Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Let me tell you a story. This’ll make you roar with laughter. One time, oh it was years ago, when I was a callow youth who knew no better, I had some wonderful magic mushroom soup and spent the entire evening talking to someone who wasn’t there. Hey, isn’t that a funny story? Hell, yes. And the funniest thing of all is that I know it happened while I was in St Andrews but I have no idea what I was doing there in the first place! Ha ha ha! I don’t remember a thing because I was stoned out of my brain! Isn’t that an absolute hoot?

Oh, wait a minute. There’s something wrong. No-one is laughing at my very funny reminiscence. That’s odd – it’s priceless, it makes me laugh like a drain every time. Why isn’t anybody else laughing?

Ah yes, I realise why now. Because someone else’s trip is basically not interesting. In fact, somebody else’s trip is basically very boring. It’s one of those situations when you really do have to be there. It doesn’t work in retrospect. It doesn’t work in the telling. Everything is either just manic stupidity or mundane paranoia. It’s happening in their heads and there’s no way of making it seem like it’s happening in anyone else’s. There’s no way in for the observer. All you can do is watch someone else rattle about like a maniac. Reading about someone else’s trip is one of the most pointless exercises known to man.

And so we come to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is a one-note, two-hundred page exercise in manic ego-stoking and about as interesting as a routine shit on a dull December day. Taken in isolation, no end of the episodes related in this novel are brilliantly written – witty, inventive, excoriating – but essentially they are all the same. Every single scene boils down to Duke and his attorney being stoned out of their minds and either euphoric or paranoid. There’s only so much of it you can take, and two hundred pages is way, way, way more than that limit.

I wouldn’t mind if the whole thing wasn’t so fraudulent. If it really were just two hundred pages of tripping I could accept it but repeatedly Thompson tries to justify this banal brain fuck by trying to invest some false moral sense in his work. The result is shallow. It is trite. And it is, ultimately, offensive. I’m not one to judge, and if someone chooses to spend his life out of his head on a crazy cocktail of illegal drugs, good on him, I say. I don’t much care either way. But when he starts trying to justify himself with sermons on Vietnam and the abuse of authority and the sad failure of sixties idealism, then I believe he exposes himself as a charlatan. And this is what Hunter S. Thompson does.

For example, while sitting in a Las Vegas hotel Duke chances on a newspaper, which allows Thompson the totally fabricated addition of a wired report from Vietnam about GI drug deaths, juxtaposed against a photo of Washington cops fighting anti-war demonstrators and another article on torture tales from war hearings. Reading of all these state-sponsored crimes “made me feel a lot better,” Duke tells us. “Against that heinous background, my crimes were pale and meaningless.” For someone who has heretofore shown no sense of public duty or interest in current affairs to use such news stories as a vehicle for justifying his own worthless meanderings is cheap in the extreme.

Near the end, after 170 pages of self-indulgence, Thompson makes another attempt to portray the establishment as corrupt and therefore beneath the purity of his own stoner vision. He introduces a character who proceeds to tell of his arrest and confinement in Las Vegas for vagrancy. “No phone call. No lawyer. No charge.” Oh my! How scandalous! Unfortunately it sounds completely bogus, the bellowing of faux outrage from a writer devoted merely to solipsistic hedonism.

And shortly after Thompson excels himself in hypocrisy with his rant against the bastions of authority. ’The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister... all the way to “God.”’ He laments the death of the sixties, the loss of its Youth Movement in the face of the Maharishi and Altamont and Manson and the failure of Ginsberg and Kesey to persuade the Hell’s Angels into an alliance with the left. All of this makes me want to puke, frankly. It’s sanctimonious bullshit and I can’t credit that Thompson believes a word of it. A savage journey to the heart of the American dream, he subtitles this work. Maybe so, but only in his trip, I fear. And as I said at the start, someone else’s trip is non-transferable and, ultimately, boring.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee’s latter works have stretched the definition of fiction, often melding non-fiction and fiction into a single narrative where truth in a literal sense is difficult to discern and becomes blurred with truth in a metaphorical or metaphysical sense. It forces the reader to think beyond the narrative, to confront the difference between high truth and mere facts.

