I had tremendous fun sitting in the chair at a Contemporary Fiction Seminar event in conversation with my old friend and former colleague, crime novelist and Sounds and Melody Maker journalist Cathi Unsworth, and I hope this comes across in the video below. We covered quite a lot of ground talking at music selected to respond to Cathi’s work, but also hopefully addressing some broader concerns of the pop music and contemporary literature brief. I particularly enjoyed playing Nick Cave’s version of Stagger Lee in almost its entirety – still sends a shiver down the spine!
I’m very excited to be giving a paper at the Weird Conference a week on Friday. I’m going to speak about formal innovations in Weird fiction related to the spatial imaginary of the period, a kind of reversioning of Joseph Frank’s seminal essay ‘Spatial Form in Modern Literature’ as ‘Higher Spatial Form in Weird Literature’ that hopes to disturb Modernist border policing in an appropriately oozing and weird fashion.
To whet appetite, here’s Roger Luckhurst’s freewheeling and thought-provoking plenary from last year’s Weird Council with some urgent advice around 13 mins 40 seconds:
Tacita Dean’s film JG, opening today at the Frith Street Gallery, was inspired by a correspondence with J.G. Ballard shortly before his death from cancer in 2009. Dean was interested in the connections between Ballard’s short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s masterpiece, Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500 ft earthwork built into the Salt Lake in Utah. Ballard urged Dean to ‘treat [Spiral Jetty] as a mystery that your film will solve.’ I’ve not been able to make it in to see the film yet but Ballard’s papers are archived at the British Library so I spent some of yesterday nosing around in them.
I’m attempting to hawk around paying print outlets a piece based on that archival cratedigging, so won’t post it here until next week, but here’s some useful contextualising material. Ballard sent Dean the text of his short piece ‘Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist’ (printed on the back of a proof page from Millennium People). This is published in Conley, Brian, and Joe Amrhein, Robert Smithson: A Collection of Writings on Robert Smithson on the Occasion of the Installation of ‘Dead Tree’ at Pierogi 2000 (Brooklyn, NY: Pierogi 2000, 1997) but is nowhere online, so with apologies to the publishers, here it is:
What cargo might have berthed at the Spiral Jetty? And what strange caravel could have emerged from the saline mists of this remote lake and chosen to dock at this mysterious harbour? One can only imagine the craft captained by a rare navigator, a minotaur obsessed by inexplicable geometries, who had commissioned Smithson to serve as his architect and devise this labyrinth in the guise of a cargo terminal.
But what was the cargo? Time appears to have stopped in Utah, during a geological ellipsis that has lasted for hundreds of millions of years. I assume that that cargo was a clock, though one of a very special kind. So many of Smithson’s monuments seem to be a patent amalgam of clock, labyrinth and cargo terminal. What time was about to be told, and what even stranger cargo would have landed here?
The Amarillo Ramp I take to be both jetty and runway, a proto-labyrinth that Smithson hoped would launch him from the cramping limits of time and space into a richer and more complex realm.
Fifty thousands years from now our descendants will be mystified by the empty swimming pools of an abandoned southern California and Cote d’Azur, lying in the dust like primitive time machines or the altar of some geometry obsessed religion. I see Smithson’s monuments belonging in the same category, artefacts intended to serve as machines that will suddenly switch themselves on and begin to generate a more complex time and space. All his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves.
Reading Smithson’s vivid writings, I feel he sensed all this. As he stands on the Spiral Jetty he resembles Daedalus inspecting the ground plan of the labyrinth, working out the freight capacity of his cargo terminal, to be measured in the units of a neurological deep time. He seems unsure whether the cargo has been delivered.
His last flight fits into the myth, though for reasons of his own he chose the wrong runway, meeting the fate intended for his son. But his monuments endure in our minds, the ground plans of heroic psychological edifices that will one day erect themselves and whose shadows we can already see from the corners of our eyes.
