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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 your granny is always looking down on you. 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 wonderful 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.

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BLACK MIRROR: SELECTED POEMS BY ROGER GILBERT-LECOMTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRACTION BY SHINTARO KAGO

Have you ever wondered if what I write here is true? If the face I present to the public is genuine? Isn’t it possible that everything I appear to reveal about myself and my life is fiction? It could be the case, for example, that I am not English, nor even a man. There have been many occasions that I have been solicited for a meeting through this website, and one of these women – for they are almost always women – began to stalk me. She moved to my city, and for what? For a phantom, perhaps. Whatever she thought she knew about me she had garnered from here, from my writing. The connection that she imagined we had was based on an illusion or at least an idea in her own head, rather than any living person. There is an assumption, a kind of naive trust or blind faith, that what is written in the first person, in a context known for being factual, can be taken on face value. The public are, for want of a better word, gullible, especially when experience has conditioned them to have certain expectations. It would be easy, therefore, for me to manipulate them, to manipulate you.

“I give up on ero guro! I will write a story without nudity, without murders, without guts hanging out, without scat, S&M, or torture scenes!”

Shintaro Kago’s Fraction manga is, at least in part, a murder mystery involving a serial killer called The Slicing Devil and a potential copycat. It seems, in the early stages, that the author/artist is paying homage to Edogawa Rampo and the like. Certainly he is working within the ero guro – erotic grotesque – style and genre, with which he, and Rampo too, is primarily associated. This means that there are a number of gruesome images, one of which adorns the cover, and some that are fairly explicit. I won’t focus too much on Kago’s art, as you can check it out for yourself, but there is a pleasing, and appropriate, realism and sophistication to it. The aforementioned cover image is particularly striking, what with the way that the eyes appear to be making contact with your own, despite the top of the girl’s head having been sliced off. In any case, the mystery at the centre of the story is not the identity of the serial killer; that is revealed almost immediately. What Kago does instead is very clever: he makes his murderer the pursuing detective.

Whilst in Uzumaki the characters were barely one dimensional, those in Fraction are at least a little more well rounded. The serial killer, for example, believes that his actions are just, that he in fact embodies justice. Kago gives you some idea of his personal history also, explaining that he is motivated to murder as a kind of payback for his brother’s suicide. This brother, whom he also talks to in his moments of doubt or weakness, killed himself because of a woman. The Slicing Devil, therefore, focuses on female victims, cutting them in half to reflect the way that his brother was dismembered by a train when he threw himself on the tracks. There are, of course, no impressive psychological insights here; it’s all a bit pulpy and ridiculous; but it does flesh out the story. There is less a sense of the characters sleepwalking through the book than I have found in other manga; they have emotions, motivations and meaningful conversations and interactions.

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When the copycat killings start The Slicing Devil is understandably perturbed. Indeed, he amusingly lambasts his rival’s ‘sick needs’ and, as previously suggested, begins to investigate. In other words, he becomes more concerned with catching, or unmasking, the copycat than he does with his own, self-styled, righteous mission. This too is somewhat amusing. As this story progresses, Kago increasingly seeks to bamboozle the reader by implying that all may not be as it seems. It could be, for example, that his serial killer is not actually a killer after all, rather that he is simply a man so traumatised by his brother’s death that he is having a psychotic breakdown, that he is, therefore, imagining or hallucinating the murders or at least his part in them. Certainly two people whose deaths he witnesses later turn up alive. It is also hinted that the brother might not be dead after all, and he may be one or both of the killers. Finally, it is possible that The Slicing Devil is both the killer and the copycat, and as such is actually investigating himself.

So far I have perhaps made Fraction sound something like a comic book version of the film Memento, and that isn’t an entirely inappropriate comparison. However, The Slicing Devil is only one of the novel’s two main sections or stories. The second is called The Manga Artist and features Kago himself, mostly in conversation with a publisher. I must admit that initially I rolled my eyes, having a particular dislike of authors appearing in their own work, but I quickly found that I enjoyed this part of Fraction immensely. What makes The Manga Artist worthwhile, and so stimulating, is not how it provides the answers to the book’s central mystery, or at least helps to tie all the threads together, but how Kago intelligently discusses the nature, limitations and possibilities of manga, both for him personally and as as art form. In the beginning, Kago states that he should move away from ero guro towards something more commercially viable. A manga artist must, of course, make his living, and drawing guts and blood, rape and murder, is not the quickest, or most certain, route to success. Moreover, he acknowledges that while violence is fun to draw there isn’t a lot else to it, indicating that it isn’t intellectually engaging enough for him.