The start of this process can be seen as long ago as 1998, with the start of his “autobiographical” trilogy, and can also be seen clearly in his 2003 publication, Elizabeth Costello. The eponymous character is an ageing Australian writer, largely reclusive through her life but, in later years, persuaded to give a series of overseas lectures. These lectures, philosophical excursions into literary censorship, animal rights, the essence and banality of evil, form major sections of the narrative. In so doing the reader is forced to consider, simultaneously, not only those issues themselves but also the emotional impact such lectures, draining and emotional, have on the increasingly world-weary and disappointed Costello. But there is yet another element of meta-narrative: Costello’s lectures, or lessons as they are titled, are, in fact, edited versions of non-fiction articles previously published by Coetzee himself. And so we have the fictional story of Elizabeth Costello, a fictionalised account of her philosophical discussions, plus the non-fictional genesis of those discussions. The reader is invited to consider each of these elements in the narrative: it is, therefore, not an easy read. No matter how one approaches it, how carefully one reads it, it remains ambiguous and frustratingly opaque. That is not suggested as a criticism, because fiction which resolves itself into a neatly packaged product is unlikely to satisfy for long. But frustrating the novel remains.

Elizabeth Costello is a world-famous writer, notable especially for her early work The House on Eccles Street, which is a retelling of Ulysses from Molly Bloom’s perspective. She is ageing, and is not finding solace in age. The series of lectures she agrees to give, which form the core of the novel, force her to confront difficult metaphysical questions. A prickly woman, she endures strained relationships with her son and her sister, a nun working in Africa. She is confronting mortality, and with it is forced to question the value of her own life, her body of work, her relationships, her ideals. The ageing process is not easy, the realisation that mental powers are diminishing, that opportunities will never re-emerge, that the best has already passed, they make for a melancholy passage into old age, and Elizabeth Costello, an austere and overly-serious woman, is finding the transition traumatic. By the final lesson, she is imprisoned in some Kafkaesque overworld, a purgatory or court or waiting place for the dead where she must state her beliefs to a panel of inquisitors before being allowed passage beyond. Even now, at the last, she must argue, and her arguments suggest a spiritual core which is deep and sophisticated but, again, ambiguous. There is a strong core of humanism, but it is a humanism tempered by an apparently unshakeable irritation with humanity. Odi et amo, as Catullus puts it.

There is, perhaps, an element of intellectual sophistry to Coetzee’s use of Costello and her lectures to propound on these philosophical matters. A severe critic might even suggest cowardice. Coetzee presents radical arguments – animal rights, the existence of evil – arguments which could isolate their champion in an extreme wing of any debate. But, by creating a fictional character to present those views, Coetzee usefully distances himself from them: he can project them but simultaneously, if the going gets rough, deny everything and blame it on his literary creation.

But perhaps that is what writers always do, and perhaps that is the role of characters in fiction from Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe onwards. It is, in any case, an unfair criticism.

Rather, what Coetzee is doing is finding a new way to engage in dialogue. Rather than characters debating issues through Socratic questioning or a Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which probably accounts for the majority of such debate in fiction, Coetzee allows his character to debate with herself, and himself to debate with his character, and his reader to debate with him, all through the fictionalisation of these non-fiction debates. Thomas Mann’s master interlocutor Herr Settembrini – fundamentally opposed to the obnoxious Naphta but drawn inescapably to him in the dialectic – would approve this new model of discourse.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Steve Earle

Steve Earle has long been a favourite singer of mine, back to his days with The Dukes and Copperhead Road et al. He’s led an interesting life, to say the least, and is a very committed political singer - check out John Walker's Blues if you want evidence of that. It’s no real surprise that he’s turned his hand to writing fiction. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, his first novel (a collection of short stories was published back in 2001), is an intriguing piece of work, ultimately a failure, but a very interesting failure for all that.

The title of the novel comes from a Hank Williams song, and Hank himself is a character in the novel, or at least his ghost is. I would say central character, because in the early stages of the novel he clearly is but, as the novel progresses, his role and purpose become as insubstantial as his ghostly body.

