Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs

Half way through The Wild Boys I was already formulating this review and, in particular, its conclusion. The prose is very fine, I was going to intone, but there is a detachment about the style that makes it difficult to engage. The novel, I was going to suggest, left you strangely untouched.

Well, this is an object lesson in the dangers of writing a review before you’ve actually finished reading what it is you’re reviewing....

The novel, published in 1971 (1972 in the UK), is set in the near-future (although since that “near-future” is 1988, through the miraculous passage of time it is now more accurately the near-past), depicting a world something like the future Earth of The Time Machine, with society massively polarised into haves and have-nots. Community as we might know it is reduced to small enclaves where order is total and the culture is stulfifying. Outside this are the Wild Boys, guerillas, free spirits, fighters for some higher truth. It is a highly stylised polarisation, and through it Burroughs makes his characteristic points about human freedom and the triumph (or subjection) of individuality. The Wild Boys’ existence is punctuated by sex and violence, both on epic scales. Moreover, they seem able to transcend the mortal realm and travel to and from what lies beyond our earthly existence: thus they experience the ultimate freedom, the sort that mortal humanity can only dream of. There are no women here either: this is a male-only paradise (or hell), with the obvious problem of the procreation of the species overcome by a mystical ritual through which new wild boys are regenerated from the onanistic rituals of the old.

For three quarters of the novel, my original premise that it tends to distance the reader probably stands. It’s intriguing reading but it feels like a series of observations of (broadly similar) events and engagements. At times, it is one gay sexual encounter after another and in the end the effect probably is to leave the reader feeling remote from both the action and the sentiment behind it. Certainly, for all the sexual encounters, it’s one of the least erotic novels I’ve ever read. That isn’t because the sex is gay: although I am heterosexual, I’ve read and appreciated the erotic charge in works by writers such as Edmund White and Christopher Isherwood, to say nothing of the extraordinary scenes in Moby-Dick featuring Ishmael and Queeqeg. How Melville got such blatant homoeroticism published in that day and age still amazes (and delights) me. Rather, The Wild Boys’ sex at times feels mechanistic, devoid of emotion. But that is deceptive. Emotion may lie dormant in remote and unpromising territory, and so we find here.

Somewhere along the line the novel begins to fold in on itself and become a cohesive whole. Initially, the narrative strands seem so remote and unconnected it is difficult to read the book as in any sense a traditional novel. The violence of the Wild Boys, too, is distancing. But, contradictorily, there is also tremendous tenderness on display at times, beneath all the hard descriptions of the sexual act. Boys lose their virginity and those stories are told and re-told and re-told from different perspectives, in different styles, generating different moods and eliciting different responses. Some of them are beautifully erotic. Some of them are coldly calculating. And yet these different representations may be descriptions of the same act, giving a sense of the disconnection that fuels this novel and that grows increasingly powerful as it develops until, in the last third, when it becomes outright science-fiction and the full, gory violence of The Wild Boys is evident, it becomes almost frighteningly overwhelming. Alongside this growing sense of menace and danger and human anger - a sense of true spiritual, emotional and political anarchy - the strands of the novel gradually coalesce until a work which initially seems so diverse it is almost a succession of short stories comes finally to be seen as a cohesive whole. Given Burroughs’s style, his penchant for cut-ups and disjointedness, that is a remarkable achievement. Alfred Kazin, in his contemporaneous review, notes:

And yet he was so inventive, brilliant, funny in his many wild improvisations (he writes scenes as other people write adjectives, so that he is always inserting one scene into another, turning one scene into another), that one recognized a writer interested in nothing but his own mind.
Kazin is certainly correct about the manic, improvisatory style, but I balk at the suggestion that the corollary of this is that the author was “interested in nothing but his own mind”. That seems to me to overstate things. Kazin also writes:
But his books are not really books, they are compositions that astonish, then pall. They are subjective experiences brought into the world for the hell of it and by the excitement of whatever happens to be present in Burroughs's consciousness when he writes.
This, too, is a little unfair. They are subjective experiences, certainly, but somehow they manage to transcend the subjective to represent a universal. It is the precise opposite of the shallow, meaningless drek disguised (poorly) as social comment that one finds in Hunter S. Thompson, for example. Burroughs connects. Thompson repels. His style is poetic, at times incantatory. The repetitions – often of entire scenes – become hypnotic. The violence is extraordinary, the sex excessive in every regard, the whole novel becomes an appeal to the senses – sight, sound, smell, hearing, touch, all of them drawn into engagement over and over to pull the reader out of the comfort of his or her own armchair and own existence into a world that is unedifying but frighteningly prescient. It is a battle of the senses, in exactly the same way that the guerilla warfare of the Wild Boys is a battle between order and freedom. In order to choose, one must first experience.

Reading William S. Burroughs, one is forced to experience.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed

He was a real curmudgeon, but a fine musician.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I was sitting in the bath this morning and, out of nowhere, this popped into my head:

Alasdair Disdain crouched in the over-large bath and looked at the whirlpool jets built into it and wondered how to make them work. He looked at the scar running the length of his thigh, still fresh, still bruised. He looked away. He looked past the undrawn curtains into the street opposite, to the squat, stone-built house with the squat, stone-framed window behind which, minutes earlier, he had seen the scandalised face of an old woman staring at him as he ran the bath. He looked out at the grey Ochil Hills, surrounding him like the fortification of the damned. He wondered how he could come to such a place. Again.
There's a very conscious echo of Cormac McCarthy in this which may or may not be removed, but it sets the tone and tells me this is going to be dark. The man's same suggests it will be humorous. Other than that, I have absolutely no idea who Alisdair Disdain is or what happened to him or what is about to happen to him.

The first sentence tells us he is somewhere unfamiliar, maybe a hotel? The second tells us that something - probably violent - has happened to him recently. The third suggests he is in denial about this. The fourth suggests he is not good at considering the consequences of his actions. The fifth sets the location and suggests a mood. The sixth develops a predicament. And the seventh suggests that whatever that predicament is, he is returning to it, so he may be some kind of prodigal son.

What next? Who knows.... Ah the mystery of creative writing...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How I got my name

Tom Conoboy is my writing name. I've been using it for a long time. Here's why.

A long time ago, when I was a young boy, aged 11 or 12, I decided one day I was going to be a famous writer. I was fairly certain on the point, which was quite unusual really, as I wasn't a particularly self-confident boy in other respects. But anyway, that's what I decided. And because of that, I also decided I needed to have a nom de plume, because all writers have pen names, don't they? I now know that isn't true, but I didn't then.

So at the time we were studying the First World War at school, and I was fascinated and appalled by it. I couldn't understand how these young men could just throw themselves over the top into No Man's Land and certain death. So I decided to choose my pen name from the local war memorial. And that's what I did.

I looked over the names again and again, all those lost young men, all those lives wasted, gone, destroyed. Two names struck me, because they were so similar. John Conoboy and Thomas Conaboy. It wasn't a name I'd heard before and I was drawn to it. So I combined them and made Tom Conoboy and promised them, and all the other men and memories on that memorial, that on their behalf one day I'd live the lives they were never allowed and make them famous.

I haven't achieved it for them yet, but who knows?

I'm back in my home town tonight for the first time in a lot of years and the war memorial was the first place I visited this afternoon when I arrived.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

McCarthy on The Counselor

Apart from the notorious Oprah programme, interviews with Cormac McCarthy are as rare as hen's teeth, so this is of some interest, although it doesn't delve into his thoughts in any great depth.

