Following the previous post on Fénéon‘s Novels In Three Lines, I walked past this – entries in an as yet entirely incomplete compendium of narratives involving different minimally identified ‘characters’.
Following the previous post on Fénéon‘s Novels In Three Lines, I walked past this – entries in an as yet entirely incomplete compendium of narratives involving different minimally identified ‘characters’.
Last night I got a text:
have you read felix feneon’s ‘Novels in Three Lines’. Fantastic.
Since this message didn’t come from a number stored in my phone I was puzzled. I could see it was a New York number though and my brain was soon spiralling the list of possible senders of this kind of info, who also (a) happen to have my number but (b) whose numbers I don’t have saved. A tricky contemporary problem of sets and subsets – not the first time I’ve stared at my phone thinking ‘who the fuck would send me that’. I was even wondering for a brief moment if this message was some kind of viral spam dreamed up by a weird (or desperate) publishers. Mystery still unsolved I succumbed and texted back to say:
Sounds cool. Who is texting me btw?
(Best to deal with these things head on). To which the reply was:
Graham. New phone.
So that was all solved.
The book – collecting Fénéon‘s sequence of three-line items for the Parisian daily Le Matin in 1906 – does look like a really great catalogue of super-boiled, narrative poetics and I’m looking forward to picking up a copy. It’s translated by Luc Sante too whose Low Life (about historical drink, drugs and other pleasures in Manhattan) is extremely good. Graham (admitting that he had time on his hands) even sent a picture of Novels In Three Lines later. Second time since I started this notebook that someone sent me a picture of a book. Here’s a link to the previous.
This Storm drama, unfolding in the background 24-7, is pretty gripping too.
Workshop in Amsterdam at AHK the last couple of days, working with Edit Kaldor on her pilot research project about contemporary dramaturgy. Forced Entertainment‘s Bloody Mess is a case study and the 13 students are working two weeks around the piece, exploring practically. It was a pretty intensive/exhausting two days of focus for me and now they continue with Edit alone, headed towards showings next week.
What I liked most perhaps was the potential for mis-hearing and misunderstanding; the ways in which instructions in this context are often taken in unexpected directions. This, for sure, happens more in this workshop situation than in FE rehearsals – since a workshop like this one is a temporary group of people drawn from different disciplines, all with their own baggage and concerns, and who in any case have very different levels of familiarity with the aesthetic of the performance work they’re looking at. I really liked this combination of unruly-ness and hesitation though. I liked that there’s a friction, a pulling into new places as well as a sensitivity to the rules and frames that are set up, and the work – produced in between these things – was often really strong.
Watching the workshop in the morning yesterday I was already talking with Edit and making temporary assumptions about what material could be useful, and what was destined for some sort of revision or scrap heap. But I tend to be slow, and rather than act immediately on this set of inclinations we tried to keep things open, throwing some of the less defined material into a couple of open-ended improvisational structures, ‘just to see’. This was the highlight for me.. Seeing the stuff that had been unclear at first get space and time to be something, to make its potential clear. And seeing how this process also unlocked other material, other potential in the work. I had to remind myself a bit how valuable it can be to take time, to work with things, to see where they can go… instead of making snap judgements. Know nothing as a kind of operating principle. Or maybe know as much as you can and then try to forget it for a while.
(All this of course, in a context where there’s a totally absurd short amount of time. So in this instance ‘taking time’ means pushing something for an extra hour….)
The girl working the counter at the chip shop stands with half closed eyes and looks bored out of her mind, constantly flips flops the chewing gum in her mouth from side to side, each move done with a strange sidewards autopilot flick of the lower jaw – a manoeuvre that makes her look like some kind of lizard.
On the train, months before, some kid on the train plays up and makes mischief to the great annoyance of the lone parent on duty, who streams constant and impotent verbal warnings while the kids’ feet are all over the seats, his yells are all over the carriage, his fingers are all down in his brothers mouth.
You’ll be in trouble if you carry on like that, you’ll catch it. You’ll get in trouble, I’m telling you. She pauses, making no emphasis at all. You’ll get it. You’ll get punished. I’m warning you. I’ll punish you.
The punish word kicks the kid from physical antics to some expanded verbal phillosophical mode. What is punish? He says Mam, mam, I don’t know what punish is. She ignores him but he somehow knows that the audience of passengers are on tenterhooks. Mam, he says again. What is punish? What is punish? What does punish mean? She’s no wannabe lawyer though, no amateur philosopher, and just won’t be drawn into these kind of word-game conjectures or definition rows; her answer is just a long look out the window.
