Category Archives: Reading Journal

Surrealism comes for us all: Miéville’s Last Days of New Paris

The Rex’s guards search them and incompetently question them and let them in to noise and warmth and the smell of drink, dirt, and sweat. Rows of seat-stubs slope down the tumbling hall. people are dancing. Women and men watch the huge screen from a raised half-floor above. What is showing is snips of images, monochrome light. Someone in the projection booth is stringing bits together, grabbing ripped-up centimeters of whatever film is by their fingers and running it for seconds, then replacing it. Melodramas, old silent movies, entertainments, news, documentary footage.

Surrealism comes for us all, Thibaut thinks.

I imagine that Last Days of New Paris is an even richer read if you’re more familiar with the canon of Surrealist art than myself; you don’t need to be an expert, certainly (and the glossary/bestiary of manifestations that Miéville provides at the end of the book offers the opportunity to become something more of one, should you wish), but I imagine it might be a tough read unless you know the basics.

But then Miéville is never an easy read, and that could be what I enjoy about his work: it demands effort from the reader, but that effort is rewarded with rich layerings of irony and metaphor. I’m not going to unpack the book entire, because this isn’t a review proper so much as a recommendation of a book I’ve enjoyed, but this tale of a multivalent fight for the soul of a Nazi-occupied Paris of an alternate 1950s has — if you choose to read fiction in search of such things –plenty to say about the timeline (and the particular moment) which you and I actually do inhabit: the art of war meets the war of art; fascism’s loathing for and longing to exploit the subversive power of of the image; greed, betrayal, guilt, chaos, loyalty, ideology; bargains made, promises kept, deals broken, lies told.

And if you don’t choose to read fiction for such things, well: rogue impossibilities ripped from art history at war with Nazis and demons from Hell in the streets of mid-20th Century Paris! A pulpy premise whose execution only occasionally allows that pulpiness to surface, written in that hard-to-pin-down but nonetheless idiosyncratic Miévillean prose style: images only half-described that nonetheless and unexpectedly unfold fully in the mind’s eye; sentences that twist upon themselves or terminate unexpectedly like trap streets.  It’s a text (in part, at least) about Surrealism, but is it a Surreal text? I’ve no idea; ask an expert.

Of special technical interest — and if you’re the type that worries about spoilers, then you’d probably best consider this your warning of the potential presence thereof — is the Afterword, which reframes the story of Thibaut’s adventures as a twice-told tale from an alternate timeline (and perhaps also something of a club story?), delivered to Miéville under strange circumstances by an unreliable narrator whom Miéville (within the text, or at least within this outer frame thereof) comes to assume is rather more reliable than he’s playing it.

I’m of two minds as to whether this device was strictly necessary, in the sense that the novella preceding it could conceivably have stood alone perfectly well in its absence*. But I’m certain that the device changes the stance in which the story stands, and that Miéville had a particular effect in mind when he decided not only to (re)frame it thus, but also to do so in an afterword rather than a preamble: we initially take the story as we find it, and only afterwards do we have it twisted so as to more explicitly connect its other reality to our own. On one level, I admire the strategy and the execution alike; but on another, I wonder what I would have taken from the novella without the framing narrative appended.

Then again, given that one of the tenets of Surrealism was that an object or image introduced into a seemingly inappropriate context has the power to provoke revolutionary thoughts and feelings, perhaps my inability to resolve this question to my satisfaction is exactly the point.

* — In the sense that it’s Miéville’s work, and hence none of my business, the framing narrative is of course self-evidently necessary. I’m not trying to edit the man’s fiction in retrospect, merely to understand how it works, and thus to perhaps intuit the why behind the how.

Ravens, reductionism and consciousness

We’ll never find proof for the existence of consciousness by picking the animal apart, or by looking at its parts in isolation. That’s like trying to understand the caching behavior of ravens by grinding them up, examining ever smaller parts down to the molecules, and studying them through the laws of physics or chemistry. That’s backwards. To the biologists life is made of matter, but the nature of every living thing in the cosmos is time-bound. Every living thing is, like a book, more than ink and paper. It is a record of history spanning over two billion years. The more we dissect and look at the parts disconnected, the more we destroy what we are trying to find—the more we destroy what took millions of years to make. Mind, like life or liveness, is an emergent property that is a historical phenomenon, though also still a wholly physical one. It reveals itself far above and beyond its component parts, in this case, primarily the nerve cells with their infinite interconnections that cannot and will not ever be unraveled one and all. Consciousness is not a thing. It is a continuum without boundaries. We can most readily see its presence or absence in the extremes.

