LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON BY DANIEL CLOWES

I started to draw my response to this. I completed only four panels. A man walks up to me. I’m sitting reading. He asks me what I’m reading. I tell him: it’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes. He then asks me what it’s about. The fourth and final panel shows my sad, frustrated face. I dream in words, rather than images. It has only recently occurred to me that this is strange. Clay Loudermilk enters what appears to be a pornographic cinema. He watches a film called Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. I see nothing, darkness, blackness, void, but I hear words. Or I sense them. The content of the film is a kind of fetishised violence. In the fifth panel, the man waits, a look of concern or perhaps impatience on his face. I am not adept at drawing facial expressions. Clay Loudermilk becomes intent on finding out more about the film. He borrows a car, sets off on a road trip. My waking life is more like a dream than anything I experience while asleep. I try to explain to the man that Clay Loudermilk goes off in search of information about the film. Like a Velvet Glove, I tell him, gives the impression of being a kind of quest. I speak to myself more often than I speak to other people. The man wants to know what I mean by ‘gives the impression.’ I tell him: the film really isn’t that important.

[a quote from the text]

The man, I have forgotten to mention, has an overly large head. It is as though his head isn’t really his head, but a false head, a joke head that he has placed over his own, ordinary-sized, head. This is most likely due to my artistic limitations. There are hints at a wider, overriding significance to the individual events. The tease of being able to pull it all together and arrive at an explanation, a satisfactory resolution. Mr. Jones, for example. As the story progresses there is the sense that you are getting closer to the truth. Mr. Jones is, I should explain, the face that is carved on Clay’s foot by the policeman. The image, henceforth, crops up multiple times. Like a Velvet Glove gives the impression of being something like a detective novel. There are clues, which may not be clues, if you understand what I mean by that. In panel number twelve the man is crying. I do not know what I have done to upset him. Perhaps it wasn’t me, however; perhaps the man is having some trouble at home; perhaps this is why he, without any encouragement, has approached a stranger and engaged him in conversation. The man is angry because he feels as though I am making fun of him with my explanation.

[an image which gives some indication as to the content and tone of the book]

It is with earnestness that I describe the plot of Like a Velvet Glove. I slowly count and recount the panels. The plot isn’t really a plot, although it gives the impression of being one. If I cared less I would say that Like a Velvet Glove is weird or surreal or something of that sort. My dreams are not my waking life. My waking life is a nightmare. He cries, terribly; his face is contorted. It is with great conviction that I state that I am not sure at all about what I am saying. I draw in the tears, which, as I am using a black biro pen, look like large ants, or bullets. There are so many striking images, I tell him. Paul, Clay’s friend, with crustaceans in his eyes, for example. These things are accepted in Clowes’ world without so much as a raised eyebrow. They are part of the ordinary fabric of this world, I tell him. The dog with no orifices. These things are, I tell him, strange only to the likes of you – I cough – and me. Even Tina, the odd fish-like young woman who lays eggs when sexually aroused, is accepted. It is possible that I am mistaken and the man is neither crying nor angry, but is, in fact, laughing. My eyesight, I have until now forgotten to disclose, is very poor.

[sometimes there is a second image here]

It may be, in fact, a woman whom Clay is seeking, an actress. Daniel Clowes did once state that Like a Velvet Glove was inspired by his dreams. Yet, while there are peculiar, and unsettling, and unexpected events, the action does move forward in a linear fashion. Accusations of meaninglessness are, I tell the man, wide of the mark. Clay has a purpose. Billings has one too. What is absent is a relatable cause. In panel thirteen or fourteen I assure the man that our lives are random and unpredictable, in both large and small scale ways. One might argue that Clay’s quest is itself a search for meaning. In one of the panels, perhaps the last panel, the truly last, I am glumly smoking a cigarette. I hold up one finger, the first finger on my left hand, and then plunge it into the hole made by my right hand. The actress may be Clay’s mother or his wife. The man laughs, or cries, or whatever. His big head shakes like a dandelion in the wind.

Clowes’ art, I say to myself, is noirish. B-movie noir. I’m embarrassed by my inability to capture, on paper, a true likeness of a dick and a vagina. My head pounds. The vagina, I must admit, is causing me greater problems than the dick. Tropical slush. Shush. The man wakes. It is possible that I nudged him. Hey, I might have said, don’t sleep. This is panel something or other. A black bordered panel; a black square with nothing inside. The people in Clowes’ world are grotesque-looking. Not only Tina the fish. Everyone, really, except Clay. Hey, I say. Something something America. Cults and conspiracy theories. Charles Manson and murder. Something something America. I don’t know. I have never been. I don’t own a TV either. Hey, mister, have you ever been to America? The man solemnly walks away. I sketch his receding figure. Hey, mister! His big head trembles, like a golfball rattling the rim of the hole.

