a moment and think about the seam between the fantastic and the real. Although even “seam” is too literal. I was fascinated, as a child, by the way in which you could distinguish the background painting from the animated figures in a cartoon, not just because the latter were moving, but because of their texture or grain. In the literature of the English-speaking world, we have strict border patrols between genres which do this and those which don’t, and even in those forms when the fantastic is permitted, there are a lot of conventions about how and in what way it manifests itself, about how the imaginary or the impossible is allowed to be imagined or narrated. It’s these, as much as the repetition of props and tropes, which can make genre fiction so dull even if you aren’t prejudiced against it.

One of the things I admire about Harrison is how he handles this disjunction, always with originality, with a kind of offhand deliberation that evades the usual rituals. Sometimes by making a liminal zone apparently explicit, like the first journey to the land of Autotelia, the focus of some of the longer stories in this collection: it’s literally referred to as “transition” by a guard announcing it on the train journey, but the standard lecture from either narrator or character, guided tours on the reader’s journey into strangeness, is absent. The verisimilitude of piled-up facts, internally consistent details and clever extrapolations is abandoned — it’s good to see that Harrison’s anger at worldbuilding is still burning bright, in the vignettes about the sordid and comical lives of the royal family of Elfland — what we get in exchange is something more valuable, in which the journey to an imaginary land takes on the unspoken and strange qualities of the boundaries (of work, home, between social roles) which we cross countless times every day.

Autotelia, like the city of Viriconium from earlier in Harrison’s career, is more convincing for being unexplained and multivalued. To me it echoes something of the relationship between England and continental Europe and between the developed world and its former colonies, while not being a literal metaphor for either of these. (For the fans: yes, there is a Viriconium story in the collection, and it’s a good one.)

There are a few novellas, many short stories and a number of even shorter pieces of fiction, which made their first appearances on Harrison’s blog. A bunch of terms occurred to me for these, the chummy old sf label “short-short”, “parable” or “epigram” or “microfiction”, but none of these seem suitable. Even the ones which at first glance are parodies of sf/f clichés, like the Elfland stories or “Earth Advengers”, have got something more disquieting and interesting happening if you pay attention.

The collection’s title is apt: not so much an invitation as a warning, with the implication that there’s no time to waste, and no promise of comfort. For a sample, here’s one of the stories in full: “The Crisis”

Mark E Smith

1957-2018

Bend Sinister was the first, after I heard “US 80s-90s” on Triple J, but I’m pretty sure that I read Mark E Smith’s writing before I’d heard a note of The Fall’s music, in a weird one-page article in a Christmas issue of the NME:

Do not fail to miss the view-perspective of Hoalingen Station that the recently extended Publex offers. Your host thereof is Stingdorf Carthwaite, 34, who will happily point out all the amusing quirks of the now obsolete industry that lies beneath your balcony in the bottom of Raddingron Valley. Sti, a retired mobile-Op, also doubles as MC (squared) – his Apple DX9 backing him up tremendously during his renditions of ZZT, Band-Aid & Videogame tunes of the ’80s.

– excerpt from YOUR PUBLEX / TRANSPORT MAP OF HOALINGEN STATION

                                                                                                                  (publ. 1998)

“Hark the Hoaly Lunatic”, New Musical Express, 1985

This brings back an eidetic memory of Guildford station where a westie nerd with affected clothing and manners had dutifully bought the rag, then at its Stalinist peak. This was beyond my wildest expectations. I remember standing stock still on the footbridge, wondering what the hell it was. It seemed to be science fiction — at that time I could only read sf and fantasy, other forms of literature seemed impossibly dull — but it was experimental, blending a sordid and ruinous reality with a cookie-monster-like appetite for cliches and banalities, like the New Wave authors I was already addicted to but without all the hippie crap. There’s a lot of dodgy racial stuff going on too, but I didn’t notice that at the time, it didn’t stand out against the cultural background of 1980s Sydney, I’m ashamed to say.