Will be in New York soon, but have already missed this show of pictures by Kohei Yoshiyuki, which is a shame.
One of the other things I heard about when we were working on Long Relay recently is Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Formula Project now online as part of John Brockman’s Edge “World Question Centre”. In the project Obrist has been collecting diverse formulas, equations and algorithms from scientists and artists. You can see some of the on-going collection. I really liked the one above (from New York theatre maker Richard Foreman) and this one, from Neil Shubin, Paeleontologist, University of Chicago; Associate Dean, University of Chicago Medical School. I’m working on my own contribution just now – just have to get the maths right.
I read most of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in two sittings on plane journeys between Oslo and Bergen these last couple of weeks. I finally completed it, slowing down to properly feel through the last couple of chapters, whilst sat in the sunshine, waiting for a ferry to cross a river in Fredrikstad and then on the platform at the town's tiny railway station. I liked the book a lot.
Somewhere in Species of Spaces Perec makes a set of notes about the topic of reading, including a section on the places in which people read. I'm sure there was something strong for me about the meeting of The Road and the contexts I was reading it in. In McCarthy's book the earth is brutalised and desolate – a desert of blizzarding ash and melted buildings, in which walking a nameless road is the only means of transport. The book worked as a scary momento mori in the hi-tech terminals and departure lounges of the airports, with their chic shops, crowds and all that. Everything I looked at in the world was gone each time I looked to the page and everything on the page was still there like a shadow, a scorched after-image each time I looked back.
I've read so much post-apocalypse. From books I read as a teenager like Walter M. Miller Jr's A Canticle For Leibowitz, Harlan Ellison's A Boy & His Dog, via J.G. Ballard's systematic destructions of the earth in The Drought, The Drowned World and The Crystal World, through to Russel Hoban's brilliant Riddley Walker which I read back in the 80's and David Mitchell's more recent Cloud Atlas.
I guess what's interesting about the genre (as in so much science fiction) is how it lets writers extend/distort/edit the world at will in order to magnify the things they're interested in. It's fundamentally a poetic form – giving permission to a world that allows and enacts a re-arrangement of the quotidian, all 'excused' by the apocalypse, by the breakdown of old reality. In Ballard the exterior transformation is always essentially a sign of some deep and weird inner one, whilst for Hoban it's language that grips him, its power, its hold on us, and more especially in Riddley Walker, it's stories themselves that he's drawn to – myths, folk-tales, the functions of narrative as knowledge in culture – and it's these things that he fills his destroyed world with.
McCarthy's interested in two things. The first is landscape. The exterior world and nature in general as fundamentally and starkly non-human – spaces that are not so much hostile as vast and utterly utterly indifferent. I guess it was really no big leap from the brutal deserts and landscapes in his Westerns to the harsh harsh and utterly unforgiving space he's made here. If you want to show people he seems to be saying, it's best to cross out more or less the whole of the world; then you'll see them better. It's a cruel experiment and once he's gone through with it the characters that he's focused on have nowhere much to hide.
The Road is tense from the start, often almost unbearably so. It's a tension built on viscous simplicity – stranding the protagonist survivors, a man and his son, in a hopeless ragged journey, often starving, sometimes ill, always terrified, frequently appallingly cold, towards a 'coast' that they have no real reason to believe will offer any sanctuary at all. We're told nothing much of the war that's caused the destruction, and learn nothing much of what happened to humanity in the immediate aftermath – these things aren't of any interest to McCarthy. Instead we're placed, as a fait accompli, in a situation degraded beyond belief and left there on a road summoned by McCarthy's stark and dense prose, with its echoes of the Old Testament and the Western genre. Mass starvation, environmental destruction, political collapse and terror make their own ethics McCarthy suggests and for the most part they are not pretty – in The Road he makes a world where any niceties of morality or social code have been more or less devoured by pragmatism.
The tension of the book is a lot to do with the single simple narrative question that it sets up and follows methodically – the question of how or if these two nameless figures will survive, or of which fate amongst a set of miserable options will await them on the road. McCarthy takes his time. Events unfold slowly. Sticks are gathered to make a fire. The small sticks are placed on the ground, at the bottom, the larger sticks are laid on top and then lighter fluid is taken from a canister to douse them with before a flint can be struck and the first flames are seen. In this meticulous slowed time there is always a tension. Sometimes ill things come out of it. Sometimes not. But the tension is always there.