I’d also like to draw attention to Eric Saxon’s MA thesis which is a nice piece of scholarship on precisely this relationship; and Smithson’s essay ‘Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space’ (1966, sadly a bit difficult to read in this form). There’s also a really solid article by Andrew Frost at ballardian.com. Suffice to say there is much to be read and thought around this relationship.
Depicted on the canvas is a thing. The painterly language of a still-life tells us that it is an object: it is placed on some kind of rectilinear plinth, presenting a sharply defined corner to us. There is nothing in the background but colour – a depthless black or white, perhaps a queasy green or brown, an elegant purple. There, however, our certainties begin to fail us. What this thing ‘is’ is not certain. Ivan Seal paints many of them. He has referred to them in the past as ‘hand-eye parasites’: should we assume that by this he means things that assume control of his ‘hand-eye’ co-ordination to make themselves exist
Such an object might be a bit like a distorted mass of skulls on spikes, a model of a ballerina, a fan of sectioned wood, a lump of agate, a box, a giant fabric balloon, a woodwork block with a chisel resting on it, a lump of clay sectioned with wire. It may be a vase of blooms, overdaubed, overflowing their container. It may be a branch adorned with hanging objects. It may be some kind of watch, but not a watch that has surely ever been worn, its wrist-strap is stretched, strange, somehow snakelike, perhaps reverting to the animal that gave up its skin. The strangeness of the objects, the fact that they don’t quite correlate with anything in the real world, is what they are about. They speak to us stylistically of classical painting – and their technical composition is, to this untrained eye, seriously impressive – but their content speaks of something altogether different.
I first encountered Ivan Seal’s paintings on the album covers of Leyland Kirby and The Caretaker records, three of which have just been re-released on vinyl. I chased down the tail-end of his first show at the Carl Freedman Gallery on Charlotte Road a couple of years back. I’ve just been to see the new show at the same gallery and spoke to Ivan in situ. His work has expanded, in all dimensions – the thickly impastoed oils now emerge yet further from the surfaces of the canvas, giving objects that were once sculptural again a sculptural feel.
Like his friend Jim Kirby, also from Stockport, Seal now lives in Berlin (although Seal reports that Kirby is moving to Poland) and like his friend he has worked with sound: before returning to painting five or so years ago, in fact, sound art was the form his practice typically took. There is a kinship between Seal’s painting and Kirby’s sound work that makes sense of their coupling in Leyland Kirby and Caretaker releases. The objects Seal paints are remembered from his childhood. He has not seen them for decades but they are dredged up from memory and return distorted, mutated, accreted. He does these memories great service to remake them as vivid, lurid things, but they can never be what they were. They have been changed in his head, changed by time. We realise that mental deposits are not eroded like environmental forms, or degraded like discarded metal; the cerebral equivalents of frost-shattering and rust do not destroy so much as translate. Colours are shifted, edges are blurred, shadows are cast at impossible angles and lines are drawn into thin air. References have been accrued: Bacon directly referenced in one piece. The objects have become steeped in the solution of the unconscious mind, doused in the fluid of dream.
Seal’s painting seems particularly timely to me. Philosophy is very interested in Kant right now, even if that interest is in stealing his fire, in revolving the Copernican revolution a quarter-turn again, taking the subject away from the centre of the picture. I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not going to begin to attempt to engage in that particular discourse, but what I would say is that Seal’s things seem to work in similar territory, to work at the difference between gedachtnis and erinnerung, between, very broadly, active and passive remembering. I’m going to go to Howard Caygill’s admirable A Kant Dictionary as my first port of call for all things Kant (admirable, because he guides you through the massive volume of extremely difficult work by single word themes – simply and effectively – thereby making it unnecessary to dredge through the Critique of Pure Reason first-hand – hey, this is a blog-post, right?)
