The Gospel According to Blindboy by Blindboy Boatclub

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My review of Blindboy Boatclub’s collection of 15 short stories (Gill Books) is in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Paywall etc, but here’s an excerpt:

It’s seven years since the Rubberbandits first came to general notice with the scabrous comedy song “Horse Outside” (16 and a half million hits on YouTube, as of this week). Back then they looked like a typically transient novelty act – “Horse Outside,” and its follow-up, “Spastic Hawk,” were the kind of thing you shared on Facebook, or watched for laughs at the tail-end of a session.

The band’s debut album, Serious About Men (2011), wasn’t exactly a smash (it peaked at number 16 in the Irish charts), though anyone who took the trouble to listen to some of the less commercially-friendly tracks might have noticed that Blindboy and his partner, Mr. Chrome, were up to something a bit more complicated than taking the piss out of Limerick skangers or making prank phone calls. A track called “Up Da Ra” brutally satirises the incoherent Republicanism of hash-smoking wasters (“Lash this one out in your cyaaaaar!”). It was around now that people began to notice that Blindboy (real name Dave Chambers) had attended the Limerick School of Art and Design and was doing a Masters in Psychology – in other words, whatever the Bandits were up to, it had more intellectual heft than you might have expected.

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Mrs Osmond by John Banville

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My review of John Banville’s new novel Mrs Osmond (Viking Penguin) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. Here’s a wee excerpt:

Perhaps inevitably, the experience of reading Mrs Osmond is marked by a certain dissonance. Banville – one of the great masters of English prose – has fabricated a remarkable simulacrum of James’s legendarily circuitous style. “She had made a monstrous mistake, but she could say, triumphantly, that she had lived, and would yet live, richly, deeply, to the broadest stretch of her being.” This strikes the true Jamesian note, and there are a hundred other such instances in Banville’s pages.

But Banville in propria persona has never been a particularly Jamesian writer, and every so often his own preoccupations and prose rhythms slip through – as when Isabel notes “those occasions, rare and precious, when in ordinary daylight, and impelled by mysterious powers larger than ourselves, we seem to see the world before us burst into unearthly radiance.” To witness two such distinctive styles superimposed upon one another is to grapple with a kind of double-exposure effect: are we in H.J.’s world, or J.B.’s? An early Hitchcockian cameo from the Master himself allows Isabel to sense that “a hand that been sustaining her for so long […] had suddenly been withdrawn.” She is now, of course, in the hands of John Banville, in whose artistic jungle entirely different beasts lie in wait. 

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

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It’s almost Booker time, so I thought I’d post my review of one of the shortlisted novels, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 (Faber). The piece originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine back in February of this year. Bonus content: I also hated another of the shortlistees, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

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“First thought, best thought,” wrote Jack Kerouac, offering perennial encouragement to the sort of writer who never has any thoughts at all. Since anyone’s first thought about anything is likely to be a cliché, the business of literature should be to look for the last thought – or, at the very least, to declare war on the stock response.

Paul Auster is a first-thought writer who has somehow acquired the reputation of being a deep-thought writer. Early in his career – with the three arid metafictions that make up The New York Trilogy (1985-6) – Auster adroitly surfed some of the less gnarly waves of literary postmodernism. In thirteen further novels – most recently Sunset Park (2010) – he has riffed repetitiously on a small handful of themes: existential dread, the randomness of life (a 1990 novel is called The Music of Chance), the burden of being a writer. Auster’s novels are samey: a male narrator, usually a writer or a writer-substitute, muses on the accident or the crime (or the accidental crime) that knocked his life off-course. Lately Auster’s reputation has ebbed. In 2009 the New Yorker critic James Wood published an essay called “Paul Auster’s Shallowness” that parodied Auster’s plots. “He does nothing with cliché except use it,” Wood scoffed.

Now, after a seven-year hiatus, Auster is back with his longest and most ambitious book. 4 3 2 1 is a whopper: 866 densely-packed pages. The governing conceit is not original – it was used by Kate Atkinson in her novel Life After Life (2014) and, to step Napoleonically from the sublime to the ridiculous, by the makers of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors4 3 2 1 tells multiple versions of the same life-story, demonstrating, not very interestingly, how every life is governed by random chance (or, you might say, by Austerity).

