Christ but it’s awful. Between the more-inappropriate-then-ever exhortations to excessive consumption (“Battery turkey? You tasteless plebeian fiend, simply everyone’s having rare-breed Guinea Fowl with Nigella’s gingerbread-and-rollmop stuffing this year,” fuck off why don’t you, don’t you know there’s a recession on?) and the terrible music everywhere (and how much must it suck to be Jona Lewie? 11 months of the year, nobody knows who you are, then for one month EVERYONE knows EXACTLY who you are, and they all think you’re a cunt), and the pubs being full of godamned amateurs (“Oooh, is it that much for a gin and tonic?” Yes, yes it is, as you’d be well aware if you’d BEEN IN SINCE FUCKING BUDGET NIGHT, and by the way, I’ve been keeping this place going and wearing my own personal arse-groove into that barstool these past 11 months, get out of my FUCKING way and take your novelty waistcoat with you, you nebbish) and…well, you need something to counteract it all. Literature is, as always, your friend, and what you specifically need is some good, bleak stuff you can get morose and gloomy over. And that’s what I plan to give you, good and hard.
1. Martin Amis, Night Train
An unlikely source, Amis Jnr., as he normally leavens even the weightiest subjects with dextrous, scabrous comedy in a perfect mix of the broad-brush and the filigree (some other time, try Money, London Fields and Success for some of the finest comic writing of the 20th century), but this brief yet absorbing novella (partially inspired by David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, The Wire fans) abjures laughs for terse, cold, hard boiled meditations on murder and suicide as responses to being alone in a godless universe.
KEY QUOTE: “You key the mike and you get the squawk that no one wants: Check suspicious odor. I have checked suspicious odors. Suspicious? No. This is blazing crime. Fulminant chemistry of death, on the planet of retards. I’ve seen bodies, dead bodies, in tiled morgues, in cell-blocks, in district lockups, in trunks of cars, in project stairwells, in loading-dock doorways, in tractor-trailer turnarounds, in torched rowhouses, in corner carryouts, in cross alleys, in crawlspaces, and I’ve never seen one that sat with me like the body of Jennifer Rockwell, propped there naked after the act of love and life, saying even this, all this, I leave behind.”
2. Neville Shute, On The Beach
Being Shute’s second most famous novel after the heart-warming, life-affirming A Town Like Alice, it gives me a schadenfreudegasm to think of all the people who followed that work with this one, and what a slap in the psyche they must have experienced. OK, from the outset it’s clear this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs – the whole premise is that a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and backwoods, distant, late-50s Australia, with it’s colonial, repressed, provincial natives and a few accidental refugees, is the only habitable place left, and that only until the weather brings the poison south – but the sheer relentlessness of it, the way Shute refuses to offer any salvation or escape, just calmly narrates a group of basically decent people’s journey to a horrible, inescapable fate, adds up to one of the most despairing books ever, which will reduce even hardened cynics to tears.
KEY QUOTE: “He undid the little carton and took out the vial. “This is a dummy,” he said. “these aren’t real. Goldie gave it me to show you what to do. You just take one of them with a drink – any kind of drink. Whatever you like best. And then you just lie back, and that’s the end.”
“You mean, you die?” The cigarette was dead between her fingers.
He nodded. “When it gets too bad – it’s the way out.”
“What’s the other pill for?” she whispered.
“That’s a spare,” he said. “I suppose they give it you in case you lose one of them, or funk it.””
You wouldn’t think that a comic book about robot men, psychic superheroes, alien invasions and so forth would fit into this kind of list. You’d be wrong. Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is full of self-aware post-modern fun with the conventions of the spandex-and-fighting genre, but is bookended by two issues which redefine grim, bleak and pitiless.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Slow, elegaic, fatalistic…a lot of people seemed to miss the point of this book – a quasi-sci-fi tale of clones, bred to provide organs for donation, and doomed to an early and grisly death – asking “why didn’t they rebel and run away?” To me, it’s an extended meditation on the fact that the defining characteristic of humanity is that we don’t run away from our fate, or scream in alarm; whether in Srebrenica, Sobibor or Surbiton, we accept the hand we’re given and make the best we can of it, and support each other down the long, cold, final road.
KEY QUOTE: “Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing. But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.”
5. Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez
Any of Raymond’s works would have filled this slot, especially those from the Factory series, pitiless police procedurals that make Ian Rankin at his gloomiest look like an episode of Midsomer Murders. This one edges it (beyond He Died With His Eyes Open and How The Dead Live – yeah, he didn’t mess about disguising the bleakness, old DR) just for the endlessly grim, hopeless, despairing tone, they way even our nameless cop anti-hero can’t kid himself he’s saving the world, he just wants to save some last vestige of his own belief in truth, if it’s – and it probably is – the last thing he does. If you want a thoroughly depressing musical accompaniment for all this, hunt down the author and Gallon Drunk’s part-audiobook, part-soundtrack-to-a-film-that-could-never-be-made album. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
KEY QUOTE: “Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once…I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up” – Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files
Confession first: I haven’t seen much Shakespeare.
Lots of people have probably seen less, but they’re probably not very bothered. I feel like I really should have.
I’ve studied English Literature at post-compulsory level off and on for over two decades (although admittedly without getting any meaningful qualification), got to the semi-finals of Mastermind twice, and been quite willing to argue with people about Shakespeare and quote him. I’ve got a sort of Roger Craig type knowledge – I can identify all the most famous quotations, probably even give you a precis of the plots of most of them, but as far as ACTUALLY HAVING SEEN them, on stage or screen, as far as I recall I’ve ticked off:
Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming Of The Shrew
And that’s it. Maybe they were all bluffing it as well, but I’m sure most of the people I’ve done Eng Lit courses with had seen more than that. Christ, I’ve never even seen Othello, or Merchant Of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet (I got about half an hour into the Baz Luhrman thing before metaphorically putting my foot through the screen and sending him the bill). Romeo and Juliet! There’s undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who’ve seen three versions of Romeo and Juliet, for Christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure I’ve written essays on others not on that list, and got fairly good grades, but I’ve not actually watched them. Maybe excerpts, but not all the way through.
This has to change.
So – and this is basically me muscling in on one of the entries on my wife’s “Things to do before turning 30” list, which gives us a deadline of 4th January 2015 – we’re going to watch it all.
A few ground rules:
1. Only original text versions. Obviously there’s much dispute about what the original text even is, I’m not going to get excessively anal and insist on unabridged first folio versions or something, but no modernised language versions, or “based on an idea by” stuff. There’s some excellent stuff of that nature – I saw a really good Othello update set in the Metropolitan Police with Christopher Ecclestone a few years back, and Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damned peerless, but you’ve got to have rules. Start letting Throne Of Blood in and next thing you’re counting Ten Things I Hate About You, and before you know it you’re ticking off Hamlet because the child watched The Fucking Lion King – AGAIN – while you were in the room.
2. The list I’m using is this:
All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Antony and Cleopatra
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida
I know there’s others attributed, but that’s what I’m going with. It seems generally accepted and lets face it the world’s not going to end if I’ve missed one. 3. “Watched” means that. It can be stage or screen, amateur or professional, but it has to be watched, radio versions don’t count. Why this will be of interest to anyone is beyond me, but there it is. We currently have David Tennant’s Hamlet, Al Pacino’s Merchant Of Venice and a Globe version of Othello on the TiVo, any recommendations welcomed but not necessarily followed. BRING ON THE BARD.
I used to believe in the humble book. There was a time I was certain that nothing could come between us and our fistfuls of musky scented yellow pages; that undeniable sense of character imparted by time and the tender hands of countless companions. Somehow I was sure that no matter how technologically advanced we became, nothing could possibly replace an authentic and unassuming hard cover.
There’s something deeply romantic about the book; a physical collection of words and sentiments, whose compilation is tangible evidence that as a people, we have existed. Through the book we happily accept the love and laughter, tears and tragedies of others; a testament to the human condition. Then when we’re done, we pass it on so that those words that shook us might wake the senses of a new reader. In that moment when we hand it over, we send our own story wordlessly with it; an unspoken yet undeniable shared history that can be sensed in the margins of every page. The happy knowledge that the leaves you now turn have been caressed by some number of others, binding you with your humanity, like the linking fingers of a best friend.
I was wrong, of course. I have always been, above all else, embarrassingly naive. How green to imagine that, while the rest of the world became increasingly clinical, uninterested in their brother and the intimacy of breathing someone else’s air, the defenceless book could survive. No one wants to own something that’s been handled by an unfamiliar other any more. We want to live apart. Possess our own things. Selfishly believe the world is ours; that we are the only one. Populations are booming, but even as we’re forced to dwell on top of one another, moving ever higher into an unconquered sky, we are slamming tight our shutters.
Needless to say, there will always be stories. We’re too governed by ego to let the story die; we see ourselves in every narrative and our sense of self importance is affirmed. But books and stories, those words that were once synonymous, are about to be broken apart. Driven by our need for efficiency, we can now download our own version of the texts we wish to read. These days we need not even leave the house. What a blow of cruel irony when the interwebs adopted the phrase connectivity.
Like so many things, it’s come to pass that every book you own can be uniquely yours; you read it once but do not pass it on. The pages are ever crisp and white; untarnished as a surgeon’s scalpel. But the romance is gone. In our hunger for perfection and instant gratification we have sliced off and slaughtered the glorious romance.
It’s been estimated that within this decade, electronic books will have completely replaced commercially available paper publications. There are of course, many advantages to the electronic book. Affordability is one; for the time being, they are certainly cheaper. Owning an electronic reader also means you can have countless titles at your finger tips. Many people are also citing the environmental card, claiming that the e book is better for the environment. I’m not sure I buy this one. While I’ve done exactly no research on the subject, I can’t believe the process involved with constructing these little gadgets is particularly sparing on the fossil fuels.
What do you think about our move toward electronic books?
Have you taken the leap to e-reader?
How do you feel about the humble hard cover being made redundant?
There are those who see books as a resource to be consumed, those who see them as an almost religious artifact to be revered, and protected and those who have no interest. Both of the first two sets of people adore books, love literature and all it stands for and think a world without the written word would be a sorry, sorry place. That however is where the similarities end and the fine line of separation starts to widen into a gulf.
I have loved reading since I realised that decoding those squiggles meant I could get a story out of the thick cardboard pages of my nursery books. I saw being able to read and read well as a mystical, magical skill and I to certain extent, I still do. My mother filled every space of our home with shelf upon shelf of poetry and prose, fact and fiction, classical and modern; the greats, the good and the not so good and saw value in it all.
She taught me how to enjoy the smell of an old book; dusty, worn and full of knowledge and insight. Introduced me to the sensual beauty of a new book; the feel of fresh pages, smooth and crisp and eager to be read.
Each Christmas I would eagerly await my presents knowing there would be a stack of new books in there, all full of fresh and exciting adventures and things I didn’t yet know. I’d peel off the paper carefully, stroke the front cover, gently adjust the dust jacket and then open the first page to read the inscription. Right from the off I was a book worshipper.
My husband is a good man, but like all of us he has bad habits. His book reading habits though are enough to make me want to live in a different postcode. He is a consumer. He devours books at great speed, so focused on greedily pawing his way through the pages that he doesn’t give the book itself the appropriate respect. He will read while he’s eating, turning pages with jammy fingers or leave oily marks on the pages where he’s been eating crisps.
He will leave books in the bathroom until they get damp from the steam, their pages all wrinkled and withered like the veins on an old lady’s hands. Books never make it back to the shelf on finishing, they are unceremoniously stuffed everywhere; between sofa cushions, on windowsills, around the bed, in wardrobes, rolling around the passenger footwells of the car, abandoned like they were nothing more than an old till receipt.
The most heinous of all his crimes however, is that he will never use a bookmark. Pages are turned and folded at best, but more often than not they are held open by a half-full coffee cup, discarded plate or pages viciously forced akimbo and rammed face down on the nearest (not necessarily clean) surface. Spines scream as they are bent and creased and pages cry as they are coated in coffee dribble and I silently monitor the progress of my seizures wondering if I should be documenting this as an example of prolonged emotional torture for use in the murder trial.
If you are like my husband you will be sat there now shrugging, thinking: Seriously, what is her problem? It just shows that a book is read and loved if it shows a little wear and tear. To a certain extent I do agree with you, far better to see a book that has been read and enjoyed than one that has never been opened, but here is the crux of the matter: imagine you are me, with your shelves and shelves of cherished treasures, pristine in their dust jackets, spines creased just enough to show they’ve been opened, like literary laughter lines, the only marks on the pages where the tears elicited by the tales inside have fallen, the only creases in the pages are those made accidentally whilst in storage or transit. Now imagine that Oaf Boy up there; with his sticky fingers, coffee dribbles and spine-splitting tendencies is approaching said revered volumes, arms outstretched and full of intent. It’s like watching someone pick one of your children to mutilate. Of course, you can’t say anything other than a gentle “be careful with that” because after all you love Oaf Boy and you love that he wants to share in your love of these books, and you love that he is willing to let you share his favourites with you despite the fact you can rarely bring yourself to read them because they wail horrific tales of abuse, scaring on every page.
I’m sure he finds it just as hard watching me grimace as I do watching him and I’m sure that my neurosis seems as unreasonable to he and his ilk as their repeated torture does to me. So to all of you, whichever camp you belong to, heed my warning: pick carefully, and if you value your own sanity, stick with your own kind.
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
Philip K. Dick, VALIS
Chances are, even if you are not familiar with the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, you will at least be aware of some of the film adaptations – some good, some bad – of his work. If you have seen Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, The Adjustment Bureau or, if you were unlucky enough, Screamers, you may have garnered some small impression of what goes on inside Dick’s head. Behind the familiar sci-fi trappings of androids, spaceships and aliens, lays the workings of a complex and disturbed mind.
Actor Michael Sheen, with the help of Professor Roger Luckhurst, makes the case succinctly in this week’s episode of Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 that it was also the mind of a genius. There are more complete biographies of his life and work, including the superb I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by French author Emmanuel Carrere – a book written as a piece of fiction, in Dick’s style and with its subject also as its main protagonist – but this thirty minute program provides a good incisive introductory glimpse.
Science fiction, as a genre, often draws sneers from literature snobs. It’s not proper literature, as far as they’re concerned, it’s just for children and the socially dysfunctional. The isolation of science fiction novels in book shops is for the same reason tinned sweetcorn is separate from fresh in supermarket aisles– it’s for ease of finding not because they’re fundamentally different. At its best sci-fi is high art, and comparable to any work of classic or modern fiction writing. Any genre has its share of both Dickenses and Dan Browns. In mainstream fiction, Charles Bukowski has to share his shelf with Candace Bushnell, and W. Somerset Maugham probably begrudges living near to Stephenie Meyer, like a noisy neighbour who has her friends round and lets her dog bark all night. Phil Dick belongs to the high end of the science fiction spectrum.
Let me illustrate. My first experience of his work would have been in my mid-teens. There was a monthly magazine published during the nineties that released a series of sci-fi classics in a collectable, handsome hardback form. The first two in the series were War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The third was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick – the short novel that was filmed under the title Blade Runner. That is the company he keeps.
The robots and ray guns are just window dressing – the vehicle for a series of studies of the human condition, philosophy, psychosis, paranoia, politics and, later in his career, theology. In fact, Dick also wrote a number of unregarded non-science fiction novels, only one of which – Confessions of a Crap Artist (I just love his titles) – was ever published during his lifetime. He only wrote science fiction as he needed the money and knew he could get his work published. His intentions were much higher.
Understandably, the program focuses largely on Dick’s personal tragedies and problems, which were numerous, but succeeds in putting them in the context of his work. Drugs were one of the main factors present in his life, certainly during what many consider the pinnacle of his career: the 1960s. He is described as taking amphetamines by the handful, like sweets from a jar. The visions and psychosis he suffered influenced much of his work, but in particular The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich – which reads like a bad acid trip – and A Scanner Darkly – a book written about his experience of the drug culture in the years after he had cleaned up his act.
They also cover his later period, which was characterised by a sudden religious conversion, and – although always a prolific writer – a new creative zeal. The visions he received, either directly or indirectly caused by his drug addiction, he decided to interpret in religious terms, and wrote feverishly about them, but without filters, so he produced more that should have been discarded than was worthy of publishing.
One element the program mentions that always strikes me about his work is his paranoia. Many of his characters are being pursued or persecuted, and, in real life, he believed himself the subject of prolonged FBI surveillance. This went to the extent of blaming them when his house was burgled, although at another stage he believed he may have burglarised himself then wiped it from his memory.
The program paints Philip K. Dick as both visionary and victim, and as a man who skirted the line between genius and madness. Undoubtedly he had mental issues, the program concludes, but they were focused into his work in such a way that he created a unique take on reality – what is real and what is imagined – and his work stands out, not only as great sci-fi, but as some of the finest works of imaginative fiction ever written.
Postscript: In his presentation, Michael Sheen names Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said as his favourite novel, but here is my own, personal, recommended reading list:
Man In The High Castle
A Scanner Darkly