Here is Caygill’s entry on Kant’s take on the memory:
Memory is defined as the ‘faculty of visualising the past intentionally’ which, along with the ‘faculty of visualising something as future’, serves to associate ‘ideas of the past and future condition of the subject with the present’ (A §34). Together, both memory and prevision are important for ‘linking together perceptions in time’ and connecting ‘in a coherent experience what is no more with what does not yet exist, by means of what is present’ (ibid.). It can thus be seen to play a significant role in the problem of identity, and more particularly, in the character of synthesis. Memory is implied in two of the three syntheses of the ‘transcendental faculty of imagination’ presented in the deduction of CPR: in the ‘synthesis of apprehension’ where it informs the consistency of appearances, and in the ‘synthesis of recognition’ where it is implied in the continuity of the consciousness of appearances. (Bloomsbury, 1995, 290-291)
Clearly, temporality is crucial to the experience of memory for Kant, and memory to the imagination, which in Kant’s thought was more literally a process of making mental images. Seal’s work seems to disrupt some of the assumptions about the temporalities of memory and to insert assorted spanners into the idea of a consistency of appearances. The things that emerge on the canvas are not recognisable in any sensible sense. In a perhaps slightly tangential way, Seal’s work perhaps has a kinship with Richard Long’s, about whom we talked briefly: there is evidently a very different approach to practice, but there is the same attention to the experience of time, the same ability to condense that sticky stuff onto a canvas.
Seal’s painting also seems to shift some of the agency onto the things he paints, to distance the composing subjectivity from the finished work. He gives his painting titles using a random text generator, a next generation Bourroughsian cut-up machine. This is more coherent than it might seem at first glance – there is also a disturbance of temporality in the text that we discern more clearly if we call it linearity, the way in which one word – or letter – follows another in a line of text. It also makes each thing more sui generis – the act of titling has been delegated to a machine and each thing on each canvas has become more independent of the subjectivity that put it there when it gains a name like ‘triltry konte’ or ‘pervaalfet deatpetchsplobasmag (drunk in a car no. 678 )’. A press release was also produced in the cut-up style.
I could happily spraff on about this painting for pages because I love it but if I did I might miss the chance to recommend the show while it’s still on. It was was recently given a seal of approval (please don’t even think of that as a pun) by the Contemporary Art Society’s Paul Hobson who has this week been appointed director of Modern Art Oxford.
The media line is that she was “divisive”, and that seems to remain the case, as folk disagree about whether to respect her or to celebrate her death, or even whether to respect the rights of those who want to respect her or the rights of those who want to celebrate her death. Greater agreement is to be found among politicians, who recognise the politically numinous and, by-and-large, respect that, if nothing else. The irony is that one of the few distinct classes left after Thatcher – apart from the ‘underclass’ of her direct creation – is the political class, an isolated cadre of intellectually lithe control-freaks, ego-maniacs and affect-engineers.
The most interesting piece I’ve read came from Russell Brand, of all people, someone I’m not accustomed to much enjoying. Describing a sighting of the late Thatcher in her late-period dotage and loneliness tending the plants in Temple, he comes across as some deviant, near-future naturalist, a spotter of almost-extinct species. His story reminded me of Gordon Burn’s encounter with Thatcher in Battersea Park at the beginning of Born Yesterday (if I leant my copy to anyone reading this I’d love it back!):
Where does she go in between all the times she is not being ‘Margaret Thatcher’? The answer, sometimes, it seems, is here, where the short, purposeful steps of her performance self are allowed to dwindle into the short, tentative steps of pensionerdom and widowhood and she is allowed time away from the big emphatic colours she uses to identify herself for the cameras – her blazons. (Faber and Faber (2008) pp. 17-18)
Burn, in his fiction and hybrid writing, was something of a geologist of morbidity, digging down into the cultural weirdness surrounding death through the strata of celebrity. His nearly-dead Thatcher was a suspended premonition of what we now have. He recognised Thatcher as exerting a powerful pull in the imaginary realm, the social unconscious that finds coprolalic vent in the tabloid press. So too did Iain Sinclair, whose portrayal of the Widow in Downriver routes into fever-dream to find appropriate voice:
One morning … the newspapers loud with her praise, the Sun in its heaven, banked television monitors floating a cerulean image-wash, soothing and silent, streamlets of broken Wedgwood crockery, satellite bin lids flinging back some small reflection of the blue virtue she had copyrighted, filmy underwear of sky goddesses, clouds of unknowing … the Widow rose from her stiff pillows – bald as Mussolini – and felt the twitch start in her left eyelid. She ordained the immediate extermination of this muscular anarchy, this palace revolt: but without success. She buzzed for the valet of the bedchamber, a smiler in hornrims. He entered the presence with a deferential smirk, hands behind back (like a defeated Argie conscript), bowing from the hip: he was half a stone overweight, creaking with starch and greedy for preferment. He disconnected the ‘sleep-learning’ gizmo, the tapes that fed the Widow her Japanese humour, taught the finer points of cheating atstud poker, and provided an adequate form forecast to the current camel-racing season. She was a brand leader, she did not sleep. ‘A’ brand leader? The leader, the longest-serving politico-spiritual Papa Boss not yet given the wax treatment, and planted in a glass box to receive the mercifully filtered kisses of a grateful populace. (Penguin (2004) p. 285; Paladin (1991))
Wax treatment, yes: but there’s to be no glass box. Sinclair’s vision has the feel of detournement, the blighted writer reclaiming his psychic territory and wreaking satiric revenge: he, too, has her defined by death; steeped in sleep; producer of skies. Thatcher summons this visionary mode, her powerful psychic pull requiring something far more lucid than realism. A response of this order closes David Peace’s GB84, a single-page prose poem equal parts Blake and Marx:
Here where she stands at the gates at the head of her tribe and waits – Triumphant on the mountains of our skulls. Up to her hems in the rivers of our blood – A wreath in one hand. The other between her legs – Her two little princes dancing by their necks from her apron strings, and she looks down at the long march of labour halted here before her and says, Awake! Awake! This is England, Your England – and the Year is Zero. (Faber and Faber (2004) p. 462)
Note that hand between the legs. There have been any number of quotes remembering Thatcher’s sexual power, and doubtless this is astonishing to the young and repulsive to those who self-identify as left-wing. John Snow recalled her rustling tights, a particularly fetishistic response; all and sundry have quote Francois Mitterand’s remark that she had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula; Ian McEwan trotted out some Christopher Hitchens anecdote, which is all the McEwan crowd are good for these days.
There’s a stand-out source to turn to for the good juice on Thatcher’s powerful sexual allure: as Iain Sinclair remarked in interview to Tim Chapman, “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”
‘What I Believe’, first published in French in Science Fiction #1 in January 1984 (French readers, famously, got Crash-era Ballard rather more readily than we Brits), and later republished in Interzone that summer, places her firmly in the Ballard pantheon, posing her in various frames and snapshots, as if a character in The Atrocity Exhibition:
I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel, in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel, watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
(If you’re unsure about the confusion the sexuality of Thatcher causes among younger readers, check out this piece on Dazed Digital that reads ‘What I Believe’ as tongue-in-cheek and lists it as an ‘anti-Thatcher moment’)
Ballard has been asked to expand on this in interview a number of times. Survival Research’s Mark Pauline procured a particularly rich response in 1986:
JGB: I’ve always admired her enormously. I always found her extremely mysterious and attractive at the same time. I think she exerts a powerful sexual spell, and I’m not alone. I think there are a lot of men who find themselves driven to distraction by the mystery of Margaret Thatcher. She’s remarkable. I think she taps all sorts of extreme responses on the part of, certainly, men in the population at large.
MP: How do you think she fits in with the whole English historical tendency to have female rulers?
JGB: I think she exemplifies that. She taps very deep levels of response. There are elements of La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the merciless muse, in her. Also the archetype of the–
JGB: Yes, the Medusa. She taps a large number of deep responses which people express in present-day terms. She’s the nanny, she’s the headmistress, and she’s school-marmy as well. I think her appeal goes far beyond . . . it’s a very ambiguous appeal. She represents all these sort of half-stages–half-conscious, primordial forces . . . that she certainly tapped.
As ever, Ballard is an expert analyst of the cultural condition. He is listening carefully to what the analysand has to say, and what’s coming through is that they want to be fucked by Thatcher.
