Saturday, August 25, 2007

Flann O'Brien - The Dalkey Archive

Hopefully I can keep this post a good deal shorter than the Knut Hamsun review – the trouble is, classic novels seem to have a symbiotic relationship with long, semi-academic introductions. However, Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive isn’t a classic book, although you could say it’s written by a classic author. Flann O’Brien is probably my favourite Irish author, being as he was essentially a comedic Joyce. Not that James Joyce didn’t have his moments of levity, but he never exactly threatened to engulf the reader in hilarity, which is often what Flann O’Brien’s novels do.

Flann O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan; forced to adopt a literary pseudonym due to his occupation as an Irish civil servant, he also wrote voluminously in newspapers under the even more ridiculous alias of Myles na Gopaleen) wrote in the middle of the last century, The Dalkey Archive being published in 1964 shortly before his death two years later. O’Brien was a gifted, creative and very funny novelist, albeit also an often drink-sodden one (see my previous contribution to literary theory here). Part travelling in the shadow of Joyce, part mired in his own bitterness and cynicism, his body of work nevertheless still stands out as some of the freshest and most original parts of Irish literature.

So what is The Dalkey Archive? To my mind, it is the most accessible of Flann O’Brien’s works. The posthumously published The Third Policeman (which recently had its cult status re-ignited by a connection to the plot of Lost; I’m not a follower of that show, but I’d hazard a guess that that both works are probably equally as difficult to follow) while perhaps even funnier in its surreal fantasy, lacks the ordinary charm of The Dalkey Archive. And in comparison with his heavily Joyce-influenced 1939 debut, At Swim Two-Birds, The Dalkey Archive is eminently more readable.

In a way, The Dalkey Archive is a detective novel, or at least a pastiche thereof. At the same time, it is a gloriously daft, surreal comic fantasy, not to mention an ingenious satire on Irish drama. Perhaps also it is a portrait of the old-fashioned world then to be found in Dalkey, a suburban village on the outskirts of Dublin city. Trams, priests and of course pubs abound. Variety and familiarity characterise this novel – variety, because of the comedy and surreal happenings of the novel, and familiarity because of the quintessentially Irish characters and cultural setting.

It might help to mention here that three main characters in the book are, in order of appearance: De Selby, a mad scientist living in peaceful solitude by the sea in Dalkey; Sergeant Fottrell, the senior policeman in the village with deep metaphysical suspicion regarding bicycles (see below); and Joyce himself, not dead but living an anonymous existence in the rather unexciting tourist resort of Skerries, some way north of Dublin. These excellent comic sketches revolve around the comparatively straightforward protagonist; ‘Mick’, an abstemious, earnest young civil servant and heavily ironic alter ego of the author, whose devious interference in disparate and rather implausible events only adds an extra gloss to the intricate humour of the novel.

In short, The Dalkey Archive is a cheerfully daft yet breathlessly readable novel of madcap happenings in an archaic, though not entirely dated culture. The extract below, I hope, should give an indication of the genius of this book: it seems, even to me, to be difficult in this dialogue to distinguish the typical Hibernian idiom from the daft (and arguably even more typically Hibernian) surrealism. Believe me, Irish people do, or at least once did, actually talk like this… particularly when they had ‘a drop taken’, as they say!

The sergeant beckoned the waitress, ordered a barley wine for himself and a small bottle of ‘that’ for his friend. Then he leaned forward confidentially.

- Did you ever discover or hear tell of mollycules? he asked.

- I did of course.

- Would it surprise or collapse you to know that the Mollycule Theory is at work in the parish of Dalkey?

- Well… yes and no.

- It is doing terrible destruction, he continued, the half of the people is suffering from it, it is worse than the smallpox.

- Could it not be taken in hand by the Dispensary Doctor or the National Teachers, or do you think it is a matter for the head of the family?

- The lock, stock and barrel of it all, he replied almost fiercely, is the County Council.

- It seems like a complicated thing all right.

The sergeant drank delicately, deep in thought.

- Michael Gilhaney, a man I know, he said finally, is an example of a man that is nearly banjaxed from the operation of the Mollycule Theory. Would it astonish you ominously to hear that he is in danger of being a bicycle?

Mick shook his head in polite incomprehension.

- He is nearly sixty years of age by plain computation, the sergeant said, and if he is itself, he has spent no less than thirty-five years riding his bicycle over the rocky roadsteads and up and down the pertimious hills and into the deep ditches when the road goes astray in the strain of the winter. He is always going to a particular destination or other on his bicycle at every hour of the day or coming back from there at every other hour. If it wasn’t that his bicycle was stolen every Monday he would be sure to be more than halfway now.

- Halfway to where?

- Halfway to being a bloody bicycle himself.

Had Sergeant Fottrell for once betrayed himself in drunken rambling? His fancies were usually amusing but not so good when they were meaningless. When Mick said something of the kind the sergeant stared at him impatiently.

- Did you ever study the Mollycule Theory when you were a lad? he asked. Mick said no, not in any detail.

- That is a very serious defalcation and an abstruse exacerbation, he said severely, but I’ll tell you the size of it. Everything is composed of small molecules of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable various other routes too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. Do you follow me intelligently? Mollycules?

- I think I do.

- They are as lively as twenty punky leprechauns doing a jig on the top of a flat tombstone. Now take a sheep. What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around doing intricate convulsions inside the baste. What else is it but that?

- That would be bound to make the sheep dizzy, Mick observed, especially if the whirling was going on inside the head as well.

The sergeant gave him a look which no doubt he would describe as one of non-possum and noli-me-tangere.