Wandering through Auster’s mammoth maze of alternative histories is New Jersey-born Archie Ferguson. There are four versions of Archie, whom we meet in successive chapters titled “1.1,” “1.2,” “1.3” and so on. A prologue introduces us to Archie’s parents, Stanley and Rose. Even in the novel’s early pages, elephantiasis looms. Two obese paragraphs are devoted to listing Rose’s reasons for marrying Stanley – there are eighteen, in case you’re wondering. This prologue also clues us in to the scale of Auster’s ambitions. We open on Ellis Island, with Stanley’s father, a Russian Jew from Minsk, receiving his new American name (Ichabod Ferguson). Any book that opens with an Ellis Island baptism is plainly shooting for Great American Novel status. Twenty pages later, Rose reads Tolstoy. “It was Tolstoy who […] understood all of life, it seemed to her, everything there was to know about the human heart and the human mind.” Stand back! Tolstoyan epic coming through!

The differences between Auster’s alternate timelines don’t add up to much – Archie Version 4, for example, doesn’t find himself growing up in a world where Hitler won, or anything exciting like that. It’s all minor stuff: one version of Archie falls out of a tree as a child and breaks his leg; another loses two fingers in a car accident. Toward the novel’s end, Archie reflects that “the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place.” If this is the upshot of your novel, then why not make your chosen alternatives more dramatic? – leaving aside, for now, the fact that this is a pretty banal conclusion for any saga to arrive at, after more than 800 pages.

Oscar Wilde’s observation, in “The Critic as Artist” (1891), that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” is quoted often; the sentence that follows it, almost never. “To be natural,” Wilde wrote, “is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Paul Auster is, in this sense, a natural writer. He is always obvious. He is almost always inartistic. Where a cliché will do, he uses a cliché. Where a cliché will not do, he uses a different cliché.

4 3 2 1 is, unsurprisingly, a factory farm of clichés. Archie’s mother is a “rock of composure.” A storm is “a raging downpour.” Once “Ferguson summoned up the courage to approach his mother,” “she took the plunge.” After the death of their Uncle Lew, “the Ferguson clan had been blown to bits.” Archie “languishes” in bed with a broken leg, “cooped up in his room,” reflecting that “there was no one to blame for this misfortune but himself.” His cousin Francie comes to visit, and “the time he spent with her was always the most enjoyable part of the day.” Later, a conversation will “hit Ferguson like a blow to the stomach.” “They were the longest ten seconds of Ferguson’s life.” And when his mother finds a location for her photography studio, “her long search was finally over.”

Once again, there are 866 pages of this. Most mediocre novels have the decency to peter out after two hundred pages – maybe after three or four hundred, in egregious instances (even mediocrity is tough to sustain over the long term). But 4 3 2 1 just keeps on rolling. It is mediocrity turned, Spinal Tappishly, up to eleven. Meanwhile, a quick lesson in how to write: First thought, worst thought. Second thought, second-worst thought. And so on.

Treblinka by Chil Rajchman

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This review of Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory 1942-1943 (MacLehose) first appeared, in slightly different form, in the Sunday Business Post in 2011.

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Literature, as Ezra Pound once remarked, is news that stays news. And we might go on to suggest that the literature of the Holocaust infallibly obeys this law – that the testimonies of those who survived the Nazi death camps are still in the business of bringing us news. This, of course, would be bad news: news about what happens to human beings brutalized by conditions of the severest moral disorder. To the distinguished list of survivor’s accounts – to the list of such books as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1955) – we can now add Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka, a short, almost unbearably harrowing memoir of a Jewish prisoner’s experience in one of the worst of the Operation Reinhard death camps.

Born to Jewish parents in Lodz in 1914, Rajchman fled to Pruszkow, a small town north of Warsaw, when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. From there, he was deported first to the Warsaw ghetto, and then, after a short spell at Lublin, found himself carried by freight car to an obscure village in a forest sixty kilometres from the city. The name on the sign at the railway station said Treblinka.

And Treblinka is where Treblinka begins. “The grim freight wagons transport me there, to that place […] The transports travel without hindrance and without limit, and Treblinka grows richer in blood day by day.” About Rajchman’s life before his arrival at the camp, the book tells us little. As Columbia History Professor Samuel Moyn notes (in a spare, instructive preface), it is “as if [Rajchman’s] destiny of living though so much death cuts him off from his previous existence.”

On the selection ramp, Rajchman was immediately separated from his sister – at Treblinka, as at Auschwitz, women and children were sent at once to the gas chambers, because they could not be used to swell the Nazis’ burgeoning army of slave labourers. Rajchman himself – a young man in relatively good health – was chosen for the blackest kind of work: along with other male prisoners, he was forced to sort and carry the clothes and belongings of those who had already been murdered. Rajchman’s time at the camp was spent enduring the unspeakable horror of Sonderkommando labour: aiding in the burial of piles of corpses, in the extraction of gold fillings from the mouths of the dead (the fillings were sent back to Berlin, where they were melted down into ingots), and finally – as the tide of the war turned and the Germans hastened to cover up their crimes – in the exhumation of mass graves and in the burning of bodies.