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FEVER IN URBICAND BY FRANCOIS SCHUITEN & BENOIT PEETERS

She is coming from Moscow with the expectation that I will show her the sights. There is nothing here, I told her over the phone. Except parks and gardens. That is not nothing, she said. I like green. Why is it nothing? I tried to explain that this sort of thing bores me. It is just there. It exists, and that is all. It’s beautiful! Maniac! She sounded angry. I’ll kill you: put put put. I knew that, if I could see her, her fingers would be making the shape of gun, and that it would be firing straight at me. Perhaps I deserved it. You like always grey, she said. Always grey, aways concrete and broken windows. Which is true. I do like those things. I like the way, for example, that the grim Park Hill housing estate hangs ominously over the city like a spider. The story goes that the council wanted to tear it down, only to find that it is a protected building. If they’d had their way it would now be flower beds and water features, no doubt. The city in which I live is losing its identity. What once was wild and spirited is now twee. I feel this gentrification as a threat; I see it as a kind of creature or spirit that is invading, transforming, taking over. Soon, this place will be Sheffield in nothing but name; and that other place – the real Sheffield – will exist only in the imagination.

“Right now, the network continues to grow outside this city, this house, this room, where it began. It weaves its links between distant stars.”

Fever in Urbicand is the second instalment of the Les Cités obscures series of graphic novels [or comics, if you prefer] by the artist François Schuiten and the writer Benoit Peeters. Its plot centres around a cube that has been unearthed at a construction site and handed to the urbatect Eugen Robik. In the beginning, much is made of how innocuous the object is. It is, Robik notes, ‘merely an empty cubic structure with sides approximately 15cm long.’ There is ‘nothing extraordinary about it’ and, moreover, it ‘appears to be totally useless.’ Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the cube is growing, and that it shows no sign of stopping, such that eventually it takes over Urbicand, forming a new landscape, a new city. When one considers the drama and damage caused by the cube as it expands one realises how clever a choice the shape was. It’s power and destructive ability seem all the more terrible and awesome as a consequence of its familiar, ordinary appearance.

Eugen Robik could not be described as the hero, but he is certainly the most prominent character. Prominent, yet largely passive in the face of what many of us would call ‘life.’ He is not interested in furthering himself, is adverse to adventure or risk-taking, and only briefly flirts with the idea of starting a liaison with a woman before allowing her to slip through his fingers. He is a man consumed by his work and projects, so much so that initially he is all but disinterested in the cube, even when it begins to grow. His primary concern is the vote to deny permission to build a new bridge in Urbicand. Having designed the city, this denial, he feels, compromises his vision. Without it, he says, his project becomes ‘unbalanced’; the space where it should be he describes as a ‘void.’ I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. It is unusual for an architect, or urbatect, to be so central to a story, to be given such responsibility. It struck me that Schuiten and Peeters wanted to highlight the importance of this profession. Indeed, I have long thought that architects are something like Gods. They create our world. We live within their imagination.

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One might say that one of the themes of Fever in Urbicand is the arbitrary nature of boundaries. A bridge is, of course, something that connects two things, it brings them together. It is, in fact, something so significant that the great Serbian writer Ivo Andric devoted an entire novel to one in The Bridge on the Drina. As noted, Robik’s planned bridge is rejected, because, one politician states, ‘travel between the north and south bank will become too easy.’ It is never revealed why bringing the two banks together is undesirable, but one gets the impression that it is not with the good of the people in mind. The art and architecture in the book is stark and imposing and characters are frequently seen to be dwarfed by Robik’s buildings. There is an atmosphere of suppression and oppression, with, for example, those who cross the border being threatened with execution. Fever in Urbicand is, therefore, a kind of totalitarian dystopia. One cannot read it without thinking of two walls, one that was once built in Berlin and one that thankfully still only exists in the mind of Donald Trump.

However, what is most interesting about all this is that, in a seemingly random manner, as the cube expands it connects the two banks, making passage between them possible. The cube – which is also, significantly, called the network – doesn’t require planning permission; it doesn’t care about ‘hidden implications’, power and politicking; and it is, moreover, stronger than any man or manmade material. Indeed, in order to protect its interests, the government of Urbicand attempts to stop it by firing at it, but the cube is unaffected. What this ultimately means is that it is a structure, a kind of architecture, not a man, that is the hero of the story; it is the cube that changes and improves lives; it is the cube that frees the people.

