Blue Monday, Postmodern Tuesday

Yep, yesterday was Blue Monday. In time honoured tradition I celebrated it by having a thoroughly shit day. Today is the day after and because of the novel we covered at uni last night (White Noise by Don DeLillo) I’ve been thinking about postmodernism all day.

The DeLillo book irritated me a bit, probably because I was expecting a postmodern classic and what I got was a satire of postmodernism presented in a fairly conventional structural form. Don’t get me wrong, in parts it was amusing and I’m always up for a bit of satire. But at times it seemed like he was really denigrating postmodernism, reducing it to the absurd and illustrating how it’s useless as a mechanism in approaching existence in the phsyical world. Although I don’t really use any of its techniques in my writing, I still think postmodernism is one of, if not THE most viable aesthetic approach of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not just in literary terms, but in art, in cinema, in music even. The appropriation of existing cultural themes and reconstitution of them into something new is, for me, the most honest approach an artist can take. Everyone is influenced by what has gone before them, so why not highlight that? Why not make the audience aware that they’re reading a novel or watching a film? Narrative isn’t reality, so why pretend it is? Once you free the work from that constraint it’s then able to provoke all manner of responses to it – on it’s quality, it’s cultural purpose, it’s position within the evolving framework of cognitive connections that form in the mind of those engaging with it.

For my PhD I read a lot of postmodern criticism and took exception to some of the conclusions drawn. This is probably up somewhere else on the blog, but for context I’ve included it again here – my argument against Frederic Jameson (an approach which irritated my supervisors no end, but I refused to take it out):

“A common charge levelled at postmodernism in general, not least by Frederic Jameson, is that it is a superficial method of comprehension; that it fails to engage with representations of the past, or indeed of anything conceptual, in a meaningful or insightful manner. Jameson terms it the “pastiche”, the “bravura imitation” (133) of postmodernism, a reduction of authentic images and ideals to a “mass cultural allusion”, a set of stylised signifiers which start to replace the truth of any matter (134). The example he cites in his opus Postmodernism, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which, he believes, displaces “the 1950s” with “the ‘fifties'” (281), a string of “stereotypes, of ideas of facts and historical realities” (279) rather than those facts and realities themselves. To a certain extent this argument has real validity; however, it seems somewhat misplaced. This process of conceptual displacement is not strictly a fault of postmodernism alone. Representation itself is by very definition a reductionist process. The 1950s do not mean anything as and of themselves; they are merely a collection of years, of months, of revolutions of the earth around the sun. The attachment of significance to them is a revisionist process, an editing of facts into a narrative, a method which raises the same questions of whose narratives have greater authority – those of the historian or those of the “teller [who] constructs that truth and chooses those facts” (Hutcheon 56)?”

Replace David Lynch with Quentin Tarantino. And then tell me that films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill don’t resonate with audiences because they play on the same cross-reference of iconic images and cult themes that rattle around in their heads anyway. In any case, I’m rambling now. So I’ll stop. We’re covering postmodernism for the next couple of weeks so expect another rant about it soon.

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Two Unrelated Things

Two completely unrelated things that I got, indirectly, for Christmas. With some book vouchers I bought this:

HHhH

I was going to say ‘a fantastic novel’ but I’m not entirely sure that’s what it is. It’s more a historical study, written in a novelistic style, with interjections from the author worrying about turning fact into narrative. I don’t like the term ‘non-fiction novel’. Brilliant book though. It recounts the assassination attempt upon Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Gestapo, during the second world war.

You’ll also notice it has an endorsement on the front by Martin Amis. For once, me and Mr Amis agree on something. Wonders will never cease…

Anyway, definitely recommended, as is the latest album by The Pines, which I bought with some iTunes vouchers. This is one of the singles from it. Not sure about all of the lyrics, but just listen to the guitar work on it. Tremendous.

 

I said yesterday I didn’t have a lot to contribute at the moment. This is pretty much it really. Just stuff I like…

I’ve got nothing…

New Year and it’s been a while since I updated the Blog. Poblem is – I have nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve been off work for 2 weeks and decided I was going to let everything slide away and just relax a bit. My phone died on Boxing Day and I’ve left it dead for over a week. Cut off from the outside world. I thought it might help recharge the batteries and I could come back swinging (nice mixed metaphor), but no. I’m going to have to try and jump-start my brain somehow between now and Monday.