Rajchman took part in the Treblinka insurrection of August 2nd, 1943, during which a handful of prisoners rebelled, seized arms from their captors, and set fire to the gas chambers. In the uproar, Rajchman escaped – though many others were killed in the attempt – and, with a small band of fellow fugitives, wandered the forests, relying on aid from frightened locals (and eluding informers and collaborators). At last, he was able to return to Warsaw, where a friend provided him with “Aryan papers.” Rajchman died in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 2004. He began composing the text of Treblinka towards the end of the Second World War – he was still in hiding – but the Yiddish manuscript remained unpublished until a French translation, Je suis le dernier Juif (I am the last Jew), appeared posthumously in 2009. Now it appears in English, beautifully translated by Solon Beinfeld. It is a necessary book – all the more so for being unforgettably horrifying, upsetting, and grim. As Samuel Moyn writes, “the era [it describes] can be known for its true horror thanks only to a handful of texts like this one.”

The text itself offers only the barest editorial commentary about the events it recounts. Like the autobiographical works of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, Treblinka is a model of concision, clarity, and eloquence. The effect is of appalling immediacy: “After a certain number of corpses had been dealt with, the teeth were collected in two bowls, and two dentists would take them to the well and wash them before bringing them into our shed to be worked on. In our shed there was always a supply of teeth stored in chests, and if we had not cleaned them of blood and of the bits of flesh that stuck to them, they would begin to stink.”

Encountering details like these, we might once again acknowledge how difficult it is: to assimilate the true dimensions of the horror that the Nazis perpetrated in their camps. Rajchman’s testimony is therefore instructive, in the best sense. But make no mistake: there is no uplift here. There are no specious lessons about redemption or redress. Chil Rajchman, like the others who survived the camps, was an exception. Nearly 800,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. The Nazis did their best to ensure that no one escaped to tell what happened there. It is largely because of memoirs like Rajchman’s that we do know; Treblinka, like the small handful of other testimonials, immediately becomes a part of our common education – perhaps the part we can least do without.

The Critic as Artist

“Where there is no style a standard must be impossible. The poor reviewers are apparently reduced to be the reporters of the police-court of literature, the chroniclers of the doings of the habitual criminals of art.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1891)

The Auditory Imagination

“What I call the ‘auditory imagination’ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality.” – T.S. Eliot, “Matthew Arnold,” in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)

The Horror Boom Arrives, Right on Schedule

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Horror in America traditionally languishes during liberal administrations and thrives during periods of reaction – or so goes a fairly useful critical cliche. These things never line up exactly, of course, but it remains roughly true that the first great boom in contemporary horror began in the late 1960s, around the time that a wave of anti-counterculture sentiment propelled Richard Nixon to the US Presidency. The late 60s/early 70s horror boom was led by the success of Rosemary’s Baby (book 1967; film 1968) and The Exorcist (book 1971; film 1973); a tsunami of cheap horror paperbacks and Z-grade movies followed (though this was also the period that gave us Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the early novels of Stephen King – Carrie came out in 1974, and Brian DePalma’s movie version of it followed in 1976). When a reactionary government is in power, the level of ambient fear shoots up – partly because reactionary governments, from Nixon to Trump, have always cynically used fear to manipulate the electorate, and partly because conservative economic policies deliberately foment market instability, leading people to worry about losing their jobs and their homes.

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Horrifying. 

King himself did a lot to popularise the notion that horror tracks political sentiment. In Danse Macabre (1981), his study of what horror means, he suggests that the late 60s/early 70s boom in horror was a pop-cultural expression of anxieties about rising gas prices, economic insecurity, a resurgent sexual conservatism, defeat in Vietnam, and the erosion of the 1950s vision of America as a middle-class suburban utopia. King himself was the figurehead of another horror boom in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and his Milton-Friedman-admiring pals were dismantling the social contract in the name of neoliberalism. King’s major novel of the 1980s was IT (1986), a 1000-page rescension of his favourite conservative-small-town-America-is-actually-a-nest-of-nightmares theme. The 80s were also a golden age of horror movies: the “Apocalypse Trilogy” of John Carpenter, Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, the Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels, Creep ShowDay of the DeadFright Night, et cetera et cetera – and that’s before you even get to the 80s boom in quickie horror paperbacks (for more on which, check out Will Erickson’s Misfits-referencing Too Much Horror Fiction blog, or the British-based message board Vault of Evil).

The last major horror boom took place during 2001-2008, for reasons that are probably too obvious to require analysis. This was the time of torture porn, when movies like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) did a not remotely subtle job of dramatising America’s anxieties about stuff like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. During the Obama administration horror was relatively quiescent as a commercial proposition. Horror book sales declined to the point that Leisure Books, at that stage the US’s major publisher of mass-market horror paperbacks, closed down in 2010 – although there was a boomlet of haunted-house movies in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis (haunted-house movies always show up en masse during periods when the middle classes are worried about losing their homes). The major horror franchise of the Obama administration was probably The Purge, which stoked up middle-class fears about lawlessness and urban blight in a rather Trumpian way.