- That’s a most foolhardy remark, he said sharply, because the nerve-strings and the sheep’s head itself are whirling into the same bargain and you can cancel out one whirl against the other and there you are – like simplifying a division sum when you have fives above and below the bar.

- To say the truth I did not think of that.

- Mollycules is a very intricate theorem and can be worked out with algebra but you would want to take it by degrees with rulers and cosines and familiar other instruments and then at the wind-up not believe what you had proved at all. If that happened you would have to go back to over it till you got a place where you could believe your own facts and figures as exactly delineated from Hall and Knight’s Algebra and then go on again from that particular place till you had the whole pancake properly believed and not have bits of it half-believed or a doubt in your head hearting you like when you lose the stud of your shirt in the middle of your bed.

- Very true, Mick decided to say.

- If you hit a rock hard enough and often enough with an iron hammer, some mollycules of the rock will go into the hammer and contrariwise likewise.

- That is well known, he agreed.

- The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of the parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the mollycules of each of them, and you would be surprised at the number of people in country parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles.

Mick made a little gasp of astonishment that made a sound like the air coming from a bad puncture.

- Good Lord, I suppose you’re right.

- And you would be unutterably flibbergasted if you knew the number of stout bicycles that partake serenely of the humanity.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Knut Hamsun - Hunger

Knut Hamsun's Hunger is, quite seriously, Fight Club coming straight from the 1890s. Some argue that it was the inspiration, effectively, for the books that were in themselves the inspiration for Fight Club and all that other bleak post-modern jazz. This, then, is the bleakest of them all.

“One of the most disturbing novels in existence” says Time Out, and they’re not far off. Hunger, or Sult in Norwegian, was written in 1890 by Hamsun, a Norwegian novelist who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. His many other novels attracted much critical praise, although none were stylistically as direct and uncompromising as Hunger.

Hunger is the crux of Hamsun’s claims to mastery. This is the classic novel of humiliation, even beyond Dostoevsky” says the Observer. Hunger is the deeply painful, despairing account of a young writer, existing on the edge of starvation, which blends physical intensity with a psychological paranoia. Its central – and effectively only – character is deeply unsympathetic, and indeed mentally unstable. Throughout, the demoralising, debilitating effects of hunger are written with uncomfortable vividness. What little hope the sparse plot may occasionally offer is dashed with tremendous unfeeling, so that the novel exists only in the monotony of despair. Such is its power, its profundity of effect, its sheer absence of positive relief, that the novel should not be described as merely disturbing, but also as peculiarly vicious.

Such is Hunger's status as a cult classic that it has recently been republished in an updated format, borrowing for its cover design the traditional imagery of the modern thrillers which it so overbearingly resembles. This 2006 Canongate edition features, in addition to the definitive Lyngstad translation (previous attempts erred heavily in the translation of Hamsun’s style), an excellent introduction by Paul Auster. Those of you familiar with Paul Auster will know that that makes it a work of art in itself, but in addition to an excellent lyrical portrait of the book, his introduction delves quite astutely into the literary and philosophical qualities of the novel. From the neutral, characterless facts which make up the structure and plot of the book, ‘the bare bones’, it follows primarily for Auster that Hunger: “….is a work devoid of plot, action and – but for the narrator – character. By nineteenth century standards, it is a work in which nothing happens. The radical subjectivity of the narrator effectively eliminates the basic concerns of the traditional novel.”

Hunger has become for many one of the first modernist books, using its radical differences to portray its central character in an astoundingly novel manner. Or as the Irish Times says, it is “…A work of pioneering modernism… black, funny, evocative, exasperating. A magical and terrible insight into the human soul.”

The elements which define Hunger as a uniquely modern work are many and diverse, but not completely obscure. It is a novel partly of nihilism, of existentialism and, in many ways, of sheer emptiness. The tale of starvation, as Auster notes, has no “redeeming social value”; although “it puts us in the jaws of misery, it offers no analysis of that misery, contains no call to political action”. It is debatable whether the novel brushes with pseudo- or proto-Nietzschean ideas, especially as Hamsun “who turned fascist in his old age during the Second World War” turns out to be a pretty despicable guy. Yet Hunger is so wildly cynical, so tragically comic and so utterly cutting that it would be hard to square it with any kind of fascist or semi-fascist ideology. Its central character is both maniacally deluded and pathetically weak, subsisting in a life of total physical and spiritual poverty, so that he could hardly be seen as some kind of super-man.

Perhaps, as a novel of survival and unflinching realism, Hunger may well be an artfully exaggerated masterpiece of modern auto-biography. However, as Auster remarks, making an interesting comparison to Joyce’s own masterpiece:

Hunger; or the portrait of the artist as a young man. But it is an apprenticeship that has little in common with the early struggles of other writer. Hamsun’s hero is no Stephen Dedalus, and there is hardly a word in Hunger about aesthetic theory. The world of art has been translated into the world of the body – and the original text has been abandoned. Hunger is not a metaphor; it is the very crux of the problem itself.”

The modernism of this novel derives equally from its style as it does from its content. Hunger is a relentlessly subjective book, inhabiting all the follies and duplicities of its protagonist’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. Existential, and nihilistic, it abandons many of the fixed notions of traditional literature – again, as Auster says:

“Historical time is obliterated in favour of inner duration. With only an arbitrary beginning and an arbitrary ending, the novel faithfully records the vagaries of the narrator’s mind, following each thought from its mysterious inception all through all its meanderings, until it dissipates and the next thought begins. What happens is allowed to happen.”