A SCANNER DARKLY BY PHILIP K. DICK

Mors ontologica. The death of being. Although, strictly speaking, there is no being. No substance to it. You are nothing but a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day. Less than smoke, in fact; less than wind. At the age of twenty two I quit my job, a good job, a promising career, and moved, with nothing, to London. I took a new name and lived a new life for twelve months. There are people still now who know me as that person. In their memories, I mean. That man continues to live, to be, in their memories. Two people. He and I; and I suspect he is having the better of it. Younger than I, fitter, more handsome. I look at myself and I don’t recognise what I see. I never have. In the mirror, for example, I am short. The mirror, you’d think, cannot lie. Your reflection is real, if anything is. Yet when I stand next to the woman with the long legs, the woman who is, we all agree, very tall, I find that I am taller still than she is. Perhaps it is my bad posture that tricks the eye.

Many years ago, or so it feels to me, a different woman sat down next to me in a bar. She was unknown to me, but spoke as though we were friends, or had at least had prior conversations. She asked me about my music. She had seen me, she said, performing only ‘the other day.’ I allowed her to continue in this fashion, not out of politeness, but because I couldn’t be sure that she was mistaken. Where was I ‘the other day’? I could not account for my whereabouts, or not with any certainty. She called me Joshua. How tall is Joshua, I wondered. I wonder still now. Who is he? Who am I? Less than smoke; less than wind. Recently, I was asked if I would consider doing some modelling. I laughed when I read the message. Imagine. Me turning up at the studio or house or wherever looking like this. Their interest had been aroused by my Instagram pictures, they said. They wanted someone who looked just like me, they said. Whoever is in those photos does not exist, I replied. Imagine. They had no idea who they were talking to. The tall or the short guy? The guy who lives in London or the one who is writing this? The musician or the model? The truth is, I feel no meaningful connection to any of these people.

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

I have toyed with reading Philip K. Dick for as long as I can remember. I have picked up several of his books, read a page or so, and then abandoned them. I have picked up and abandoned A Scanner Darkly more times than any of the others. Even though I was enjoying it. It was, I think, the threat of his work being badly written. It’s the one thing I see repeatedly stated in relation to Dick’s novels. The ideas are great but the writing is poor. It made me nervous. So I wanted to deal with that accusation straightaway. I consider myself to be highly critical of, and sensitive to, bad prose style; and I did not find it here. Dick isn’t Nabokov, certainly, but then Nabokov is, as a stylist, overrated anyway. Often turgid and smug. Although that’s beside the point, of course. I’m losing focus. Dick’s style isn’t meticulous, or does not give that impression. Not here. And this is, I’m told, one of the more mature efforts. The language is jivey, the sentences – the word order, the grammar – idiosyncratic. I was strongly reminded, to the point of crying theft, of David Foster Wallace. For what it’s worth.

A Scanner Darkly begins with a man’s struggle against the aphids he thinks have taken over his house, his dog and his own person. An infestation. Only the bugs aren’t real. Jerry has lost his mind. Jerry was a drug addict. He took a whole lot of drugs and lost his mind and started seeing bugs, in the house, on his dog, and his own person. It is one of the funniest, and saddest, openings to any novel I have read. It sets the tone, too, for the rest of the book. Sad and funny. A Scanner Darkly is about drugs and drug addicts, amongst other things. It is about what it is like to be an addict, the awful consequences. The premature ageing, the brain damage, the cravings. That sort of thing. Guys sitting around talking shit for days on end. Wasting their lives, you might say. Oblivious to life, you might say. I don’t know. The addicts live to score. One guy fantasies about ‘a huge window display; bottles of slow death, cans of slow death, jars and bathtubs and vats and bowls of slow death, millions of caps and tabs and hits of slow death, slow death mixed with speed and junk and barbiturates and psychedelics, everything–and a giant sign: YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD HERE. Not to mention: LOW LOW PRICES, LOWEST IN TOWN.’

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In a speech given by Bob Arctor, the main character, we are told that drugs will lead to ‘the desertion of your friends from you, you from them, everyone from everyone,’ but that did not ring true in Dick’s portrayal. There is, amongst his addicts, a sense of camaraderie, of people, in a mostly incompetent fashion, looking out for each other. Dick’s attitude towards these people is sympathetic, sometimes lapsing into romanticism and sentimentality. Like, he cares about them and doesn’t want to show them in an entirely bad light. Charles Freck, for example, wants to lay Donna, but doesn’t like the idea of buying her. Dick’s addicts are charming too. Even Barris, who is something of a cunt. The bad guys in A Scanner Darkly are not the drug takers, even though they break the law to feed their habit, but the dealers. There is much in Dick’s work that is murky, but his ethics aren’t. While Freck doesn’t want to buy Donna, we are told that two dealers shot up their sleeping underage sister, raped her and then pimped her out. In addition to the dealers, the straights, the establishment, get a kicking too. They are bad guys too, in Dick’s world. The cops, the rich, the government.

“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular lifestyle the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.”