Excerpt from Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heirrich (1999), p339.

Been enjoying this book about late-20th-Century studies of the birds that are my family namesake, my picking up of which had absolutely nothing to do with a rapidly developing Odin complex, no sirree.

The most remarkable thing about it, besides the insights into the complex (and quite probably conscious) behaviours of ravens, are the descriptions of Heinrich’s experimental methods, which involve a great deal of living out in the woods of Maine and dragging around animal carcasses of assorted sizes and origins; guy scrapes up a whole lotta roadkill. Lab-coat-and-test-tube biology, this is not; I believe one of the labels for this sort of work is behavioural ecology, but even that seems a little too restrictive. A lucid (if sometimes pedestrian) writer, cautious and careful in his descriptions of experimental processes but, as indicated above, not afraid to share his philosophies and theories when they go beyond the boundaries of what peer reviewers will accept (which is quite often).

What kind of bomb

“For a long time I have suspected there is no way out. I can do nothing I am not. I have been living destructively towards the writer in me for some time, guiltily conscious of doing so all along, cf. the critical justification in terms of the objective death of a historical tradition: a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada. In all of this there is a terrible emotional smear. The steel of the logic has to be daily strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. It grows daily more hard to contain. I am a kind of bomb.”

— from Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi, 1960; quoted in Lipstick Traces by the staggeringly prolix but insightful Greil Marcus

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine by Warren EllisIf Warren Ellis is to be believed – and why wouldn’t you believe a grumpy and grizzled man wielding a cane who looks like he eats dogs just for the fun of it, and whose legions of followers refer to him, at his command, as Internet Jesus? – the first three chapters of Crooked Little Vein were written with the intent of permanently scaring away the agent who kept hassling him to write his first prose novel.

It’s easier still to believe if you’ve actually read CLV, which is a gleefully disgusting narrative collage comprising the collected horrors of a decade spent trawling the internet’s seediest subcultural ghettoes, and introduced such delights as saline injection ballbag modification and the (hopefully at least partly fabricated) concept of godzilla bukkake to an audience who, had they done even the slightest bit of research, should have known exactly what they were in for. CLV is a short sharp slap of gross-out fun, but belongs more to a pulpy subgenre of its very own than any recognisable (or, for that matter, marketable) publishing category.

If Ellis really wanted to put off the publishers, either he or CLV‘s Bookscan figures failed spectacularly: New Year’s Day 2013 sees the release of Gun Machine, his second novel, and it’s a very different animal indeed. Oh, it’s pure Ellis, don’t worry about that – but it’s also much more recognisably a novel, and a pretty damned decent one as well. Talk of “that difficult second [album / book / cloned mutant love-servant]” all you want, but Gun Machine is a serious bit of game-raising, an order of magnitude deeper, wider and just plain better than what went before it.

I can’t really speak to Gun Machine‘s credentials as a ‘proper’ crime novel, because that’s a genre I only know at one or more removes. One could probably make an argument for Gun Machine as sf, as it’s set in one of those Gibsonian very-near-futures: recognisably not too far from the here-and-now, but with a few all too plausible technological extrapolations. But given sf’s ongoing generic toxicity to anyone who doesn’t already identify as an sf reader, I’d not bother; no one who keeps an eye on even just the topmost jags of the technology news-berg is going to get sunk by this novel. So let’s call it a psychogeographical psycho-thriller; there are so many damned genres around now, another one won’t hurt. (And I like psychogeography, so there.)

So, yeah: John Tallow is a detective with the NYPD, and in the opening chapters he sees the brain matter of his partner spattered across a tenement stairwell (and his suit jacket) courtesy of a naked man with a shotgun who’s working his way through a psychotic break. Pretty standard start for a crime novel, right? But in pretty short order – and in brief and highly visual chapters – Tallow discovers the tenement contains an apartment full of guns. Hundreds of the things, and not just stashed away in a cubby-hole, either; they’re laid out on the floor and walls in an intricate, cryptic and, worst of all, incomplete gunmetal mandala.