Finally, it is the radical nature of this novel which ultimately assures it its power and status; a potent combination of abstraction and realism derived from nothing less than the rejection of all tradition and assumption, until there is no existence or meaning left; and for Hamsun or his character “there is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.”

Auster’s introduction in the modern edition, from which I have rather too liberally quoted here, was in fact originally written in 1970. My own first introduction to the book was actually from the 1999 Rebel Inc. anthology Rebel Yell: A Century of Underground Classics. It contained a series of introductions and short excerpts from a selection of cult classics, amongst which was Hamsun’s Hunger. The introduction there, by Donald MacLean, was equally superb, an enthusiastic paean to a book which, if it “were published today… would seem like the work of an exciting new voice, a voice by turns startingly direct and seductively lyrical”. Like Auster, he explores the subjectivity, immediacy and literary nihilism of the novel, and digresses into the controversial issue of Hamsun’s own personality, but at base he seeks only to enthuse on the intensity of Hunger.

Here below is an extract, roughly the second half of the excerpt printed in Rebel Yell. Little more needs to be said, except to note that Hunger is as relevant today as it was over a century ago, and the whole novel still proves as powerful, and as disturbing, as any of the other thrillers that abounds in modern literature. Enjoy!

"I had fallen asleep where I lay and was awakened by the policeman. There I was, mercilessly called back to life and my misery. My first feeling was a stupid amazement at finding myself out in the open, but this was soon replaced by a bitter despondency; I was on the verge of crying with grief at still being alive. It had rained while I slept, my clothes were soaking wet, and I felt a raw chill in my limbs. The darkness had become even thicker, I could barely make out the officer’s features in front of me.

‘Stand up now, will you!’ he said.

I got up immediately; if he had ordered me to lie down again, I would also have obeyed. I was very depressed and quite weak, and besides I started almost instantly to feel the pangs of hunger again.

‘Wait a minute, you dummy!’ the officer called after me. ‘You’re walking off without your hat. There, now go on!’

‘It seemed to me too there was something I had forgotten,’ I stammered absent-mindedly. ‘Thanks. Good night.’

And I shambled off.

If only one had a piece of bread! One of those delicious little loaves of rye bread that you could munch on as you walked the streets. And I kept picturing to myself just the sort of rye bread it would have been good to have. I was bitterly hungry, wished myself dead and gone, grew sentimental and cried. There would never be an end to my misery! Then I stopped suddenly in the street, stamped my feet on the cobblestones and swore aloud. What was it he had called me? Dummy? I’d show that policeman what it meant to call me a dummy! With that I turned around and rushed back. I felt flaming hot with anger. Some way down the street I stumbled and fell, but I took no notice, jumped up again and ran on. On reaching Jærnbanetorvet Square, however, I was so tired that I didn’t feel up to going all the way to the pier; besides, my anger had cooled off during the run. Finally I stopped to catch my breath. Who cared a hoot what such a policeman had said? - Sure, but I wasn’t going to swallow everything! – True enough! I interrupted myself, but he didn’t know any better. I found this excuse to be satisfactory; I repeated to myself that he didn’t know any better. And so I turned around once more.

God, the sort of ideas you get! I thought angrily: running around like a madman on sopping-wet streets in the dark of night! My hunger pains were excruciating and didn’t leave me for a moment. I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help. I hadn’t had enough to eat for many, many weeks before this thing came up, and my strength had diminished considerably lately. When I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a five-krone bill by some manoeuvre or other, the money generally didn’t last me long enough for my health to be fully restored before a new hunger spell descended upon me. My back and shoulders had borne the brunt of it; I could stop that gnawing pain in my chest for a moment by coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over, but there was nothing I could do for my back and shoulders. Anyway, why didn’t my prospects simply brighten up? Didn’t I have the same right to life as anyone else, like Pascha the second-hand bookdealer, or Hennechen the steamship agent? Didn’t I have the shoulders of a giant and two stout arms for work, and hadn’t I even applied for a job as a woodcutter on Møller Street to earn my daily bread? Was I lazy? Hadn’t I applied for work and listened to lectures and written reviews and plugged away like crazy day and night? And hadn’t I lived like a miser, eaten bread and milk when I had plenty, bread when I had little, and gone hungry when I had nothing? Did I live in a hotel, did I have a suite on the ground floor? I lived in a godforsaken loft, a tinsmith’s shop abandoned by everybody and his brother last winter because it snowed in there. So I couldn’t make head nor tail of the whole situation.

I was thinking about all this as I walked along, and there wasn’t as much as a spark of malice, envy or bitterness in my thoughts..."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Keith Hemmerling - Law School Suicide (**Guest Post!**)

“You’re not gonna know who you’re watching up here, a madman or just a guy trying to make a whole lotta hell out of a bad situation…a whole lotta heaven. My name is Caulfield Dean and I make up movies in my mind…”

Caulfield Dean, CD A

This is a kind of departure from the usual posts here. Law School Suicide is a four CD set released by a singer-songwriter named Keith Hemmerling through some sort of entity called the Damien Stone Theatrical Company. Keith Hemmerling plays Caulfield Dean, Caulfield Dean is the main character in this story, Caulfield Dean wrote the story, Caulfield Dean is Damien Stone’s real name and so is Keith Hemmerling. All, some or none of this is true. Confusing, eh?

This is not a book.

This is not a play, although it is called one.

This is not an album, although it is a CD set.

It is not music but it contains music.

It is like nothing you have ever heard before.