There have, of course, been many novels about addiction and, while I enjoyed Dick’s big-hearted version of all of that, A Scanner Darkly was not, on that basis, particularly fresh or illuminating. For me, the most interesting thing about the drugs aspect of the novel is how Dick uses it to engage with other, trickier, subjects, such as identity and paranoia. On the latter, it is easy to see how being an addict, being strung out, can lead to feeling as though someone or something is out to get you. Yet Dick’s kind of of paranoia is deeper, more intelligent than that. There are times when Barris, for example, seems unreliable, untrustworthy; but, then, of course he is, he’s an addict. Likewise, so is Bob Arctor. Arctor cannot trust Barris, but he cannot trust himself either. It is not a question of whether the threat of Barris is real or imagined, but the fact that it is probably both.

Moreover, Bob Arctor is not only an addict but also a undercover narcotics agent. At one point in the book he is given the job of surveilling himself. Which is funny, of course, but consider what this means. Most people who are being watched do not know that they are, or only suspect it. Arctor knows. Therefore, every moment he must wonder how his actions and words are to be perceived, he is ultra aware of what impression he is giving of himself, of the precarious position he is in. As a undercover agent and an addict Arctor has two distinct identities. Bob and Fred. As the storyline progresses, A Scanner Darkly asks you to consider the question: which of these two personalities is real or legitimate? Or is it neither? Or both? As previously noted, one of the consequences of drug using is brain damage. See: Jerry and his bugs. Ultimately, Arctor develops a kind of split personality. As Fred he begins to talk about Bob in the third person, as a separate being. Bob and Fred. He is both the establishment and the lowlife. He is the paranoid freak and the ‘they’ who is out to get him.

SABRINA BY NICK DRNASO

There’s an app which, when you input some personal information into it, will send you a message from a dead loved one. No one I spoke to about it could understand why such a thing would bother me. The resulting text can be posted on Facebook. Richard, you know I love you and that I’m always watching over you from up here. The poster’s friends can comment sympathetically and like the post. No one understood. They thought I was upset for no reason. Chill out, they said. If it makes people happy, they said. They couldn’t understand how for me it was a symbol of everything that I despise about how we live our lives now, of how we interact with each other and the world; a grim symbol of what we are and where we are going. It could have been any number of other things, other examples. It could have been any one of a million tweets on twitter; the heartless, the idiotic, the hysterical, on all sides of the political and ethical debates. It could have been a video, shared indignantly around the world, of a dog being thrown down the stairs by its owner. It could have been the comments attached to a youtube 9/11 documentary. It could have been almost anything, but it was that, that shitty, insignificant app. I felt like I gave up that day. Not immediately, but over the course of a few hours. By evening, I felt as though some part of me had been hollowed out.

“How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Rate your overall mood from 1 to 5, 1 being poor. Rate your stress level from 1 to 5, 5 being severe. Are you experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide? Is there anything in your personal life that is affecting your duty?”

Sabrina is the first book published in 2018 that I have read this year. The first new work of fiction I have read by anyone for years. I was meant to be at work. I left early in the morning due to a pain in my shoulder that has been troubling me for three weeks. Before going home I dropped into a local book shop. The first book shop I have entered for years. Rarely do they stock the kind of literature that interests me. However, I had a gift card to use. It had been awarded to me, ironically, by my employer for outstanding work. I’d had the card for over twelve months. I immediately headed for the graphic novels and manga section. It was there that Sabrina caught my attention. I knew nothing about it. I had seen no prior reviews nor praise for it. I think it may have been the red, pink and black cover colour scheme that drew me in. There is no synopsis, either on the back of the book or inside the cover. Someone called Tony Tulathimutte is quoted. Sabrina is full of ominous, dead-quiet catastrophe. I had to buy something; the card was due to expire.

The book begins with the woman of the title cat-sitting at her parents’ apartment. Her sister comes over and they chat for a while. It’s the last we see of Sabrina. She disappears, later confirmed murdered. This sounds like the premise of a thriller, but Sabrina certainly isn’t that. There is almost no dramatic action or tension in it. There isn’t a noteworthy police investigation; there are no suspects, no mysteries to solve, and no grisly details, or images, relating to the crime. For the most part, the book maintains the sedate pace of its opening scene. Indeed, there are images and sequences that I never would have expected to encounter in a graphic novel, such as a character putting in his contact lenses or being given directions to a bathroom. There are also numerous conversations about nothing at all, or nothing important; chit-chat, small talk. Yet there is something moving about these banal episodes, as though you are being given access to intimate moments of the characters’ lives that you ought not to see. I think that most artists would have considered these details unnecessary, or likely to bore, and so it is to Drnaso’s credit that he recognised that these moments are, in fact, the most profound. They are when we are truly ourselves. It’s how we spend most of our time.

