The Inner Landscape

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I was unbelievably excited to come across this beautiful – look at it – *beautiful* specimen while I was hiding amongst the books in Camden Market. It’s a 1970 edition (inscribed on the title page with ‘rare’ by the bookseller) of three novellas variously from Mervyn Peake, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldriss. The three stories are as different as their authors but each compelling, eerie and provocative in its own way.

I Boy in Darkness, Mervyn Peake

The opening story of the collection follows a fourteen year old boy’s escape and descent from the towered kingdom he rules into a deserted underworld, strange and terrifying in equal measure. The Boy although unnamed in the story has been identified with Titus Groan and the world Peake crafts here is recognisably that of Gormenghast in all its atmospheric gothicism. The Boy finds himself in a strange landscape where the pervasive evil of the Lamb has transformed men into sloping, animalised versions of themselves. Peake plays with conventions of symbolism to offer a nightmarish hellscape presided over by the Lamb, all the more sinister as a subversion of traditional image of Christian humility and innocence.

Whilst the physical movement of the narrative charts the descent of the Boy from his tower to an underground cavern might suggest some sort of allegorical exploration of the Fall (an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood, a lost heaven, a vanquished demon…) the imagery of the passage complicates an resists such a reading. The tower he sets out to escape begins in darkness and fire, he is returned to it by those he initially sought to escape. The result is a chilling exercise in ambiguity and atmosphere. And that I’m going to have to re-read Gormenghast…

II Voices in Time, J. G. Ballard

Whilst it’s possible to see the Peake story as strangely extra-generic in its placeless and timelessness, perhaps settling somewhere between horror and fantasy, this is much more firmly rooted in science fiction as we understand it today.

The images of a scientist, struggling in his lab with old audio recordings of a deceased mentor; strange and unearthly creatures in tanks and cages; an odd, unfathomable sickness creeping up on humanity are so much the stuff of ‘classic’ sci-fi that they are thrilling to encounter even as individual components in the story.

Ballard examines the fundamentally human preoccupation with time and mortality: the narrative is punctuated by diary entries simultaneously weaving different countdowns around and into one another and fracturing chronology so that the reader too is drawn into the dream-like patternings of time throughout the story. It is subtle and unsettling in the extreme, it plays with ideas of consciousness and sleep to excavate the tenuous and delicate relationship between human experience and scientific intervention. Reading this back, I feel like anything I write will be reductive: it is multi-faceted and intricate both in its technical construction and thematic explorations. It would make an excellent introduction to Ballard for those unfamiliar to it and for those of you who already know/love it… Well, you won’t need telling…

III Danger: Religion! Brian W. Aldiss

The final novella gathered here is again, firmly fixed in science fiction as it uses a multiversal world to address social concerns with a strong focus on the power of religion to enslave. The buffoonish an fairly dislikeable narrator, Sherry, is drawn into various matrix of differing degrees of similarity to his own in which World War 4 has been fought resulting in the irradiation of a good proportion of Western Europe.

The most striking aspect of this work is the portrayal of a militarised Church, not simply complicit in slavery but active in the subjection of a whole class of people and the manipulation of ‘extramatricial’ tribes to serve as an army in its name. It explores choice and stacks evolutionary possibilities for the human race up against each other in order to elucidate the relationship between religion and enslavement from different angles. Religion is, in this world, less an opiate more an active weapon of suppression and subjugation. The hypocrisy of the narrative voice and the single-minded ness of those he encounters are clearly intended to reflect back at the reader in questions about our own society.

The prose reminds me a little bit of G. K. Chesterton, the blow by blow fight scenes are cinematic in their precision and detail and the world(s) conjured are vivid and clearly drawn.

The title of this collection is ‘The Inner Landscape’ and it is a useful unifying idea. All three stories face the reader with alien worlds and value systems that explore what it is, fundamentally, to be human. ‘Really good sci-fi’, a friend of mine once said, ‘is about ideas. It tells us about ourselves and is about ideas.’ A statement I hold to be true and illustrated beautifully in this collection.

