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CRASH BY J.G. BALLARD

It had been announced at the beginning of the flight. There would likely be turbulence. The woman next to me had started crying before we were even in the air, as though she had been granted a vision, a premonition, of her death. Ordinarily I would have closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I found myself fascinated by her reaction. When the plane shuddered, as though breaching a hard surface, her panic intensified and her sobbing reached the point of hysteria. It felt as though she was controlling the rocking plane and preparing to bring it down, that she was passing a death sentence on us all. She pressed her face into her hands and I wondered if she saw in the darkness the aircraft colliding with the earth, married with the earth, the cabin now a tunnel of fire and smoke. The more I thought about it the more I saw it too, the more I wished for it almost, such that I felt that she and I were somehow joined together, married in this vision, like the plane and the earth, our mangled bodies wrapped around each other as in a desperate act of copulation.

“The long triangular grooves on the car had been formed within the death of an unknown creature, its vanished identity abstracted in terms of the geometry of this vehicle. How much more mysterious would be our own deaths, and those of the famous and powerful?”

J.G. Ballard’s sixth, and most controversial, novel was published in 1973. It was, for me, a disorientating experience, and if one can say that of it now one might wonder what it must have been like to read it without the baggage of decades of critical opinion, to which, of course, I am about to add. These days, even someone with a passing interest in so-called serious literature will likely be aware of Crash and its reputation, and will know, at least, its central theme. This is summed up in the blurb on the back of my copy of the book as ‘erotic atrocities among car crash victims,’ which in vulgar terms could be described as ‘being turned on by car accidents.’ I would wager that for most of us, no matter how kinky or open minded we consider ourselves, such a thing seems incredible. There are many novels that explore outré sexual practices and preferences, many that disgust and shock, or certainly attempt to, but it strikes me that Crash bests them all in this regard. Incest, torture, bestiality, blood and shit; these all seem almost like child’s play in comparison.

If someone were to ask me which book I wish I had written I would not say this one, but it does, without a doubt, contain the one idea I would most like to have thought of. I admire the ballsiness, even the beauty, of Ballard’s imaginative prowess, his descriptions of the intimate embrace of deformed metal, of instrument panels forced into the crotch as if in ‘some calibrated act of machine fellatio,’ of fragments of tinted windshield set in the forehead ‘like jewels.’ However, to give the impression that Crash is about sexual fetishes would be misleading, which is to say that while of course a specific, and unusual, fetish is a major part of the novel, Ballard does not say anything particularly meaningful about it as a fetish or about sex in general. In fact, the sex tends to be ridiculous or clinical; the author’s approach to it, specifically the terminology he uses, is sterile, formal, medical. There are, for example, repeated references to such things as mucus, discharge, faecal matter, and so on.

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Perhaps the only interesting thing that Ballard does suggest in relation to sex is the parallel between it and the experience, or aftermath, of a car crash. Crash is not a character study, everyone in the book is devoid of personality, and that is fine. There is, however, a strange, an almost obsessive focus on their bodies. It is in this way, if at all, that one gets to know them. The hand, the knee, the crotch, the anus, etc. Ballard consistently breaks his characters down into their constituent parts; and doesn’t sex, doesn’t injury, do this too? When sexually excited, when given access to someone’s body for the purpose of sexual activity, there are – for me, at least – certain areas on which I focus; the person I am touching, kissing, fucking, ceases to be whole; they are a vagina, a mouth, and so on, or a small combination of these things. Consider also how it is to be hurt, physically, in some way; stub your toe and you become, well, a toe. Yet I feel as though this insight, which isn’t particularly profound, was possibly accidental, was a unintended consequence of exploring another idea altogether, which is our relationship with technology.

By disassembling his characters, Ballard is destroying their humanity, he is, you might say, mechanising them, for a machine is…what? It is the sum of its parts. In focussing so relentlessly on a hand, a thigh, etc, the author forces you to see them in isolation, and when isolated, when removed from the totality of the body, they become strange, unnerving, inhuman. Perhaps I am not explaining myself very well, but there is something here, something important in all this. A man holding a mobile phone is just that: a man holding a mobile phone; but a disembodied hand holding the phone is something else; the removal of the hand from the body is a kind of equaliser. Hand and phone become one, the hand ceases to have authority, greater importance, by virtue of being human. Indeed, and as already suggested, throughout the book Ballard combines, marries, people and technology. He likens an airplane shaft to a penis, he writes about the ‘soft technology’ of the breast, and the metallic sheen of the body. For me, he was making a point about how technology itself is, how a mechanised world is, dehumanising; and his sterile descriptions of body parts – the ‘geometry of the pubis’ – and sex play into this.