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The central theme of The Manga Artist, and Fraction as a whole, is narrative manipulation, which is, by Kago’s definition, when an author tricks, or manipulates, the reader, rather than the characters. He admits that this is much easier with words or film, because in the former anything can be suggested without visual proof and in the latter there are things such as lighting, effects and fluid motion. Manga, however, is necessarily static and one is limited to a few boxes per page. Kago does, in any case, give some examples of how narrative manipulation in manga might be achieved, with my favourite being the idea that a group of images within a frame can look like certain, identifiable things, but without the frame they are revealed to be something else [i.e. a monster]. He also discusses how the audience accept the images within a graphic novel on face value, because their expectation is that they are being given the whole story, that they aren’t being tricked. What Kago does in The Manga Artist is cast doubt; he makes you question your assumptions, your ideas, your eyes, and ultimately how you interact with the world.

UZUMAKI BY JUNJI ITO

Words brought me here. Or, I should say, my desire to avoid them. Except that they are, of course, unavoidable. I feel them like a heavy weight that bears down upon my head, such that every crude sound my lips make is painful to me. The knitting-circle nattering of my mind is even worse. And this? What I am doing now? This is the third wall that completes my triangular prison. My run down, but secure prison. I don’t want to write, but words come, regardless. Painful and inadequate words; but if not this, then the gurgle or the drone. I sometimes wonder if the only solution is death, but death is, I fear, a canny bastard. How can one even contemplate or summon it without words? My weariness astonishes me.

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I tried to hide behind my eyes. To pass the time staring mindlessly at pictures. To feel without words. Yet I ultimately realised that I can only process and understand images through the filter of language.

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Uzumaki was part of this failed experiment. I had always searched for myself in books, but my aim this time was to escape, to escape my own narrative, my words, the words that not only define me but are, in fact, all that I am. However, the opposite occurred. I found myself in Junji Ito’s world, in his city contaminated by spirals. I understood the paranoia and the obsession of the locals. They see the spiral everywhere, in the shell of the snail, in the cochlea of the ear, in the twist of the hair, in the swirl of water and the drift of smoke.

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The book is full of grotesque images of the kind one would find in something like The Exorcist or Evil Dead. One episode, involving the reinsertion of a baby into its mother’s womb, and the drilling for blood by mosquito women, was particularly, and memorably, gruesome and unnerving. Yet part of what makes the book so impressive is that Ito’s horror works on two levels. There is the physical horror, whereby the body is manipulated, such that, for example, people are turned into snails and then often eaten; and there is also the psychological horror, the sense that, in the early stages at least, what is happening might be no more than ordinary human madness. In fact, even the most obvious examples of physical horror have a psychological element. The mosquitos, for example, with their endless buzzing, and the fear that they will penetrate the ear. There is, moreover, the spiral itself, and how Ito manages to transform this innocuous shape or pattern into something sinister, much like the way that Hitchcock did with birds.

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With the emphasis being on the visual, it is natural that the story, and the characters, are underdeveloped. The plot is episodic and it never really goes anywhere, except that the horror increases in intensity and gore. The ending is also unsatisfying, not so much because it doesn’t truly resolve anything, but because it suggests a love element that isn’t really there in the rest of the story.

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It is said of many horror films that they are morality tales. It is the bullies, the promiscuous, etc, that often make up the body count. The same is true of Uzumaki. Or, certainly, Ito at times appeared to want to make his story karmic in that way, with the bad people getting their comeuppance. Towards the middle of the book, he focusses on those who seek attention, both from the opposite sex and from their peers. One such episode ushers in Azami, Uzumaki‘s most celebrated character, who has a scar on her head that is said to make her irresistible to men. However, Ito doesn’t follow through on this idea and even if he had it isn’t sophisticated enough to make it a reason to pick up the book.

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Uzumaki is stunning in places, is worthy of the praise it has had, and the regard in which it is held, but not for anything that you would associate with conventional literature. Moreover, although my experiment failed, and it did not resolve any of my issues, or provide any answers, for the respite that it gave me, I am grateful.

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.

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.