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

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This novel is the second recommendation from that fabulously gifted friend mentioned in my last post. If you have already encountered Written on the Body, I’m sure you’ll be able to gather why it was mentioned in the same breath as DeLillo’s  The Body Artist. Both novels are concerned with the human psyche and exposing the relationship it bears, or in this case, exploding the relationship it bears to the gendered body.

The opening line of the novel links love with loss in posing the question, “Why is the measure of love loss?”. The structure of this one line introductory paragraph effectively encapsulates the undulating movement of the narrative that is to follow. The narrator weaves a story through memories of and reflections on the nature and experience of love and the loss of that love. The physical body – as the title would suggest – lies at the centre of this narrative. Love is examined through the body and the connection of bodies.

The narrative voice is technically genderless. The voice has girlfriends and boyfriends but is never identified as male or female to the reader. The result is not, however, the strange sense of dissociation of psyche from physicality that one finds in the DeLillo but instead an intense and bodily exploration of sexual subjectivity. Even the body here, if only the narrator’s body (a point to which I will return), is stripped of gender and with it any social gender constructs or preconceptions that the reader brings with them. Winterson herself once commented in an interview that, for her, “a love story is a love story. I don’t care what the genders are if it’s powerful enough. And I don’t think that love should be a gender-bound operation.”

In many ways, this novel reads as a mediation on the disconnect between the body as a vehicle for a gendered consciouness and the experience of love through that same body. This is one of the things that I struggled with: the novel, in denying the narrative voice a gender would seem to be aiming at the transcendent power of love. The problem I have is that the same narrative gives the body primacy within the novel. It feels contradictory. The narrator has no gender but is defined by sexual encounters and experiences of the body. The attempt to tie love to the physical and in the same moment to deny the relevance of gender to that physicality seems to fall over itself and as a result it just doesn’t quite work.

Another problem is the nature of the language, I found it very uncomfortable to read in places. Now there’s nothing wrong with that; a good book should certainly make you squirm, should ask questions of its reader and one of the text’s successes is definitely its undermining of romantic cliché. Again though, in exposing the failure of language through a sort of corrupted lyricism, the graphic sexuality somehow at odds with its own imagery, it ties itself in knots. How can the depth and truth of love be figured as textual, as “written on the body” as a name “scored… into my shoulders” if language ultimately constitutes failure? The narrator tells us that, “Love demands expression.  It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no.  It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid.” And yet even the simplest expression of that love is deplored as “unoriginal”.

Am I missing the point here? Of course the text is straining past the constructs and conventions of gender and love; it embraces the contradictions I’m grappling with as inherent to the experience of love in a world where sexuality and gender are increasingly dissociated. I’m just not quite sure I buy it.

All of that said, it does make for a fascinating read. As you can probably tell, I have got myself into a bit of tangle over it and I would be very keen to hear from anyone who may be able to help me unpick it all in the comments section below…

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Books are your friends

I find myself stranded in a public house: one of my oldest, dearest and most unreliable friends is incredibly and, alas, predictably late to meet me. I had turned to my handbag only to realise that in the last bag change over my book did not make it. Thus, I find myself to be truly stranded and exceedingly bored.

As a longstanding book lover/geek some of my favourite reading moments have been alone in cafes, waiting for friends in restaurants and even on one occasion standing outside a cinema in the rain, stubbornly persevering with a copy of Madame Bovary (the crinkly pages bear the scars of that sorry tale).

In our unrelentingly modern world, it is oft lamented that reading is no longer considered a priority; no one has ‘space’ to read anymore and so it is crammed into these moments – the dead time between activities. An afterthought; a tool with which to stave off boredom between excitements. Even in these moments our books are increasingly relegated to the bottom of the handbag or to remain confined to the assigned jacket pocket in favour of our smartphones and *looks guilty* the thrill of Twitter.