On the cover of the book at the top of this page there is an image of Elizabeth Taylor. The nature of celebrity figures in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to it. There are, I’m sure, a number of reasons why celebrities preoccupied the author, as they do Vaughan, who is Crash‘s leading man, or ‘nightmare angel.’ There is, for example, something super-human about them, and therefore inhuman. They are, we tend to think, not like us. However, it strikes me, certainly in terms of the novel under review here, that it is acting, more than celebrity, that is the real point of concern. There are, for example, numerous references to a thing or action being stylised, which is to say that it is not realistic. Moreover, at one point, a stunt man performs an accident, a crash, which is to be included in a film; and while doing so he is dressed, and made up, to look like Taylor. I would argue that this – acting, or, if you prefer, unreality – is further evidence of what I was discussing previously. People in Ballard’s world are not living, they are performing, they are playing or pretending, consciously or unconsciously; they are, despite appearances, unreal and inhuman, like mannequins, robots or crash test dummies.

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ILL SEEN ILL SAID BY SAMUEL BECKETT

As the sky goes black, suddenly black, and the snow drifts up into the air, I think of her. Of mum. My mum. Cancer-riddled, near death, near end, near black. Small and misshapen, she moves like a insect, injured, legs missing on one side only. Graceless, my mother, like an insect near death. Old, too old, too ill. Her hair once red, now gone, no more. She was mad before, in years gone by, for years until now. Now sane, seems sane. No more fire or fight, in her. As the sky goes black, and the snow rises from the earth, I think of mother, whose body, which is failing, has failed, was previously strong enough to push me out into the world. Her body, which for nine months sustained her son, which kept him alive, can no longer sustain her own self. At night, I wonder, as she lays down in darkness, at night, does she consider it certain, her life, her waking, in a few hours time? No, I’d say. No complacency, I’d say. No more of that. She is pure present, pure pain, no doubt, at least at times. The rest, at rest, she rests, with death.

“Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently gently. On. Careful.”

As the sky goes black, no, no sky, nor snow, no more of that. An introduction is all it was. A way of getting here, wherever this is. No mother, either. Move on. Thought and feeling rising from the earth, no. Move on. In my room, afraid of the cold outside, afraid of the world outside, of them, of another them. Yes, that, or maybe that, in some way, to some degree, but I ought to avoid complications. In any case, I wanted to read, or reread, something by Samuel Beckett. First Molloy. In my room, I read, reread, then stop. For days I read, and reread, and stop, more often stop. Not for difficulty, no, but for a breath, to breathe. Molloy I see is more beautiful than I remember. Before, all I noticed was the humour. Or at least that’s all I could remember, from before. Yet still I stop, full stop, and move on to another. I have defended The Unnamable, passionately, to myself more often than not. Who else do I know who has read it? There is none. I read, and reread, and so on, and I like it, just as much as I thought I did, but still I stop, of course. Of course, I stop, otherwise this would be something else. The title at the top of the page is clear.

Maybe it was the snow, which I will not mention again. Maybe it was the stillness that rose from the earth. Maybe it was mother, who I will not mention again. I don’t know. Something drew me to this, specifically this, to Ill Seen Ill Said. For the third time. Or the fourth. I cannot be accurate on this point. I was drawn to it, not as I was drawn those other times, that is all. Move on. It is usually published with two others, as Nohow On. A trilogy, which isn’t a trilogy, after all. Ill fitting. Nothing links them, except the obvious, to which I will return. A matter of convenience, then. Beckett’s late prose pieces, as they are often called, and because late, near last, it is said that they are the toughest, the most obscure. That isn’t the case, or not for me, at least. No genius, I, either. The other trilogy, yes, The Unnamable, specifically, yes, although even those all are readable, re-readable, comprehensible. For me, to me, at least. Beckett’s style, as his life drew to a close, was one of clarity, simplicity, minimalism. His sentences, you might say, grew shorter, as the life left to him grew shorter also. They dwindled as he dwindled.