Now that the reactionaries are back in power, we can expect another horror boom – and voila, here it is, right on time. The new movie adaptation of IT (the midwest is riddled with evil clowns!) just enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of any horror movie ever; a quick Google search for “horror movies 2017” turns up too many results to list. And horror fiction – which has been in a slump since the market for trashy paperbacks blew a fuse in the early 1990s – shows signs of stirring once again as a commercial entity. (Anecdotally, horror sections in bookshops are getting bigger year on year.) Something about the Trump administration – what could it be? – seems to get people thinking in a horror-story kind of way (vide The Onion’s series of stories depicting Steve Bannon as a horrifying slime-monster).

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The best book I know about horror is John Clute’s The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (2006). The print version is tricky to get hold of, but the complete text is available in the ebook of Stay, Clute’s essay collection from 2014, and you can read a sheaf of excerpts over at Weird Fiction Review. Roughly speaking, Clute believes that horror only became a distinct genre towards the end of the 18th century, when the human species began to think of itself as precisely that – a species, inhabiting a planet, unprotected by gods, with no guarantee of an afterlife. This is the moment that Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” and that Nietzsche summed up in Zarathustra’s quip about God being dead. Clute argues that with the advent of modernity, a new awareness burgeoned: human beings, whether they knew it or not, began to think of the universe itself as basically indifferent, or even malign. In this new dispensation, Clute argues, when you scrape off the rind of appearances what you find beneath is “vastation”: the unacceptable truth that the world is indifferent, hostile, or empty of meaning – that what lies beneath all human illusions is the void. Horror, for Clute, is that category of story devoted to peeling back the rind of the real. For him, the key horror text is therefore Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) – the book that proleptically adumbrated the nightmare of 20th century politics, and the book which summarises, in Kurtz’s final words, the ultimate truth about everything: that there is only “the horror! the horror!” (Clute calls these words “the final grammar of reality entire, a rage isomorphic with how the world is truly said” – and who am I to argue?).

If we accept Clute’s reading, then the horror-as-embodiment-of-political-anxieties model I’ve proposed above is simply epiphenomenal. Horror may wax and wane with the fortunes of the middle classes, but if Clute is correct – as I think he is – then horror is in a sense the only possible genre: the only one devoted to telling us the appalling truth about who and what we are. This might explain why horror always carries with it the tinge of the disreputable: horror is Eeyore; horror is the prophet in the sandwich board that no one wants to listen to. Adolescents – surely horror’s biggest audience – know that trashy paperbacks and slasher movies will tell them something that the more respectable works of grown-up culture won’t: i.e. that life is meaningless, that we are just material bodies fated to be destroyed, that the universe really doesn’t care whether we live or die. At the end of Heart of Darkness, Marlow is unable to tell Kurtz’s Intended the truth about Kurtz’s last words: “It would have been too dark,” he explains to his listeners, “too dark altogether.” Horror is the genre that says, There is nothing too dark to tell; listen; the worst is yet to come.

Operation Trumpsformation by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly (as told to Paul Howard)

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My review of the latest Ross O’Carroll-Kelly appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine, hidden, of course, behind the Iron Paywall – but here’s a short excerpt:

No Irish writer currently working hears as well as Howard does. No other Irish writer is so scathingly au courant or so consistently sharp. Howard knows how ten-year-old girls who go to Mount Anville speak: “Oh my god! Hill! Air!” He knows how teenage boys from Finglas speak: “Ine Arthur fooking it up, Rosser. Enda bleaten stordee.” He knows that a certain kind of person says “Arelunt” for “Ireland” and that a different kind of person (Ross, of course) is so crippled by uncertainty about the politically correct way to describe someone’s race that he ends up saying, “Father Amokachi is from Nigeria, by the way, and I’m not saying that in a racist or any other kind of way.”

All of these lines come from Operation Trumpsformation – by my count, Ross’s nineteenth appearance in book form (he began, of course, in 1998, as a column in the old Sunday Tribune). Ross has been with us for almost twenty years – he’s now 35 – and you might expect to find that the conceit has grown a little stale by now. But not a bit of it. Operation Trumpsformation is as exuberant and engrossing a novel as you’ll read this year. Like the books that preceded it, it’s a report on the state of the nation disguised as a comedy about a South Dublin rugby jock who is (in the words of his own father-in-law) “a sexually incontinent layabout with nothing between your ears and, according to what I hear, even less between your fucking legs.”