Monday, 25 March 2013

Choosing my religion

I have, as mentioned recently on various social media platforms, (well, Facebook and Twitter, actually, but it sounded much more impressive before the brackets intervened) just finished rereading Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.  The image on the right bears witness to my habit of scouring charity shops for the earliest affordable paperback editions of the late maestro's work, so thank you, Corgi 1964 for this one.  Vonnegut's covers have been informed by many styles in their time, but I struggle to find one in the current crop that really appeals to me or captures the spirit of the books.  Publishers seem to veer between a largely typographic approach and the use of overstated cartoon graphics which, I suppose, are supposed to connote the darkly comic whimsy which is one of the writer's trademarks.

In any case, revisiting Earth, Mars, Mercury and Titan in this novel, as is usual with Vonnegut, combined the pleasure of cavorting around in his playground of ideas and jokes and purring with pleasure at his style:

And yawning under all those bowls was the upturned mouth of the biggest bowl of them all...a regular Beelzebub of a bowl, bone dry and insatiable...waiting, waiting, waiting for that first sweet drop.

with the renewed realisation that very few books were going to produce such a rich reading experience.  I'm grateful for Vonnegut's having been relatively prolific, and thus leaving scope for a long and varied cycle of re-reading.

As do many of his books, Sirens features a fabricated religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, whose central credo is that we are all the 'victims of a series of accidents' and which vehemently denies the existence of any benevolent divine working in the universe.  For Vonnegut, fictitious religion was a tautology, and his repeated coinings of faiths, such as The Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped and Bokononism, embody this view.  The latter is Vonnegut's most involved and detailed religious system and, typically, has at its first statement that what follows is a highly systematic series of untruths.  Although these created theologies have specific satirical and structural roles in the various books, they are of course reiterating Vonnegut's belief that all religion is a fiction but that it's important to choose the most effective one nonetheless.  This stance is related to his also oft-repeated observation that we all depend on constructing narratives - which may have serious arguments with reality - to maintain our mental stability.  The writer of this blog does not necessarily endorse either of these views, although he is (as you may have gathered) capable of being infinitely charmed by Vonnegut's various expressions of them.

It is interesting to note that, among the many cultural references inspired by Vonnegut, Bokononism (which is an integral part of the novel Cat's Cradle) features fairly heavily, although the best-known homage is probably Al Stewart's song, The Sirens of Titan, which very elegantly converts the novel into a modern popular beat composition.

So it goes.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Animal Farm re-capitalised

In seeking criteria by which to judge the quality of literary work, that of inspiring homage or being repeatedly adapted or reworked seems to be a robust choice.  Thomas More's Utopia must be one of the most enduring and popular of such templates, having generated not only countless refashionings but entire genres, sub-genres and a political philosophy.  Animal Farm has similarly wound itself snugly around the cultural cortex, and has completed the related challenge of bequeathing phrases and ideas to everyday use.  Under the enduringly interesting Dedalus banner, Nicholas Bradbury has bravely donned his literary wellies and revisited Orwell's anthropomorphic bucolic institution.

Market Farm revisits and updates this extraordinary fable  and (without straying far from the original style and schema) develops the story with sufficiently clever and well-crafted material to make this a highly readable, topical and - as we very belatedly interrogate the nature and effect of financial global systems - important novel.  The major addition in terms of the cast list is a group of sly, manipulative foxes, who introduce representative systems of value into the farm community, beginning with 'money' based on the value of stored physical objects, graduating to a system of ious and eventually weaving a complex web of trade in mortgages, rent and debts which, when it inevitably implodes, threatens a descent into chaos and disaster.  In other words, what we have here is derivatives, rather than derivative, writing, and jolly good and necessary it is, too.  In fact, the book could serve a secondary function as a primer to the financial world for the less enlightened, among whose number I certainly counted myself, although, thanks to Mr. Bradbury, I now feel somewhat less qualified for membership.

Many of the details with which Bradbury decorates his project are ingenious and delightful; there is a dark hint of chicken prostitution as that species is persuaded into battery-servitude and penury by the foxes' propaganda, the evocation of dogmatic faith in 'the market' as a mystical devotion to 'The Snout', (the manifestations of which only the priest-like foxes are capable of deciphering), and a brilliant representation of the vacuity of much Twitter communication as tiny pieces of information passed on by sparrows, a 'service' to which many animals rapidly become addicted.  I believe this is an example of what one of my particularly inspiring lectures at university called 'literalizing the metaphor'.  Bradbury also turns a fine phrase, as in this description of one layer of symbolic value, the 'dominos':

The swirling of the dominos, they were told, was the closest that could be achieved to making visible the mystery of the Invisible Snout.

and he handles his narrative engine well, building to a moving climax regarding the fate of 'The Freedom Tree'.

