Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West was a book-club choice, which I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. It tells the story of two young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class. Nadia wears conservative dress “so men don’t fuck with me”, but enjoys riding a motorbike and smoking dope.

They live in an un-named city and, just after they get together, civil war breaks out. Their lives become incredibly dangerous. They are under curfew and become dependent upon technology: “without their mobile phones and access to the internet there was no ready way for them to re-establish contact

The book was disturbing, making me think about the ties that bind us together. I became acutely aware that, should the Internet or phone system fail, I would have no means of getting news about my family, who live 200 miles away. The book is an incredibly empathic portrayal of displacement and the refugee experience (as Hamid writes, “we are all migrants through time”).

Deprived of the portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones, and confined to their apartments by the night-time curfew, Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone

I was also surprised at a fantastic turn the book takes. One of the great things about book clubs is reading a book you know nothing about. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected it to be.

I finished the book at the start of March, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived and overturned my world. I’m not saying that the experieces of Saeed and Nadia are comparable to my current experience, but I’ve been reminded how fragile daily life actually is, and how it can be overturned.

A recent article by Oliver Burkeman, “Focus on the things you can control” referred to a 1939 sermon by CS Lewis:

It wasn’t the case, he pointed out, that the outbreak of war had rendered human life suddenly fragile; rather, it was that people were suddenly realising it always had been. “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” Lewis said. “It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”

Moments from Hamid’s book keep coming back to me:

when the government instituted a policy that no one person could buy more than a certain amount per day, Nadia, like many others, was both panicked and relieved.

Back when I read this book, such an experience was foreign to me. I’d yet to experience the anxiety of empty supermarket shelves. This book was terrifying and unsettling, and I’m shocked at how quickly my connections with the characters have deepened.

the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

Withdrawn Traces

My friend Kate recently lent me her copy of Withdrawn Traces by Leon Noakes and Sara Hawys Roberts. The book is a biography of Richey Edwards aka Richey Manic. It also raises a lot of questions about his disappearance (not least ‘Can you ask too many rhetorical questions?’)

The book quotes from Edward’s archives, which is an incredible experience. I was obsessed with the Manic’s third album, The Holy Bible, during 1994/5. The record is an uncompromising and brutally intellectual record, released as Edwards’ mental health reached crisis point.

At the time, Edwards’ decline was documented by the music press, his scars displayed in powerful black and white photos, his extreme statements cast as pull quotes. The ongoing illness played into rock and roll mythology, which fed the self-destruction of both Richey Manic and some of his fans (as Edwards in turn had taken Kurt Cobain as an influence).

Reading excerpts from his diaries strips away the glamour. The story becomes sadder and the intellectual structures are much less rigorous than they appeared when edited and honed in interviews. Rather than describing the self-sacrifice of a rock star, Withdrawn Traces depicts the sad decline of a human being.

One quote from the book stood out, which originally appeared in the Melody Maker in December 1994:

When you’re in the places I’ve been in, the first place especially, it’s just any job, any occupation. Housewife, bricklayer, plumber, somebody who works for South Wales Electricity Board, whatever. It doesn’t pick or choose people who pick up a pen… It’s very romantic to think ‘I’m a tortured writer’, but mental institutions are not full of people in bands.

The mythic nature of rock and roll, with it’s doomed genius archetypes doesn’t translate into real life – even for the people enacting those archetypes. The book was heartbreaking, but a powerful insight into much of what was happening behind the scenes in 1994/5.

Weather by Jenny Offill

I first learned about Jenny Offill’s novel Weather through an interesting entry on Justin’s weeknotes, which referred to Offill’s writing process, “covering poster boards with pasted fragments of her work in-progress“. This was followed by a stunning New York Times interview.

Weather is a short novel composed of fragments. The writing is incredibly careful,  and the meaning is incredibly dense. Each word carries a great weight – this is a book that should be read slowly. The plot, according to the NYT’s description, “does not build so much as flurry“. The main character Lizzie’s domestic life is played against the concerns and terrors of climate change; which is an underwhelming description of such a funny and exciting novel.

Amitav Ghosh has argued that we need to find new forms of literature capable of dealing with climate change, and Offill does a good job of evoking climate change as what Timothy Morton referred to as a ‘hyperobject.’ The danger of such novels is that they can do little more than depress the reader with the fate lying in store for the world (although Offill places a URL at the end of the text, www.obligatorynoteofhope.com/). Apparently, Offill’s first ideas for the novel were “as a survival manual for her daughter, cramming it with information about every possible catastrophe, with tear-out sheets on practical tips. Some of these remain” (NYT)

The big attraction of the book for me was the form. I love novels with notes and references at the back, novels which blur the lines between fiction and  non-fiction. I love texts made of fragments and bought the hardback because I wanted to engage with the physicality of the text, rather read it on my kindle where the layout is more mutable. As media loses heft in the world, text as a physical object becomes even more important and compelling (and the novel is aware of this through Lizzie’s interactions with websites, minecraft and podcasts).