I think I understood barely one quarter of it but was dying to find out more, and so I bought Bend Sinister and then in a crate in Merrylands found In A Hole, which I had no way of knowing was an unauthorised bootleg and eventually kind of a rarity, a raucous and lo-fi live recording from their 1982 New Zealand tour. It sounded horrible and fascinating at first listen, and I got hooked. And became one of those Fall fans. You’ll know what I mean if you were around at the time.

In the last couple of months my son, who’s almost 18, has gotten into the Fall, or “the drunk guy”: this is the family name for him because it’s what the kids called him when they were much younger and heard him on the car stereo. So when the news broke that Mark E Smith had died and the kids were still over in the Americas on holiday, I got a couple of solicitous fb messages making sure I was ok. I was still upset about Ursula Le Guin the day before.

On Thursday my grief took the form of obsessively posting lyrics to Twitter and chasing up videos on YouTube, and listening to In a Hole and his 2007 collaboration with Mouse on Mars before I went to bed. Then on Friday morning I watched the video for “Hit the North”, which isn’t their greatest work but the music video is tongue-in-cheek and cute, and I lost it, just wept.

A lot of people describe the Fall’s sound as annoying but then there were the fans. It’s not without reason that MES wrote more songs attacking the people who bought his records than any other artist I can think of. There was a time in the late 80s when me and a friend communicated exclusively in Fall quotes, WHAT’S A COMPUTER? EAT Y’SELF FITTER! WHAT YOU NEED, AN OVEN MITT, FOR YOUR VERBOSE KITCHEN until our peers intervened with threats of violence. It’s like Monty Python for indie wankers, it gets into your system, although the class background is miles apart, music hall rather than university revues. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that MES has more than a little in common with Spike Milligan: acute intelligence, well outside the Oxbridge culture pipeline, a knack for absurdism and catchphrase, gifted parodist of the degenerate language of bureaucracy, tends to crack up at own jokes, fairly awful racial politics.

After the early 90s I lost touch, I was trying to fix my own mental health problems. Being an angry young man is a real fucking trap if you’ve got depression, and the spite and fire of MES were entangled with too much of what I was trying to get rid of. The closest I’ve got to knowing what the Fall sound like to a non-fan, just bitterness and meaningless in-jokes. But I came back eventually, catching up on the best of the post-90s stuff on the 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong compilation, downloading my favourites on iTunes because I can’t play vinyl any more.

There’s no way to brazen this out and pretend that it’s not nostalgia, but the voice in my head scolding me for this is that impossible-to-satisfy ideal from my youth, a kind of Stakhanovism of artistic cool, never look back, keep your eyes locked on the gleaming horizon of future creative genius. “Are you still doing what you did last year,” as MES scolded a fan who gobbed on him at a gig in the punk years. It was always a bit ridiculous, especially if you were from the arse end of the planet.

But here’s the thing: MES actually did it. He was inspirational. On the second album he sang a line adapted from William Blake, “I must create a new scheme / or live by another man’s”, and he was an autodidactic smartarse from Manchester who actually forged his own vision of the world. It may seem perverse but despite the snarling vitriol and wilful obfuscation there’s a generosity to this, the line he scribbled on the cover of Hex Enduction Hour, ‘HAVE A BLEEDING GUESS’ was an invitation as well as a threat.

It collapsed in on itself, sped onwards by drink — I saw them live in 2010 and it was better than I expected but also upsetting because he looked ruined, and the last track on the album I bought after that show, Your Future Our Clutter, felt prophetic of his dissolution: “The whirlpools get wider and wider,” he whispers over a distorted buzz. “You don’t deserve rock ’n’ roll.” The one thing he always believed in. I haven’t been game to listen to that track since he died.

Ursula K Le Guin

1929-2018

One of my resolutions this year was to be a bit more alive to coincidence, which is the only sort of magic I believe in. And then two of my favourite artists, Ursula Le Guin and Mark E Smith of The Fall, leave within a day of one another. (I imagine the universe saying, sardonically, “don’t say I never give you nothing.”)

There are more weird symmetries here. I discovered both Le Guin and the Fall when I was in high school but really went into overdrive about them when I was at uni. With both there was a long fallow period in my thirties when I turned away from them. And I’ve lately shared my love of them with two of my three kids, one per twin. I was going to put both in the one blog post, but this one got too big, so Mark E will have to wait.