The novel centres on Doc, one of those drop-out good-guys beloved of much American fiction. Think Larry “Doc” (yes, another Doc) Sportello in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Even Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. These are intelligent people who deliberately live among the poor and the dispossessed and place themselves on the verges of decent society. To me, there’s always something vaguely patronising about such portrayals, and so it is with Steve Earle’s incarnation of Doc. These characters always live the same impoverished, drug-addled, crime-ridden lives as the people with whom the commingle, but the difference is that they know it, they know they are living in dissolution and are doing so as a positive choice, whereas the poor schmucks who really belong there don’t realise the futility of their lives. It’s so much horseshit, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. Characters such as these have no basis in reality. They’re designed to allow the author the luxury of getting dirty with the trailer trash while bypassing the worst manifestations of their trashiness, such as not being very nice people, or educated, or reasonable. These pseudo-characters take as their template the incomparable Buddy Suttree, a man who deliberately lives among the poor and the dispossessed of Knoxville. But the difference is that Suttree really does live the life. When he has money he squanders it on drink. When he gets drunk, he winds up in hospital with a floor buffer wrapped around his head and his skull fractured, or lying in an alleyway being pissed on by a black man. That's Suttree. There’s no sense that Suttree is better than these people, that somehow because he’s really educated and smart he’s only slumming it and actually has the potential to transform these poor people’s lives. Suttree’s the real deal. These imposters are lightweights.

Anyway, Doc is a de-registered doctor who operates as an abortionist in the red-light district of San Antonio. He’s addicted to morphine and is being haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, for whom he provided substances when the singer was still alive. That’s a promising set-up. The ghost of Hank Williams – inventive, unusual, lots of scope. And Hank, it emerges, is not a particularly amenable ghost either. He has a malevolent streak and may not wish Doc unadultered good health. Excellent - it would have been easy to descend into hagiography but Earle takes the worst excesses of the real Williams's character and expands on them for fictional gain. From here, though, this promising narrative just descends into something of a mess.

Instead, into the drama comes Graciela, a beautiful Mexican girl straight out of central casting. Graciela is a mysterious girl, seemingly gifted, with a touch that is more than just soothing: she actually heals with her hands. The story shifts again and she becomes a modern saint, a layer-on of hands who begins, quietly, to transform the neighbourhood.

I haven’t mentioned John F. Kennedy yet, and his assassination in Dallas, which is a major plot incident in the novel. Or the pugilistic priest. Or Graciela's stigmata. Or the jaguar spirit. Or the also straight out of central casting overweight, corrupt police officer. But I’m becoming too critical, because all of this is a good read, rattling along at a gripping pace. It’s just that it doesn’t bear scrutiny.

What is interesting, though, is the way the novel confronts abortion. That’s a pretty loaded subject in America, particularly in Texas, and Earle is pretty fearless in his criticism of the Catholic Church’s approach to the subject. Earle has the ability and the interest to write a good, serious work on this subject. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive isn’t it. But it has enough about it to suggest that Steve Earle has a future in fiction.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Here comes Lester

James Franco is now filming Child of God. This may not be the most interesting YouTube video in the world, but those of you who don't know the name Lester Ballard yet, I assure you you will in a year or so when the film comes out.

After all, everybody loves a murderous necrophiliac troglodyte, don't they?

Friday, February 03, 2012

Dorothea Tanning

Leonora Carrington died fairly recently, and now another very long-lived female surrealist has died, Dorothea Tanning. She was a brilliant artist, and this is one of my favourite paintings.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Collector by John Fowles

John Fowles’s The Collector dates from 1963 and in some ways it is dated. In characterisation, in particular, its central characters are, to a large extent, archetypal sixties sorts. Given that one of them kidnaps and imprisons the other in a cellar this may seem an unusual – and provocative – suggestion but, for all Frederick Clegg’s weirdness, he is at core just a typical, inadequate social misfit of the sort commonly found in 1950s and 1960s literature. In the 70s, the type became bastardised and cheapened into simple buffoons, caricatures of their more philosophically rendered postwar predecessors. And Miranda, the girl who is imprisoned by Clegg, is a bright, almost independent gel, the sort who in those heady years of the 1960s are beginning to throw off the shackles of sexist society and will pave the way for the feminists of the seventies and eighties and the free spirits of the nineties and noughts but who are at that point still, fatally, trapped in a kind of middle class, straight-laced sense of the order of things. So we have archetypes, characters who are products of their time. And therefore, you might suppose, the events of this novel couldn’t happen today.