Red Shift by Alan Garner

Time is at the heart of Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or perhaps not time, but the collective memory of communities, the passing of knowledge and beliefs and genes through generations. It is a complex novel with a simple belief at its core – that humanity lingers and our mythologies and histories and received beliefs are merely the residue of the human spirit passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, generation on generation on generation. The novel has three timeframes: the present day (the book was written in 1973 so even this contemporary strand has now gathered a historical resonance), Roman Britain and the English Civil War. In each strand, as you might expect from Alan Garner, that master of place and landscape, the location of the action is the same, his beloved and mystical Cheshire hills.

In particular, it focuses on Mow Cop, a place which has a strong pull for the characters in each strand. The girl kidnapped by the remnants of the Ninth Legion in the Roman section of the story calls it “the netherstone of the world” and suggests “the skymill turns on it to grind stars.” The epileptic Thomas in the Civil War strand intuits there is something about the hill and constantly watches it fearfully. “Are you more scared of Mow Cop than of the Irish [aggressors]?” he is asked. And in the contemporary strand we discover that the hill is topped by a folly castle, a round tower and arch “as if left from a great building, where no finished building could ever have been.” Each of the characters is ceaselessly drawn here and it is here their mortal adventures are played out. In the two historical strands, matters of life and death pertain; in the modern strand it is love that is dissected. There is no guarantee of happiness in our lives, and Garner explores the depth of human feeling and understanding in this quiet, understated novel of character.

One further element links the three strands, a paleolithic axe which is discovered and revered by each of the protagonists in turn. This axe is clearly a mystical element in some way: not simple magic, in a trite, shallow way, but invested with some particular power. Whether that power is genuinely resident in the artefact, or is simply a manifestation of the ideals and hopes of its owners, is a moot point. And, in truth, it doesn’t matter. Such is the mystery of our human connections through time and memory.

And this is the key to the strength of the novel. It does not seek to declaim any grand notion of being. It does not try to establish some spiritual core to existence. It does not claim humanity as part of some grand, interconnected plan. It simply tells us that we live and die, and that we are all connected, age to age, century to century, through the stories and histories that are passed down. It is a perfect, humanist appeal to the senses.

Albert Einstein is frequently misquoted as saying that “[r]eality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." It seems wholly improbable that a mind as great as Einstein’s would say this and, indeed, the actual quote is somewhat different. Writing about the death of a friend, he notes:

He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.
There is a tendency among some philosophers to pursue this argument to aggressively stark conclusions. The past does not exist, they say, because no-one exists for whom it was true. Just as the falling tree in the deserted forest makes no noise because there is no-one there to hear it, the lives and deaths of our forebears hundreds and thousands of years ago cannot be said to exist in any meaningful way because there is no witness. This may be a fine philosophical discussion, but it is patent nonsense. Ask anyone who has recently suffered a bereavement whether or not their loved one existed. Ask them to explain the harrowing of their hearts. This is what Red Shift seeks to explore and explain. The protagonists in the three strands are not related, they do not need to be; they are simply human beings playing out their own variations of the game of life, as all of us do, as all of us have done, as all of us will ever do. In that sense, there is no past, no present and no future, just – to use the Aborigine term – an “everywhen” in which the human drama is constantly played and replayed.

Red Shift is a masterful example of storytelling. It is told almost exclusively through dialogue and description is kept to a minimum. Exposition is almost non-existent, rendered redundant by the novel’s style. It does not concern itself with sending messages and, as a result, the message it conveys is powerful indeed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Inner City, City Lights

This is Inner City, City Lights, by the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. I first heard this in March, flying to the US and loved it. I'm not a great flier and am usually a bit tense, and I found this piece to be quite tense too, and so it seemed to fit my mood perfectly.

I bought it when I got home but haven't played it too often. I remember one occasion, though, when I wasn't in a good mood, quite angry in fact, and this time the piece felt angry and brooding.

Today I was walking to work. It was a beautiful morning, lovely crisp sunshine, and I was in a very happy mood. Instead of playing a talking book, as I usually do, I wanted to listen to music and this came on. This time, the piece felt happy and hopeful.

