American

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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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.

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.

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.

BEAR BY MARIAN ENGEL

It wasn’t a conscious decision. Reading is not my life’s passion, it is a symptom. Being drawn towards books is simply a way of drawing away from you, all of you. As a child I convinced myself that my environment was to blame, that of course I could not relate to those sorts of people, and yet I have long since left behind that environment, and those people, so what excuse do I have now? I still can’t consistently relate. To loved ones, occasional ones, anyone. Naively, I thought it would be different when I started relationships, relationships I entered into freely, with women I chose for myself. With women I like and who like me. For a while. I’m gloomy and difficult, yes, but I’m not an idiot. My choices are made rationally. For a while it was different. It is different. But the hole in which I hide isn’t big enough for two. Not long-term. It’s too cramped, and the books take up a lot of room. So they leave, and I feel relieved. For a while. Until I start to panic, because life, I think, cannot be lived in isolation, cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

“For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclusion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately, that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.”

I know nothing about Marian Engel. Bear could be her first novel, her last, her only, her anything. Selfishly, I hope this is it, that she opened up to the world once, giving it bestiality and loneliness, and then turned her back on it. I must confess that the bestiality is how I ended up here. Cynically, I wanted to cross it off my reading list. I also thought it might bring a wry smile to the face of my audience, what small audience I have. Yes, you’re following me down the toilet and into the sewer. We’re all in, at this point. However, although the book is spoken of as the one in which a woman has sex with a bear, that isn’t actually the case, if we’re talking about penetration. The bear gives her oral sex, unwittingly, several times. The woman plays with the bear’s balls, I seem to recall. She bends over, once, to allow the bear to mount her; but the bear does not mount. In short, if pornography is what you are looking for from the book then you will surely be disappointed. Unless you get off on the loneliness, of course.

It is something of a struggle to remember the name of the central character. I didn’t make a note of it. If a physical description of her is given by Engel I have forgotten it. ‘In the winter,’ we’re told, ‘she lived like a mole,’ which suggests a certain look, of course, and an attitude. It is also said that the institute in which she is ‘buried’ is ‘protectively’ lined with books. How suggestive that ‘protectively’ is too. Books, her work, her ‘digging among maps and manuscripts’; these things are her life, her refuge. To the exclusion of all else? I’d say not. She fucks the director. She fucks Homer. She tries to fuck the bear, remember. Like me, she hasn’t volunteered for this, for isolation, for emptiness. She tries, she is trying, but things are going badly. She doesn’t withdraw into books, she uses them as a crutch, as company, as a placeholder. When she goes away, to the island, she takes her typewriter, which earns her a ‘look of pity.’ Because it speaks of solitude.

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The bear lives on the island, if its situation could be said to be any kind of living. Chained up, in a shed. It’s a good bear, not too bad tempered. Big, but not too big. Old. Lou, for the woman is called Lou I now think, muses that it is so very different to a toy bear. It is real. It is alive, if its state could be described as such. It is highlighted, more than once, that this is a wild creature. It can kill. It is dangerous. Potentially. The woman is told not to get too friendly with it. And yet she gets very friendly indeed, of course. There is something extravagant about a bear, I believe, and this appeals to Lou. Something ‘wonderfully strange.’ For someone who has so little in her life, who is lacking in excitement, to be on an island with a pet bear for company is stimulating. It might make her feel important. Like a queen, perhaps. Or an eccentric or decadent. The sort who populate her books. But this bear, this bear is all too like Lou, really. It is ‘tired and sad,’ rather than menacing. It is docile. It is ‘stupid and defeated.’ Like Lou.

The bear is a symbol, really. It is Lou, it is her life, it is the attentive, non-judgemental lover she never had. When she begins to show an interest in the creature, once she has earned its trust, and it has earned hers, she takes it swimming, and it starts to revive. Its coat shines. Life is beat back into the beast’s heart, as life is beat back into Lou’s. After such a shared reawakening their relationship becomes ever more intimate, as one would expect. The bear is a blank canvas, one might say. Lou can, and does, project onto it. She can make him be, can see in his ways, in his behaviour, in his mood, anything she wants; and because the bear is always what she wants he can never, of course, disappoint. And so she falls in love. Real love. A non-platonic love. A sensual, sexual love. For the bear. He ‘seemed subdued and full of grief,’ she thinks when she feels subdued and full of grief. He is like her, he feels what she feels. He is her because she makes him thus, because she models him on herself.

This is a book about sadness and loneliness, and bestiality. It is about bestiality only because it is about loneliness and sadness. The bear can’t even get an erection; his dick won’t respond to her caresses. And I don’t know what is sadder than that. To take a bear as a lover, and be unable to get him hard. An animal, with animal instincts. You can make a dog fuck a pillow, for christ’s sake. There’s loneliness, sadness, isolation, and desperation on damn near every page. The woman, Lou, in a basement. The bear in his shed, on a chain; the bear whose owner has died. The island. The man who Lou picks up, before the bear, long ago, that leaves her for another woman. He got an erection, certainly. As did the director. And Homer. But these men are attentive to their own needs, not hers. Unlike the bear, who will lick her with its ridged tongue whenever she parts her legs. At one point it is written that the woman ‘always loved her loneliness,’ but that is a lie. On damn near every page that is shown to be a lie. For Lou, life cannot be lived in isolation, it cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

THE LIME TWIG BY JOHN HAWKES

I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape[…]I had tried a number of times before to finish The Lime Twig, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]