There's also a tension related to the father's care for his son and the ongoing question of how he can exercise this unenviable duty. Several times in the narrative the father struggles and tortures himself with the question of how much he should tell the child – how much of what went before, how much of what he thinks might be to come.
Their relationship in the book is perhaps staged as a last vestige of an optimistic social possibility; one not based on fear or the brutal exercise of power (as most things are in the world of The Road), but one rather based on love. But in McCarthy's hands here love becomes a kind of terrifying burden, seemingly bordering on a death sentence. His protagonist is a father who has to care for, protect, advise and comfort a child in a world that has precisely no comfort, no security, and no hope. It's this paradoxical duty – of a love driven to terrible things in order to protect its charge, and of love carried out in the full knowledge of its almost total inadequacy – that McCarthy is perhaps chasing in this book. It seems in one sense like something far off, or far away.
But though The Road is ostensibly set far off in some terrible future my best guess is that in fact it's about now – that its central concern is the burden of adults in relation to children, especially as such a relationship might operate in the face of actual or coming terror – whether from ecological disaster, political brutalism, terrible poverty, moral collapse or some combination of all these. Of course these aren't all here as realities for everyone just now – but they are vivid and very present spectres.
One time its a scrawny kid up there at the highest diving board, the dad and older brother kind of waiting in the water down below. Kid stands at the back end of the board, doesn't want to walk out along it but looks like he is somehow psyching himself up for the dive, or the jump – why else would he be there. Holding on the rail. Looking down. The dad and the brother are gesturing, like come on then, come on, you can do it. They try not to make a big deal, so when there's no action up there for a while they keep themselves busy, start fooling around, swimming, splashing each other. You can tell they still have eyes in the back of their heads for the younger kid though – they know all the time that he's still up there, still not moving, still stood up there at the top. He stands with this firmness that endlessly undoes itself – face scribbled with signs of some big mental battle. Always sure what he's busy with, but there's too much of it; too many tasks, ticks, actions. He takes his hand off the rail and sort of looks down to the water. He looks up the ceiling, or out the window where you can see forest on the lower reaches of the mountains or he just looks to the ground – the tiles and water down below. The father, the brother. Then he looks up again, this time to the roof tiles/ceiling beams. He scratches his head, constantly messing with his hair. Then he's constantly shifting his eyes around; up and down, then side to side. It goes on for a long time all this, maybe thirty minutes and through all of it he's stood up there, going through this very private thing, raised high on a platform for the contemplation of all. Every now and then the older kid climbs out of the water, runs around, clambers up the ladder, squeezes past the scared kid saying this or that, sometimes a brief exchange of words, then takes a big run and a massive jump to splash down into the water. The father's watching, all attention and smiles. But the younger one still up there doesn't get the hint or the message from these supportive and/or challenging displays, he just loops back around into his waiting/psyching up routine. One time he walks out onto the board a few steps, slowly, as if with some kind of resolve, but then he backs away again. Nothing. He's not diving today.
Another time its a guy in his 30s maybe who more or less strides to the brink of the board. Stands there at the end, folds his arms behind him, right behind his back, then after a brief moment lunges forward. Dives. As if in some mentally defective hard-man test-of-resolve he keeps his arms knotted crossed there behind his back the whole way down, enters the water head-first, no arms to break his fall. Big splash. He swims to the edge. Once on the poolside he heads round to the diving board steps again, goes up and out to the end of the board, checks himself, folds his arms again, right behind his back and then launches forwards, arcing downwards like a guy that's shot in movie, falling like a dead weight, again hitting the water head-first with a terrible splash. This routine he keeps, diving time and time again, head first and humourless, compulsive, bordering on self-harm. Head-banging against a water-wall, as if to say in all caps I CAN TAKE IT. I CAN TAKE ANYTHING. AGAIN AND AGAIN. He keeps looping round. Pull out of the water, walk to the steps and clamber, head to the edge of the top board and then fold arms. One two, three and go for it, why bother with four, he's in the air already. Head down crash. Only once he breaks the routine, and on this one time when he gets to the edge of the board, instead of the arms folded behind his back he spreads them to make the wide open-armed salute of a victorious footballer or the splayed arms of a man shot suddenly in the back whilst running. Round and round he goes, a loop of time in which he is always plunging, a kind of amateur tough-nut stuntman of this small town, making ready for some horror-thriller-action role that will never come his way.
Days later I tell all this to Kate who tells me that sometimes, when watching strangers (on the street, in a bar or wherever) she wonders if (somehow) they are dreaming the events they enact; as if a guy like this one is really back at home in his bed while his body has come out – a grim phantom, a compulsion driven ghost – to enact such strange obsessive scenes in the world. Now I think of it they both had this quality of nightmare in action or made flesh – the nervous kid and the head-banger – perhaps not so much people as flickering symptoms of the town's neurosis, or its inhabitant's distress.
“a story that didn’t go back or forward but went in.”
Slowly processing Saturday’s Long Relay internet writing event, though I think it may take some time to untangle in my head. I was really pleased with the rich mix and inventiveness of the work, and with the strange drift of the text through the 24 hours.
One thing I liked very much, was the sense of fiction more or less blossoming (not quite the right word) as different writers turned their attention in different directions. Like Tom’s intensive magnification of the first part of the story, or Deborah’s conjuring up a fragment of plot about the girl, who’d been more or less ‘undeveloped’ prior to that. It reminded me of that old Phillip K. Dick (?) /paranoid idea of a world in which nothing exists unless you decide to go look at it; that some mysterious ‘they’ are busy constructing building bits of the world in time for you to go see them.. An idea that crops up explicitly in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. I somehow had a similar feeling watching the original text expand, contract and transform through the long hours.
What I liked most though was the liveness, the unfolding of it all. There was something very beautiful watching the document change each time the page reloaded as different writers were working. Shame it wasn’t changing keystroke by keystroke as we had originally hoped, but the jumps – a sentence here, a few words there, the occasional paragraph here – were always great to see; incomplete moves, signs of another person working on the text, a person starting to move things around. Also a strong sense at times of the text as a living thing; growing, shifting as an object on the screen.
Connected to this, in watching from long distance as other people worked on the project in the stuttering real-time of its updates, there was always for me a sense of working-out, guessing or anticipating which way they were headed. These were moments of ‘oh I see where she is going’ or ‘I get it, I see what this is going to be’ – predictions that were sometimes right, sometimes not. I guess in that sense the project succeeded for me – in showing writing as a process, as an unfolding set of decisions. I loved the sense of something materialising (a view, a take on things), and of seeing someone else (via their emerging take on it) slowly made manifest. A kind of dramaturgical staging of sensibility. I’m still struck by the act of Tom slowly adding his initial notes, annotating/commenting on my text, flagging things he’d use, things he’d want to get rid of – musing to himself about it, how it might work, or what it all might want to be. It reminded me a lot of notes I’ve written to myself whilst working on things. And I also remember watching mesmerised as Shelley was working; pasting in new paragraphs from previous versions of the text and then slowly scalpeling into them, shifting the words, adding things and taking away to make something new. There was something really sculptural about that.. And the results were beautiful.
Perhaps most frustrating to me was the feeling of the fiction in the end trapped in itself, in its own exoskeleton or in its own initial footprint, a feeling of growing confinement, an inability (somehow) in the system or game of it to make new space, to expand, to breathe or walk in some other direction. Tom’s focus on the start, Mike’s story – a very smart and delicate shifting the timeframe and looking back on a transformed version of the supposed incidents, or Deborah’s shift to the female character – were all useful attempts to do this, as was Adrian’s great final move of writing the ‘protagonist’ as a ghost. Shelley, Simon and Fiona, in their inventive and assertive foldings back on the writing and on its process, also opened the text of course, finding new things in its tangled tracks and traces. There is perhaps a limit to the amount of energy in the system though. As if the serial/relay calls essentially for an integrity of relation; for a certain level of continuity. And as though the time frame in the project, of both individual and collective duration, is maybe too small for it to travel to a radically different place without threatening total disconnection. Even knowing this though, (wanting my cake and wanting to eat it too) I could have taken more change somehow, or more space and more air, and would be interested to find a structure that encouraged this.
I’m certainly left curious about what the project might be like with a different balance or emphasis in the rules. And I’m wondering now if starting from a complete narrative by me was such a smart idea. Perhaps something more open or skeletal might have been better, or something that (somehow) more invited difference by way of response. I’m not sure for the moment what this would mean – but I’m guessing that Adrian and I will go back around the project several times in discussions now, trying to figure what the next move or incarnation of it might be.