In the meantime, there’s this – a short essay on poetics I had to do for the MA course. I handed it in in December and it will have been marked by now so I figure I can stick it up here. It builds upon what I’ve been saying about short stories on here for a while and was written in support of my 7″ fiction project:

Poetics in Support of 7″ Fiction

“Short fiction must be microcosmic in nature in order for it to succeed. The aim of all literary work is to strike at elements of universal truth, to uncover resonant themes and ideas that readers are able to identify and engage with. In a novel, these can be extrapolated and propounded logically over several hundred pages, but in short fiction there is only the time to allude, to signify, to pique the reader’s intellect and encourage their perception to move beyond the limited boundaries of the text.

This is even truer of flash fiction. A piece of three or four hundred words does not have sufficient length to allow for elaboration of theme or protracted development of character and narrative. A successful work of flash fiction should therefore present the reader with a single moment, an instant in time, which contains within itself the cause and effect of its own being. Narrative arc is crucial but should not, indeed cannot, be set out in a conventional manner by the author. Instead of a sequence of events that build towards a conclusion, the micro-text needs to bridge the past, present and future in a series of very precisely related incidents. It must replicate, to some extent, the psychological function of awareness there on the page, where disparate stimuli coalesce to form a unified impression.

Linearity in form is therefore counter-productive to the aims of flash fiction. Linearity fails to stimulate the perception of the reader in the way that is required to contextualise the piece as a microcosmic event. The structure should instead replicate that of an explosion, a conceptual big-bang, with an epicentre from which is thrown all manner of wreckage. The point of impact is the immediate present the narrative voice speaks from; strewn about it randomly are the signifiers of causality and consequence.”

I’ll be back with something more interesting at some point, I promise…

Search and Destroy

I’m awake. It is literally that sudden. My eyes open to a thin, watery light. A moment ago I was somewhere else: a dank, in utero world that pulsed and contracted to the warm foetal stupor of my brain. I was dreaming about myself. It’s all I ever dream about. What else is there? A man who wasn’t really a man told me a lie and I believed him. A child died because of it and a whole crowd of people turned and saw me for the worthless piece of shit I am.

It seemed so real, ultra-real, which is not really real at all. All the time it was happening I knew that somehow, but it still made the panic and disgust rise at the back of my throat. An elysian sun cast no shadows on the antique buildings; there was no breeze floating on the sterile air. It was the set of a cheap movie, or a block print in a mouldering book of adventure tales. So fake, so obviously artificial, and yet it jolted me upright in bed and quickened my heartbeat nonetheless.

I’m disorientated for a moment, but ultimately I know where I am. Of course I do. My clothes are folded clumsily over the back of the standard issue hotel chair, exactly where I left them a short time ago. The faint clack and groan of the lift comes to me from the end of the corridor outside, out there, beyond my bed and my room and the anonymous space these walls enclose. It’s four am. In a few hours I need to be up, I need to be showered and dressed in a suit that hopefully doesn’t look too creased. There’s the midweek rain, there’s the faint vulcanised smell that clings to the grimy metro tiles of the underground, and there’s a room of executives that are waiting for me to trip over my words so they can lean back in their chairs and smirk.

‘It’ll be ok. What you’ve done once, you can do again.’

My voice echoes back from the bare grey walls. It sounds muted and dull. And unconvincing. It’s not the same this time, I can’t get a grasp of it like I did before. I raised the bar for myself and now it’s too fucking high. I have nothing to show them, a big yawning void of progress that I’ve tried to cover with handfuls of words. It won’t take a genius to spot the sinkhole through the straw. I’m fucked and there’s not a lot I can do about it now.

‘You seem a bit distracted.’

My wife is telling me about a parent’s evening she went to for our youngest boy. He’s doing alright, which is something, at least, that I don’t have to worry about. I’m obviously not paying enough attention though.

‘Yeah, it’s just work. I’m tired.’

‘You work too much. You need to relax, it’ll all take care of itself.’

If you ever need to define the difference between men and women, it’s there in those six words: it’ll take care of itself. It’s easy to have faith when there’s nothing chiselling away at it. Our mortgage gets paid, there’s wine in the kitchen. Everything’s fine isn’t it? Except it probably isn’t. We might be thirty minutes away from the bubble being burst, and then what? Women are optimists. Men are just pricks. When it comes down to it, if they see someone struggling they’ll do what they can to help them stay under. I’ve seen it. I’ve fucking done it.

‘In this business, it’s sink or swim.’