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I promised I would return, and so it is. There is no escaping it. Say it, say what? Death, the bastard death. There is no escape. The book begins: from where she lies. Already you know; you know, if you didn’t already, from that. She lies, because movement is difficult. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Such helplessness. She’s old, of course; of course, she’s old. So old, so frail, so close to the void, that her steps in the snow, hers not mine, her snow not mine, leave barely a trace. Perhaps that – old age and the approach of death – is the reason why she spends so much of her time at the window, watching Venus rise. It is beautiful, bright, and permanent, unlike she. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Is there a better way to live your last? I don’t know. The woman understands, it seems, her situation. She is ‘beyond surprise.’ Beyond because experienced and wise, perhaps, because resigned, perhaps. Or is she so because mad, because she doesn’t understand? Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. The mind decays with the body. I will return to that. At the window then, passively, only because she cannot easily be elsewhere? I don’t know.

All of this is familiar, so far. Beckett, on death on dying. No new ground. Wonderfully executed, but new? No. The woman, a woman. Yes, of course, there is that, but gender at this stage, in this state, what matters that? Whether she or Molloy or Malone, no matter. The woman in her cabin, in a ‘formless place.’ Ok. Meagre pastures; stones increasingly abound. Ok. There was once clover. Ok. The woman living amongst ruin. This all strikes one as straightforward enough. The environment mirroring her state. Suggesting, you might say, also neglect, for she is alone. Withered crocuses. Fine. Ok. And the snow. Formless too, and white. A kind of void. Cold like death. Yet strictly speaking she isn’t alone. There are the animals, which come and go, as you would expect, and the men. Twelve men. Always in the distance, receding, circling, perhaps watching. Are they real? She is, we have established already, quite possibly mad. And her eyes ill see, without question. An illusion of men? There is a train of thought, which I would like to dismiss almost without mention, that they are the twelve disciples and the woman, the Virgin. Be that the case, or not, I find no great evidence for it, and even less enthusiasm.

The men, the twelve, why twelve, I don’t know. The men for me, putting aside the number, for I cannot explain it, are the others, the rest, the world, the truly living, at a distance, shadowy, indistinct, disappearing. Ghostly, in a word. One thinks of the dead, or dying, as the ghost, but to the dead, or dying, it is they, the others. The ethereal atmosphere, now that I am warming to my subject, is the reason that I love Ill Seen Ill Said as much as I do. I rate it, I should say, or I will anyway, higher than most, the highest, almost. For this reason. It is what sets it apart, from the rest of Beckett’s work. There are throughout repeated references to white. The snow, again. The stones. The lamb. The moon. Her hair, her hands. The rest of Beckett’s novels, no matter how absurd, all feel grounded in the real, in the world, our world. Yet this one is otherworldly. It exists in a misty dimension, between life and death. It’s great, and moving, beauty isn’t only in its style, but in its setting and atmosphere also.

120 DAYS OF SODOM BY MARQUIS DE SADE

I never thought that I would become tired of sex. In the last twelve months, however, I’ve done it more times, and with more women, than I had in all the previous years of my life combined; and recently I’ve noticed a change, a hint of boredom creeping into my lovemaking, like the shadow of a pot-bellied man crawling up a bedroom wall. I had once been so easy to please, so straightforward in my tastes, but now? If someone were to suggest the missionary position I would be horrified. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms larger, and between his legs dangles a most flaccid and unimpressive cock. I have a preference for certain acts, of course, but I’ve never really had any kinks or fantasies. I’ve always found that sort of thing ridiculous, for it suggests to me a mind gone awry, a defect, a glitch in the system. Sex but not sex. Sex incognito. Yet last week I was talking to an underwear and fetish model. She was fresh off a job in which only her feet were of interest. ‘It’s because they’re forbidden, because they’re not the norm, because they’re kind of ugly and dirty; you’re not meant to sexualise them and so they become sexy,’ she said, and while I still didn’t feel any stirrings myself, for the first time I, in my jaded state, understood.

“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace.”