The excellent Extreme Metaphors interviews book, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, reveals the extent of Ballard’s infatuation/interest and its maturation (go straight to the index, something we might have picked up from Jim himself). Thatcher is discussed on several pages from the 80s through to his final years (Ballard’s a fan of cruise missiles, a proponent of the Falklands action, and a supporter of her economic policies – this, despite being anti-monarchist, anti-Lords, anti-public school. Libertarians would like to claim him, but we might be more secure identifying him as a denier of political binaries. Certainly, he’s more interested in how politics works in the psychological register than in the ideological.)
For those whose livelihoods and communities were devastated by her political decisions, she might be the embodiment of evil, a single individual on whom to heap blame for destruction. If we join Ballard and analyse from a different perspective we might note that she embodied something that has remained more culturally potent than ideology: the adman’s understanding of the libidinal forces that really drive us. She had a domineering sexual hook. She fucked us and a great number of us asked her to do it again. And again.
Her most quoted phrase – her epitaph – is a piece of sexual advice, a coital warning. This lady’s not for turning. Quite. You’ll have to look into those eyes if you want congress. There’ll be no beast of two backs with Thatcher. In fact, perhaps you should be the one to turn.
All images are borrowed from NASA and ESA:
Responding to a tweet by Tom Hunter @clarkeaward.
Rachel Cusk’s feature in the Guardian Review in defence of creative writing has been nagging away at me ever since I read it.
I have problems with the view of the subject and, more importantly for creative writing, the view of the novel at the heart of the piece. I wasn’t initially particularly concerned with what Cusk was trying to defend, the teaching of creative writing, although, of course, her defence ended up making me question just that.
Here’s where it starts going wonky:
Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels the need to assert a “true” self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every social and personal network, has given rise to a “false” self.
This is presented as the student’s view, but it’s entirely consistent with Cusk’s own work and criticism. The piece continues by noting the hoariness of the cliché that everyone has a book in them:
What is it, this book everyone has in them? It is, perhaps, that haunting entity, the “true” self. The true self seeks release, not constraint. It doesn’t want to be corseted in a sonnet or made to learn a system of musical notations. It wants liberation, which is why very often it fastens on the novel, for the novel seems spacious, undefined, free. In the novel that common currency, language, can be exchanged like for like.
I wouldn’t disagree that the novel can be spacious – its spaciousness might, in fact, be constitutive of what it is – or free, but thought it might be useful to highlight some of the rich critical work that deals with the problem of the idea of this “true” self and attempts to assert it through language. The thing is, there’s not much point me doing that because it’s already been done with considerable energy and clarity by Tom McCarthy (that’s the Booker short-listed Tom McCarthy, so he’s no publishing obscurity) in his essay ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. (I’d love to be able to recommend you buy the ebook, as I did, but sadly its saddled with all sorts of DRM so I can neither copy from it nor read it on any device other than the computer I downloaded it on. I needn’t stress the absurdity of publishing an essay about literature as transmitted information in this kind of imprisoned form and should you want to read it you might want to have a look at scribd).
McCarthy’s title riffs on that of TS Eliot’s most famous critical essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which Eliot described what is referred to as his theory of depersonalisation, a process by which the artist removes himself from the picture to allow the rich tradition of literature to be reshaped by his mediation: ‘What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ In Eliot’s view, the individual poet becomes a collider for the particles of the literary tradition, providing ‘the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.’
McCarthy updates Eliot for the 21st century, quoting the critics who’ve, since Eliot, chipped away at the notion of the enthroned subject summoning great works of aesthetic beauty from some wonderful and mystical interiority. He writes that he’s almost embarrassed to quote the passage he does from Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’, so well known is it. But let’s sample just a touch, because Barthes is great (and available on Ubuweb – take note ebook publishers):
literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.
McCarthy glosses this:
Who speaks? For Barthes, the answer is always: language – language speaks me, you, everyone, to such an extent that I and you and we and they are merely shifting and amorphous points, floating islands being continuously made and unmade by language’s flows and counterflows.