The mystery of who Keith Hemmerling is and why he did what he has done is one of the eternal questions I think that will never be fully explained. All we know is the information that he has provided about himself, what we can deduce from his songs and writings and the fragments of art we still have. He came from nowhere and then returned, leaving us with scraps of videos, references to his literature on the subject of mental health and ten known albums released between 2000 and 2003. What we know is that Keith Hemmerling seems to be a recovered heroin addict with manic depressive bi-polar disorder, who spent much of his life in and out of whore-houses and working in sex-shows.

The story begins as a thinly veiled autobiography, detailing the relationship between Caulfield Dean, a singer-songwriter in law-school in Virginia, and his friend and classmate Alee. From the beginning Dean launches into an epic soliloquy that races from suicide to mental telepathy, briefly stopping off at jealousy, sports and James Dean. This is not only a blistering performance from Hemmerling that instantly creates a vivid and real character in the listeners mind, but also upsets our sense of reality. Dean’s first line sets himself up as an unreliable narrator. But we are told two things; firstly, all you must decide if he is telling the truth about this story and secondly, he made up the entire story in the Bar examination of 1979. As the story progresses layers of contradiction and confusion amount and as the storyline spirals out of control, reaching such levels of absurdity that we will be forced to question the very nature of the piece and its narrator.

The medium that this work uses is so unique that Hemmerling is free to experiment in a way that would be unfeasible using the mediums of literature, drama or music alone. Law School Suicide lurches uncontrollably through places, times and ultimately through reality and fantasy, becoming increasingly erratic as the listener realizes the extent of Dean/Hemmerling’s mental illness. Large amounts of time focus on instrumental passages with Hemmerling messing around on the guitar with no structure in mind, twenty minute long stream-of-consciousness speeches sprawl into unknown territories, pieces of tape cut out mid-stream due to “bad” editing and at one stage Hemmerling breaks down mid sentence and screams at his sound engineer.

But there is more to Law School Suicide than just its strangeness. It is a complex look at metal illness; it also has one of the funniest speeches ever written in the form of a music publisher’s rant (“the lyrics used to be important when they were printed on the album – but no one can read anymore…stick to the audience, you know they are one-syllable-people”); but most striking of all, it gives the character of Alee a level of realism and density that is extremely rare even in many character based works of literature, even while this entire exposition takes place in one phone message.

A unique masterpiece that still defies explanation or understanding, Law School Suicide cements Keith Hemmerling as the most unusual and innovative artists of all time. At the moment information about where Keith is, he has not released any more music to my knowledge since 2004’s The War in Zevon. One may never truly understand Hemmerling but somehow that’s part of the attraction.

Caulfield Dean, Damien Stone, the art of Erica Escobar, Forty-Deuce; the sex shows of old Time Square, the butterfly tattoo, the Minnesota pipeline, drugs, therapy, whore-Madonna complexes and the law-school student who suicided last year. The music of Keith Hemmerling inhabits its own universe, one that is as beautiful as it is inexplicable.

(Review written by 'mr x, indeed')




CD D (with cover art)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Charles Bukowski - Hot Water Music

The sun shone through the window. It was just before noon. Hot water gurgled through the pipes of the building.

Hank Chinaski got up, went to the bathroom, and vomited.

He came back into the living room, and cracked open a warm beer.

He drank it, then decided to update his blog.

"Shit,” thought Hank, “that didn’t sound right.”

If you’ve ever had a hangover, you’ll like this book.

Charles (or Chuck) Bukowski was a German-American writer, somewhat in the style of the Beat generation authors of the 1950s. He lived in Los Angeles for most of his life, and apparently enjoyed it some of the time. Best known perhaps for his novels such as Post Office, Factotum and Ham on Rye, he also wrote widely in poetry and short prose. This collection, Hot Water Music, first published in 1983, is one of his later works. He died in 1994, at the ripe old age of 74, which is pretty impressive, considering.

Bukowski's life and literature (in good old Beat style, seemingly inseparable) revolved around drinking, writing, fucking, arguing, more drinking and sleeping everyday until noon. Simultaneously, he was one of the most, honest, sympathetic characters in modern iterature (often through his lyrically named alter ego, Hank Chinaski) as well as a callous blackguard and general dirty old man.

The secret to Bukowski’s work, as with almost all good literature, lies with what might be called the creative impulses, or literary stimulants. Chief among all such is the substance of alcohol, as a brief survey of 20th century writing easily illustrates. Irish literature, which birthed the modern novel through James Joyce’s Ulysses, is especially notable in this respect. It has subsisted on its own steady diet of stout/porter and whiskey (barley malt, not rye) for several generations and counting. A significant proportion of Ulysses occurs within the walls of public houses, while Flann O’Brien made copious use of the Guinness advertising slogan “a pint of plain is your only man” in his debut Joycean-homage novel of 1939, At Swim Two-Birds and, in later life, attempted to get a contract to get paid to write a potted history of the whiskey distillery industry.

American literature is hardly much different. F. Scott Fitzgerald was never much more than a creator of martinis in book form. Kerouac, a sometime fervent Joycean, nevertheless had the purity of his message somewhat distorted and reshaped by the differing stimulants of Benzedrine and marijuana. And Bukowski, of course, was the ultimate barfly. Yet Bukowski took the progress of English language literature another step further, with the focus not so much on the effect of inebriation as on the impulse of being chronically hungover.

And that, pretty much, is the secret to Chuck Bukowski. Of course, it’s all a little bit facetious - or, as the man would have said himself, “Balls!”