This is a Zelig-like piece of music. It seems to meld itself to the mood you are in and reflect it back at you. It's wonderful.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Julian Barnes on the Booker Prize

Julian Barnes, referring to the decision to open the Booker Prize to American (and other non-Commonwealth English speaking) authors:

"The [women's prize for fiction] is rightly only open to women but it's [now] open to Americans and Americans have won it for the past five times," said Barnes. "There's a certain cultural cringe in this country to the big American books and I fear that British writers will win [the prize] much less often. And often the Booker gives a platform to young writers and encourages them, and that, I think, is much less likely to happen."
This is pure sophistry. He's taken two specific examples and conflated them to make it seem as though the outcome of the first will inevitably be replicated in the second. It is true that the Orange Prize has been won by a succession of American authors since they were made eligible for the prize. The reason for that is probably that they are the best writers. But Barnes then makes a questionable declaration, that the Booker has a reputation for giving a platform to younger writers (last night's winner was undoubtedly young, but is that necessarily representative?) and then blithely suggests, on the basis of no evidence at all, that now "this is much less likely to happen."

What the wise decision to extend the Booker's remit will do, of course, is to ensure that slight and ephemeral works such as, to take an example at random, Julian Barnes's A Sense of an Ending, will not win the prize in future. Which may perhaps be closer to Mr Barnes's true objection...

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow

From the outset it is clear that James Morrow’s The Philosopher’s Apprentice is tackling matters theological. The principal characters are the three sisters Londa, Donya and Yolly Sabacthani. Sabacthani is a Hebrew word, most famously featuring in Matthew 27, describing Jesus’s despair on the cross:

Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'
So we are in the territory of Godlessness. The Sabachthani girls, we later discover, are manufactured clones, created in a laboratory and not quite human. Their travails become increasingly severe, tracking as they do the foibles of humanity and the ruinous consequences of our thirst for technological advancement. Stylistically, The Philosopher’s Apprentice owes much to Walker Percy: its spirited satirical approach, knowing humour and brisk narrative style are strongly reminiscent of Percy’s dystopian novels and the self-effacing narrator, the philosopher Ambrose Mason, recalls Lancelot Andrewes Lamar in Percy's Lancelot, although he is, of course, massively less unpleasant. However, where Percy, a Catholic writer, used his satires to attack the hubris of modernity in trying to establish an immanent heaven-on-earth, Morrow’s approach to rationalism appears, in the early stages of the novel at least, to be more positive. Sadly, it doesn’t stay that way.

The novel begins with Ambrose being hired to work in a secret enclave in Florida Keys by a mysterious molecular geneticist, Edwina Sabachthani. His role is to tutor Edwina’s daughter, Londa who, after an accident, appears to have lost all moral conscience. Ambrose sets about giving his new charge a thorough grounding in western philosophical thought, from Plato to Heidegger’s dasein via the Sermon on the Mount and a powerful relationship is established between the two. Gradually, the story grows ever stranger. Their retreat, initially edenic, becomes increasingly like the island of Doctor Moreau, with sentient plants and a talking, winged iguana. Unknown to her, Londa has a sibling, a younger sister called Donya who lives in a separate area of the island, with her own personal ethics tutor in tow. All is not what it seems. A dark underbelly begins to emerge, encompassing genetic engineering and that ultimate in human hubris – the artificial creation of life itself. A third sister is revealed. Time passes. The Sabachthani Sisters mature into apparently fine and principled young women. Londa, in particular, becomes a world-famous scientist in her own right, establishing her own scientific institution and utopian community, Themisopolis, through which she makes stunning breakthroughs in the treatment of disease. Themisopolis becomes a blueprint for the secular community of humanity. This, however, leads to a showdown with religious fundamentalists of the Catholic persuasion, involving zombied “immaculoids” brought to life from dead foetuses and instilled with a deadly sense of holy indignation at their fate and a hatred of the parents who caused it. From here the plot spirals dizzyingly out of control as Morrow uses his broadbrush satire to explore complex areas of human ethics and morality. It almost works but doesn’t quite.