Lovely stuff. The thing is, on re-reading Cusk’s piece she seems to sense these problems but is unwilling to push at them, perhaps because of the implications for the self:
The novel seems to be the book of self: the problem is that, once you start to write it, you see that it has taken on certain familiar characteristics. It begins to seem not true but false, either a recreation of the false self or a failure to externalise the true one. It is a product, your product: in other words, more of the same. How, then, to produce the “true” writing?
Rather than working at this problem she defers to Karl Ove Knausgard, whose book was her pick of the year in the Guardian’s round-up.
“Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in A Death in the Family. “That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”
Any the wiser? Nope, me neither. And we all thought post-structuralism was difficult to understand. But wait, there’s an explanation in what, for me, is the most problematic statement of all in this article:
There is a spirituality, or at least a mysticism, to this statement that it seems to me ought to be embedded at the core of creative writing culture.
Is this a direction to go to a séance or a church? Because it reads like one. It strikes me that this is where you end up if you enshrine hugely problematic notions such as the subject and the idea of authenticity at the heart of fictional practice: flailing around, summoning the spirits and trying to divine the self in a concave mirror. A student might be excused for asking for something a touch more rigorous on a £5700 a year creative writing course.
I don’t want to attack creative writing, the particular course, or even the particular teacher, but I do want to make a problem of this mysticism. I realise that creative writing is not literary criticism. Barthes and Eliot might not be what creative writing students want to read (they may prefer Cusk and Knausgard). Fair enough. (ish. I think creative writing should be engaged with the possibilities of literature rather than therapeutic self-expression, and should certainly be aware of current directions in the novel, and let’s be honest, this isn’t even that current: nouveau roman, anyone? But then I’m frequently seen as some kind of utopian dilettante, if a bit grumpy about DRM).
I think even in its own terms this defence is flawed, because what is being advocated here is a type of novel that is in no way free or liberated, reduced, as it is, to self-portraiture. Indeed, Cusk herself describes Knausgard’s book as a self-portrait.
While Francis Bacon’s self-portraits might be very interesting in the context of his collected work, if there were only self-portraits, would we be interested? Even if you don’t want to engage with the questions facing literature, and just want to write a good detective story, should your detective story really be a self-portrait?
The view of the novel that is concerned only with the self precludes the possibility of Eliot’s fusion. It may have some awareness of the tradition in which it operates but it can’t hope to put it under sufficient synthetic pressure to produce work that will be of any value to anyone but the producing self, because this is its only real concern.
An idea of the novel that limits itself to self-portraiture is always going to end up here: this is an artistic correlationism that makes self continuous with work, without allowing for all the things – tradition, computer monitors, exterior soundfields, whisky, metaphor, mess, the continuous flow of information – that make such a notion nonsensical.
What was planned as a quick post on Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods has ended up taking me most of today. I finished reading this last week, found it compellingly, brilliantly strange and have subsequently read a couple of reviews. I don’t want to review it myself, because a number of these reviews are excellent and I’ll be referring to them below, and I don’t want to repeat the plot synopses that these do so well. I want to consider satire more broadly.
It’s an interesting thing, is satire. It’s typically highly normative. My Birkbeck colleague Joe Brooker has written very compellingly on this:
Normative satire requires that laws of right conduct be understood, not merely by the lone satirist, but by the work’s audience. It implies consensus around shared values, and implicit agreement that transgression of those values should be pointed out and punished at the level of representation [...] The satirist seems to be on the side of change, of progress, or at least of correction. (Joseph Brooker, Satire Bust, 327)
This expands on Samuel Johnson’s definition of a satirical poem as ‘a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.’ In the broadest sense, a satirical text identifies something wrong with the world and aims to correct the situation by poking it with a textual stick.
The idea of consensus should be qualified, though: it may well be the audience who require correcting. How many of us were as acutely aware of the level of shamelessness with which the famous would prostitute themselves to TV and charitable causes before Chris Morris’s Brass Eye? Morris provided ‘correction’, brought his viewers into line with his worldview by educating them about the absurdity of the situation. Did he stop the media or the famous from functioning in the way they do? Demonstrably not. Did he make his audience more aware of what was happening? Absolutely. (Compare to later attempts to do the same thing which certainly assume audience consensus).
