capitalism

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

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HUMBOLDT’S GIFT BY SAUL BELLOW

I keep getting drawn back to Saul Bellow’s novels like a crazy-ass bee to a barren flower. I must love the disappointment, the confusion, the frustration. I’m a literature masochist. Bellow sees my eagerness, my dog-like enthusiasm, beckons me in closer…and then smacks me on the nose. His novels are never truly satisfying; they almost enrage me. How could a man be so talented, such a great writer, and yet churn out such flawed books? In truth, I don’t know how to review Humbodt’s Gift. It defeats me. Yet to live these days you have to be ok with defeat, I guess, so I am going to give it a go.

My mother taught me that if you’re going to say something critical about someone or something you always ought to say something nice first. Well, I am not going to do that. I’m going to jump right in with the things I don’t like about the book, which, I am sure she would agree, is more my style. There is a hell of a lot wrong with Humboldt’s Gift. Fatally wrong. These things kill the book, if your expectation is that it will be a masterpiece [and why shouldn’t that be your expectation, bearing in mind its reputation?] Some of them are predictable Bellovian problems, some of them new, unexpected, flaws. Bellow goes all out here to fuck up his novel; he doesn’t hold back.

Typically, it starts well. We are introduced, via Charlie Citrine, the first-person narrator, to Humboldt Fleisher, who appears to be a gargantuan personality, a potentially classic tragicomic character. Yet twenty or thirty pages into the book and you start to realise that he has no depth whatsoever, that Bellow is just listing things in lieu of developing him in a substantial manner. For example:

“We were off: we discussed machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mannon, Orpheus, and poetry.”

And:

“He moved easily from the tabloids to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot/and this rained down on me/the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas…”

Bore off, Saul! This tells us nothing. It feels, in fact, as though the author was simply showing off. And it’s not even good showing off, because anyone can do it:

[P] was a great reviewer; a great mind; he would bring in Joyce on the English language, the Cuban missile crisis, Beckett in French, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu. He’d be off, riffing on Rilke’s stay at Duino castle, Proust’s mother fixation, the Son of Sam serial killer and the Summer of Love.

And Bellow doesn’t do this kind of listing once or twice, he does it frequently. As a result, Humboldt is reduced to a kind of Uni reading list, a series of topics or themes. We’re meant to believe that he is an intellectual, someone with an encyclopaedic mind, but it’s a classic case of an author telling us rather than showing us. Bellow’s approach is akin to a poet trying to convince someone he’s great by counting off his influences, rather than by reciting some poems.

Of course, Citrine is narrating sometime after the events he is describing. Therefore, that he can only remember topics, rather than content is understandable, I guess. But, still, you can excuse anything if you try hard enough. I don’t buy that Bellow was trying to make a point about how we remember people, because Citrine’s memory works fine in other parts or passages of the book. Besides, Humboldt is meant to be charismatic and there is no sense of that in the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much unfathomable as to why Citrine loves or admires the man.

Humboldt isn’t the only one lacking substance either. Demmie is little more than a pill-popping hot chick who suffers from night terrors, and Kathleen, Humboldt’s wife, is pretty much a total void. The only characters with any personality are Citrine himself and small-time hood Rinaldo Cantabile. In all fairness, Cantabile is fantastic. He’s the right amount of tough guy and the right amount of sensitive/vulnerable schmo. I enjoyed all his bits very much. As for Citrine, he is mostly charming and endearing. However, the tone of the novel is sometimes too patronising; Bellow, much like the searingly average Javier Marias, appears to believe that he is blowing our minds with his philosophical, cultural, societal musings, but, really, he isn’t at all; there’s no great insights to be found in the book. Indeed, I studied philosophy and English and the narration, at times, reminded me of having to listen to first-year students gabbing on, without any sense of their own pretension or middle-of-the-road opinions, in seminars.

As with many novels-of-ideas the plot is pretty thin on the ground. That’s not really a problem for me, if the ideas are top-notch. But, as noted in the previous paragraph, Bellow does not bring a new or even fresh perspective to the issues he tackles in the book. This is not to say, however, that what he does tackle isn’t at all interesting. It is. Humboldt’s Gift is about many things – the changing face of Chicago, money, alienation, ennui – but, at heart, it is a book about art and commercialisation, about how increasingly difficult it is to be an artist, how undervalued they are, etc. Coming from an artist himself, in the broadest sense of the word, there is a chance that one could view Bellow’s concerns as well-to-do, self-interested whining. I can’t argue against that, I’m afraid.

I said earlier that you can excuse anything if you try hard enough, and that is true of what, for me, was the biggest issue, which are the passages of Anthroposophical guff that turn up intermittently in the text. I know next to nothing about Anthroposophy, other than it is attributed to a Rudolf Steiner, and having read Humboldt’s Gift I am none the wiser. It appears to be some kind of mystical claptrap about soul and the afterlife. Now, if you were being kind you would perhaps want to explain away all the cringy mystical crap as satire. Citrine is a celebrity, a celebrity under pressure and, in need of some form of salvation, is wanting to engage with the big questions in life. From the celebrities around us these days one can see how these people often turn to some weird form of spiritualism for their answers; look at Madonna with Kabbalah, or Tom Cruise with Scientology. So, as a genuine satire, I would be impressed and amused by the Anthroposophy passages. However, that stuff is clearly not satire, because it is well documented that Bellow was, around the time of writing the novel, actually studying, and well-disposed towards, Steiner’s work. Furthermore, he is clearly, to some extent, Citrine, just as Humboldt is his friend Delmore Schwartz. If you draw this conclusion, then the book kind of feels like a joke played, unintentionally, upon himself.

So, what, then, did I like about it? Why did I read all 500 pages? It always comes back to the same thing with me and Bellow: on a sentence by sentence basis he is terrific, almost without peer. Yes, there’s a lot of hair-tearing stuff to endure, but I still enjoy myself because at least once on each page he will deliver a paragraph or a line that floors me. Things like:

“She’s very pretty but she’s honey from the icebox, if you know what I mean. Cold sweets won’t spread.”

And this:

“Maybe America didn’t need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones.”

Reading Bellow is a kind of archeological exercise for me. One that is, just about, worth it.

AMERICAN PSYCHO BY BRET EASTON-ELLIS

Meh. Sex. Meh. Murder. Meh. Rats. Meh. Calling cards. Meh. Phil Collins.

I’m not a hater, I’m not emotionally invested enough for that, but let’s be honest this novel is about as messy as a corpse after Bateman has finished with it. The writing is, to put it kindly, uneven, the plot pretty repetitious, and the it’s all in the mind angle an entirely ludicrous attempt by the author to appear intellectual [it is, in fact, the serious writer equivalent of and then I woke up.]. But, as American Psycho is a satire, one is able to forgive most of its sins in good conscience. Ellis himself called it a feminist novel, which is clearly nonsense. It is a claim that is, quite transparently, an ill-thought out attempt to defend the work during the height of its controversy. None of the characters, neither male nor female, come out of the book with any credit; the focus is, without question, the vacuous nature of affluent Americans [isn’t all his work?], rather than an exploration of masculine attitudes or behaviour.

Is American Psycho shocking? It depends on your point of reference. Sure, there’s a shit-tonne of nastiness; there’s murder, there’s rape, there’s cannibalism, there’s mini-essays about early Whitney Houston albums, etc. Yet, for me Canetti’s Auto-Da-Fe was a far more shocking read [Mutilated dwarf! Mutilated dwarf!!], as was Dostoevski’s Demons, and Cendrars’ Moravagine is weirder. Easton-Ellis’ novel I merely find preposterous; it is vaudeville, over-the-top, cartoonish; it is, indeed, probably sat on my bookshelf at this very moment laughing sinisterly and twisting its ‘tache. [As a quick way of determining whether you would be upset by this novel, ask yourself this question: do you or did you [everyone has pretty much forgotten about him now] find Eminem shocking? Because American Psycho comes from a similar place as the squeaky-voiced pop-rap cretin]. 

One major thing in its favour, however, is that it is, in places, very funny, and that is because we all, to some extent, know or have known a Bateman. By this I mean someone who makes toe-curling statements, is essentially unpopular, is desperately uncool, and aching to fit in. In fact, if the novel has a subtext it is that of a misfit who wants to be liked and respected, who [either in reality or fantasy] takes out his frustrations, his feelings of inferiority, on his victims. The murders could be seen, in this context, as a strange form of empowerment.

Rumour has it that Tory-voting twat Phil Collins once petitioned his wife for a divorce by fax. American Psycho or Collins? I know which one I think the greater evil is.

JR BY WILLIAM GADDIS

So, like, I have a fetish, and it’s becoming a problem. If someone told me there’s a book out there and it’s composed entirely of punctuation – no words, just 900 pages of exclamation marks, full-stops, and commas – I’d totally be there. I seem to want [at least a good proportion of] the literature I read to stand on my bollocks in high heels and call me a dirty bitch. Yet, I’m starting to realize what an empty experience that can be. Or maybe it’s that I’ve read all the great stuff – all those knocked-out-of-shape experimental masterpieces – and so I’m left to swill the dregs around in my mouth and it’s, inevitably, leaving a bitter aftertaste. But I’m not sure that’s the case. JR, for example, is very highly rated by the kind of readers I respect, and it’s near 800 pages of unattributable dialogue [or so it’s popularly claimed, but I’ll come back to this], so I ought to love it, I would’ve loved it once upon a time. Now? I’m like the man with crushed bollocks turning to his dominatrix and saying well, yeah, you can terrorise testicles fine, dear, but what else can you do?

I want to say up front that I’m not referring to difficulty here, I am talking about experimental not difficult literature [although the two often go hand-in-hand, of course]. I still like it hard; I still like to work while I read. In fact, for all it’s supposed difficulty I found reading JR a breeze. That’s not a boast, by the way, I genuinely believe that it’s not tough. But it has got such a reputation, you say. Yeah, it has, and it rests on a couple of things, which I’ll try and deal with, in the hope that the readers who do want to tackle the book aren’t put off by that reputation.

Firstly, those who complain about the difficulty claim that there are no clear transitions between scenes. Phooey. I would retort that these people aren’t concentrating and that they ought to read it properly rather than skim-reading while picking their toenails. The transitions are obvious; Gaddis will do one of a number of things to let you know the scene has changed: either he will narrate the change [apparently there is no narration in the book, even though there, y’know, is], or he will have a character say something like that car nearly hit me or it’s really windy out here when the previous paragraph clearly took place indoors, or the characters will change suddenly.

Another aspect of the novel’s so called difficulty centres around the unattributed speech, and, well, I dunno what the people who bring this up are reading. Often a character will say something like that’s true, Jane and so you know, of course, that the previous speaker is called Jane and one can then follow the conversation from there; indeed, as far as I read of the book [about half of it] only one or two people were present and participating during a scene without being acknowledged by name. So, this begs the question, how would you know who these people are, these people who aren’t identified by name? Gaddis uses verbal ticks to identify them, like the headmaster who peppers his speech with ahm. Easy-peasy. As an act of contrition I do want to say before I move onto my reasons for abandoning the book that Gaddis’ dialogue is amazing; one genuinely does feel like what he put down on paper is real speech. And real speech is fucking difficult to capture, and I know this because so many authors are truly abysmal at it.

“I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

So, what’s my problem then? My problem with the book is that it just doesn’t go anywhere, at least not in the first half. In part JR is a book about miscommunication, about how no-one really listens to anyone else, and I love that, I really do, because I wholeheartedly agree, and for the first 100 pages, what with everyone trying to have, like, 50 simultaneous conversations, half on which are on the phone, I was really digging this. But 400 pages of it? Is that really necessary? The other central theme of the novel is capitalism; again, I was totally on board with this. The 11 year old boy who gives the novel its title is the best thing in the book; his money making schemes – his almost wide-eyed, capitalist gang-banging – and other shenanigans, are all, on the surface, great fun.

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[money sculpture by Scott Campbell]

Yet there isn’t enough of him, or to him. He appears too infrequently, and yet even when he does half of what he says, and is involved in, is a repeat of what he said, and did, the last time he was around. Repetition! See, there’s a big problem with repetition in the book. There are only so many times you can read the same scene, such as JR and his friend squabbling over their trading of crap for example, and it is only one example, before you feel like going postal. Another one of Gaddis’ themes was, apparently, entropy, and yet it reads more like he was interested in monotony.

You might tell me that I quit just before it hots up. And you might well be right, but I’m just not that into books that get-going at page 450. It’s like hooking up with a girl: no, I don’t need to get laid on the first date, but I’m not waiting five years either.