The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom appears to be one of those works that many people have heard of but know little about in terms of the specifics of the story. I was one of the many. In fact, I was under the impression that there was no narrative at all, that it was simply a catalogue of sexual deviancy. And it is that, but there is a frame around the kinks and perversions, in which four libertines gather together – some by way of abduction – a group of men and women, but mostly boys and girls, in a remote castle. There, they have a number of aged prostitutes recount their experiences, which are progressively more extreme, and which they then re-enact with the other inhabitants. This is, indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, because it makes an audience of the libertines, almost in the same way that you, the reader, are; and just as the power of suggestion works upon them, there is the chance it will work upon you too. Certainly, not everything contained within will appeal to everyone, or I would sincerely hope not, but there is such a range, and it is so imaginative, that I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something. I think there is a misconception about pornography that people only go to it with, and looking for, pre-established ideas about what turns them on. There is some of that, no doubt, but I also think that, for better or worse, it also suggests, it teaches, it moulds.

While 120 days of Sodom is not a character study, the four libertines are sketched in some detail, to the extent that one is informed of both the length and circumference of their dicks. The Duc de Blangis is fifty years old, and ‘may be regarded as the repository of all vices and all crimes.’ His brother is a Bishop, who is, we’re told, ‘treacherous and cunning,’ and a ‘loyal devotee of active and passive sodomy.’ The President de Curval is ‘the walking image of debauchery and libertinage,’ who has a ‘dreadful squalor about his person that he finds sensual.’ This gentleman’s erections ‘are rare and only achieved with difficulty.’ Finally, Durcet, a financier. He has a ‘woman’s build and all of her tastes.’ In considering the four men a number of interesting ideas and similarities emerge, many of which are expanded upon, or given more weight, as the book progresses. First of all, one may have noticed that each of the men are rich or of noble birth. While de Sade doesn’t explicitly discuss the issue of class, it cannot be a coincidence that every anecdote involves people in a position of power and prosperity. One might say that these are the only people who can afford to use prostitutes, but I believe there is more to it than that.

Throughout, the small number of peasants are the only characters shown in a positive, or sympathetic, light. They are pious, good-hearted, downtrodden, or happy-go-lucky, while the rich have peculiar tastes or are simply monstrous. For example, one poor old woman is dragged from her sickbed and abused by a wealthy man; her daughter, who her mother very much loves and who cares for her, is abducted by the man and likely murdered as part of a sexual act. In another anecdote a working man shits, not for his own gratification, but for a rich man who has paid for this service. So what, if anything, is de Sade saying, indirectly at least, about class? The rich are the only people who have the time and the means and the imagination for these kinds of perversions, that in fact the free time and great wealth enables their imaginations. Secondly, if one can buy whatever one wants, if one can (by virtue of one’s power and wealth) have whomever one wants, then one is likely to become jaded very quickly. Therefore, to be a libertine, to be aroused by, to engage in, extreme or unusual sexual acts is, in this instance, an end point, it is arrived at as a way of reinvigorating dulled senses.

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I have already used the term libertine multiple times, and that is because it is insisted upon in the text. Barely a page goes by in which it doesn’t appear more than once. To be a libertine is to indulge oneself, sensually, to excess, without regard to conventional moral principles. This is both the way of life and the philosophy of the four central characters; it is this that bonds them together. Far from having one particular kink, the men are interested in anything that is unconventional, anything that conventional society would deem wrong or disgusting, including rape, torture, incest, and murder. Indeed, anything criminal adds to their enjoyment, by virtue of how shocking, how frowned upon it would be. Perhaps this anti-conventional attitude is the reason why women are so scorned by the four libertines (and by the majority of the men in the book). Make no mistake, they are vehement misogynists, to an almost laughable degree. For example, there are numerous instances where a woman showing her vagina or breasts to a man sends him into a rage. It is, in almost every story, the arse they want! Always the arse! There are, indeed, several rhapsodic speeches on the subject, such as when one of the libertines salutes ‘divine arses! How I reproach myself for the tributes I stole from you! I promise you an expiatory sacrifice – I swear on your alters never to stray again for the rest of my life!’ The arse is of course not uniquely feminine.

“Only the law stands in my way, but I defy it – my gold and my influence place me beyond the reach of those crude scales meant only for the common people.”