That’s what passes as an induction – the grim reality behind all that Human Resources bullshit. Plough your own furrow. Dig your own hole. We’re four or five hundred millennia in and not a lot has changed. Natural selection is natural selection: the details transmute but their execution never wavers. Suzanne doesn’t understand. She tells me it isn’t fair. Fairness has nothing to do with it. Right and wrong is a yarn we spin for the kids. If you build upon that as a foundation, you’re pretty much fucked from the start. It’s all about living on your wits. Be better than the next bloke, and if you can’t do that, then at least seem like you’re better than him. When they cut the weakest loose just keep moving, don’t look back, and don’t let them know you’re relieved it wasn’t you.

‘They’re waiting for you in the boardroom.’

I bet they are. I sign the visitor’s book and get in the lift. The doors close, slowly, and I turn and check my tie in the dark corporate mirror. For a second I think it’s going to be alright, but I can’t quite bring myself to believe it. My face looks jaundiced in the incandescent light.

What makes a decent writer?

I read a great article yesterday on the Huffington Post site and I thought I’d just ponder it a bit here. If you want to see it, this is where it is: The Orange Prize has Let us Down. In summary, it talks about the latest winner of the prize and how her book is competently written but completely uninspired. I haven’t read it myself, but I’m less interested in that assertion than I am with the one Ruth Fowler goes on to make about MFA writing courses being the worst thing to happen to literature this century. Again, to summarise, she makes the point that they produce writers who can construct sentences and paragraphs, often self-indulgent and overwritten ones but sentences and paragraphs nonetheless, but who then think they are the complete package despite having little in the way of life experience or originality of thought.

Do I agree with this? In part, I suppose. Her argument actually sounds a lot like the one I’ve been making against British literary fiction in general for the past few years. Personally, I don’t think writing courses are the problem. I think the assumption that being able to string words together automatically makes something worth reading is the problem. There are a lot of different things you can do with writing, but for the sake of argument I would break these down into three general areas:

1. You can entertain people with a decent story

2. You can try and expose the realities of the world in new and interesting ways

3. You can revel in the glories of language itself and make readers do the same thing

Any one of these, or any combination of these, is perfectly valid to me. But if you pick just one of them, you really have to go for it. Some examples of authors I like:

Raymond Carver, because he examines human relationships in a way I’d never come across until I read him. He unearths complexities and nuances I wouldn’t have thought of. He makes me see the world in a different way.

Stephen King, because he writes narratives that make me want to turn the page and see what happens next. Does he surprise me in the same way Carver does? Not really, but he’s doing something different which I like equally as much.

Richard Brautigan. No great surprise there considering I wrote my thesis on him. But what he does is a combination of points two and three above – his metaphors stun me into submission. He twists language about in a way that absolutely delights me.

Ruth Fowler objects to insipid and cliched sentences like “these stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life”. I object to sneeringly ‘clever’ sentences like those written by my eternal favourite Martin Amis that I read and think, hey that’s clever, and then wonder what the hell they tell me about anything. Anything at all.

Ultimately, I think a lot of stuff falls down between the cracks of those three over-simplified categories I put up there. It’s easy to wander into the trap of something sounding nice without it actually meaning anything. Don’t get me wrong, I often use hyperbole to get me started on an idea. The problem comes when hyperbole is all you use, and there is nothing of any real note around it, underneath it, next to it. Unfortunately, it seems it’s the way of the world these days. Everything needs to be a soundbyte. From political spin over moral substance, to the moronically superficial shite that people seem to love TOWIE for. Why should literature be any different? It’s a facile world out there and there’s not a lot of point in trying to reject it. The best you can do is try and subvert it – but for god’s sake don’t just embrace it.

Elysian Fields

First of all, I can’t believe this video only has 48 views on Youtube. What the hell? I think Lanegan is superb:


In other news, his use of the phrase ‘elysian fields’ in this has made me determined to write something with that in it.

I don’t have a lot to add today. I’m in a foul mood. I offer instead some disjointed nonsense, handily crafted into a convenient bullet point list:

  • The record sleeves for my 7″ fiction arrived yesterday
  • I feel bad for laughing at a comment someone made about a guy who only ever writes stories that feature him ‘touching someone’s breast’ – not because it isn’t true, but because I found it funnier than I should have
  • Am trying to balance this by assuming my stuff could be just as easily catagorised as about ‘some tit listening to music’
  • I’m putting off going to the local DIY shop to buy a new toilet handle after I broke ours this morning by pulling too hard on it

That is all for now. I’ll bet you’re glad you stopped by aren’t you?