After I gave my daughter the Earthsea quartet for a birthday a few years ago, she got me to admit that I had never read The Left Hand of Darkness, so I read it while she was studying it for the HSC last year, and one memory of 2017 which will stay with me is the regular idea-bouncing/ranting/fangirling sessions we had while I cooked dinner on Wednesday evenings.

I don’t mind that I came to Left Hand late. Calvino says that there are classics you should put aside so that you can read them for the first time as an adult, not that I did this deliberately, but there are lots of aspects of the novel which I would have taken for granted when I was younger. It’s justly famous for its interrogation of gender, but that aside, Gethen is one of the most detailed and convincing planets in science fiction, and the gender themes are only one aspect of its portrayal of a relatively advanced human civilisation on a planet locked in an ice age, where politics has taken different but still familiar directions than it has on Earth. The book is a subtle example of the sort of modernist collage which I think comes from John Dos Passos, of weaving in-universe documents into the text, not as obtrusively as John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar but just as effectively.

Last year I also re-read the first four Earthsea books, and didn’t quite find myself as swept away as I was at thirteen or fourteen, but that’s to be expected, and I still love them. Far more imaginative than the average high fantasy setting, and they contain as rich a description of mortality as anything I’ve read in science fiction and fantasy. One of my abiding memories of my adolescent reading of the books is that they made me aware of death in a way which I hadn’t before, as something at once intimate and distant. Mortality is one of the weak spots of both sides of the conjoined genre of sf&f; science fiction, in particular, tends to see death as either a bug which can be hacked, or the occasion for some Picard platitudes about how it makes us truly human. There are elements of the latter in Le Guin but I think she goes beyond that into something visionary. The Dry Land is not exactly a place of consolation.

Another good thing about the Earthsea books which I missed as a kid is that each of them is a separate novel, with its own register and style. In most of the high fantasy I’ve read, each text is a section of one large book, which in recent times threatens to outrun the ability and lifespan of the author. Each of the Earthsea books shows us its world and characters from a perspective which is distinctive and appropriate to the nature of the story. This is most apparent in Tehanu, published twenty-odd years after the first three, and a breathtakingly good feminist interrogation of high fantasy in general, but it’s already evident in the first three books.

I haven’t read either The Dispossessed or The Lathe of Heaven since I was a student: I think I’ll make time for both soon. The latter is a bit underrated, I remember it as a witty and frightening satire of utopian thought, mingled effectively with a meditation on dreaming.

I look back over what I’ve written here and it feels like I’ve used chatter about technique to obscure how I felt when I found out that Le Guin had died. My kids are overseas, at the tail end of a month-long holiday with their mum and stepdad to celebrate the end of the HSC, and the thought of my daughter finding out that Le Guin had died when we were apart made me cry uncontrollably. I made a joke about this on Twitter and Facebook, but now that I’m trying to write about how it made me feel with a bit more honesty, I feel dried up. They’re coming home tomorrow, and I may be better able to express it after that. Or that this flat sadness, which I trust will also pass, is not something which I’m capable of expressing.

Look, there’s also this: ever since I learned that Joyce died in 1941 I’ve had a kind of obsession with people whose lives end in the middle of great events, it seems like a peculiarly touching aspect of how our lives work within history. The idea that Le Guin is unable to see how the current moment in the United States works out is one of the things that made me sob, but she was more far-sighted than that, and her works are one of the things that give me courage: that much which they may tear down can be rebuilt, that it took utopian dreams to build it in the first place.

Castles in the Sky

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Kepler satellite, tasked with the meticulous examination of thousands of stars to detect the minute dips in intensity which are caused by the transits of their planets, has detected something odd about the light curve of KIC 8462852. (It’s customary in popular journalistic accounts of this sort of thing to make a sarcastic crack at the fact that the star is known by a catalogue number rather than a name, to which I want to respond, ok, you think up names for the 2.5 million or so stars now known to science, if you’re so smart.) The objects orbiting KIC 8462852 are more numerous than is expected of planets, but inconsistent with the star’s observed age: young stars are surrounded by swarms of dust and rubble, but this star’s spectrum indicates that it’s mature. The objects might be debris from a planetary collision which we are just lucky enough to observe before all the fragments have dispersed, or they might be a large family of comets – the hypothesis favoured by the scientists who, with the help of amateur observers, brought the phenomenon to the press’s attention. But the idea that’s got the article retweeted is far more engaging: alien megastructures.