One can, of course, always quibble with this sort of broad satirical allegorizing; there is the disturbing implication, for example, that the masses (that's us) are all too easily hoodwinked and distracted by tawdry entertainments (beautifully presented here in the guise of puppet shows) from lunatic sleight-of-hand financial manoeuvrings.  This may, of course, be countered by the defence of being true, if regrettable, but I can see no excuse for the poor cover which, should the book go into well-deserved further runs around the paddock, could be significantly improved.  Perhaps the foxes could help.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The gratutitous sequel to The Re-Extended Excruciating and Indispensable Literature and Publishing Dictionary

A rudimentary Meaning Collider that I had set up in our front room, comprising an inordinately large number of smarties tubes and some specially modified bellows, produced the following batch of interstitial trans-dimensional definitions:

Antithesis:                  Disinclined to work on post-graduate writing

Haiku:                        The sound emitted by a dove full of cocaine

Hexameter:               An unpaid witch or warlock

Literary Prize:           Hilary Mantel

Metaphor:                 The reason you rendezvoused with the lady

Perfect Binding:       Any one of a number of episodes in Fifty Shades of Grey**

Plot development:    Gardening

Luckily, before any more such output could manifest itself, the entire apparatus was consumed by a particularly ravenous Higgs-Boson that had run away from CERN.

**So I am informed.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


I have recently had the pleasure of being re-acquainted with that splendid serial publication The Fortean Times. This happy circumstance was precipitated by the less-than radical strategy of exchanging a series of metal coins for a copy in an appropriate local emporium.   For those less Forteanate, I should explain that this monthly magazine embraces and reports on a range of unusual and esoteric phenomena, which vary from the undoubtedly explicable but nonetheless bizarre (its 'strange deaths' column, for example (now a series of major books)) through to the less verifiable realms, including - and especially - the spirit world, the undead and aliens. The modern incarnation of the magazine (I can't speak for its original approach) takes a knowing, healthily sceptical (but not dismissive) view of the paranormal and extra-terrestrial end of this scale, but combines this with a deeply informed and respectful attitude to ideas and practices such as the British tradition of magic and the existence or otherwise of alleged creatures such as the yeti.  This month's edition, in fact, focuses on animals across the spectrum of verification, from the aforementioned yeti / sasquatch / bigfoot to a typically absorbing debunking feature on 'cemetery dogs' who seemed to stay loyal to their owners after the latter had passed on.

I was moved to include this (unsolicited and unremunerated) endorsement in my blog because of a few lovely new words and phrases this edition has taught me, including:

Relict                                a surviving remnant of a natural phenomenon

Acheropite                       a supernormally produced portrait

Inattentional amnesia    a mental state produced by noting and instantly forgetting something

Imaginal                          'a realm between the intellectual and the sensible'

There are also lively and intelligent reviews of books and films which inhabit worlds that swim within the Fortean ken, and an erudite and energetic cartoon contribution from the estimable Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson.

A publication well worth your time - buy, borrow or astrally project yourself in front of a copy today.

Friday, 8 March 2013

What I didn't do on World Book Day

I can't seem to get the hang of World Book Day.  Due to a homophonic misinterpretation, I used for many years to go into my garden and rapidly spin a selection of books around on customised rotary platforms, and now here I am posting a celebration of the same literary jamboree an entire day late.  My own contribution imagines a scenario whereby a series of well-known literary works has collided with a world atlas, and runs thus:

For whom the Belgian Tolls

The Ecuadors of Perception


East of Sweden

Ghana Karenina

Dane Eyre

Dutch ado about Nothing

Taiwan Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

As the Croat Flies

Which reminds me, it's at least four and a half blog posts since I mentioned that novel in translation which I have most recently read. So, in the cause of snapping our parochial fetters and fostering a spirit of international progression and bonhomie, and not at all because I am working part-time for the publisher, let me again direct your book-buying pennies towards The Scream, by Laurent Graff.  Resisting the temptation to say that it's printed on Graff paper, I will simply observe that for those of you - and I know you are legion - who have been clamouring for a book the hero of which is  (or at least claims to be) a motorway toll-booth operator, your time has come.