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Often with graphic novels it is difficult to care about, and certainly difficult to write anything meaningful about, the characters. One’s understanding of their motivations, their psychology, their emotions, their lives is superficial. And yet that is not the case here. Which is to say that, in subtle ways, Drnaso made me care, at least. We get to know very little about Sabrina’s sister, for example, except when she casually mentions that she was once ‘in the hospital.’ It isn’t explained why she was there, but one assumes a issue with her mental health. A couple of pages later she tells an anecdote about riding a bus to panama city beach on her own when she was nineteen and being harassed by three guys who want her to go to their room. Not much is made of it, but I suddenly felt something for this woman, I felt like I knew something about her and her dreams and her nightmares. There is, in fact, a deep core of sadness to Sabrina, one that goes beyond the central crime. Drnaso’s characters, like many of my friends, like me, are drifting aimlessly, lost, confused, making the best of things.

Of course, not everything in the book is mundane, even though at points it is possible to forget that a girl has been murdered in apparently gruesome circumstances. Part of Sabrina‘s focus is on the nature of grief, how it affects us, how we cope [or don’t] when something awful happens. This is mostly explored through Terry, Sabrina’s boyfriend. I’m not sure how much dialogue is attributed to him, but it cannot be a lot. He barely speaks throughout. Indeed, his introduction is as a man sitting silently in a bus station. Terry doesn’t eat either. He is even force-fed at one point. He sleepwalks through the book, as though he has all but shut down, as though he is a robot running low on juice. Yet none of this is surprising, to me at least, nor really all that engaging. The most striking moment is when he has a telephone conversation with Sabrina’s sister. She shouts and swears at him, she denounces him; and one understands that it is because he doesn’t grieve, he doesn’t react to tragedy, in the way that she expects, in the way that the public would expect. One is not allowed to grieve one’s own way, these days, one must not do it quietly and privately. It should be done in the open, at a funeral, and on social media. One must rally round, one must support those also affected, one must share.  Terry does not, and so he is seen as something like a fraud, as someone who doesn’t care.

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Sabrina also has a lot to say about how the public and the media deal with tragedies; and it is in this way that this book most captured my attention. In my experience, whenever something awful happens – 9/11, the Paris shootings, etc – the public make it all about them, about their entertainment, their grief, about their desire for ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ or whatever. They use these tragedies to gloat, to get attention, to gain or wield power, to make jokes even. The media, on the other hand, feed them, whip them up, in order to make money, to get clicks, to sell their shit. Take the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, for example. None of us know what happened to that little girl, and yet that has not stopped us rushing to judgement, analysing, creating conspiracy theories, harassing and reviling the parents. It vividly struck me back in 2007 that the public at large did not care about the crime, nor the girl, nor the suffering of her family, what they cared about was their own agenda. We see this also in Sabrina, where those closest to the situation are accused of being actors and the video of the woman’s murder is called a fake. That video has, by the way, been leaked to the internet, for people to watch. We feel as though we have a right to these things, once they become public knowledge. Even Calvin – the closest we get to a hero – downloads it.

There is much more that I could write about all this but I am concerned that this review is overlong already. Before I finish, I want to praise Nick Drnaso’s subtlety and sense of control once again. The way, for example, that we chart Calvin’s mood through the health questionnaire he completes at work. The way that the artist/author drops motifs, clues and symbols into the text, such as the two times that characters are scared by someone approaching them on the blind side, or the ‘fake’ apples in Sabrina’s parents’ house, or the mysterious disappearance of Calvin’s cat. The way, finally, that the murder is kept from us, the way it is left to our imagination. The trust, to put it in other words, that is placed in us as readers is extremely satisfying. I could say, in conclusion, that Sabrina is the best book published in 2018, or that it will not be bettered, but that would be meaningless coming from me. I probably won’t read another one. So I will simply say that it is something approaching a masterpiece.

DISAGREEABLE TALES BY LEON BLOY

I don’t watch or read the news. Not anymore. I don’t want to know about current affairs. I’ve closed down almost all social media channels too. I’m leaving you to it, for my disdain for humanity was once at such a prodigious level that I was concerned about my mental and emotional well-being. Hooligan of heart; our souls are grim bestiaries. The world is a foul place. It reeks of death and decay. It stings my eyes and nose like cat piss; it clogs my throat like black smoke. It is only in cutting myself off that my anguish and bitterness has eased somewhat, like pus and bad blood being drained from a large boil. I wake up in the morning now, open the curtains, and look out upon nothing. Nothing, but the gentle twittering of birds and the calm flow of the river I live beside. It is a dull scene, but it is only in this way that I can stomach my existence, our existence; it is only without you, away from you, that I can tolerate my own wretchedness.