As for the stories themselves, Bukowski has an astounding variety. Most of them do follow a kind of consistent Beat/lowlife mien, but he constantly switches between styles of narration (first person, alter-ego, or Joe Bloggs everyman), situations and even mood (okay, mostly he riffs on cynicism… but occasionally he forays into the elegiac). Bukowski is also consistently, and bitingly, hilarious, and you’re unlikely to get bored or jaded reading his stories.

Earlier Bukowski work featured a bit more surrealism, and often adapted his mien to the zaniness of classic science fiction (e.g., ‘The Gut-Wringing Machine’, or ‘Dr. Nazi’). His 1973 collection, South of No North, provides a good example of this earlier style.

In addition, the vast majority of Bukowski’s work involves, in some way or other, the scatological, the pornographic or the downright obscene. This collection alone contains not one, but two separate stories of mutilated penises (‘Not Quite Bernadette’, and ‘Praying Mantis’). The two extracts below, as it happens, don’t contain anything of particular crudity (well, except for the doberman… but read on). It’s not that I’m prudish, it pretty much just worked out that way when I was choosing them.

Finally, I am hesitant (perhaps gladly) to indulge in much literary criticism here, chiefly because of an internal Bukowski shouting “Balls!” at anything too arch. These books are meant to be enjoyed intuitively, not critically. But, there are two dynamics which I feel are a good way of looking Bukowski’s humour, particularly amongst the arcs of his desultory short stories: first, making the mundane farcical, and second, making the farcical mundane. These short stories tend invariably to follow one or other of these dynamics. These two extracts make a good illustration:


Valoff did have a fairly interesting face – compared to most poets. But compared to most poets almost everybody has.

Victor Valoff began:

"East of the Suez of my heart

begins a buzzing buzzing buzzing

sombre still,still sombre

and suddenly Summer comes home

straight on through like a

Quarterback sneak on the one yard line of my heart!"

Victor screamed the last line and as he did so somebody behind me said, “Beautiful!” It was a local feminist poet who had grown tired of blacks and now fucked a doberman in her bedroom. She had braided red hair, dull eyes, and played a mandolin while she read her work. Most of her work involved something about a dead baby’s footprint in the sand. She was married to a doctor who was never around (at least he had the good sense not to attend poetry readings). He gave her a large allowance to support her poetry and to feed the doberman.

Valoff continued:

“Docks and ducks and derivative day

Ferment behind my forehead

in a most unforgiving way

o, in a most unforgiving way

I sway through the light and darkness…”

“I’ve got to agree with him there,” I told Vicki.

“Please be quiet,” she answered.

“With one thousand pistols and one thousand hopes

I step onto the porch of my mind

to murder one thousand Popes!”

I found my half pint, uncapped it and took a good hit.

“Listen,” said Vicki, “you always get drunk at these readings. Can’t you contain yourself?”

“I get drunk at my own readings,” I said. “I can’t stand my stuff either.”

Gummed mercy,” Valoff went on, “that’s what we are, gummed mercy, gummed gummed gummed mercy…

“He’s going to say something about a raven,” I said.

Gummed mercy,” continued Valoff, “and the raven forevermore…

I laughed. Valoff recognized the laugh. He looked down at me. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “in the audience tonight we have the poet Henry Chinaski.”

Little hisses were heard. They knew me. “Sexist pig!” “Drunk!” “Motherfucker!”

I took another drink. “Please continue, Victor,” I said. He did.

(from ‘Scum Grief’)

and, 2nd

Joe Mayer was a freelance writer. He had a hangover and the telephone awakened him at 9 a.m. He got up and answered it. “Hello?”

“Hi, Joe. How’s it going?”

“Oh, beautiful.”

“Beautiful, eh?”


“Vicki and I just moved into our new house. We don’t have a phone yet.But I can give you the address. You got a pen there?”

“Just a minute.”

Joe took down the address.

“I didn’t like that last story of yours I saw in Hot Angel.”

“O.K.” said Joe.

“I don’t mean I didn’t like it, I mean I don’t like it compared to most of your stuff. By the way, do you know where Buddy Edwards is? Griff Martin who used to edit Hot Tales is looking for him. I thought you might know.”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“I think he might be in Mexico.”

“He might be.”

“Well, listen, we’ll be around to set you soon.”

“Sure.” Joe hung up. He put a couple of eggs in a pan of water, set some coffee water on and took an Alka Seltzer. Then he went back to bed.
The phone rang again. He got up and answered it.



“This is Eddie Greer.”

“Oh yes.”

“We want you to read for a benefit…”

“What is it?”

“For the I.R.A.”

“Listen, Eddie, I don’t go for politics or religion or whatever. I really don’t know what’s going on over there. I don’t have a tv, read the papers… any of that. I don’t know who’s right or wrong or who’s wrong, if there is such a thing.”

“England’s wrong, man.”

“I can’t read for the I.R.A., Eddie.”

“All right, then…”

The eggs were done. He sat down, peeled them, put on some toast and mixed the Sanka in with the hot water. He got down the eggs and toast and had two coffees. Then he went back to bed.

He was just about asleep when the phone rang again. He got up
and answered it.

“Mr. Mayer?”


“I’m Mike Haven, I’m a friend of Stuart Irving’s. We once appeared in Stone Mule together when Stole Mule was edited in Salt Lake City.”


“I’m down from Montana for a week. I’m staying at the Hotel Sheraton here in town. I’d like to come see you and talk to you”

“Today’s a bad day, Mike.”

“Well, maybe I can come over later in the week?”

“Yes, why don’t you call me later on?”