In a fictional setting, I like a megastructure as much as the next guy: the Death Star, the Other, Larger, Death Star, that big cloud or whatever in the Star Trek film that started out as a space probe. Not to mention the even more grandiose offerings of science fiction novels: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and its descendants in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama, down to the drastic reconfigurations of the Solar System undertaken in Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy.

Megastructures, however, straddle that strange territory between science fiction and, if not exactly science fact, then at least science I’ve-got-tenure-so-let’s-see-how-big-these-brain-farts-can-get. The theoretical musings of physicists such as Freeman Dyson, whose eponymous Sphere is a shell constructed in order to capture the entire energy output of a star. Or the Anderson Disk: a circular plate the size of the orbit of Mars, with a hole conveniently placed in the centre in which a sun suffers the indignity of bobbing up and down to provide a day-night cycle. The epitome of this mindset is the Kardashev Scale, formulated by a Russian astronomer in 1964, which rates civilisations on their ability to marshal the energy output of their entire planet (I), their star (II) and their home galaxy (III).

This mode of speculative cosmic architecture is usually recounted with a poker-faced seriousness which goes beyond the fun of science fiction into something stranger and more touching: a deep and unrequited nostalgia for that Heroic Age of Insane Infrastructure, the twentieth century. In a world where both sides of the Cold War contemplated using fission bombs as the world’s least environmentally-friendly earthmoving technology, reprocessing the planet Mercury as the raw material for a sun cosy is just the logical next step. It’s also a displacement of the colonial engineer’s ambitions, thwarted by environmentalism on this world, set free to rend asunder the rest of the Solar System without restraint.

Leaving aside the fact that no known or even hypothetical material has the strength to throw hoops around stars or build artificial moons, none of the scientists, and very few of the science-fiction writers, ever address the social or economic transformations which would be needed to organise any of this. The further we get from the fever of the Cold War, the more the prospect of industrial societies organising any project larger than a cluster of skyscrapers seems to dwindle; on a planet where the nation with the largest economy seems to be forgetting how to maintain its road bridges, it’s hard to imagine, even if we were given the technology and an unlimited budget, how we could sustain the focussed attention required to build even a modest space elevator before we got bored and switched over to Netflix.

Which is why, of course, megastructures are almost always built by aliens (or, in the admirable works of Finnish sf author Hannu Rajaniemi, a particularly brutal and industrious clade of post-humans). Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International stands as the minatory architectural ghost of utopian communism, and it could be that the space-entrepreneurial plans of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will serve future generations as a virtual memorial of capitalism. But aliens—who, like robots, are a sort of dumping-ground of wistful but incorrect ideas about our own capacities—never faced these disappointments; their Tatlin’s Towers reach all the way to the stars.

In fiction, megastructures are usually abandoned, enigmatic and perilous, and when we read pop-sci articles which treat them as a serious possibility, we should remember their true nature as aesthetic objects: the grandest incarnation of the statue of Ozymandias that our culture has yet produced. In his novel The Pastel City, M John Harrison wrote of the empires that preceded his beautiful and melancholy city of Viriconium:

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but noone who came later could read it.

Mindlessness

She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type.

I propose a literary parlour game: for an author you dislike, find a sentence that most economically exhibits the qualities for which you dislike them. The game takes its title from the above passage from D. H. Lawrence’s “Samson and Delilah”, the presence of which only slightly mars NYRB Classic’s edition of Randall Jarrell’s Book of StoriesThe passage seems to me to epitomise Lawrence’s worst qualities – stylistic clumsiness, judgemental pomposity, and a tendency to erupt into nineteenth-century race nonsense at the slightest provocation.