As I sat down to write about 120 Days of Sodom there were a large number of themes that I intended to explore. My notes, in fact, totalled over a thousand words, and much of that I still haven’t touched upon, and will not, including the topics of nature and religion. I realise now that it is inadvisable, if not impossible, to discuss everything of note in detail. This review will have to serve as a kind of introduction, if it has any use at all. Bearing in mind the name of the author, one thing that it seems necessary to include is the role of sadism within the book. Surprisingly, sexual torture, and the pleasure gained from it, makes up only a small part of the prostitutes’ stories. However, the main reason for this is because the book is unfinished, and only one whore – she who is tasked with outlining the simpler pleasures – is able to give a fully fleshed account of her experiences. One is left in no doubt – and de Sade’s own notes attest to this – that there were greater horrors to come. Yet there is still, even within the ‘finished’ part of the manuscript, much that is disturbing, certainly when removed from the atmosphere of the text as a whole. For example, the inhabitants of the castle, aside from the four libertines of course, are not allowed to shit unless given permission and are not allowed to wipe or clean themselves. This is because the men have designs upon the shit, but also because they enjoy the power, they enjoy how unhappy it makes the boys and girls.

Throughout the book, de Sade makes it clear that almost none of the young people, nor the men’s wives, are willing participants. They shit in the captives’ mouths, and have them shit in theirs. They fondle, maul, and force them to suck and swallow, they rape and fuck arses and cunts. The disgust and pain their victims feel during these abuses is commented upon, albeit only in passing. It is this, more than the acts themselves, that turns the old lechers on. Within the castle there is a system of punishment, which the reader never has full access to, but which we are informed will be barbaric, potentially fatal. The victims, who are innocent both in terms of their overall situation and often in terms of the ‘crime’ they are charged with, are constantly reminded of the compassionless nature of their judges. The situation within the castle is, therefore, absolutely not the form of sadism that is currently en vogue, it is not a consensual exploration of mutual fantasies involving a master and a slave, a dom and a sub, although there is some of that within the stories the first prostitute tells. In any case, there were occasions when, rather than providing a libertine manual, I felt as though it was de Sade’s aim to torture his reader, to make them his victim; and yet, if so, he failed.

“If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act of lust, then the dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be.”

Before I finish, I want to return to a word I used earlier, which may have struck you as strange, or even disconcerting, given the context, which was ‘laughable.’ There is, without question, nothing funny about kidnapping, misogyny and sexual abuse. When I was reading A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet last year I was deeply troubled by its contents and had to quit before the end. 120 days of Sodom is, however, or was for me, extremely amusing in places, because it is ridiculous. There is a marked difference of tone between this book and Robbe-Grillet’s. First of all, one never believes in the characters or the situation. I could not buy into de Sade’s reality. The four libertines are cartoonish, vaudeville, over-the-top; they stop just short of twirling their moustaches and laughing in an exaggeratedly sinister fashion. Moreover, consider again some of what de Sade tells you about them: one of them can’t get an erection, one of them only fucks arses and has his own fucked, and two of them have prodigiously large dicks. It’s terribly hard to take any of them seriously.

These men all have an insatiable sexual appetite, to the extent that they appear to be turned on, to be able to fool around, all day, every day; and most of them come multiple times. They are truly Herculean! Consider, also, some of the acts, the shitting in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that the libertines devour three or four turds a day each, and none of them end up unwell. They even put their captives on a special diet in order to have them produce especially tasty shit. I don’t want to labour over the scat too much, but it dominates the book, and there came a point when, despite having no interest in shit myself, be it sexual or otherwise, I started to gleefully anticipate the ceremony. de Sade had put me into a state of near delirium or hysteria. Every anecdote would end, I knew, with one person shitting in another’s mouth. It was like being locked in a room where someone tells you the same joke over and over again until you’re on the point of insanity and joyously shouting out the punchline in unison with your captor.

