LENZ: Early Cosmic Horror

….the heavens were a stupid blue eye…

Wayne Chambliss put me on to Georg Buchner’s LENZ, which I read in its entirely before sleep one night.  Because me smart.

At last it grew dark inside him, he experienced a soft, profound compassion for himself, he wept for himself, his head sank down upon his chest, he went to sleep.

It is a speculation upon the true story of Jakob Lenz, who, having become increasingly “eccentric,” is sent to a rural location by his associate Goethe.  Lenz has a complete mental break.  Buchner imagines that descent into madness.  It feels completely true, and is completely chilling.

In his breast hell was rehearsing a song of triumph.

It’s been described as the beginning of modern prose.  I was aware of Buchner, having discovered DANTON’S DEATH as a teenager, but had never read this. Wayne put me on to it because I’d been talking about cosmic horror and this, to him, had its overtones – perhaps even its original notes.  He was quite right.

Next morning he came down and told Oberlin quite calmly how in the night his mother had appeared to him: dressed in white, she had stepped from the dark churchyard wall, a red and a white rose fastened to her breast; she had sunk down into a corner and slowly the roses had overgrown her – she must surely be dead; he was quite untroubled on that account.

It’s a magnificent act of immersion in an alien mind. It has utter truth.  It has real, human horror – looking out through the eyes of a man losing his mind.  I’ve seen people describe reading it as transformative, and I can see why.

On the morning of the 8th he remained in bed. Oberlin went to see him; he lay there almost naked and was greatly excited. Oberlin wished to cover him, but Lenzcomplained bitterly, saying that all was so heavy, so very heavy! that he did not think he could walk at all, that never before had he felt the immense weight of the air.

LENZ is most readily (and, I think, cheaply) available as part of a collection: (UK) (US)

LANNY, Max Porter: Dead Papa Toothwort Awakens

Dead Papa Toothwort exhales, relaxes, lolls inside the stile, smiles and drinks it in, his English symphony.

LANNY by Max Porter is about England, to be sure.  His awful Dead Papa Toothwort, Green Man and spirit of an English village, could probably be productively read against Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM, in fact. That earthly, faintly malign, strutting and lolling poisonous Englishness.

Dead Papa Toothwort has seen monks executed on this land, seen witches drowned, seen industrial slaughter of animals, seen men beat each other senseless, seen bodies abused and violated, seen people hurt their closest, harm themselves, plot and worry or panic and rage, and the same can be said of the earth. He has seen the land itself cut apart, its top layer disembowelled, stripped and re-plundered, sliced into tinier pieces by wire, hedges and law. He has seen it poisoned by chemicals. He has seen it outlive its surgeons, worshippers and attackers. It holds firm and survives the village again and again and he loves it. He wouldn’t do well in a wilderness.

Dead Papa Toothwort is the spirit of a rural village which has recently become home to Robert, a financial services worker, Jolie, an ex-actor working on her first novel, and their young son Lanny.  Who is, immediately, of the land, like a bud from Papa Toothwort.  To try and channel his wild dreamy nature, they convince a local artist — known in the village as Mad Pete, a part-retired avant-garde artist of the 20th Century — to give him lessons.  

Dead Papa Toothwort has lessons he wants to teach, too.

Glorious, he sings, as he swings his way back into the woods, flinging himself in thirty-foot arcs between telegraph poles, dressed as a barn owl with car-tyre arms…

Reviews of LANNY alight on different things, I’ve noticed.  It’s a novel of three parts.  The longest, and most enjoyable, is an exploration of spirit and art.  The language is often astonishing, and I recommend it chiefly to swim in Porter’s sentences.  The second part is harrowing.  And the final part is disturbing, and can be characterised as a trial. What do you alight on?  The woman writing a crime novel finds herself living a crime novel?  The moment where hope is punished on the stage? The way the rankness of old England reclaims the wondrous and renders it declawed and quotidian?

It’s about England.  It’s about how cities and towns and villages want to knock the art out of you.  It’s about how you stop listening to the world and start doing what the invisible voices tell you to.

Note: buy this in print, or use something other than a basic Kindle.  It does tricks with word art that an e-ink Kindle can’t render.

LANNY, Max Porter (UK) (US)

LENZ, Georg Büchner

I need to get into the habit of logging book purchases, too. Wayne Chambliss put me on to this.

…the tale of the real-life writer J.M.R. Lenz’s nineteen-day stay in Waldersbach in 1778, describing his wanderings around the mountainous surroundings and his worsening fits of madness, eventually culminating in his removal, under guard, to Strasbourg. Valued both as a chillingly convincing exploration of the reality of paranoid schizophrenia and an influential forerunner of literary modernism…

Sold, right?