“You know, Joe, I write just like you do, both in poetry and prose. I want to bring some of my stuff over and read it to you. You’ll be surprised. My stuff is really powerful.”

“Oh yes?”

“You’ll see.”

(from ‘A Working Day’)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Chuck Palahniuk - Fight Club

This is a superb novel, arguably one of the last classics of the 20th century. Published in 1996, and only Chuck Palahniuk’s second novel, it was later made into an equally excellent film with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. For most people who know Fight Club, it’s through seeing the film. I was perhaps fortunate in reading the book first (although when it had already been made famous by the film), yet as I say, both are equally good in my opinion. The adaptation is done faithfully, while at the same time adding an extra edge to the work; the main noticeable disparity is the different endings. All I’ll say is, the book’s ending does not involve the Pixies!

Whether in print or in cinema, or whether considered internally or externally, Fight Club is primarily a cultural phenomenon. Its story centres on the invention, by a dispossessed and disillusioned office worker, of an underground ‘fight club’ – i.e., bareknuckle, no-holds barred fighting in the dark basements of unscrupulous bar owners. Within the book, this phenomenon provides young, white-collar drones with a disturbingly effective form of release from their lives, and validation of their existence. Beyond this, as the novel progresses, ‘fight club’ accelerates and expands into increasingly violent, nihilistic and subversive expressions of discontent.

Outside of the text, the theme of Fight Club clearly found a resonance amongst readers around the world, particularly those (like myself) who read it in their teenage years. Fight Club really is a quintessentially modern book, a kind of fin de siècle portrait of the hollowness of our post-industrial world and decadent capitalist society. (Or a portrait of something very, very bad, anyway!).

To leave it for a moment to the professionals - amongst the quotes on the back of my Vintage-published edition, the novel is variously described as: “an outrageously apocalyptic comedy of horrors” by none less than Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho fame; or as a “haunting and strikingly original American urban nightmare”, by the Glasgow Herald. In fact, it is the Big Issue which puts it best, as:

“A terrifying roller-coaster read which rapidly goes out of control. Palahniuk’s debut novel reads like Franz Kafka updated to modern-day New York via Paul Auster. What begins as a vicious evening of bare-handed fighting suddenly becomes a terrifying, apocalyptic movement… wonderfully unpleasant”

Basically, this is novel is dark, both morally and psychologically. It merely begins with the subversion of authority and society, and then soon progresses to the subversion of humanity itself. As the story goes, when a publisher disparaged his previous effort, Invisible Monsters¸ as too disturbing, Palahniuk got mad and replied something along the lines of “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. Hence, and as a result of a wholly deliberate effort to produce a superlatively disturbing book, the world was given this wonderful work of violent, sado-masochistic anarchy. Yet at the same time, Fight Club isn’t a shock book and as a philosophical, if deeply cynical work of literature, is quite sublime in places.

Palahniuk has a distinctive writing style, built almost exclusively around narration and dialogue, terse and detached with a cutting sense of humour. Interspersed in the minimalism of his text is an abundance of factoids, delivered here by Tyler, the suave, confident anti-hero of the novel. Fight Club may become one of the first popular classics of post-modern literature; blending perhaps as it does the hyper-realistic, detached dialogue pioneered by Don DeLillo with a hyper-literate, culture- and media-steeped wash of the information age.

Here’s a extract which is typical of Palahniuk’s style in general. This scene, the ‘invention’ of fight club, should be very familiar to fans of the film:

"...When we invented fight club, Tyler and I, neither of us had ever been in a fight before. If you’ve never been in a fight, you wonder. About getting hurt, about what you’re capable of doing against another man. I was the first guy Tyler ever felt safe enough to ask, and we were both drunk in a bar where no one would care so Tyler said, “I want you to do me a favor. I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”

I didn’t want to, but Tyler explained it all, about not wanting to die without any scars, about being tired of watching only professionals fight, and wanting to know more about himself.

About self-destruction.

At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything down to make something better out of ourselves. I looked around and said, okay. Okay, I say, but outside in the parking lot. So we went outside, and I asked if Tyler wanted it in the face or in the stomach.

Tyler said, “Surprise me.”

I said I had never hit anybody.

Tyler said, “So go crazy, man.”

I said, close your eyes.

Tyler said, “No.”

Like every guy on his first night in fight club, I breathed in and swung my fist in a roundhouse at Tyler’s jaw like in every cowboy movie we’d ever seen, and me, my fist connected with the side of Tyler’s neck.

Shit, I said, that didn’t count. I want to try again.

Tyler said, “Yeah it counted,” and hit me, straight on, pow, just like a cartoon boxing glove on a spring on Saturday morning cartoons, right there in the middle of my chest and I fell back against a car. We both stood there, Tyler rubbing the side of his neck and me holding a hand on my chest, both of us knowing we’d gotten somewhere we’d never been and like the cat and mouse in cartoons, we were still alive and wanted to see how far we could take this thing and still be alive.

Tyler said, “Cool.”

I said, hit me again.

Tyler said, “No, you hit me.”

So I hit him, a girl’s wide roundhouse to right under his ear, and Tyler shoved me back and stomped the heel of his shoe in my stomach. What happened next and after that didn’t happen in words, but the bar closed and people came out and shouted around us in the parking lot.

Instead of Tyler, I felt finally I could get my hands on everything in the world that didn’t work, my cleaning that came back with the collar buttons broken, the bank that says I’m hundred of dollars overdrawn. My job where my boss got on my computer and fiddled with my DOS execute commands. And Marla Singer, who stole the support groups from me.

Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered..."

(Ch. 6)

This next extract is similar, but is taken from a bit later on in the book, where the events have progressed somewhat. This I think gives a better feel for the inner spirit of the book, the sense of meaning (and no-meaning) which ties together the plot. Psychologically, Palahniuk’s character seems designed to be both familiar and unsettling. Part of the black comedy of Fight Club is what I might call its simultaneous portrayal of humanity and inhumanity. Here, the narrator is perched on the edge between the mundanity of his office lifestyle and the transcendence of his nihilistic violence:

"My boss sends me home because of all the dried blood on my pants, and I am overjoyed.

The hole punched through my cheek doesn’t ever heal. I’m going to work, and my punched-out eye sockets are two swollen-up black bagels around the little piss holes I have left to see through. Until today, it really pissed me off that I’d become this totally centered Zen Master and nobody had noticed. Still, I’m doing the little FAX thing, I write little HAIKU things and FAX them around to everyone. When I pass people in the hall at work, I get totally ZEN right in everyone’s hostile little FACE

Worker bees can leave

Even drones can fly away

The queen is their slave

You give up all your worldly possessions and your car and go live in a rented house in the toxic waste part of town where late at night, you can hear Marla and Tyler in his room, calling each other human butt wipe.

Take it, human butt wipe.

Do it, human butt wipe.

Choke it down. Keep it down, baby.

Just by contrast, this makes me the calm little center of the world.

Me, with my punched out eyes and dried blood in big black crusty stains on my pants, I’m saying HELLO to everybody at work. HELLO! Look at me. HELLO! I am so ZEN. This is BLOOD. That is nothing. Hello. Everything is nothing, and it’s so cool to be ENLIGHTENED. Like me.


Look. Outside the window. A bird.

My boss asked if the blood was my blood.

The bird flies downwind. I’m writing a little haiku in my head.

Without just one nest

A bird can call the world home

Life is your career

I’m counting on my fingers: five, seven, five.

The blood, is it mine?

Yeah, I say. Some of it.

This is the wrong answer."

(Ch. 8)

Fight Club is many things; a cult novel effectively and powerfully transformed into a cult film, a dark yet comic tract of psychological horror, a philosophical rebuke to the modern world, and a post-modern psychological thriller. Most effortlessly of all, though, it is one thing: pure, 100% proof, distilled cynicism.

Hence Tyler Durden’s acrid reply to the supposed “Zen spirit” of the above passage, delivered perhaps not in a haiku, but in a passable koan:

“Sticking feathers up your butt,” Tyler says, “does not make you a chicken.”

Friday, August 10, 2007

Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac is one of the best, if not the best, author that I’ve ever found. Especially since he was an author with a wide and varied body of work. Jaroslav Hasek (see below) wrote one very good book – which in fact he never actually completed, finishing only four out of a planned six volumes of The Good Soldier Schweik. Whereas Kerouac, effectively, spanned an entire generation of subculture with his work. It’s fair to say Kerouac is synonymous with the ‘Beat generation’, although so much so as to obscure the variety and contrasts of his books; from the hopeful ‘Great American Novel’ of The Town and the City, to the intensity of his classic On the Road as well as his later output, such as Big Sur, in which ‘the mirror of the Beat way of life is hammered at and it shatters’.

Which is why, in a way, I am choosing for this post his 1959 book, The Dharma Bums - even beyond the fact that it is, probably, my favourite Kerouac novel. I won’t pretend that I didn’t get into Kerouac through, and directly from, On the Road. Neither will I even suggest that that book is less than deserving of its immense acclaim. Rather, I hope to present The Dharma Bums as a gentler, perhaps subtler introduction to the beauty and sublime genius of Kerouac, uncrowned King of the Beats.

First of all, The Dharma Bums is, and isn’t, a book about Buddhism. Mostly, it is; although its religion is of an oblique nature, and the book has its fair share of the secular hedonism of On the Road. Basically, the novel follows Kerouac’s autobiographical alter ego, Ray Smith, journeying around the west coast of America with various Beat hipsters and ‘Buddhist cats’. There’s a loose dichotomy of urban, Frisco loucheness and wild, outdoorsy solitude. It starts with Smith on the railroad, hopping freights, and ends with him alone on ‘Mt. Desolation’, a Washington peak where the idealistic nature-lover gets a job as a fire lookout. In between, there’s poetry, drink, girls, and various socially uncountenanced nonsensical high jinks – roughly in that order.

The Dharma Bums is a classic Kerouac story of vibrancy and exuberant lifestyles – ‘A descriptive excitement unmatched since the days of Thomas Wolfe’, according to the New York Times – but also a beautifully tender exposition of idealism, compassion and small philosophical virtues. At the centre of The Dharma Bums spiritual and literary heart is the character of Japhy Ryder (in real life, Gary Snyder, a noted ecologist, socialist and poet). Japhy, throughout a bosom pal to the older Kerouac, is a devotee of Zen Buddhism and plays the foil for Kerouac’s efforts to find peace and understanding in the titular Dharma (dharma loosely translates as ‘truth’ or ‘law’, and is fundamental to the terminology of Buddhism and spiritual enlightenment). His efforts are not entirely successful, as is explained in this Penguin blurb:

"Following the explosive energy of On the Road comes The Dharma Bums, in which Keroauc charts the spiritual quest of a group of friends in search of Dharma, or Truth. Ray Smith and his friend Japhy, along with Morley the yodeller, head off into the high Sierras to seek the lesson of solitude and experience the Zen way of life. But in wildly Bohemian San Francisco, with its poetry jam sessions, marathon drinking bouts and experiments in ‘yabyum’, they find the ascetic route distinctly hard to follow"

Part of the beauty of The Dharma Bums is its contradictions and simple, honest humanities. Penguin recently released a deluxe classic edition with a scholarly introductory essay by Ann Douglas (and extra nice artwork to boot) which discusses the philosophical, moral and psychological issues of the book – of which there are complex and many. Nevertheless, they fail to obscure either the innocent idealism and zany happenings, or lyrical and prosaic sensibilities (of which I am conscious of having said far too little here) of this wonderful novel.