“The very sight of the old man engendered vermin. The dung heap of his soul extended so far into his hands and face one could not possibly imagine a more frightful contact. When he walked the streets, the slimiest gutters, shuddering at the reflection of his image, seemed to flow back to their source.”

According to his wikipedia page, French author Leon Bloy was ‘noted for personal attacks’ and prone to outbursts of temper; which, having read his Disagreeable Tales, seems like it might be something of an understatement. Perhaps only the work of Celine and Thomas Bernhard, and occasionally his friend J.K. Huysmans, could lay claim to being as vitriolic and hateful. In The Religion of Monsieur Pleur, for example, he writes of a man who exuded the stench of a ‘knackered beast’ and whose filth ‘did not assure him welcome in any abyss.’ In Two Ghosts, a woman’s face is said to have resembled ‘a fried potato rolled in scrapped cheese.’ Her odour, he continues, was that of ‘a landing in a hotel of the twentieth order – on the seventh floor.’ My sense of humour being of the sour kind, I found many of Bloy’s venomous barbs amusing and some of them genuinely funny. It is, of course, easy to say that someone stinks like shit, but there is a real skill – which the Frenchman had evidently mastered – in being able to fashion imaginative, and truly cutting, putdowns.

However, I imagine that for some readers Bloy’s narrative voice, and by extension his character, would be as disagreeable as many of the actions in the book. To criticise institutions, moral failings, etc, is acceptable, but to consistently highlight bad personal hygiene or appearance will likely strike the more sensitive amongst us as being too mean-spirited and lacking in manners. Certainly in England, where I live, we are especially uncomfortable with this sort of criticism. However, I found it both interesting, and a blessing, that Bloy does not position himself, at least in this book, as a saint with indefatigable reserves of love, understanding, and patience. He is petty, brutal; he is, by his own admission, ‘intoxicated by indignation.’ There is, of course, a sense of superiority in anyone who so lambasts and lampoons others, and while that isn’t an attractive quality in a friend, in a narrator it helped to hold my attention. Moreover, it should be noted that in many instances the unpleasant, slovenly physical state of the characters mirrors the state of their souls.

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Bloy was, without question, a moraliser. His Disagreeable Tales, which are told in the form of short anecdotes, are judgements. The people who populate them are murderers, crooks, hypocrites, etc; they are venal, self-centred, idle, duplicitous, grasping and base. It is clear that the author saw the world, as I do, as something like a slagheap; and considered it his duty to comment upon it. In the first entry, Herbal Tea, Jacques spies on someone in the confessional who admits to poisoning a man’s tea and whom he recognises as his own mother. The son is said to worship the woman as the ‘paragon of rectitude and kindness.’ Many of Bloy’s stories are like this, where the ‘twist’ is someone being not what they appear to be. The most satisfying and surprising example of this is in The Religion of Monsieur Pleur. Here, the author sets the titular Pleur up to be a miser who will not spend his money; a rich man who willingly lives in appalling circumstances, such that the sight of him ‘engendered vermin.’ The reveal is that he is, in fact, exceedingly poor, having given all his money away to charity.

If I had one criticism to make of Bloy’s work it is that, as with Dickens, there isn’t a great deal of moral shading; the good are almost angelically good and the bad irredeemably bad. But, in spite of that, Disagreeable Tales is a lot of fun to read. It is well written – some of the imagery is fabulous – and gothic and grimy, and is, undoubtedly, still relevant today. Indeed, upon finishing it I, for a brief moment, thought about switching on the news. Donald Trump is, I’ve been told, in the U.K. With rightful, righteous indignation people will, I know, be greeting his visit. Yes, for a moment I wanted to share in that, to gorge myself on it, to myself decry that orange clown with the Weetabix hair. And, yet, instead I stood up, moved over to the window and looked out: nothing. Nothing except the gentle twittering of birds and the calm flow of the river that I live beside.

BLACK MIRROR: SELECTED POEMS BY ROGER GILBERT-LECOMTE

Rien. Nothing. I have the word tattooed across my fingers. Not to remind myself, because I never forget. That which awaits me? No, because there will be no me to experience it. It will be the absence of me. Nothing. The absence of all things. Including me. The void. I never forget, although it is impossible to contemplate it. For my thinking is always targeted towards something. Everything we do, every aspect of our existence, is targeted. Even when we think we are not doing anything. It is simply a lie we tell ourselves. We are always doing something. We live with the idea of the void, not the reality of it. There is no reality. It is nothing. Not even the word with which we attempt to pin it down. Does anyone understand me? I am scared of this phantom blackness. Less than a shadow, than the wind. Less than the stillness, the silence. It is the absence of shadows, of wind, of stillness, of silence. Rien.