(UK) (US edition includes other work)


The Miasma

I’m reading FALL, OR DODGE IN HELL by Neal Stephenson this week, and was amused to see characters refer to social media as The Miasma. Maybe a little obvious, but so was that “Dark Forest” piece that was circulating the other week, and the Miasma mixes its metaphors less.

In the early parts, there are cynically-conceived attempts to crash The Miasma – not in an INFINITE DETAILS just-fuck-the-whole-internet way, more like techbro over-engineered GAN-y game-y bot-y ways. Sociocultural accelerationism, basically, where the bad parts are ramped up and overheated until social media crashes into a wall of reality.

It’s not offered as a solution, of course, because this is a piece of fiction. But there does seem a growing sense that fiction should now be the lab for speculative solutions to The Miasma.

Personally, I’m about to declare RSS bankruptcy, edit my subscriptions and start from scratch. If you’re blogging and I know you, please drop me a note so I can make sure I’m following along. Thanks.

FALL, OR DODGE IN HELL, Neal Stephenson (UK) (US)

Misery Loves Company: The Philosophy Of Samuel Beckett

…what the artist really needs is only occasional relief from the necessary loneliness of his creative situation.

I have, for a long time, been moving slowly through an old book, THE PHILOSOPHY OF SAMUEL BECKETT by John Calder. It is hard going in places, and demanding, with, naturally enough, dated language.  But, looking back today, I find I have highlighted a lot of sentences and passages.

He saw art as an encumbrance, a deflection from a will that should be concentrated entirely on hating God.

I mean, if you have no great interest in Beckett, it’s unlikely to be for you, unless philosophy is really your thing.  It does, however, get into his method from time to time:

Above all he weeded out, in the later work, any superfluous implantations, thereby achieving a prose of maximum economy where adjectives were sparingly used and anything in the present time of the speaker that was not within eyeshot or hearing would not be present, except as memory.

And this, which I found fascinating, as a devotee of the plays:

Beckett’s rehearsal notebooks, which have been preserved at Reading University, contain the author’s drawings of the Godot stage movements in the productions he directed: cruciform designs abound, both in the walks of the characters and the crossed heaps of bodies when Pozzo falls in the second act and is unable to rise. Besides crosses, there are many circles to describe how the characters should move around the stage, and the origin of these is Dante’s concentric circles of hell. So the visual language and the spoken combine to create a new dramatic vocabulary, in its way as stylized as Chinese opera, every gesture having significance. The audience should find its initial fascination with this new non-naturalistic, sometimes balletic and mimetic, drama gradually turning into curiosity and the desire to know more, as it begins to realize the symbolical quality of the play.

Hard going, occasionally somewhat asking to be put in a corner to think about what it just said, but rewarding.


CAT CALL, Kristen Sollée’s New Book About Cats, Myth & Magic

My friend Kristen Sollée, with whom I attempted to drink How The Light Gets In dry last year, has a new book announced. She’s very good, very smart, and if you read WITCHES SLUTS FEMINISTS you already knew that.

This is the write-up:

“Interweaving historical research, pop culture, and original interviews, Kristen Sollée reclaims the cat archetype as a source of feminine identify and sexual power.

“The cat: A sensual shapeshifter. A hearth keeper, aloof, tail aloft, stalking vermin. A satanic accomplice. A beloved familiar. A social media darling. A euphemism for reproductive parts. An epithet for the weak. A knitted hat on millions of marchers, fists in the air, pink pointed ears poking skyward. Cats and cat references are ubiquitous in art, pop culture, politics, and the occult, and throughout history, they have most often been coded female.

“From the “crazy cat lady” unbowed by patriarchal prescriptions to the coveted sex kitten to the dreadful crone and her yowling compatriot, feminine feline archetypes reveal the ways in which women have been revered and reviled around the world—in Greek and Egyptian mythology, the European witch trials, Japanese folklore, and contemporary film.

“By combining historical research, pop culture, art analyses, and original interviews, Cat Call explores the cat and its indivisible connection to femininity and teases out how this connection can help us better understand the relationship between myth, history, magic, womanhood in the digital age, and our beloved, clawed companions.”

Out in September. Up for pre-order now: (UK) (US)


SLOW HORSES by Mick Herron.  First of a series of (checks Wikipedia) five novels and two novellas.

Here’s the deal.  The Security Service, known popularly as MI5, sometimes can’t outright fire people.  Political reasons, operational reasons.  But it would still like to get rid of them. So it puts them in Slough House, a dismal set of offices intended to make those consigned there so miserable that they just quit.  Those people are known as slow horses. Slough House, slow horse.  Slough House is run by Jackson Lamb, himself a slow horse of mysterious provenance, an impressively offensive creature who looks a bit like Timothy Spall if you stuffed Timothy Spall with old pork fat and left him out in the rain for six weeks.