Indeed, the literary quality of this, and all of Keroauc’s work (his ‘poetry of pure prose’) is what ultimately assures it a devoted readership. As a mere taste, here is one description of many of the marvellous ‘Japhy Ryder’, the archetypical Dharma Bum:

"…About a mile from there, way down Milvia and then upslope toward the big campus of the University of California, behind another big old house on a quiet street (Hillegass), Japhy lived in his own shack which was infinitely smaller than ours, about twelve by twelve, with nothing in it but typically Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life – no chairs at all, not even one sentimental rocking chair, but just straw mats. In the corner was his famous rucksack with cleaned-up pots and pans all fitting into one another in a compact unit and all tied and put away inside a knotted-up blue bandana. Then his Japanese wooden pata shoes, which he never used, and a pair of black inside-pata socks to pad around softly in over his pretty straw mats, just room for your four toes on one side and your big toe on the other. He had a slew of orange crates all filled with beautiful scholarly books, some of them in Oriental languages, all the great sutras, comments on sutras, the complete works of D.T. Suzuki and a fine quadruple-volume edition of Japanese haikus. He also had an immense collection of valuable general poetry. In fact if a thief should have broken in there the only things of real value were the books … crates made his table, on which, one late sunny afternoon as I arrived,was steaming a peaceful cup of tea at his side as he bent his serious head to the Chinese signs of the poet Han Shan. Coughlin had given me the address and I came there, seeing first Japhy’s bicycle on the lawn in front of the big house out front (where his landlady lived) then the few odd boulders and rocks and funny little trees he’d brought back from mountain jaunts to set out in his own ‘Japanese tea garden’ or ‘tea-house garden’, as there was a convenient pine tree soughing over his little domicile.

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting cross-legged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, ‘Ray, come in,’ and bent his eyes again to the script.

‘What you doing?’

‘Translating Han Shan’s great poem called “Cold Mountain” written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings.’

‘Wow.’ … "

(Ch. 3)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Jaroslav Hasek - The Good Soldier Schweik

Ok, to begin: The Good Soldier Schweik is, insofar as the term means anything, my ‘favourite’ book. Certainly it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, and re-read several times. This well-thumbed paperback has pride of place on my bookshelf and, above all, continues to offer a vivid comic portrayal of central Europe early in the last century.

Published in 1930, it is a long, winding tale about a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War One. Schweik is the hero of the tale, a dim-witted fool, idiot savant, or as the author describes him, “a modest unrecognized hero”. The book is a series of farcical and satirical escapades within the Austrian military, against the largely unspoken backdrop of the war’s senseless violence.

What I like about this book in particular is the style of humour. That The Good Soldier Schweik has its own distinct character is the quality which to my mind assures it classic status, albeit perhaps in a cult sense. On the one hand, its style is sufficiently original to allow the book to stand on its own. On the other, it is gently evocative of a peculiarly European culture and, moreover, sense of humour - especially the combination of satire and farce. Anyone who reads Schweik, I think, will soon appreciate the cheerfully daft yet politically acerbic mind of its central character, and the comic, surreal 20th century world in which he lives.

Here’s a short extract to give the flavour of The Good Soldier Schweik’s humour. Naturally, I’ll start at the beginning…

"Schweik, the Good Solider, Intervenes in the Great War:

‘So they’ve killed Ferdinand,’ said the charwoman to Mr Schweik who, having left the army many years before, when a military medical board had declared him to be chronically feeble-minded, earned a livelihood by the sale of dogs – repulsive mongrel monstrosities for whom he forged pedigrees. Apart from this occupation, he was afflicted with rheumatism, and was just rubbing his knees with embrocation.

‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ asked Schweik, continuing to massage his knees. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One of them does jobs for Prusa the chemist, and one day he drank a bottle of hair oil by mistake; and then there’s Ferdinand Kokoska who goes round collecting manure. They wouldn’t be any great loss, either of ‘em.’

‘No, it’s the Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopiste, you know Mr Schweik, the fat, pious one.’

‘Good Lord!’ exclaimed Schweik, ‘that’s a fine thing. And where did this happen?’...”

And the rest, as they say, was history. World War One began, obviously, and Hašek’s bumbling hero was immortalised in this classic novel. It’s difficult to accurately portray the humour of this book, since it works on a long story arc and many, many hilarious, rambling escapades. Best, then, to leave it to the rather good blurb on the back of my copy, which gets it nearly right…

“Because humour, real humour, knows no national boundaries, this satire on army life, about the military career of a fat little dog fancier from Prague, is one of those rare books which, while belonging to literature, abounds in the qualities which can be appreciated by the widest possible range of readers. Schweik’s adventures – as a malingerer, in the detention barracks, as a drunken chaplain’s orderly, as batman to an over-amorous lieutenant, making off with the colonel’s dog, and getting important messages all mixed up – have won him the lasting enthusiasm of readers everywhere.”