I’ll speak of the dark 
To dank caves
Mushroom beds eyes glowing in the blackness
I’ll speak of the dark to coiled snails
I’ll speak of the dark 
To rain to soot
To the circle of moonwater motionless at the bottom of a well
To barrels rolling in the cellar at midnight
When the white lady moaned
I’ll speak of the dark
On the blind side of mirrors
I’ll speak of the dark
Of immortal torture
Of most ancient despair
In the absence of a universe

To discover something is to draw it out of the void, to give it existence. Before it was nothing, now it is. To discover is to create. You, in your discovery, are responsible for that thing. You are the creator of the universe, or at least those bits of it that exist, which is to say the bits that you have experience of. I came upon the work of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte in the same way that I happen upon most writers or books: by semi-accident. I found him, I created him, I dragged him out of the void, by following a trail. By now the marks left my footprints have been erased. Which is a pretentious way of saying that I have forgotten what led me to Black Mirror. A brief mention in an online article covering the surrealists, perhaps. Or Rene Daumal, whose work I admire, and with whom Gilbert-Lecomte founded the avant-garde Le Grand Jeu artistic group and magazine. A long-term morphine addict, he died, I’m told, at the age of thirty-six as a result of an infection caused by the use of dirty needles; and yet now I have breathed new life into him and written his poems.

Whether accurate or not, my understanding is that Gilbert-Lecomte published only one full length book in his lifetime. It is called La vie, l’amour, la mort, le vide et le vent. Or Life, Love, Death, Void and Wind. It is tempting to end my review here, with that. No other title summarises a writer’s body of work better. However, what that title hints at, but doesn’t fully convey, is the hysterical, gothic surrealism of some of the poems. In Notes for a Coming Attraction, for example, he writes of ‘horror in tar: the grin of certain dead people.’ Indeed, some of his lines wouldn’t look out of place in the liner notes of a death metal album. Like this from The Borders of Love:Veiled in a red fog and buzz/Of blood seared by the venomous spells/And prestigia of desire/Exciting in the bend of your nocturnal throat/The voracity of vampires.’ Throughout, there are references to the ‘icy slithering of ghosts,’ and lemmings bashing their brains out, and fingers that ‘sprout insanely squealing diamonds/drops of blood singing in midair,’ and so on. Some of the images are theatrical and ridiculous, a great many of them are beautiful, but, regardless of how you feel about this sort of thing, there is certainly an impressive dedication to a specific [gloomy and anguished] mood.

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Of all the things promised by the title of his book – life, love, wind etc – it is the void that dominates. Gilbert-Lecomte’s poems are filled with phrases like ‘black oblivion’ and ‘ethereal abyss’ and a ‘place of absence.’ There is barely a line in the collection that doesn’t mention blackness or darkness, which, in our attempts to understand the concept, to grasp it, are words that are invariably associated with nothingness. However, while fear is certainly a present emotion in the text, I did not get the impression that the poet directs it specifically at the idea of the void, at the state [although of course it isn’t a state] of non-being. In fact, he appears to always exist within it. In The Borders of Love, for example, he writes ‘Blind as I am/In the caves of being that are the antechambers of annihilation.’ Which suggests to me that rather than being, as I am, petrified of nothingness, of what happens after death, Gilbert-Lecomte’s despair is directed at his being [not the future lack of it]. 

This makes sense when one considers how troubled and difficult his existence was. On the Station Hill Press website, the publisher responsible for Black Mirror, it is written that ‘his life was a succession of jail and hospital confinements.’ I have also read that he was forbidden to marry a woman who was later deported to Auschwitz [and did not return]. And there was, of course, the years of drug abuse and addiction. Non-being might begin to look attractive in such circumstances, or certainly not something to be afraid of. It is notable, therefore, that so many of the poems allude to the womb, or explicitly mention it. For example, Gilbert-Lecomte writes of ‘caves of darkness,’ and being ‘at the bottom of the deepest cave,’ and of being ‘rooted in uterus/A ghastly fetus doomed to one more round/Of procreative desperation/Spinning on the wheel of the horror of existence.’ It is often [wrongly] claimed that our only experience of nothingness is pre-life, pre-consciousness, but again I don’t think that this is entirely what he had in mind. The womb, unlike life outside, is safe; to return to it is a comforting notion. Moreover, certain drugs, including morphine, are said to give you a feeling of contentment and safety that is womb-like. To my mind, Gilbert-Lecomte was preoccupied with the void, yes, but as a pacifier, and as something to aspire to, perhaps.