The thing is, I like reading this way. I truly do. I love the way books change as they’re read, they are objects that take on a life of their own and the more dog-eared and battered they become, the more they take on a little bit of your life. I love the way my moments are riddled with poems and stories and I love the way my poems and stories are riddled with moments, with friends, with buses and trains and cinemas in the rain. That’s what life is; it’s work, meetings, parties, hangovers, baths, mealtimes, bedtimes and a hundred and one other mundaneities. So why not fill the bits in between with fabulous, miraculous, magical stories? That way they become a part of the fabric of your life and a part of who you are. They help to weave your own story, wonderful and unique in the telling.

This all came to me in a moment, snug in the corner of my longtime local, when I would rather have been reading a book. The book in question, sitting forlorn on my bed is already a bit beaten up (pages are beginning to hang precariously) but it is familiar, comforting and unfailingly thrilling; much like the old friend who has just walked through the door.

Working mothers make children fat? Rubbish.

Yet again the media has lent a platform to the disturbing narrative that suggests working women make bad mothers.

There is so much to be infuriated by in this latest round of ridiculousness sparked by this research it is difficult to know where to start. It claims that children of working women are likely to be unhealthier than those with stay at home mummies. Whilst my fury is predominantly directed towards the media coverage that has positioned the research in terms of an ‘ongoing debate’ about whether mothers should work or not; the very premise of the research is, to be frank insulting. Why on earth is the research focused on mothers? What about single Dad’s or House Husbands?

In simple terms, why say mother when you mean parent? It all contributes to the implicit vilification of women who want to ‘have it all’ – I mean, how very dare she.

If a woman chooses to have a child and give up work – points to her, but, isn’t she lucky to have the choice? What of the families that can’t sustain themselves without both working? What of single parent families?

Do we think that the fact that London has the highest child poverty rate is unrelated to the fact that children in London are more likely than children in other regions to live in a household where no adult works? Methinks not. The predominant cause of child poverty is parental worklessness; there are multiple government and charitable initiatives in place to rectify the problem.  In light of this, aren’t there some pretty serious flaws in the implication that children will be better off if mummy stays at home?

Instead of ridiculous headlines such as  ‘Working Mothers’ Children Unfit’ why not use the research in a positive way? I say more initiatives promoting healthy body image, decent childcare schemes and dare I say it let’s finally extend paternity leave and give families a real choice.

Alas, alack.  The media coverage this has had today has only served to perpetuate a widespread and frankly unsettling notion that working mothers are either incompetent, irresponsible or both.

Why so sad?

The public antipathy towards bankers and the bonus culture is indicative of a broader shift in attitudes: the developed world has suddenly realised that money doesn’t make you happy.

GDP might show off how well the economy is performing but it is not – after a certain point – a useful measure of social progress. Living standards have rocketed within the US and the UK but research hi-lighted in this Guardian piece has revealed that happiness has stagnated.

Wealth and the individual amassing of it have taken precedence over almost everything. This is not just the fault of Sir Fred Goodwin – tempting as it is to blame him for everything – but of society in a broader sense. Labour’s 1997 talk of happiness as a defining measurement of Britain’s success was eclipsed by boasts of unbroken economic growth. The culture of celebrity continues to glamourise money. Children are taught to aspire to being ‘rich and famous’ in spite of the endless examples of people who have been damaged by the media glare and the burden of wealth. 

When did wealth become synonomous with happiness? And why is it only in the face of economic disaster that anyone has stopped to question the validity of this equation?

The financial crisis seems to have acted as a reality check on the world’s value system.

Human relationships and with them the quality of human experience suffered during the glory years. The individualistic drive of a capitalist ideology has damaged mutual respect. Personal relationships have suffered and so has social responsibility. In the wake of the crash there has been much written about the future of capitalism (this FT series is useful) and it has been widely noted that there is a real opportunity for the instigation of progressive agendas around the world, led of course by our favourite, Barack.

Let’s hope that as the G20 grapple with the intricacies of our financial system’s failures, they take a  moment to recognise that pots and pots of money have not made us happy; and, that they take more than a moment to ponder just what it is that will.