Saturday, 29 October 2011

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I kept hearing about this book on Twitter. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A new book I din't know about by one of my favourite authors? I tried to find a UK publisher but there didn't seem to be one. John, The Bookseller Crowtweeted me to say he had a US copy in his shop. A few moments later I was on the phone handing over my post code and card digits. The next day the book arrived. The day after, I read it.

Train Dreams was first published in the Paris Review. It is short, a novella really, but crams a lot in. The cover shows a painting by Thomas Hart Benton. A horse dashes through the landscape. A train rushes along behind and would catch up if the scene were not frozen in art. Steam and smoke flow backward from the engine, like tha mane of a galloping horse. The message in the picture, of industrialisation rapidly overtaking the modes of life that first expanded the Western frontier, is mirrored in the plot. Robert Grainier's life (he is the main character) sees him help to build the railways that will transform the US landscape. During his lifetime he also encounters the Model T Ford and an aeroplane.

Reading the book is like riding a train. There is such a powerful forward motion the reader is swept along through scenes and situations that are hard to grasp and become fragmented parts of a greater narrative whole. The effect is absolutely not sketchy. This is no quick grab of a scene from a fixed viewpoint, lines drawn as fast as the brain can see. Rather the viwer is constantly moving, only able to take snapshots of what they see before it rushes away forever. In this manner this brilliant novella gains the narrative sweep of an epic but also retains a close focus in which every moment revealed vibrates with the intensity of dream or hallucination.

There is one moment in particular that lingers, days later, in my mind. In fact it's probably worth quoting in full:

Gladys was up with Kate, sitting on the bench by the stove, scraping cold boiled oats off the sides of the pot and letting the baby suckle this porridge from the end of her finger.

"How much does she know, do you suppose, Gladys? As much as a dog pup, do you suppose?"

"A dog-pup can live by its own after the bitch weans it away," Gladys said. 

He waited for her to explain what she said. She often thought ahead of him. 

"A man-child couldn't do that way," she said "just go off and live after it was weaned. A dog knows more than a babe until the babe knows its words. But not just a few words. A dog raised around the house knows some words, too - as many as a baby."

"How many words, Gladys?" 

"You know," she said, "the words for its tricks and the things you tell it to do." 

"Just say some of the words, Glad." It was dark and he wanted to keep hearing her voice. 

"Well, fetch, and come, and sit, and lay, and roll over. Whatever it knows to do, it knows the words."

In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turned on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him, but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck. All of his life Robert Grainier was able to recall this very moment on this very night. 

This scene, and the words of Gladys in particular, resonate through the entire story. A mother, father and child - an island of love in the midst of a harsh wilderness. How do people remain human when they are surrounded by animal violence and the raw terror of the elements?

Johnson's mini-novel becomes a literary howl beneath a savage moon; man and animal blend in the face of the fragility of all those moments of beauty that contain in their very blossoming the beginning of an ending.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Old Bailey Online

A fully searchable collection of  The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Lotte Lehmann

I bought a vinyl record of Lieder sung by Lotte Lehmann in Canterbury Oxfam shop on Saturday. The record is in perfect condition. Lotte famously Never Sang For Hitler but I find something about these old recordings makes me think of all those poor souls caught up in, killed and generally fucked about by World War II.

I imagine a ruined house in the middle of Germany somewhere. Artillery can be heard in the distance but there are also birds singing in an old apple tree that huddles close to the battered building. A soldier enters the house. His boots crunch on broken glass as he walks through the remains of someone's life; family photos, an open suitcase, shattered plates.

In what is left of the living room stands a gramophone. He walks over to it, cranks a handle and places the needle on the record. Lotte's voice fills the air. The soldier is transfixed. He stands, hardly able to breathe, until the song is ended. Then he lights a cigarette and leaves...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Deeper Into The Machine...Getting Lost In Digital In The Company of Katherine Hayles

I'm sitting at the kitchen table with a large mug of black coffee. In the background the kids are watching Saturday morning TV on our I-Mac. Through the back door the garden is bathed with bright October sunshine. I am connected via my Samsung laptop's VPN link to King's College London and reading a paper on Google Scholar titled Deeper Into The Machine. The dishwasher is going, gently cleaning the dishes for us. My Blackberry is close by and so is an I-Pod connected to a Logitech dock. Neither device is in use though both could be in a moment if needed. Also on the table in front of me is a sewing machine loaded with light blue thread. My wife is making a pair of pyjamas for my son. Machinery is everywhere in our domestic scene. Not only that but the dishwasher contains a computer, we watch TV on our computer, my phone contains a computer, my music is stored in a computer device - only the sewing machine remains simply mechanical, everything else has been absorbed into the digital...

The first point Hayles makes is that people need to learn to "write digital" by which she seems to mean employ the full range of digital media available to write texts. Moments later she speaks of:

"the realization that natural and machine languages mingle in the production of electronic literature. While the user parses words, the machine reads code. These works are not content to let code remain below the surface but rather show it erupting through the surface of the screen to challenge the hegemony of alphabetic language."

I followed the links in the article to a work entitled Translucidity (Talan Memmott) and was presented with something that reminded me of a crappy Powerpoint presentation. Whatever text there was seemed pretty nonsensical. The graphics were crude and involved a lot of arrows. I suppose I could see the point that code was erupting into the text but I couldn't really see any merit to it other than articulating this, rather simple, intellectual concept. Furthermore what immediately struck me was that if writers are going to learn to "write digital" and use lots of multimedia tricks then their work is going to date very very fast. Text is extremely resilient. Something written hundreds of years ago can feel incredibly relevant and "up to date". But visual styles change constantly. Images date far faster than text. Powerpoint looked "cool" and "futuristic" once. Is text a kind of XML I found myself wondering - the structure that endures whilst everything else changes?

The next link I was invited to click on seemed to be a dead link highlighting another problem for online texts, one that has already cropped up on our MADAM course. If you are going to have an effective semantic web then links have to be maintained and former architectures preserved somehow. As Hayles goes on to call for new modes of criticism that engage with and recognise the full range of media available to be employed in digital writing I found it hard not to not think about the dead link I had just encountered.

Hayles then goes on to describe a work entitled database by Souza and Winkler. This is clearly a work of conceptual art rather than writing as such but it does make you think about things which is good. Various processes are inverted so that:

"The printer obliterates rather than inscribes words; the database is stored as marks on paper rather than binary code inside the computer; clicking blacks out visible words rather than stabilizing them; the camera “reads” but does not record; and the projection displays words oppositional to the ones the user has chosen."

Hayles goes on to talk about Lev Manovich who sounds interesting. Hayles summarizes his investigations of the narrative versus the database thus:

"While narrative is the dominant form of print literature, Manovich argued, database is the native idiom of the computer. He noted that database inverts the relation between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic that obtains with print text. For print the syntagmatic, inhering in the order of the sentence, is visibly present on the page, whereas the paradigmatic, inhering in alternatives that could be substituted for a given word, is virtual, imaginable as a conceptual possibility but not physically realized. With a database, however, the possible choices are physically present as encoded data, whereas the syntagmatic order created by their assembly is virtual, a possibility that can be realized only when the appropriate commands are executed."

At this point I found I was starting to engage a great deal more with things. However I was also distracted by the efforts of my wife as she attempted to cut my son's toenails. My daughter began firing a pirate canon and my mental state degenerated to a point where further thought was impossible! Still, I thought it would be fun to blog as I read - maybe this is the kind of new media criticism Hayles had in mind? Maybe...

Monday, 10 October 2011

A Summer of Drowning

I was telling a story about the Cyclops to my five-year-old son. I was driving but I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror.

"Is that true?" he said and I paused before answering.

"Some things are true even if the things that the story says happened didn't actually happen." I said. My son looked confused.

"Like Religion," I said "When people talk about God."

His face lit up right away.

"Oh, OK" he said.

We've had quite a few conversations about baby Jesus and God. I always tell him I don't believe in God, that's it's just another story. Now here I was sticking up for the veracity of myths! Anyway...John Burnside's novel The Summer of Drowning is like that. It's about stories VS rationality - about the relationship between Truth and fiction. It's about the difficulty of believing in other people as real. It's about what you feel like when it's light day and night for months on end, as happens on the edge of the Arctic Circle where this astonishing novel is set. It's about the terror that lurks in the dark, in the corners of eyes and at the edges of understanding. It's about the fragile line between sanity and complete madness.

Why did I choose the song above, that hopefully you have just played, or maybe are playing now? It's a beautiful song. There is a line in the original by Leonard Cohen that goes:

"you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you"

...that seems to resonate perfectly with the book and the central motif of the huldra, an unbearably beautiful woman who lures susceptible men to a watery grave. Another reason is that the band are Norwegian and the book is set in Norway. Then there's also a quality, an emptiness, in the music that fits the book. There is a certain amount of space where nothing happens in the music. Much of the book is about the spaces between people. Things left unsaid, the absence of the narrator, Liv's, father and the way her artist mother locks herself away in the studio, painting for days on end. A sense that emotion is dangerous, that connection must be approached with care to avoid damage to a self who may have been painstakingly created.

The Summer of Drowning is a novel of great power and insight that creeps beneath your skin to haunt you. It also makes you think deeply about life and art. The narrator, Liv, is as unreliable as perception itself and as sinister as they come.

I loved it!