GAMIANI, OR TWO NIGHTS OF EXCESS BY ALFRED DE MUSSET

Our arrangement was that we wouldn’t talk at all, that as she entered my flat she would go immediately down on her knees without a word being exchanged between us. This was her fantasy. Throughout our communication, in the days leading up to her arrival, she always brought it back to this: don’t speak. She wanted to be treated like a whore. However, afterwards, after climax, once her mind had cleared, it became apparent that she was beginning to regret it. I have never done anything like this before, she said, in an attempt to excuse, or apologise for, her behaviour. Guilt and shame were working their insidious conjuring trick, transforming an event that was morally neutral into something bad, something negative, something wrong. What had been a pleasurable experience was already becoming that which she could not allow herself to contemplate or acknowledge. Yet, while she doubted and judged herself, I admired her. She had not only dared to dream, but dared to bring that dream to fruition.

“We, who are scarcely more than fantasies ourselves; will’o’the wisps who exist in this world only as the most fugitive of dreams; or nightmares, rather, in the troubled sleep of some lesser god.”

Gamiani is credited to Alfred de Musset, who is these days known – if at all – for his poetry. I’m sure that there are good reasons for linking him to the novel, but he certainly never himself took responsibility for it. This is not surprising when one considers the content, which involves a great deal of, at times unpleasant, sex. There are several scenes involving torture, although these are not particularly explicit; there is group sex, which seems par for the course with these sorts of things; there is some strap on action; and there is a little bestiality. These last two warrant further consideration, if only for the laughs. Of the strap on, de Musset muses that ‘the most generously endowed stallion in his moment of extremest power could not, at least as regards thickness and volume, have equalled that device.’ Most preposterously, he further notes that when a spring is pressed on its side it expels warm milk ‘halfway across the room.’ In terms of the bestiality, this centres around an enormous black dog called Medor who appears to be rather adept at cunninlingus.

However, it isn’t all warm milk, smooth tongues, and belly laughs; de Musset did have some interesting, if sometimes outdated, ideas about sex. The book begins with a man, Alcide, peeping on Gamiani while she seduces another woman [well, fifteen year old girl, to be precise]. He states that ‘what looked like rape was, I quickly understood, a kind of dance.’ This could of course be no more than a weak attempt to justify sexual abuse. Certainly, Rape or coercion crop up frequently in works of this sort, but that isn’t something I intend to discuss here. What is notable about this line is that it sets the tone for much of the sex in the book, or, rather, the attitudes and behaviour of the central characters towards sex in certain circumstances. Outside of marriage, under cover of darkness, sex is an animal, brutal activity, it is a ‘raging paroxysm.’ Anything goes, anything is permissible if it gratifies. Indeed, the gratification comes by way of indulgence; it is a consequence of truly letting oneself go. Yes, someone might play coy but what they really want is to devour and be devoured.

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While for much of Gamiani one would be forgiven for thinking that de Musset was an advocate of libertinage, of sexual freedom, ultimately the opposite appears to be the case. When, following the first night, Alcide wakes up next to Fanny [the girl with whom both he and Gamiani – singularly and in union – take their pleasure] he finds that he is a gentleman again and no longer a beast. In the light of day, his mind is not full of filth, but syrupy, sentimental, moralising twaddle. For example, he says of the kiss that he and Fanny share: ‘I felt her soul upon my lips.’ Lips that only hours before were wrapped around his dick. Yet, in the morning, he feels ashamed, and expects, imagines, Fanny’s shame. In the morning, this buffoon is in love.* In contrast, when he looks in upon Gamiani, who is now cast as an evil temptress, she is described as being in an ‘ignoble heap, her face distorted, her body unclean, distorted.’ This is the worst sort of patriarchal claptrap: the innocent and the whore; both to be enjoyed and both to be judged by impossible, hypocritical standards. Indeed, the finale to the novel sees both temptress and tempted die upon their sword; and by sword I mean, of course, a large penis.

The suggestion is that Gamiani is based on de Musset’s affair with the bisexual author George Sand. If so, it isn’t, as you might have noticed, a flattering account of that relationship. Gamiani is said to have ‘the grace of a empress’, to have good manners and effortless style, but it is clear, as I explained in the previous paragraph, that her story is meant to serve as something of a cautionary tale. She says of herself that she is isolated from feeling; that ‘hell prowls’ in her spirit. She is tough and voracious and obviously a symbol of what happens when someone is too in thrall to their libido. Gamiani cannot be satisfied; she desires ever more intense and extreme sexual activity in an attempt to find satisfaction, much like a drug addict will take ever larger doses in order to get high.  However, for me, and for many others I am sure, she is actually the [unintentional] heroine of the novel. I’m not suggesting that we all fuck dogs, but I do believe that we should look upon the urgings of the body in a more sympathetic, tolerant way. There are, in fact, a good many people I know who would be happier if they could do this, if they – if we – could finally, fully throw off the shackles of guilt, timidity and shame.

 

*love itself is not buffoonish, rather the fact that Alcide ‘falls in love’ partly out of shame and partly because he now feels he ought to protect Fanny.