In other areas, the repetition was more of a issue. I am aware that de Sade wrote the book in prison, and that it is, at noted previously, unfinished. It is likely, therefore, that even the ‘completed’ part of the text is only a draft of sorts, and so it feels churlish to criticise, but there are frequent passages that are interminable. For example, I do not know how many times one needs to be told that the Duc thigh-fucked Zelmire, but it is certainly less than forty. Nor does one really need to be told, over and over again, who took who into the cupboard, especially as you are never informed as to what happens in there. There are, moreover, other instances of this sort, whereby de Sade will keep things, certain acts or events, from the reader, because, he states, they are too extreme for this particular part of his narrative and would be out of place. Which begs the obvious question: why tell us at all then? In any case, my enjoyment was not spoiled by these flaws. I did not think, even for long periods during which I read it, that I would be able to say that I love 120 days of Sodom; and yet I do. Perhaps I am even more jaded than I thought. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms ever larger.

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.

HUNGER BY KNUT HAMSUN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS BY AMOS TUTUOLA

Boo.

No one chooses to be a ghost. It’s something that happens to you, against your will, without your say. One moment you’re miserable and alive, the next you’re miserable and dead. Or not dead exactly; it’s more like being in a permanent state of drunkenness, but a particular kind of drunkenness. It’s the sort of state you find yourself in after the party, at 3am, walking home alone in the dark, when everything seems unreal, untouchable, soft and sad. Yet this is still preferable to real death, of course. Any form of being is superior to no being. Something is always better than nothing, no matter how intangible. Perhaps the nothing comes after. Perhaps life fades away in stages, like a stain. I don’t know. No one tells you anything. There isn’t an induction or instruction manual. The lights simply go out, and then the lights come back on, as though there was a brief glitch in the system. At first you think it’s business as usual, until you realise your leg is missing or your face now looks like a shredded lettuce.

Nowadays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. In the world of ghosts there is very little socialising. We have no ambition, no lust for power, no lust of any kind, and aren’t these urges often the motivating factors behind human interaction? So we spend most of the day, every day, alone, not even acknowledging the still-breathing beings with whom we share the world. Yet sometimes, in order to pass a few hours, I’ll listen in to their conversation, hoping that from a distance, with no personal agenda, I can find something worthwhile in it. Unfortunately it strikes me as even more banal and absurd than it did when I could participate myself, because it does not, and cannot, relate to me. You might say that I am bitter. I would say that I’m bored. Certainly, I’m bored; and I guess that is how I came to this, or came back to this. To reading, I mean. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the Devil, in some powerful, malevolent force. To read, to spend the afterlife engaged in the one activity you blame, you hold responsible, for wasting years of your actual-life, for driving away friends and girlfriends, for missed opportunities. To return to books, with your tail between your legs.

“Again after a little while they left that and then my eyes opened as before, but I saw nobody there with me in this doorless room who was ill-treating me like that. Immediately my eyes opened there I saw about a thousand snakes which almost covered me, although they did not attempt to bite me at all. It was in this doorless room which is in undergrounds I first saw my life that the biggest and longest among these snakes which was acting as a director for the rest vomited a kind of coloured lights from his mouth on to the floor of this room. These lights shone to every part of the room and also to my eyes, and after all of the snakes saw me clearly through the lights then they disappeared at once with the lights and then the room became dark as before.”

Recently I read My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. I remember trying, on numerous occasions, to finish it in the-before-times. Then, I would give up after only a few pages. Maybe I have more patience now. Maybe my taste has become refined. More likely, I simply have no real distractions. I cannot, for example, break off my reading in order to drink tea or play with myself. In any case, it is the story of a boy – the narrator – who gets lost in the African bush and, yes, spends a great deal of his life amongst the ghosts that inhabit it. When considering the book, it is perhaps expected of you that you will engage with the African issue, which is to say that you will place My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in socio-political, cultural context. Quite frankly, I am incapable, and, truth be told, not really all that interested in how closely, or otherwise, the contents resemble, are inspired by, etc, Yoroba folk-tales. I am not a professional literary critic. For me, what is important is this: is it a good book? Yes, it is very good indeed. It is, in fact, a great book. Says the ghost.

In likewise fashion, I do not want to labour over the language either. Of course, I must mention it, briefly at least. It is sometimes argued that the writing is poor, broken, ungrammatical, or, God forbid, ‘primitive.’ Well, I can report that the syntax, for example, is unusual, vis-a-vis formal English, but isn’t, say, Henry James’ and James Joyce’s also? Or what about Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, John Hawkes, Anna Kavan, the surrealists, and so on? Isn’t there the not-so-subtle, unpleasant odour of racism hanging over that ‘primitive’? Ask yourself this: what is correct? What does it even mean to call a certain kind of writing correct, or not-broken, or sophisticated? Aren’t these terms meaningless? In any case, perhaps Tutuola could have written like Jane Austen had he wanted to. And perhaps I’m primitive myself – well, I am half-dead, at the very least – but all that truly concerns me is whether the style serves the material well, which, in this instance, it undoubtedly does.