In fact, I think it’s worth pushing this a bit further. Mikhael Bakhtin identified what he called ‘carnival laughter’, laughter of all the people, in the work of Rabelais. Carnival laughter is multiple and ambivalent. In this kind of satire no one is excluded from the mockery, and at the same time, different people might be getting different jokes.
A personal working example of this might be around Chris Morris’s Richard Geefe columns in The Observer in which he wrote as a young man who was documenting the countdown to a suicide attempt. I was outraged at these columns before I knew they were spoofs: what was The Observer doing hiring this twat? My colleague Joe McNally spotted thematic resonance with Morris’s work and outed him. McNally enjoyed those earlier columns more than I did. I was initially on the wrong side of the joke which functioned as a mockery of people who get wound up about newspaper columns just as much as it did a brilliantly convincing parody of confessional me-journalism. (It occurs that Jerry Sadowitz might be our greatest living practitioner of Bakhtinian humour, and I’d love to hear him respond to that accusation.)
Reviews of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods have been illustrative of the complicated functioning of satire. For Jenny Turner it’s a ‘satire on office politics, sexual politics, American politics, and the art of positive thinking, culminating with a sad, dry attack on the very basis of constitutional democracy.’ That’s pretty multivalent. John Self writes: ‘Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics.’ Garth Risk Hallberg goes for ambivalence: there are two kinds of satire, he argues, a loose form and a strict form. Lightning Rods is an exemplar of the latter, ‘an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends.’
Turner’s is the most Bakhtinian reading: everything within the scope of the novel is satirized, its carnival encompasses its world. Self hones in on just one of Turner’s objects, to consider it a satire of sexual politics that is ‘really’ about language. The novel’s position on sexual politics is indeed highly normative, assuming a consensus opposition to prostitution and weedle-words used to justify it. I think this might be better termed the ‘manifest’ object of the novel’s satire and I wonder if we mightn’t prod at that a little harder to reveal its ‘latent’ object. Language is certainly a concern of the novel, and many reviewers have praised its highly accomplished voice, a pastiche of self-help-derived, corporate sales schpiel and good-old, down-home values to produce something both very funny and capable of carrying off a single-minded logic.
Hallberg’s analysis is very interesting because while I’d dispute the need to narrow contemporary satire to just two types, it usefully identifies something very important: that the satirical text is a form of model, employing a kind of logic that indicates correlation between its fantasy and a real world scenario to make its case. In other words, satire is a form of analogy. Think of Swift’s mirror: the satirical text reflects the world back to itself in a warped version that highlights absurdity. It is appropriate that it should follow logical premises. Satire is structurally logical. In the case of Lightning Rods there is a formal match with content. This text is entirely monological: it is the single-minded extension of a fantastic premise – a premise literally taken from a fantasy – carried for the duration of a novel. Its language serves that logic: the ‘deadpan coolness’ of the ‘masking language’ in John Self’s description is a function of a fantasy logic that can overcome all obstacles. If a novel can indeed be about any one thing, this novel is about a form of logic.
While reading Lightning Rods I was several times troubled by a couple of nagging doubts: this is very funny, but why extend this fantastic scenario so far? Isn’t it too thin? And: am I laughing at myself here?
On completing Lightning Rods I was both certain that the logic had been extended so far for a very good reason – a reason well beyond reductio ad absurdum, because what need to render absurd an already absurd premise? – and certain that I had been laughing at myself. Two moments in the narrative clarified things for me.