(Side note: Herron “casting” Lamb as Timothy Spall is, in its own way, as devious as Jeffrey Deaver describing Amelia Sachs in THE BONE COLLECTOR as an impossibly hot actress/supermodel, thereby creating the space for the inevitable casting of Angelina Jolie in the film version.)

Herron likes an odd name.  The lens for the book is a new slow horse called River Cartwright, for example.  Herron enjoys himself immensely with names, and also details. The one thing you’ll take away from this book is that Herron is writing only to amuse himself, and having a whale of a time doing it.  The twists and tangles of the plot, involving right-wing extremists and about twenty bad choices, propelled me through the book at quite a clip, but I always paused to admire the amount of fun Herron was having.  Boris Johnson, or a legally deniable version thereof, shows up halfway through, pretty much note-perfect, and he’s there largely so Herron can hate him.

It’s got a big crowd-pleasing third act, the complex weave of plot threads is handled very well, and it’s basically an extremely skilfully tailored entertainment.  If you ever liked a spy novel or a crime novel, you’re going to kick back with this, have a good time and wonder why it’s not on tv with Timothy Spall.

SLOW HORSES, Mick Herron (UK) (US)


Just arrived today, SPECTRES, from Shelter Press. Essays on composing and listening from, among many others, Félicia Atkinson, Stephen O’Malley, Jim O’Rourke, Eliane Radigue and Chris Watson. All essays presented in English and French. Details and ordering at this link here. Really looking forward to spending some time with this.


THE WORST IS YET TO COME by Peter Fleming does what it says on the tin.  It’s a set of thoughts and survival tips on… well, it all starts when Fleming goes, as many people do, to view a cupboard that someone’s offering for rent as an apartment in London:

That awful apartment told me something. Neoliberal capitalism had probably run its course, spawning progeny it could no longer protect itself from. The constellation of possibilities that once flourished in cities like London had vanished. There were no antibodies left. Capitalism was undoing itself at nearly every turn. A kind of neo-Feudalism was on the march. Perhaps we were witnessing the birth of post-capitalism after all, not a clean and better alternative to the system, but (rather paradoxically) a much worse version of it, one that will make the “Trump Years” look like a tiptoe through the tulips.

My theory is this. Most advanced industrial societies have actually outlived the principles of capitalism and are busy transitioning into something else. It is still too early to say what that “something else” might be. But we do know the break won’t be clean. So the post-capitalist future we should prepare for will be no classless utopia. The worst features of capitalism will be amplified and applied reductio ad absurdum, coalescing around the return of preindustrial norms of authority and an incredible polarisation of wealth.

Donald Trump, Brexit, the impending environmental eco-blitz (or what NASA calls a “Type-L” collapse given the role played by elites) and the prospect of another Radiohead album give the appearance that things couldn’t possibly get worse. And yet, I disagree. They probably will.

It’s cheerful, yes.  It’s also great fun to read, free of jargon, and very clear about where it’s coming from and where it’s going. It is, in some ways, a collation and re-statement of a lot of themes that have emerged over the last while, but it has new ideas too. I am very grateful for a book of this kind that does not also do one all over itself about the genius of Karl Marx.  Also, goddamn, any work of political economics that talks about WG Sebald has my immediate vote.

(And makes me need to re-read Sebald’s magisterial THE RINGS OF SATURN for the umpteenth time.)

Fleming suggests speculative negativity and revolutionary pessimism as tools for surviving the shitstorm to come.  The latter out of Sebald, the former out of object-oriented ontology.

Speculative negativity helps us divine the ghosts from the future that are now wandering among us. For example, look at Lethal Automated Weapons (or LAWs) and AI-equipped military technologies. If there is any innovation in the economy today, then it’s happening here.

Revolutionary pessimism anticipates the nastiest surprises that a derailed civilisation has to offer, yet refuses the cult of futility…  Collective misery and individual optimism are just different sides of the same coin. Revolutionary pessimism inverts the formula (i.e., generalised optimism and individual unease) to forge a radical hopelessness.

He appends this to one section, possibly just for the hell of it:

Society needs to be de-Twitterised and experience a Twitter-winter.

I have to note that it is a perhaps surprisingly funny book.  Which is just as well, given that it lays out how things are not likely to improve economically or politically in the short term. Think of it as a book-long “get your own oxygen mask on first and remember your training.”  Except maybe a little grimmer than the tone I like to strike in the sign-off. Under the chapter about capitalism as cult, for example:

Cults will use anything to control their members, from the greatest pleasures to the most acute anxieties. Sometimes it’s best to feel nothing and go numb. Political wisdom is knowing when.

It’s a passionate, furious, self-aware and oddly funny book about the darkness ahead – and, as in James Bridle’s recent NEW DARK AGE, about the dawn after the dark.

And, as you may have noticed, insanely quotable:

The only way to retain your integrity when using a mobile app is to follow Joseph Conrad’s advice to the letter: “I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice”.