It’s the sort of clusterfuck case that no sane detective would ever want to be saddled with, let alone one trying to deal with having seen his partner zeroed right in front of him earlier that day… which is exactly why Tallow’s boss dumps it straight into his lap, hoping it’ll sink quickly into the ocean of unsolved Noo Yoik murder cases and take Tallow with it. And that’s before the forensics evidence starts flooding in, revealing that each of the guns is connected to an unsolved murder, a collection of cold cases stretching back decades.

This is no straight-forward serial killer caper, though, and technique is a part of that. Instead of sticking to Tallow as he – assisted by the two profoundly (and, quite often, amusingly) dysfunctional CSU sidekicks he acquires – collects plot tokens to trade in for the final revelation, Ellis gives us chapters from the killer’s POV as well. This takes deft handling; revealing the killer to the reader early on robs a crime writer of a major source of tension, but the plot here is far wider than one man and his very serious case of psychopathy, which lets Ellis pull us into both the deep and recent histories of New York as a city of trade, uncovering webs of deceit, greed and and corruption as contemporary as they are timeless. And somehow, despite Tallow being almost a textbook cipher of a detective, a man with no life beyond the job he’s been indifferent to for years and his apartment piled full of pre-digital media, Ellis makes you root for the guy; it started out as pity, but became something more than that, at least for me.

Perhaps it’s a matter of contrast: the hollow Tallow against the vision-filled and profoundly schizophrenic killer, against his madcap sidekicks, against the callow careerists of the NYPD. Character depth isn’t Gun Machine‘s strong point – it’s very much a novel of types – but Ellis has the knack of communicating what, for want of a better term, we might call the universality of fucked-upness. Despite the comic excess, Ellis’s white-hats are big-hearted behind their overamped peccadilloes; it’s the black-hats who wear the sharp suits, the veneers of respectability and conformity. Ellis knows his audience of freaks and outcasts. He’s always been proud to be one of them, after all.

And there are some genuinely funny moments in Gun Machine, a necessary and welcome counterbalance to the clinically gruesome descriptions of slaughter. It’s dark humour, of course, but delivered with a humanity that you might not expect after reading CLV… though if you’ve read Transmetropolitan, arguably the comic that made his rep, you’ll know that Ellis has a big heart hidden somewhere behind that scouring-pad beard, and that his spiky character is a sort of defence mechanism against a world that can stomp on hearts all too easily.

(Having written that publicly, of course, I fully suspect Ellis will now despatch a drug-crazed fan-minion to shit in my eyesockets while I sleep. Man’s gotta rep to protect, y’know.)

But enough detail. Gun Machine isn’t going to take any literary prizes, but it’ll take you on a blood-soaked ride around the scabrous underbelly of a world we still think of as modern, but which is really a whole lot older and simpler – and nastier – than we care to acknowledge. And while there’s no happy-ever-after – or even just desserts – in Ellis’s world, it is all the more human for that; it rings with the bittersweet chime of the truth, and that’s a sound I don’t hear enough, no matter the medium.

253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman

253 by Geoff RymanI’ve known of 253 (a.k.a. Tube Theatre) for quite some time, but I’ve only just read it, after stumbling across the (Philip K Dick Award-winning) print remix in the dealer’s room at Eastercon. Its original incarnation was as a website – which still exists, seemingly untouched and untweaked since it was built in 1996. Wikipedia would have me believe that Robert Arellano’s Sunshine 69 was “the World Wide Web’s first interactive novel”, published in June 1996; I can’t find an accurate date for 253‘s launch, but it seems reasonable to say that even if it came out after Arellano’s work, it was still very much in the vanguard of web-native hypertext fictions. I used to read Wired in ’96 – dead-tree editions, of course, imported from the States – and remember the repeated pre-emptive obituaries for print media, and announcements of the imminence of the hypertext novel as the primary literary form of The Future. The former looks more likely now than it ever did, but still a long way off, while the latter – but for a small fringe scene – has remained resolutely below the radar, for reasons that are more obvious in hindsight. (I’m not going to waffle on about the paucity of viable business models for online fiction at this point; I’ve done enough of that at Futurismic over the years.) Continue reading 253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman