MISS LONELYHEARTS BY NATHANAEL WEST

I have spent my life sifting through ashes looking for a particle of comfort, something small but heartening to latch on to, but all I have ever done is make my hands dirty. ‘You always struck me as a little bit lost,’ Angela said to me recently. She tried to smile to soften the blow, but it stalled and turned into a grimace. In bed Angela wanted me to piss on her and choke her until she passed out, but I wasn’t man enough. Nor could I satisfy Hesther, who froze when I kissed her cheek, but begged to be slapped hard around the face when we had sex. I find nothing in the ashes, because there is nothing. Last week, my brother wrote ‘fuck’ in the dust on the glass top of the living room table and then promptly vomited on the floor. Dust, the dead matter of a slowly disintegrating world. My brother has been trying to kill himself for years, even though he doesn’t know it. What should I say to him? I keep thinking about the man who sleeps in a tent in Hillsborough park. A cripple, in a wheelchair. Periodically he is beaten and his tent stomped in by local teenagers. What do I say, to him, to all of them? Nothing. I’m silent, as the circle they form around me continues to expand until one day it will become a wrecking ball.

“Last year, he remembered, May had failed to quicken these soiled fields. It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt. What the little park needed, even more than he did, was a drink. Neither alcohol nor rain would do. Tomorrow, in his column, he would ask Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Desperate, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest of his correspondents to come here and water the soil with their tears. Flowers would then spring up, flowers that smelled of feet.”

Writing about Miss Lonelyhearts will be easy, because I have spent most of my life writing about it, long before I read it. I know the story well; I knew it always. At fifty-eight pages long, it is to novels what Mike Tyson was to heavyweight boxing, which is to say smaller than average but able to compensate for this slightness with an extraordinary savagery. At one point in the book one of the characters tells an anecdote about how a ‘haughty’ young woman was gang-raped in order to bring her down a peg or two. It is told not as something lamentable, nor even with great glee, but in a matter-of-fact, casual manner as though this kind of thing is appropriate, normal, and happens all the time. Yet to give the impression that this one moment stands out as being especially shocking or brutal would be misleading, because Miss Lonelyhearts is all such moments, all anguish and pain; every page. The mother who died, leaning over a table, of cancer. The cripple with the miserable job and sneering, violent wife. The lamb, for fuck’s sake. Wounded, eventually killed with a rock. The only relief on offer in West’s world is a horrible death. The letters? Can anyone even bear to talk about the letters?

Miss Lonelyhearts is the writer of an agony aunt column in a newspaper. Miss Lonelyhearts is also a man. Which is a kind of glum joke. An agony aunt is generally thought to be a homely, approachable woman, usually of some age and experience. She offers impartial advice, compassion, and, metaphorically speaking, a broad bosom to cry upon. The letters Miss Lonelyhearts receives are from the defeated, the maimed, the desperate, the broken-hearted, the sick-of-it-all; and none of them are funny. ‘I sit and look at myself all day and cry,’ writes the girl who was born without a nose. ‘Ought I to commit suicide?’ she asks. There is no end to these letters, as there is no end to human suffering. He receives thirty a day, all of which are ‘stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.’ Miss Lonelyhearts is finding it increasingly difficult to respond. The words that come to him are greeting card platitudes. ‘Life is worth while for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy,’ he writes. Which is certainly a lie. There is no peace; there is no gentleness; there is nothing in the ashes, except perhaps, if you squint, the image, or vague likeness, of Christ.

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Miss Lonelyhearts wants to be sincere, wants to help. In the beginning he was in on the joke, but now he is on the wrong [the receiving] end of it. The letters touch him. He sees in his position a level of responsibility. He is their last resort. For most, he is perhaps their only. But he is struggling, with the burden, with the sheer, unrelenting awfulness of life; their lives and his own. A stone has formed in his gut. Heavy, oppressive, deadening. He can’t help his readers, nor can he help himself. He is, in fact, incapable of any positive or progressive action. All of his relations are unsuccessful. He goes to see Betty, a kind of ex-girlfriend. She suggests some form of salvation, by way of her conventionality, her middle-of-the-road nature, and her love. When she straightened his tie, we’re told, she often made him feel as though ‘she straightened much more.’ Yet when he is with her he feels irritated; he lashes out, he clumsily forces a kiss. He does so because he believes that what she represents – potential happiness, contentment, security, stability – is a lie, is impossible. As the novel progresses, he becomes ever more hysterical, sick, and despondent; and it is only Betty who sees it, only she who is able to look outside of herself and recognise what is happening to him. She’s the only one who cares; and yet even her compassion counts for nothing in the end.

The most damaging of Miss Lonelyhearts’ relationships is with Shrike, his boss. Shrike engages in a form of jovial bullying, which he attempts to pass off as friendliness. He is a self-important blabbermouth, a torturer, a boorish bore. Throughout the book he delivers long, smug monologues that only he enjoys and appreciates, and which are, of course, solely for his own benefit. He says things like: ‘I am a great saint. I can walk on my own water. Haven’t you ever heard of Shrike’s Passion in the Luncheonette, or the Agony in the Soda Fountain?’ There are, Betty aside, no likeable characters in the book, but Shrike is especially unpalatable. While everything goes up in flames, he is, to quote a phrase of Patrick Hamilton’s, the president in hell; he is the cunt of cunts. In order to save money, he essentially rents out his wife for the evening, so that she can wined by other men and be ready, and worked up, to be fucked upon her return. When he is with another woman – for, naturally, he is unfaithful – he is said to bury his face in her neck ‘like a hatchet.’ It is no coincidence that West chose to name him after a species of bird with a sharp, curved beak, which impales its prey on thorns and the spikes of barbed wire. However, even he cannot be said to be happy or flourishing. His marriage is failing, and everyone – his wife included – abhors his company.

Shrike, in his only interesting statement, says of agony aunts that they are ‘the priests of twentieth century America.’ And he has a point. When once people would look towards the church, towards God, they have now come to seek guidance through popular culture. One could, therefore, interpret the book’s message as being a religious one, as being an urging to return to Christian ideas and practices. In fact, it is possible to argue that the whole thing is a religious allegory, even a kind of passion play, with Miss Lonelyhearts as Christ. Certainly, when he seeks to offer love, when, at the very end of the book, he runs towards a man with his arms outstretched, ready to embrace him, he is struck down. Yet what this suggests to me – someone who is admittedly an atheist and a cynic, and who is undeniably lost – is that we – the human race – have fallen so far that love, and compassion, can no longer redeem or save us, that we can no longer even recognise it when it is bearing down on us.

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HUNGER BY KNUT HAMSUN

If you continue to lose weight, she said, I’ll have to put you in hospital. My mother thought that I was starving myself. She spoke about it as though it was a conscious decision, as though I had decided to stop eating, out of vanity perhaps, when it was simply the case that I could no longer keep food down. I was fourteen years old, and being sick was easy. I didn’t need to force it. I didn’t tip my fingers down my throat and waggle them around. The vomit came when called, like a well-trained dog. She had always over-fed us, my brother and I, because it was the only thing she could do. For a while I had thrown her meals out of the bedroom window, but I couldn’t live with the guilt. What little money we had went on this, on fattening the rats that gathered below. So I did my duty. I ate, and that was important; but I wasn’t hungry. My shins burned when I walked, my mouth cramped when I talked too much, and I frequently lost consciousness, but I never knew hunger. I would, I thought, die happily without ever knowing what it felt like to want anything.

“God had poked His finger down into my nerves and gently, almost without thinking, brought a little confusion among those threads. And God had pulled His finger back, and behold–there were filaments and fine rootlike threads on His finger from the threads of my nerves. And there remained an open hole behind His finger which was the finger of God, and a wound in my brain behind the path of His finger.”

That Knut Hamsun’s first novel was published in 1890 is, with each new reading, increasingly surprising to me. This is not because it seems so ahead of its time – although many have made that argument – but rather because it strikes me as largely out of time. There is very little in it that dates it, that ties it to a specific period. The horse and carriage, the writing with pencil on paper, and one or two other moments or incidents, are the only real indicators. In terms of style, there are elements of Dostoevsky’s supernatural realism, but on a meagre scale. Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist is less intense, less obviously a front for an ideology or ethical-philosophical system; and certainly the author himself was less concerned with intricate plotting. In fact, there is little more to Hunger, in terms of action, than an exceedingly poor man wandering around Kristiana, that ‘strange city which no one leaves until it has set its mark upon him,’ which is now known as Oslo.

The most obvious interpretation of the book’s title is that it refers to the central character’s starvation, to the frequent days he endures without being able to eat. He is, as noted, wretchedly poor, and so cannot afford to. At times he becomes so desperate that he chews on wood shavings, or sucks a stone, or nibbles at a bone that he has procured from a butcher for an imaginary dog. Only occasionally – either through luck, charity, or his own hard work – does he come by a little money and therefore legitimate food. When denied basic sustenance the body will, of course, suffer, eventually wither and ultimately break down. Frequently he feels weak, his legs twitch and become unsteady, his head pounds, and his hair falls out. Even when he does take in food he throws it back up because his stomach is unused to it, it cannot handle it. Yet perhaps the biggest indication of his physical deterioration is how often people run away from him or try and avoid coming into contact with him, such as the woman who presses closer to the wall when he walks past. Indeed, the man’s body is in such a bad way that even he notices it, and cries over it, when it is often the case that the person involved, as I know myself, is ignorant of what is happening to them.

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However, this aspect of the book is, although disturbing, not particularly interesting. For me, anyway. Perhaps it is too familiar, too close to my own experience, but I think there’s more to it than that. That someone who doesn’t regularly eat would be physically weakened, would waste away, is predictable, natural, and therefore hardly worth devoting your attention to. I’m reminded of what I wrote about Lolita, which is that if all that book has to say is that pedophilia exists, and this is how grooming works, then it was a waste of time to write it. In any case, what is engaging about Hunger is how Hamsun shows that the mental and the physical influence each other. When the man eats he feels ‘stimulated,’ more stable and lucid, and ‘capable of a greater effort’ where his own writing is concerned. Conversely, when he is without food, his mental state worsens, resulting in wild mood swings. At times he is ‘nervous and susceptible’; he is timid, apologetic, despairing, pathetic, and self-pitying. On other occasions, he becomes inexplicably angry and even sinister, such as when he goes in search of confrontation or starts to follow a young woman with the intention of ‘frightening’ her. One understands in these moments that it isn’t only his appearance that alarms the locals.

What this means is that the less the man has, the more in need he is, the more mad be becomes, and subsequently the more unlikely it is that he will receive help. Because extreme vulnerability is unappealing. That is part of the tragedy of the novel, and of life itself. At his most demoralised and despondent, he turns to God, but not with any conviction or genuine faith, more in order to rail against Him or doubt Him. His luck is so bad, he thinks, that his existence must be at the whim of some higher power, or is at least evidence of the fact that he has been abandoned. Yet if anyone is to blame for his predicament it is he himself. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of his character, and the novel as a whole, is how much responsibility he has for, how much he contributes to, his own downfall. Take, for example, his insistence on helping the tramp, to the extent that he pawns his waistcoat in order to give him some money. It’s absurd, funny even. To be starving, to have so little, and give away your possessions or money, to people, in fact, who are probably better off than you are. The first time I read the book I couldn’t take it seriously, precisely for this reason. It wasn’t until I read it again that I began to understand.

The title of the novel refers to starvation, of course it does, but it also has a broader meaning or significance. Hamsun’s protagonist is stripped of, or denied, or just plain lacks, almost all of life’s essentials, almost all of the things that sustain us. He hungers, yes, but not only for food. He hungers for love, for sex, for work too, none of which he has access to. The only thing that he has, or that he can at least fool himself into thinking that he has, is his dignity. He helps the beggar because he does not want to be seen as being too destitute to give charity. He has next to nothing, but at least he can do that, at least he can still help others or attempt to. Similarly, when he sees a man carrying a bundle, he wants to take it from him and carry it himself. One might say that he cares too much about what people think of him – he blackens the knees of his trousers so that they will not look too worn, for example – and, yes, that is part of having dignity too, but, in my opinion, he cares more about what he thinks of himself. Isn’t that vital? To be able to tolerate the person you are. Yes. It may be at some point in your life that other people cannot bear to look at you, but I hope that you are always able to look at yourself.

FATALE BY JEAN-PATRICK MANCHETTE

There is money on the floor of my bedroom. Coins and notes. Whenever anyone comes over they joke about it. You must be rich, they say, to leave all this lying around. Untouched, unclaimed. I’m not rich, of course. Last week, however, I found four hundred and seventy pounds in Czech koruna on my bedside table. In my wallet is roughly two hundred pounds in Russian rubles. I’m not rich and yet my casual attitude towards money suggests otherwise, suggests a lack of need at the very least. And it is true, I don’t need it, not because I have so much as to make that word – need – meaningless, but because I was raised without it. I was raised without money, and so I am not in thrall to it. It’s almost as though I don’t understand its power. I feel detached from it; there is, for me, a sense of unreality about it. For eighteen years I lived without money, without ever buying anything, without ever coveting anything. When I was a child, for example, I thought that cars were mechanical creatures, completely independent of human beings. They existed on the roads, at a distance. It never occurred to me that you could own one. And I still don’t drive. Not once have I considered it, even though, quite clearly, I can afford the lessons.

“I am very interested in promotional items and free gifts,” continued the baron. “Also in trash. I have no income, you see, and a man with no income is bound to take a great interest in free gifts and trash.”

Published in 1977, Fatale begins with a hunting expedition, which, now that I think about it, is significant, is entirely appropriate, because a hunter is precisely what the central character, Aimee Joubert, is. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She is described as being thirty or thirty five, as slim with ‘delicate features.’ She is, as with all noir leading ladies, attractive, appealing, sexual. Her smile, we’re told, is charming. But it isn’t just her smile that catches the eye. Naturally, many of the men in the novel are drawn to her; they want to help her, and fuck her too of course. Yet, as previously suggested, none suspect her of being a hired killer. This, for me, is what is most interesting about Aimee, for she bucks the trend of the wise-cracking, brazen femme fatale. In most noir novels that I have read one could not mistake these women for anything other than what they are: money hungry, immoral harlots who would kiss you hard and hit you even harder. That is part of the fun.

Aimee, however, although good looking and enigmatic, is fairly inconspicuous or certainly eager to blend in and observe. The hunter must not, of course, stand out too much, otherwise the prey might become spooked. It is also the case that often femmes fatales are weak women who act strong. Aimee, on the other hand, appears ‘fragile,’ and ‘feminine,’ while being, in reality, hard and durable, and almost manly [in private, at least]. She is, as noted, a killer for hire, but it’s not really that. It’s how, for example, she eats when she’s alone, voraciously, gracelessly, with food dribbling down her chin. It is how she speaks when the mask slips, bluntly, peppering her sentences with swear words. It is how she masturbates matter-of-factly. She is aggressive, but in a controlled way. She is, furthermore, well trained, expert, physically commanding. There is a scene in which she is shown to be using a chest-expander and throwing punches at a thick piece of cardboard.

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The opening of Fatale, the hunting scene, is significant in a second, more subtle way. Aimee dispatches one of the men, the fattest of the bunch. Manchette insists upon his obesity, making it his critical, identifying feature. He writes about his ‘considerable backside,’ and describes how, when climbing down into a damp, narrow coomb, his ‘paunch pulled him forward.’ It strikes me that this is because fatness is associated with greed, and therefore with money, and these two things play a prominent role in the novel. Soon after disposing of the hunter Aimee bribes a porter. The man ‘fell prey to the charm of her smile and the fifty franc bill she held out to him.’ This is the first occasion, of many, where Manchette connects sex with money. For example, in the book’s most commented upon scene, Aimee strips naked in the private carriage of a train and rubs her sweaty body with her ill-gotten loot. The point, I think, is to suggest that money, like sex, is base, is dirty.

Certainly, the well-to-do inhabitants of Bleville are, with the exception of the baron, crooked and corrupt. They will do, and have done, anything to preserve their position, to further their position, and to make more cash. This is the circle that Aimee wants to infiltrate and ultimately bring down. When she first arrives, she talks to a realtor about purchasing property, while he is looking at her exposed knee. Sex and money again. The realtor is said to warm to her because he likes people ‘who take money seriously.’ The realtor is corrupt, of course. Aimee is too, let’s not forget, in the sense that she earns her pay by foul means. A Bleville sign impishly reads: KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN. Manchette mentions it frequently. It’s his little, yet not exactly subtle, joke. Money and dirt. It is telling that the scandal that threatens the successful Bleville men, and their wives, involves rotten fish. Telling that one man dies, towards the end, in a barrel of it, and Aimee, who is not without sin remember, rolls around in it. There is also another moment in the novel that is, for me, worth highlighting, which is when Aimee visits her mother. She wishes the old woman dead and yet brings her a present of an expensive sweater.

To say more about all this would perhaps ruin the book for anyone who wishes to read it. I may have ruined it already. In any case, I want to write something, before I finish, about Manchette’s style. I’ve already mentioned that his femme fatale is not the typical sort, but that is not the only way in which Fatale stands out. The noir genre generally trades upon a very specific, easily imitable, prose style. It is, as I have repeatedly stated in other reviews, broad-shouldered, punchy, and full of memorable lines. Manchette went another route. There is, first of all, not a single amusing wise-crack in the whole novel. Manchette wrote in short, often banal sentences, with an attention to insignificant detail that reminded me of Robbe-Grillet or Georges Perec. We learn nothing of his characters’ internal life, and yet we do know how fast the train is running and what Aimee’s weight is. More impressively, the author had a Flaubertian way of suggesting certain things without revealing them. For example, when a baby dies Aimee becomes panicky and upset, but her reaction is never explained. One has to guess, and I like that. I liked Fatale, all told. I’ll often think of it as I walk around my room, my cold feet stepping on the Queen’s coin.

ASYLUM PIECE BY ANNA KAVAN

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re being followed and watched? Lean into the darkness and what do you see? The alley, the wardrobe, the space under the bed, the cracks in the walls – lean in close and what do you see? Maybe you’re being paranoid, for when you root around in the dark corners of your life there’s no one there. Still, you’d better clutch your keys, or quicken your step or pull the duvet over your head. There’s a knife in the kitchen which gives you peace of mind but which, you note to yourself, could equally be a murder weapon. I once had a stalker. Once, perhaps still. Who knows how good she is at the task she has given herself. Stalking like anything else is a skill one can develop. I would see her, fleetingly, although we had never met, in shops and on streets. I knew her from her photographs, in which she was naked and her face was turned away from the camera. Someone, if not her. Something, if not her. A powerful force dogging my heels that never fully reveals itself. I lay awake every night, cat-eyeing the dark corners of my life.

“I know that I’m doomed and I’m not going to struggle against my fate. I am only writing this down so that when you do not see me any more you will know that my enemy has finally triumphed.”

It has been a number of weeks since I last read a book. I didn’t read this one, or certainly not with strict concentration. I dipped in and out of it as though it were a dream, my cat eyes skimming the white pages and always drifting towards the window in the room. Even now, as I write, I find my head involuntarily turning towards it and whatever conscious part of me that still exits is drawn into the snowy static that obscures the world. My relationship with Anna Kavan has been an uneasy one, but that isn’t it. My relationship with most things is uneasy. During my past periods of lucidity I found her work tiresome, not now. I’ve read Ice three times, and enjoyed it only once, most recently. Asylum Piece was written much earlier than Ice, in some year or other. Or years, perhaps, for I’m not sure if it is something whole, put together by the author, or a collection fashioned by a publisher from various sources. It reads – if my experience of it could be said to be that of reading, which I am certain it cannot – like a bit of both. The first half of the book is given over to a sequence of Kafkaesque* – in the truest sense of the word – short pieces, while the second is a cycle of stories concerned with patients in mental institutions.

It strikes me as necessary to concentrate on the first half of the book, for no reason other than that was when my attention was most focused on it. In fact, The Birthmark, which opens the collection, is the only story I know by name, whose details I can confidently associate with a title. This is fortunate in so much as it is representative of what I can recall of the first half as a whole. In it a young girl is sent away to boarding school where she meets another girl, H, whose arm, ‘as if traced in faded ink’, is blemished by a birthmark. The years pass and the girls lose touch with each other, although the narrator confesses to having never really forgotten about H. Then, one summer when she is travelling in a foreign country, the narrator visits an ancient fortress and, while walking around, notices a ‘barred window giving on to some subterranean cell.’ It is in this cell that she thinks she sees a woman with an identifying birthmark, in which he thinks she sees H.

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With succinctness and clarity The Birthmark could be said to make much of the rest of the book redundant, and in fact much of Kavan’s oeuvre [with the obvious exception of Ice, which in hindsight becomes richer]. Certainly, when I finished it I felt as though I knew more about, and better understood, her principle concerns. The most compelling and insistent of these concerns is that of oppression. In her most famous work it is manifested in the elements, and in the girl’s partner, here it is the boarding school and the fortress prison and possibly the birthmark itself [which H is self-conscious of]. It is interesting that Kavan herself was said to be secretive about her age, as though that too – ageing – is an oppressive force, especially for a woman. In each of the rest of the stories in the first half of Asylum Piece the narrator – they are all told in the first person – is either being punished, persecuted, threatened, or imagines herself to be. In some she is at the mercy of an authority – such as the patrons in Going Up in the World – of whom she is aware, and with whom she interacts, and in others it is a shadowy, distant, unknown entity that she believes to be at work against her.

The tone of these stories is panicked and fearful; there is a sense of dread and unease, paranoia and futility throughout, regardless of the primary action. For example, in the early stages of The Birthmark the narrator speaks of feeling ‘strange and subdued’ and of how ‘nullification’ accompanied H. Indeed, the book is full of words and phrases such as ‘ill omened’, ‘gloomy inertia’, ‘doom’, ‘hostile’, ‘treacherous’, and so on. Moreover, frequent references are made to being or feeling alone or isolated. The prison speaks to this, of course, but so does the situation of the girl in Going Up in the World, where she is forced to live in a cold and dirty room, while her patrons live above her in luxury and brightness. Even in less restrictive circumstances, while apparently free, her narrator is ‘frightened and lonely in a nightmare world’ with ‘not a soul’ she can trust. I know very little about Kavan as a person, and so I would not want to make judgements about her mental state, but it is clear that she was at least interested in the mental processes of the hysterical depressive. This is perhaps how both halves of the book fit together. The first puts us inside the diseased mind of such a person, while the second observes these types from a distance.

 

*this is a word that I instinctively recoil from in most circumstances. However, if you are familiar with Kafka’s work the similarities should be apparent having read this review. In fact, there is a short suite of stories in Asylum Piece, in which the narrator has been charged with a crime she knows nothing about, that are on the borderline of plagiarism.

THE MONGOLIAN CONSPIRACY BY RAFAEL BERNAL

I take a shower, then put on cologne and clothes. To meet a woman. Fucking women! What will it be like this time? Life has passed me by, the world has moved on without me. Fucking world! Five years I was with her, five years I was out of action, and the world changed, and people changed, and now everything is fucked. Where did your false sense of security get you, huh? All those five years I thought I was winning but I was actually setting myself up for the biggest loss. Love. Fucking love! Don’t tell me how exciting this is, how adventurous. They all enjoy the stories, before they add their own. They’re all crazy. Everyone is crazy. It’s not just the women. Fucking people! The president of the United States, the leader of the free world, his hand in his trouser pocket, fondling his dick whenever a woman crosses and uncrosses her legs. Fucking gringos! My eyes are open. Maybe the world hasn’t changed, maybe it was always like this and it’s only now that I can see it, now that I have to confront it. Five years cocooned inside my love, eyes closed, fast asleep, blissful, like a fucking baby.

If I could I would glue together the broken pieces of my cocoon, climb inside, and go back to sleep. A man needs his sleep, but it’s impossible. Fucking sleep! The eternal sleep is what I need. A French woman with a bearded dragon clinging to the front of her dress blowing me on a bench in the rain. Yeah, it’s a funny story, until you realise there is madness in it. Hers and mine. Fucking madness! Madness is my cocoon now. Staring into the frightened eyes of the bearded dragon. I’m scared too, buddy. Maybe I shouldn’t go out tonight, maybe I should stay here and write. What’s the worst that can happen, if I write instead? I just finished The Mongolian Conspiracy. Mexican noir, they call it. Fucking noir! So much machismo I could almost taste the author’s sweaty balls, but, still, it was good, and I should write about it, make writing my cocoon. The author is Rafael Bernal, who also wrote a book called Su nombre era muerte about a man who learns to communicate with mosquitos and then puts together a plan for world domination. Fucking world domination with the help of mosquitos! Fucking madness again! Although that does sound like the kind of book I want to read.

“And here I am with my hands so heavy, walking down the street. And she is my bed, alone with her death. And me alone, walking down the street, my hands as heavy as the many dead. And nothing’s heavy for her anymore, not time, not nothing. Or maybe her death is heavy as if a man were on top of her. I don’t know what that’s like, death. She does know. Thats why she’s alone. That’s why she’s not with me. Because she knows and I don’t. All I know is how to start down this road, how to live carrying my solitude.”

Filiberto Garcia is a hired killer, a ‘stiff factory.’ He’s a man who feels naked without his gun. Because of course he needs it to do his job. Fucking killing! Garcia has an inexpressive face, his mouth is ‘almost motionless.’ Except when he sneers. The furniture in his apartment is as if brand new because ‘so few people visited’ and nobody ever uses it. So you’re forming a picture, right? Of this man Garcia. This killer. A loner, a tough. Fucking tough guys! Filiberto doesn’t like joking or laughing. And neither do I, these days. Fucking laughing! In many ways he seems like the typical noir leading man. None of this is unexpected, really. Although perhaps he’s a little more dour than usual and down on himself. He frequently calls himself a chump, for example, for treating Marta with respect and tenderness. Yet on other occasions his misogyny has punch, quite literally, and he isn’t above throwing the word faggot around, or Chink, either. An arsehole, in short, but whoever thought a killer would be a good guy? Fucking good guys! In the early stages you wonder if you want to spend over two hundred pages in the company of someone like this.

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Yet as things progress you start to realise that the story has more depth, that Filiberto has more depth, than you thought at first. Fucking depth! What about the story? It takes place among the opium dens of Mexico’s Chinatown. There has been a rumour that the President of the United States is going to be assassinated during a upcoming trip to the country and that the Chinese are involved. Fucking President! The FBI and a Russian secret agent are investigating, and Garcia is dragged in too. Which all seems like nonsense, as I suggested. Albeit enjoyable nonsense, perhaps. But as I worked my way through the book it struck me that Bernal used this stupid set up, and his central character, to say some interesting things about international politics, first of all, and about Mexico itself, and ultimately the world. Fucking world! The FBI man and the Russian are suspicious of each other, each seems to be working his own angles. In fact, every man in a position of some power, every high ranking, important man, in the book is a louse. Secrecy, double-cross. All done with a daytime TV smile and a clean shirt and tie. All of them trying to slither up the greasy pole of power…but only a few can make it, only those who have the strength and stomach for the climb. The rest will get knocked down, will end up on their ass at the bottom. Most likely with a broken head. As Del Valle says: there are no friendships in politics. Fucking politics!

Does anyone really care about the president? Is there even an assassination plot? Life is a game to these people. Fucking games! Sure, some of them will die, but the real losers are the poor folks. The ex-whorehouse gringa, the Chinese, the smalltime toughs, the petty thieves, the drunkards, the lowdown, the hustlers, the scum, the morons who look at the pie and think they can help themselves to a slice. But that’s what people like Garcia are employed for: to slap away their hands, to protect the pie. Not for the good folks, but for the baddest guys of all. Fucking pie! Filiberto Garcia is the real secret agent, because he doesn’t know. Or he didn’t. But he’s starting to see, starting to open his eyes. The world has changed. Fucking world! Garcia is a ruthless man, who has done, and still does, terrible things. But he has a kind of code, a set of principles, a way of doing those terrible things, that is out of step. He has been left behind. He’s an old man, of course. Nearly sixty. Fucking old age! He hasn’t kept up. Lawyers everywhere you look. And I don’t matter anymore. Too right, grandpa. All you’re good for is killing, is doing the dirty work for others. The world is making progress. Mexico is making progress. Fucking progress! Even killing isn’t what it used to be. Garcia fought in the revolution, but that’s ancient history. Now there are cocktail lounges, not old-time cantinas.

BEAST IN THE SHADOWS BY EDOGAWA RAMPO

I’ve written about this before. My troubled relationship with reality. My mania for narratives. My madness. My doubt. I doubt everything. For every event I could, and quite often do, create multiple stories or explanations. My need to confront the truth of the world means, ironically, that the truth is inaccessible to me. That is if it could be said to exist at all. The truth, I mean. Or maybe not inaccessible, but unidentifiable. The truth  – if it exists at all, if it isn’t a meaningless concept – is simply one possibility amongst many, all of which have equal standing, all of which are equally persuasive. I can work the facets of every case, every event, no matter how banal or dramatic, into a series of believable, logical theories. I doubt everything and therefore I am capable of convincing myself of anything. My mind is hyperactive, oppressive. It attaches itself to things like the Kraken does a ship. I didn’t want to write about this again. I’m wary of boring you all; yet Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo has made this necessary.

“I regret my proclivity to reasoning and fantasy, but regret though I might it is not enough. I feel like walking, searching Japan – no, every corner of the earth – in a lifelong pilgrimage to discover the whereabouts of Hirata Ichiro-Oe Shundai, even though I know it might be pointless.”

As published by Kurodahan Press, Beast in the Shadows is teamed with the more famous, yet seemingly less well-thought of, certainly judging by the reviews I read, The Black Lizard. That story, by all accounts, is a bit of pulp nonsense featuring a femme fatale master criminal – a description that, I must admit, appeals to me greatly – while the novel under review here – although it too has its moments of nonsense and does feature a woman who might not be what she seems – is a more serious, cerebral affair. I don’t know much about Edogawa Rampo, whose real name was Hirai Taro, but his pseudonym, which was chosen as a homage to Poe [say Edogawa Rampo quickly, preferably out loud], displays not only a kind of playfulness, but also suggests a keen interest in, almost reverence for, the major writers working within the genres that he did himself. I mention this because Beast in the Shadows read, at times, like a homage itself to the golden age of crime fiction, and also partly as an essay on what crime fiction is or could be.

The novel is narrated by a writer of detective novels and involves a search for another, the reclusive Oe Shundai. Much is made by Rampo, via his narrator, of the differences between the work of the two men. ‘There are two types of detective novelist,’ is how the story begins. One of these types is what Rampo calls ‘the criminal sort.’ These are people who are interested mostly in the perpetrator, their cruel psychology and gruesome acts. The other is ‘the detective type,’ who is ‘indifferent to the criminal’s psychology’ and concerns himself with ‘the intellectual process of detection.’ The narrator, and the author himself, are the latter, while Shundai is the former. It is clear then that Rampo was making a judgement. He was, at least indirectly, nailing his colours to the mast regarding what he considered to be the superior kind of crime fiction. Indeed, the pages of Shundai’s novels are [disparagingly] said to be full of ‘uncommon suspicions, secrecy, and cruelty’; there is, we’re told, a ‘strange ghastliness’ pervading them.

Yet the cutting critique reveals more than Rampo’s ideas in relation to, and his feelings towards, the crime genre and the different approaches to it. Shundai is the more successful of the two writers, and one can’t help but see in the narrator’s remarks an intense professional jealousy. At one point he calls his rival a man who ‘lived the criminal life with the same passion a brutal killer feels when he commits murder.’ He doesn’t stop at attacking his work either. He is described as an obese, unattractive man who, rumour has it, spends all day and night in bed. He’s a ‘vengeful devil’ and ‘poisonous spider.’ It’s worth noting that when discussing himself he states that he is in ‘no way a bad person’, that, in fact, there are ‘few as virtuous’ as he is. During the early stages of the story it might strike one that not only is the narrator biased, and therefore his words are not to be taken on face value, but also that he is perhaps a leading candidate as a suspect. Indeed, it is usually the case that anyone who insists upon their own goodness so vehemently has something to hide.

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The likely bias of the narrator is, however, only one aspect of an overall sense of uncertainty and unreliability, of confusion and doubt. The basic plot of the novel is that a woman, with whom the narrator becomes involved, is being stalked and threatened by Shundai. Many of the supposed facts of the case – such as the prior relationship between Shizuko and Shundai, and their less than amicable break up – are unproven, are simply one person’s word or interpretation of events. Indeed, rumours and hearsay dominate the story. Nothing is concrete; everything is unstable. No one, for example, has ever met or even really seen Shundai, apart from Shizuko, and that was many years ago [if she is to be believed]. The one occasion he is said to be present in the novel happens at night and he – if it is him, not some vagrant – is dressed as a clown. Moreover, the person who is reporting the sighting admits to being a ‘little drunk’ at the time.

As a consequence of his absence, because we don’t know who Shundai really is, because he isn’t a fixed character, he could in fact be anyone: the narrator, the taxi driver, the journalist, Shizuko’s husband, or even Shizuko herself. I wrote earlier that Beast in the Shadows is a kind of homage to golden age crime fiction, but what sets it apart, what makes more than a flimsy bit of nostalgia, what makes it worth reading, is that, unlike the work of Agatha Christie, for example, there are in Rampo’s novel no answers, there is no resolution. The narrator – who one comes to trust, rightly or wrongly, a little more as the story unfolds – puts together one theory, which is plausible, which one believes, until, of course, he rubbishes it, finds a flaw in it, albeit not a fatal flaw, and then comes up with another. He does this multiple times. He doubts everything, and consequently finds himself able to believe anything, to convince himself of anything. The goal is, of course, to uncover the truth, but the truth – if it exists at all – does not standup and confidently announce itself. It is triksy, supple, and swift on its feet.

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… BY JOANNA RUSS

We all die. I know. You don’t have to keep telling me. Like it’s new knowledge. Like I don’t know. You delight in it, wickedly, in the same way that people sometimes catch spiders and make to throw them in the face of the person who is cowering and clearly afraid. I am afraid, very afraid. Of course, you don’t understand it. Death, I mean. You tell it, but you don’t understand the words. Like you’re reciting a foreign language, a language unknown to you. You say: why are you afraid? And I say: because death is nothingness. And you say: but you won’t know you’re dead. And I say: that’s the point. You cannot grasp it, that if I could experience death then it wouldn’t frighten me. Because it wouldn’t be nothing. I say: when you die, everything dies. When you cease to be, everything ceases to be. You don’t believe this, of course. But I’m on it now, and I don’t care. So I say: you are the universe. You are everything. I am everything. So naturally the only death that concerns me is mine. Yours might make me sad, but, at the same time, I would be glad to be around to feel that sadness. Yours is sad, potentially, but not a tragedy. Only one’s own death is a tragedy. Unless you want to die. There are people who want to die. There are people who choose to die. And that is perhaps a tragedy too. But only for them, not for me. I should write about the book. Must remember to actually write about the book. Joanna Russ is the author. Was? I don’t know how I came to hear about her. She wasn’t recommended to me. I never listen to recommendations anyway. My heart is beating, still, and so I can write about Joanna Russ and the book she wrote while her heart beat, still. Maybe. Maybe she is alive somewhere. Joanna, can you hear me? I hope you are alive, but not with any great conviction or feeling. I’m too concerned about myself. We Who Are About To… was published in…I don’t know when it was published. Sometime in the 1970s, I think. I recall reading that it wasn’t very well received at the time of publication. Which is hardly a surprise. I hate it when people say happy birthday to the dead. Happy Birthday, George Eliot. As though death isn’t death. It’s not a surprise because it’s a bitter, pissy little book. Someone said there is hope in it. There’s no hope. Or if there is it’s a small black dot in the distance. Death is like that too. Only the black dot is growing, and getting closer, moving ever closer until one day it will swallow you up. And then: nothing. Not even darkness. The narrator of the book doesn’t have a name. Or if she does I have forgotten it. She is part of a small crew on board a ship, a spaceship, that lands on a [previously] uninhabited planet. The plan is to colonise it, to populate it. There is very little that is recognisably sci-fi. If sci-fi means alien beings and alien worlds. The crew might just as well be stranded on an island. On earth, I mean. Only I guess that this would suggest the possibility of rescue. Which would suggest hope. I smoke, by the way, despite my fear. My fear of death. Of nothingness. I don’t fear cancer, of course, because that is still something. Terrible, but something, still. I smoke because I’m stupid. Because my species is necessarily, relentlessly, heartrendingly, hilariously stupid. The others are awful people. By others I mean the people who are part of the spaceship’s crew who aren’t the narrator. They are awful in a way that is banal, familiar. It’s amusing in a way to be introduced to people who might be the founding-fathers, and mothers, of a new civilisation, to be there in the beginning. Important people, about whom legends may one day be told. It’s amusing because they are, in reality, a dull bunch. There is no greatness in them. There couldn’t be. There is no greatness in anyone, or anything, only death. They aren’t bad people, no more than any average person is bad. One, Alan-something, does beat a woman, and that is a bad act, of course, but he does so out of embarrassment, rather than cruelty or anything interesting like that. He does it because he is stupid. For the most part, they potter around, bicker, half-formulate plans, and generally give the impression of a ridiculous species of animal meandering towards extinction. Like pandas. The narrator is no more likeable either. She is human, after all. I did wonder whether she was meant to be slightly more sympathetic, in the sense that she is perhaps a mouthpiece for the author. Although I don’t really believe that. I’m simply filling space. Pushing up the word count. I must say something more meaningful about the narrator. Include quotations from the text. Be motivated. Look interested. Think about death. Wasn’t it Heidegger who wrote that one must always have death at the forefront of your mind. In order to live an authentic existence. In order to live, period. He wrote, I think, that you must believe in your mortality. It is easy to say the words. I will die. To say it, and know it, and yet not know it, truly. To know it and believe it, truly believe it, is to collapse. To cease to function. To become like me. Heidegger, I think, was wrong. The narrator is a bitter, pissy woman. She hates the others. She is critical of them. Understandably, I guess. She is sarcastic. Confrontational, although she says of herself that she wants to keep a low profile. What is interesting – if interesting is the right word, and I am sure it is not – is the relationship between the narrator and her crew-mates. By which I mean that they – in a meandering, hopeless fashion – want to continue, to live, to bring forth new life. While she wants to die. She is afraid, but not of death. She is afraid of life. She wants to be allowed to die, to not continue. Because to continue in such circumstances is absurd. Some might say that is the crux of the novel. Should you enforce life, especially for a greater good. Or someone’s idea of a greater good. Yet some might argue that one’s right to die, or any other individual right, is meaningless in the face of the extinction of the human race. Although I don’t really believe that, what I said about the crux of the novel. The book is about disappointment. Weariness. The drudgery of existence, with its small victories and small, yet still crushing, defeats. It strikes me that the narrator uses the situation, the planet, the threat to their survival as a crew, as a species – for they have become, in being cut adrift from the rest of the human race, their own species – as an excuse to end it all. She was, it strikes me, tired of life long before they arrived. I, of course, am not tired. Not of life, anyway. I don’t believe in a greater good either. I believe in me. There is only me. I am a solopsist who barely even tolerates himself. Still, I cherish my own awful self, my beating heart. Because something, this awful something that I am, is, and always will be – for me but not Joanna Russ, it seems – better than nothing.