Morrow is on record as being an advocate of rationality and the Age of Reason, and the early stages of The Philosopher’s Apprentice certainly reveal such a sensibility. The novel appears to be a useful rejoinder to the gloomy anti-humanism of much contemporary conservative thought. Somewhere along the line, though, something goes wrong and, by the novel’s end, instead of the humanistic glory of a Kurt Vonnegut novel we are back firmly in the worlds of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor or Cormac McCarthy, in which the flaws of humanity are writ large and inevitably come to overwhelm us. Londa’s decency is compromised, then utterly ruined. The corrolary is clear: we, too, fine human beings that we are, may have grand ideals and noble intentions but those are not ever enough to combat the simultaneous flaws which inhabit our psyches. Having done so much to dismiss the conservative litany of criticism of humanity, it seems unfortunate that, in the end, Morrow begins to occupy similarly totalising territory himself. Yes, he presents complex arguments and the moral quandary Ambrose is left with at the end is illuminating, but it doesn’t quite gel. His characters remain bloodless and artificial. They never aspire to the heights of humanity of a Kilgore Trout or Rudolph Waltz or even Candide and Pangloss, and this is the great weakness of the novel. In the end, we are not privileged with a sense of caring for these characters. That makes their fate too easily palatable. Our sense of outrage is never invoked as it should. We are not shaken out of complacency the way a good satire should.


The version of my thesis that I had printed for family has arrived. Five years and 307 pages.....

James Morrow on the Enlightenment

James Morrow:
And yet these days, I’ve noticed, the Age of Reason has few friends. The religious right detests the Enlightenment because it leads to secularism; postmodern academics reject the Enlightenment as the presumed progenitor of an oppressive scientism; and the New Age fringe invites us to regard Reason as Spirituality’s feeble and overrated shadow.
Precisely so. This is the underpinning of my argument in my thesis: that the Enlightenment is a much-maligned beast and that we should be celebrating it. Too often, it is used as a tool with which to beat humanity: the conservatives bemoan our hubris, the need for rationality, the desire to understand everything and place humanity at the pinnacle. And, in doing so, they bastardise the tenets of the Enlightenment and reduce them to scientism, the better to criticise them.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Alice Munro

Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have to say I'm very pleased about this. As a Cormac McCarthy scholar, I'm aware that every year our man is in the running for the award and never gets it. I suspect it will be a long time before an American does, to be honest, and if it was going to happen it would probably have been this year, when Philip Roth has intimated that he is drawing his career to an end. That would have been a suitable point for the award of the Nobel.

And this, of course, is what has happened with Alice Munro, who has also announced her retirement from writing. She is a worthy winner, a very fine writer indeed. What I am particularly pleased about, since I'm a short story writer myself, is that a writer who is primarily known for her short fiction has won. Too often short stories are the poor relation of the novel, and I don't understand why. There is a purity about the short story that is very difficult to achieve and very satisfying to read.

Congratulations to Alice Munro.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Encounters with beauty

Once, walking by the River Earn, I saw a bird standing in the water,
improbably long-legged, elegant, not moving, quite, quite still.
I watched and watched, despite the cold. I felt no cold. Natural world.
It was a heron, at ease with itself. An encounter with beauty.

Another time, on the same river, near the same spot, I saw a kingfisher,
exotic in a niche in vaulting on the crumbling wall of a Beechinged bridge.
Blue chroma vital in contrast to the brickwork, passion against faded glory,
but beauty is not the preserve of nature because we are nature, too.

Your photo, portrait in green and blue, captured grain of time, reveals
in pixels the truth your anxiety conceals: that you are beauty.
You are its presence, its essence. Elliptical eye above a subtle smile
that speaks of truth. Of love. You are my kingfisher, you are my heron.