But they could, and this is what makes Fowles’s novel so frightening, and so special.

Frederick Clegg, a City Hall clerk and butterfly collector, wins the football pools and realises that with his new-found wealth he can live a new life. He has become obsessed with a young art student, Miranda Grey but, lacking any social abilities, is unable to do anything to engineer any sort of communication between them. Rather, in the manner of his collecting of defenceless butterflies, he decides to capture and imprison her. This he does, showing meticulous attention to detail and a facility for planning that would be impressive were it not being put to such malign purposes. His belief is that, if only Miranda can come to know him, she will realise what a good and honest person he is, how much he is devoted to her, and she will naturally grow to love him, too. It is, of course, a hopelessly impossible notion, a lunatic dream, but Clegg believes in it completely. And his love for her is genuine, too, albeit in a twisted, stuntd way. Even as the days and weeks of the imprisonment go by, and the situation deteriorates, he cannot quite relinquish hope that she will come to her senses and see the beauty of his nature and prostrate herself before his undying love.

The first section of the story is told by Clegg himself, in a chillingly dispassionate voice, like the overseer of some minor experiment of no great consequence to anyone but himself. Of his captive, despite his real and heartfelt obsession for her, he can permit no genuinely human feelings: he seems incapable of seeing her as a living entity in her own right, rather than as a totem of his own misguided feelings. She is doubly trapped: literally so in her sealed cellar, and mentally so through Clegg’s inability to perceive her as anything other than the chimera of fractured love he has turned her into. You fear for the girl.

The second section is told through Miranda’s diary of her captivity and, through this, the terrifying and desperate nature of Clegg is fully revealed. He adores her but cannot express love. He wants her but cannot bear intimacy. He is stunted in every imaginable way. For Miranda, a bright, intelligent, questing young woman on the verge of a fulfilling adult life, this containment by a man so dull, so soulless, in a world that is lifeless, stultifying, hopeless, is too much to bear. She craves escape but Frederick, for all his lunacy, is not given to carelessness. She feigns illness. Finally she really succumbs to illness but Frederick at first will not, then cannot do anything to help her. The reader can only observe, helpless and dismayed, as events take their course.

The final section, a short and chilling coda, is told by Clegg again. And in this, finally, the truest reflection of his nature is revealed to us. Innocents beware, there are among us people of unspeakable cruelty.

There is, throughout The Collector, a philosophical and psychological quest for understanding of human nature. The two protagonists, captor and captive, master and slave, are trapped in what can only ever be a danse macabre because no dance of life is available to them in which they could each participate. One cannot exist without the other – Miranda ponders at one point what would happen to her if he died and realises that she, too, would die – but nor can they ever happily co-exist. They are incompatibles manacled together by the vagaries of life and tragedy is the only possible outcome. Clegg is simultaneously sexually attracted to and repelled by Miranda. She wants to understand him but craves escape. Both of them are trapped in an impossible existence. Neither is capable of finding release. We are in a world of terrible isolation and dangerous incomprehension, ensnared between good and evil.

Fowles once declared – but later renounced it as an unfulfilled hope – that he wished to alter the society in which he lived. In this, he is therefore the opposite of a writer like Cormac McCarthy, for whom “the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.”

Although McCarthy and Fowles could, then, be said to reside at opposite poles in their perception of human nature, experience nonetheless draws them closer together. In the end, both writers would probably ascribe to Nietzsche’s observation:

For every strong and natural species of man, love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger, affirmative acts and negative acts, belong together. One is good on condition one also know how to be evil; one is evil because otherwise one would not understand how to be good.

In the claustrophobic cosmion of The Collector we begin to see some of what McCarthy hints at in his dismissal of the prospects of improving the species, and we understand the duality that is at the core of all of us. This is why The Collector remains a terrifying and worrying book: because Frederick Clegg exists and must exist. What’s more, he exists, in some small way, in all of us. But so, too, does Miranda.