There is, however, the recurring theme of language within the story itself. Tutuola’s hero finds often that he cannot communicate with those around him, with, to be specific, the ghosts; or certainly not with words. When he meets the copperish, silverish, and golden ghosts, for example, they use lights to catch his attention and win his favour. They, and the other bush-dwellers that the boy crosses paths with, have their own language, which he cannot speak [although at times he seems to be able to understand them, they, in the main, cannot understand him]. Moreover, there are numerous instances where speech is physically impossible – such as when a web covers his mouth – or when it is outlawed, as in the town where one is only allowed to communicate with shrugs. I am not able to put forward a single, convincing, intelligent theory as to what the significance of this is. It might be nothing more than a way of heightening the bush’s sense of otherness, and likewise the boy’s exclusion from that world. Yet I like to think it is a cheeky reference to the European novels that plonk the white man in Africa to confront the alien, sometimes hostile, locals, with their weird food, their weird practices and their impenetrable gobbledygook language.

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Certainly, the ghosts aren’t all that friendly. I’ve already alluded to this; although my kind aren’t Tutuola’s kind. Many of them want to kill the boy, or eat him – which also supports the aforementioned theory of mine, for it suggests the African cannibal cliche – or at least do him some form of physical harm. Yet this perceived ill-treatment, or lack of friendliness, is, in most cases, not presented as being a moral failing. Aside from one or two references to hell, and an episode featuring a female ghost who disagrees with the murderous commands of her parents, the author doesn’t appear to judge them, nor want the reader to. They are not savages; ‘the deads’ simply have their own customs, their own way of life, their own values, their own world, which are of course different to the boy’s, to that of earthly creatures. For example, there is the story of the mother ghost, who one must present with food, both for her and the numerous heads that are attached to her body. The rest of her people eat last, and not very well, and this is accepted as how it must be.

Now I would like to set all that aside – the theorising and philosophising, the search for a deeper meaning, etc – and concentrate on the weirdness. If we ghosts talked to each other more often I would say ‘here, read this book it’s…really weird.’ The weirdness is the selling point, the high point, the only real point that matters. I mentioned previously the mother ghost with many heads, but that’s nothing. How about the small ghost: ‘both his legs were twisted as rope and both feet faced sharply left and right, he had an eye in his forehead which was exactly like a moon, this eye was as big as a full moon and had a cover or socket which could be easily opening and closing at any time.’ Then there are the ghosts who steal into the womb of pregnant women, replacing her unborn babies; and the television ghost, who shows the boy a vision of his mother on the palm of her hand in order to convince him to lick her sore for ten years; and the talking land, which, when you place your feet on it, says loudly: ‘Don’t smash me. Oh don’t smash me, don’t walk on me.’

The weirdness is endless, and always entertaining. And, perhaps most impressively, very funny. A lot of books that are described as funny do little to justify the claim. They might make you smile, maybe even snigger, but laugh? Really? My Life in the Bush of Ghosts drew sounds from my throat I thought I would never hear again; and that, in the real world, and in the unreal world, in my world and in your world, is precious. I do not want to analyse, but rather give examples, to make, not for the first time in this review, a short list, without, I hope, spoiling the jokes. So what about the homeless ghost who dances to the boy’s crying as though it is ‘a lofty music for him’? And what about the ghost with snakes all over his body, the bad-smelling ghost, who can only eat sleeping animals, for the wide-awake ones are alerted by his smell and run away? Finally, from me, certainly not in terms of the book, what about the point when the boy turns himself into a cow in order to escape a ghost who is chasing him; when, unfortunately, as a cow, he catches the eye of a lion, who also takes up the chase? Perhaps none of this sounds amusing, for I am not a comedian, I do not have a polished delivery. I’m dead, or half-dead, after all.

Boo-hoo. Boo-haha.

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.