Some more quotes from the New York Times Interview:

The fragment is an old form, perhaps even our native form — don’t we speak to ourselves in curt directives, experience memory as clusters of language? In Offill’s hands, however, the form becomes something new, not a way of communicating estrangement or the scroll of a social media feed but a method of distilling experience into its brightest, most blazing forms — atoms of intense feeling.

And another, on Offill’s process, and how important physical text is for her work:

The key to her proc­ess, she told me, is time — hence the agonizing slowness of the writing. Only by waiting and continuing to stare at and sift these fragments does it become clear which ought to remain. So many, she said, lose their “radiance”; they reveal themselves to be merely clever.

My favourite books of 2019

In 2019 I read 44 books, even fewer than last year’s total of 78. Books have been pushed out a little by comics and some very good long-form journalism, so maybe I should be including those in next year’s round-up?

I tried to be a little pickier about what I read this year; but, looking back at the few books I did read, some were underwhelming. Which is not to say there weren’t some excellent books, just that picking out ten favourites was easier than it should have been. Here they are, in title order.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Yes, it’s another attack on social media, but this is a particularly thoughtful book. With so much time spent on these platforms, our use of them should be carefully considered.

The Future Starts Here by John Higgs

This was a great, optimistic book about the future. Doom and gloom sells well, but there’s a need for positivity about what lies ahead of us. Higgs is cynical where he needs to be, but still finds reasons to be hopeful.

The Heartland by Nathan Filer

About to be re-released as ‘This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health’, The Heartland didn’t get the attention it deserved. It’s a clear, lucid and moving book about mental health.

Immediatism by Hakim Bey

Discussed in May

Lanny by Max Porter

A slim novel, but a dense one. Porter uses typography and short paragraphs to produce an amazing chorus of voices in an English village. The book feels both mythic and timely, tapping into the currents of Brexit and folk horror. It’s also exciting to read a book which pushes the form of the physical page. I read it in a single sitting, with no electronic interruptions. This is a book that requires and justifies being read in that way.

Loose Connections by Johann Hari

Another book on mental health, and one I was very suspicious of. The book was more nuanced and important than the newspaper extracts implied. As austerity drags on into another decade, there are serious questions to be asked about how often we’re using mental health as a way to avoid facing the effects of economics.

Marvel Comics by Sean Howe

Discussed in May

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Discussed in November

Then it fell apart by Moby

Yes, Moby is an appalling person. Despite that, I love the vulnerability and quietness of his prose style.

William Blake Now by John Higgs

Discussed in November

William Blake, Now!

This year has seen two books from John Higgs. The major one was The Future Starts Here, an optimistic response to the world’s daunting problems. But Autumn has brought a second, smaller book, William Blake Now. This is a sort of pop-single in advance of a larger-book-as-album, due in 2021. Although, like the best singles/EPs, the material here is apparently not appearing in the upcoming release.

Blake is an interesting figure, claimed by both establishment and counter-culture. He’s been gentrified over the years too. In his review of the Blake show at the Tate, writer CJ Stone pointed out that Blake might well have found the current show too expensive to attend.

I’ve not engaged with Blake much. Obviously, I’ve seen his work referred to in pop culture, some of which Higgs refers to here. His work turns up too in El Sandifer’s books, and the poem London is the basis for the Verve’s premature farewell single, History. But like most people my closest relationship with him is through the hymn Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was sung in the itinerarium service at the end of every term in my school. It’s easy to love a song when you it is so connected with imminent freedom. It’s been suggested that it should be an English national anthem, which makes sense. It’s an uplifting and idealistic song compared to the dirge of God Save the Queen.

Blake is both the establishment figure who wrote Jerusalem and a hero to countercultural figures like Allen Ginsburg and Patti Smith. Higgs points out that Blake wrote several nationalist poems too, and sees his love of opposites as presenting a way forward in divided times: “For Blake, the deep connection to the place around him was the soil in which a larger spiritual love put down roots and grew to encompass the world… A sense of connection to your land… is necessary for… a deep respect for people of all cultures and creeds.” (P23) Higgs suggests this goes beyond being national/international or leave/remain as a “primary duality”.

The thing that remains with me most from this book is a discussion of the real goal of artists. Higgs talks about different needs of the artist’s ego (by which he means the “opinions, ideas, experiences and perspectives that make them who they are”) and the ideas that they work on, and the need for the latter to dissolve into wider culture. “The real goal of an artist is to dissipate into nothing and be forgotten.”