In each of these moments it seemed certain that the monological continuation of (just another Regular) Joe’s fantasy would be derailed. In each of these moments this logic was, completely implausibly, not derailed. On several locations in the narrative alternate logics came into contact with that of the narrator and each was subsumed into his logic in implausible fashion but these two moments specifically stood out for me as markers in the sand. They reminded me a bit of Zadie Smith’s account of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, in which she noted the scene when Remainder’s narrator describes inviting a homeless man in to a restaurant to have lunch with him before declaring this obviously a fantasy: ‘There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up—the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins—but I didn’t go across to him.’ In Remainder’s logic, a small irruption of reality into the fantastic fabric of the fiction; a tear, rent or ruck in the surface of mimesis. Smith described this as McCarthy insisting: ‘Satisfied? Can I write this novel my way now?’
In Lightning Rods there is inversion of this gesture to similar ends. DeWitt allows plausible reality just close enough to the narrative to let you sense how tenuous the fantasy is before subsuming it back into the implausible. In the first of these scenes Joe is door-stopped by an FBI investigator who has discovered the extent of the Lightning Rod network and how illegal it is. Rather than prosecuting him for innumerable violations of federal laws, the federal government takes up the Lightning Rods system as a means of controlling and protecting important individuals. Have I mentioned that this is highly implausible? Instead of derailing it, this episode reasserts the narrator’s fantasy – we remain within his fantasy. It also, importantly, I think, indicates that the state has taken up the logic of the fantasy with a slightly variant agenda.
In the second scene the narrator invites Lucille back to his apartment to discuss changes to the Lightning Rod business and how to deal with competitors. Lucile, it should be noted, is the focus of Joe’s germinal fantasy incarnate: an unflappable and business-like pneumatic blonde with a taste for bubblegum pink clothing. In this scene, domestic reality threatens to intrude: Joe’s dog is bouncing around and Lucille likes it; she also falls for his set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and they are surely about to get together… but no, instead they return to discussing Lightning Rods and Lucille voices a machine-tooled version of Joe’s masculinist logic. This incident blocks off the other side: the logic of romantic fantasy is excluded; the love scene is denied. There is only one form of logic in this text: Joe’s logic; the logic of the sale.
This is pretty much the structure of the novel: encounter opposition to fantasy logic, overcome opposition, move on. Every oppositional encounter is incorporated into the body of the fantasy as the all-accommodating fantasy extends its logic. The distracting toilet is overcome by the construction of a lowering mechanism; identifying skin colour and a racial equality suit are overcome by the implementation of PVC tights; the oppositions of Christian clients are overcome by sales patter.
What we end with is at root a male sexual fantasy predicated upon a resolutely male logic – that the male requires sexual relief in order to be usefully productive – that is developed single-mindedly and incorporates within it every opposition it encounters. Along the way, there are surprising benefits for the disabled, considerations of racial equality – but only as by-products of a warped fantasy of male sexual release.
It’s now 28 years since Fredric Jameson declared parody no longer possible: empty pastiche is all that we’re capable of, he argued, in late capitalist cultural production. I think that one way we might read Lightning Rods is as a response to free-market capitalism. Joe is a salesman. This is a novel about the sale of a system, a system that is expanded throughout the novel through a relentless monotone logic of incorporation that encounters every opposition as an opportunity to extend its logic – the kind of logic that would give us credit default swaps and obscure and baroque products developed as a response to an opportunity not to do anything other than extend the system? Such a reading would associate late venture capitalism with a male sexual fantasy implausibly extended throughout every aspect of life, supported and corroborated by numerous women along the way and adopted by the state but still, at root, a tawdry masturbatory fantasy. I’m quite happy to suggest this as the ‘latent’ object of the text’s satire.
On several occasions there is a suggestion that something went wrong with the Lightning Rods business, but it never actually does: there is no end to Lightning Rods within the novel’s world. Why on earth sustain a tawdry jazz-mag fantasy, implausibly propped up with sales patter, for 280-pages? Because it has to be sustained, we’re still in it. We can’t veer off into romance, or into realism. This fantasy is here to stay. Satire is a form structurally suited to critiquing the monological but to overcome Jameson’s problem, in order to retain its bite, it must locate itself logically parallel to the system, but outside; must be analogue. If there’s a norm to be assumed here, it’s a norm none of us are sharing in.
We’re definitely laughing at ourselves.