It’s a lovely book, and I can’t wait for the album.

Immediatism

Recently, a few people have urged me to read Hakim Bey’s Immediatism, and I notice that it’s listed in the index of John Higgs’ new book. The full text is online. It’s a short text, and well worth reading  (although I note here that I am aware of the serious issues around Bey).

The book looks at how we make art under capitalism. Bey takes the situationist idea of the spectacle as a starting point, looking at how all experience is inherently mediated, even if just through our sense organs, and that “for art, the intervention of Capital always signals a further degree of mediation“.

Whereas the situatoinsists left a few half-started, barely coherent strategies, Bey tries to find a solution to mediation. He acknowledges that people need to make a living, that for artists this mediation is essential for paying rent. But he suggests there should also be an ‘immediate art’, one communicated in person if possible, stripping away the barriers between us. ”

Publicly we’ll continue our work in publishing, radio, printing, music, etc., but privately we will create something else, something to be shared freely but never consumed passively, something which can be discussed openly but never understood by the agents of alienation, something with no commercial potential yet valuable beyond price, something occult yet woven completely into the fabric of our everyday lives.

One tactitc Bey suggests for this is in groups coming together, to make small gifts for each other, which should not be resold, and should even be kept secret to avoid being caught up in the nets of mediation. “Simply to meet together face-to-face is already an action against the forces which oppress us by isolation, by loneliness, by the trance of media.” This manifesto was written before facebooks, but often seems prescient.

An obvious matrix for Immediatism is the party. Thus a good meal could be an Immediatist art project, especially if everyone present cooked as well as ate. Ancient Chinese & Japanese on misty autumn days would hold odor parties, where each guest would bring a homemade incense or perfume. At linked-verse parties a faulty couplet would entail the penalty of a glass of wine. Quilting bees, tableaux vivants, exquisite corpses, rituals of conviviality… live music & dance

There’s a lovely pragmatism to this, running counter to the absolute stance of the situationists, which they failed to live up to at every opportunity. Bey looks at the problems the group might face, such as ‘busyness’. Time is an even more previous resource now, when we have so many things we should be doing, assisted by apps and notifications, while social media has become ubiquitous, insinuating itself into all areas of life. We have headspace meditations, fitness tracking apps, and language learning through duolingo, which makes language-learning so efficient you don’t need to speak to anyone. Now, when people get proficient at a hobby, there’s soon someone suggesting they open an Etsy shop.

I love the energy of these essays; and the reminder that, above all else, we need to meet in person. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about as it becomes harder to hold events in Brighton. Venues are closing, and those that remain charge high fees, or require a busy bar to underwrite the use of the space. Finding ways to meet with people offline becomes both more difficult and more important.

More lost Brighton bookshops

Brighton’s bookshops continue disappearing. After the sad loss of PS Brighton in 2017, Brighton Books has also gone from Kensington Gardens. And, late last year, Colin Page books quit the Lanes.

One of the things I loved about Brighton were the bookshops – enough that I sometimes sneaked away from school to spend a day searching them. Wax Factor continues to offer an amazing stock (and an often-tempting window display) and I hope it keeps going for many years yet. But these are hard times for second hand bookshops, finding themselves hammered by Amazon and charity bookshops, both of whom have a strong advantage in terms of tax.

My Favourite books of 2018

I finished 78 books this year. Looking back, there are still a fair few I’d have been better off abandoning rather than finishing – I still can’t break the habit of finishing books that was drummed into us at primary school. Despite that, I read some very good books, and picking an arbitrary ten means not talking about some of those.

My very favourite book this year was Rosy Carrick’s Chokey. Of course I’d say that, since this is a book I have a close connection with, having seen early performances of most of these pieces. All of them I love dearly, but the epic Thickening Water is one I remember from searing performances; and Vanishing Act is one that mentions my running – something I’ve been too injured to do for years and hearing that poem always makes me sad. But Chokey is a very good and moving book of poetry.

Ten other books, in alphabetical order by title:

  1. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States was recommended on Warren Ellis’ mailing list. It’s a fictional account of a nuclear war, written by Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program. What makes the book disturbing are the footnotes, showing how the scenario Lewis is describing is a plausible and real danger.
  2. I’ve been reading more horror and quite liked The Cabin at the end of the world. It was pulpy book, but read quickly. It describes a family who find themselves on the wrong side of a save-the-world scenario.
  3. An Era of Darkness is Shashi Tharoor’s brisk account of the British Empire’s crimes in India. Even having read a lot about India, elements of this came as a surprise to me. Given the resurgence of Imperial pride in Britain, this is a sobering read.
  4. Everyone I Know is Broken-Hearted is a collection of non-fiction by Josh Ellis. Some of these pieces I loved at the time and it was good to revisit them in a single batch. Ellis is an incredibly talented writer, and there is fire in these early pieces.
  5. Michal Lewis’s The Fifth Risk was heavily excerpted in the Guardian. It’s an interesting view on how government is more than politics, and how much work goes into keeping infrastructure running. In the midst of ongoing austerity it’s sober to see how much money goes into keeping us safe and how easily we take that for granted.
  6. Fire and Fury is an astounding book. Wolf has written a fascinating and gossipy account of Trump’s first months in office that reads like a Delillo novel. I read a lot of books on politics this year.
  7. New Dark Age by James Bridle was another Warren Ellis recommendation, which also featured in the Guardian. While it reads more as a collection than a single narrative, Bridle has drawn out some striking elements of the modern world.
  8. A chunk of Charlotte Higgins’ The Red Thread was also featured in the Guardian. It’s a book about Theseus and labyrinths that wanders through many academic and cultural themes. It was just what I hoped it would be.
  9. I saw Raynor Winn talk about The Salt Path at Port Eliot festival and it reduced much of the audience to tears. The book is unavoidably moving but it is also inspiring, the story of someone getting up and embarking on an epic walk against significant odds. This is one of the best books I’ve read on hiking.
  10. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is another book on hiking, most interesting for the vividness with which Strayed writes, and the trail culture they describe.

Amorphous Albion by Ben Graham

Last week, I read Ben Graham’s novel Amorphous Albion. The book is linked into the ongoing Discordian Revival in the UK, which Ben talked about in a recent interview with Historia Discordia. This revival links in with a lot of things I’ve loved for years including British comics, the KLF, and Ken Campbell. Ben has used this rich stew as the basis for an adventure story about the battle between order and chaos.

The book is written in a fast-paced pulpy style which reminded me of Michael Moorcock. But it’s also a richer text, with a dense network of associations. I picked up on a lot of them, but I had to pop online to check a few things, such as the Jimmy Cauty image of Stonehenge. I knew I’d love Amorphous Albion from the first page, which includes the line “We came back to earth with all the grace of a floundering car-park”. Ben is a poet, and uses this with fine effect, with some stunning use of language.

Amorphous Albion starts out on Brighton beach, with the Hove Space Program, who are devoted to the ‘exploration of inner and outer space’. Something bad has happened to the country; Ben describes how the i360 “lay on its side, half-submerged in the pebbles like a downed flying saucer”. The book heads out from Brighton on a tour of the country. It describes the fate of commuters at Three Bridges, what happened to Glastonbury, and Stonehenge overrun by military camps of Salisbury Plain. Lord Andrew Eldritch makes a cameo as the Raven King.

You don’t need to know about Robert Anton Wilson or the KLF to enjoy things like Ben’s theory on the 5th Beatle, which is sublime. But there are some lovely references, such as the way the 1992 KLF Annual becomes important to the plot; or the importance of Sheffield’s connection to Brighton. It’s also great to see mention of Wonderism.

Wonderism is the opposite of terrorism. There’s increasing terrorism in the world — to counter than, we have wonderism, which is random acts of joy…re-enchanting the world, making it seem strange and wonderful again through various artistic acts.

Sometimes I feel cynical about the Discordian Revival. There is a danger of the whole thing turning into counter-cultural cosplay – it can’t just be DJs and writers who are on the second or third act of their careers. Writers like John Higgs and Ben Graham shows there is more to it than reformed bands. There might actually be something gathering, a return of a counter-culture. “The loose collection of rebels, shirkers, outcasts and oddities generally known as the amorphous freak franchise… We’re not any kind of organised movement as such, but we know each other when we cross paths”

Ben has been working on some live performances of the book, including one at last year’s Superweird Happening. There was another one in Glasgow this weekend, and hopefully I’ll catch one in Brighton soon. (I missed the one last April to watch the Sisters of Mercy in London – very much the wrong decision).

While I’m cynical about some aspects of the Discordan revival, works like this make me authentically excited. While it does hark back to RAW and the KLF, there is enough new raw energy here to make it worth reading.

Fire and Fury

I’m loving the Fire and the Fury. Wollf’s book feels like a DeLillo novel, with its portrait of a property tycoon who accidentally becomes president. The hubris of it all is incredible, as is the portrait of a man who exists only through media. “He was postliterate – total television”.

Obviously, all the best bits are in the excerpts you’ve already read, but the novel itself is stunning.

– “What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model
“They’re people just like me,” said Trump. “Only they’re poor”

The concept is a far-fetched in places, but once you suspend your disbelief it’s enthralling. I’m only a quarter of the way through, but I fear for the nuclear tragedy the author is setting up.

Basically, our universe has been invaded by a fiction.

(originally posted on facebook)