Everything is connected

One of the oft-discussed features of the mental disorder called schizophrenia is an extreme preoccupation with meaning. In a society increasingly suffering from the malaise of meaninglessness – a sense that something is missing exploited by a vast range of purveyors of books, DVDs, workshops, courses, retreats, spiritual tourism and more – the pathologising of failure to monetise a sense of meaning may itself be symptomatic of a collective disorder.

A sense of meaning tends to emerge when we see connections between things. Symbols and signs hold meaning only to the extent that they point to or represent something else. Some meanings, such as those represented by $$, remain constant compared to, say, the underrated significance of mass extinction.

With the rise of science, or rationalism, many old systems of meaning (e.g., astrology) have lost their former status. What once was plain to see (e.g., planetary line-ups, eclipses etc.) has been displaced by increasingly mediated, specialised, theoretical research. And with the explosion of data attending each new discovery, today’s info overload alongside heated debate about how to tackle global warming, and other such threats to life as we know it, has fostered an atmosphere of fragmentation.

It’s a case of TMI, whether from too many sources or from only one but strategically distorted, and often presented in simplistic terms or disconnected from context. Bombarded by input 24/7, we often struggle to discriminate between real and fake news, truth and spin. We’ve never had access to more facts and on such a massive scale, yet much of what we learn leads to confusion. We overdose on factoids then seek yet more distraction. In a consumerist age where such notions as an all-seeing God and an orderly cosmos are outmoded, we’re shoppers trying on a range of options for restoring meaning. Imagine the appeal of a package that promises to simplify and demystify how our universe works. What if Einstein got it all wrong?

But in a world where packaging counts for more than content, basic psychology might trump a PhD in physics if you want to sell an alternative cosmology. The meteoric development of science and high tech in recent decades has caused many to fear – or experience – redundancy. No wonder some turn to YouTube, where both experts and cranks can share their views and news, subject to their Google ranking. Online, for instance, flat-earthers and those compelled to convince them that Earth is round can engage in a virtual shouting match on a level playing field. Like democratic votes, hits decide whose theory rules.

In the early ’90s I read a book called Worlds in Collision (1950) by a Freudian shrink, Immanuel Velikovsky, whose highly creative synthesis of analytic theory and ancient myth put a new spin on the history of our solar system. Supposedly, catastrophic events described in the Old Testament and the myths of ancient cultures, Eastern and Western, had been repressed at the collective level. So the human race needed to face the truth – overcome our species’ amnesia – to avert nuclear doom and realise world peace. His ideas had such an impact on the ’60s and ’70s counterculture that some of his acolytes never outgrew them, but continued the work of their guru, disseminating their findings online, soliciting crowdfunding for research… So his vision lives on in The Thunderbolts Project, whose founders are senior citizens now. And what most struck me about a YouTube presentation by one, electric universe theorist, Wal Thornhill, was his pre-emptive introduction:

Before I tell the epic story, a warning. Our education systems train students to memorise a litany of facts which produces global groupthink. Students are not given the time or encouragement to critically examine the history of ideas. A leading researcher into the learning functions of the divided brain, Dr Iain McGilchrist, has shown such blinkered left-hemisphere training renders students functionally blind to alternative ways of looking at a problem. ‘The left hemisphere simply blocks out everything that doesn’t fit with its take. It doesn’t see it, actually, at all.’ So scientists with their narrow specialised training may look at but cannot see what to a non-expert may seem obvious. They will be the last to see a paradigm shift in the making.

McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, sure looks more thoroughly researched than Thornhill’s ‘epic story’, though what follows Thornhill’s induction (forgive the electrical pun) went over my head. I can’t actually prove that Earth never orbited Saturn – but his loose logic arouses suspicion. (Take this random example of ‘what to a non-expert may seem obvious’: ‘In reality… the horizon will always be at eye level no matter how high you go! No curvature will be seen.’ Obvious until surveying instruments confuse the issue.) Nor could I make sense of Thornhill’s concluding warning:

Along with the genius Carl Jung, [Velikovsky] warned that mankind is his own worst enemy. So the cultural change offered by Electric Universe cosmology is essential for our survival. By offering a real understanding of the universe and our history, it offers hope and inspiration where presently there is none. There is far more to life in the electric universe than is dreamt of presently. We are all intimately connected with each other and the Earth.

Do such platitudes encourage one ‘to critically examine’ Thornhill’s ideas? And as Jung’s genius didn’t extend to physics, what does his warning, or Velikovsky’s, have to do with the price of fish? For all their brilliance, Thornhill’s heroes (shrinks, including McGilchrist) aren’t scientists – and Thornhill’s conclusion has nothing to do with the physical universe. He promises something less tangible than knowledge – salvation from fear, despair, aloneness and emptiness. In a society characterised by left-hemisphere dominance, such feelings are epidemic. But mightn’t the opposite blind us to category mistakes?

The height of Velikovsky’s fame came late. A celebrity in his 70s, he inspired students and outsiders all over America with his heresies. Accused by others of delusions of grandeur, he lacked the humility essential to the work of a historian – variations in translation, selective revisions over millennia and the subjectivity of memory, among other issues, render all historical accounts provisional. His faith in biblical history, though, led Velikovsky, trained as a shrink, to radically rethink other disciplines (e.g., physics and astronomy, a far cry from theories of the unconscious). And yet, unsatisfied with cult status as an anti-establishment hero, he never ceased chasing mainstream acceptance for his ideas.

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The Hoarder’s Daughter

Has anyone else noticed a growing trend towards novels titled The Something-or-other’s Daughter? Apparently they have. Lists abound. Mine, a short one, includes The Astrologer’s Daughter (2014), The Botanist’s Daughter (2018) and The Clockmaker’s Daughter (2018).

According to Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, publishers may be behind these unoriginal titles. She asks a favourite bookseller who says readers buy what’s familiar. And indeed, these titles typically feature traditional jobs – no AI engineers or data scientists. The only one I’ve read is The Ringmaster’s Daughter (2001) by Jostein Gaarder, a twisted tale of unwitting incest from a male perspective. (Yawn.)

Personally, I’m tired of patriarchal narratives: these titles perpetuate the anonymity of women. And historically, ‘daughter’ carries baggage to do with being someone’s property, a chattel to be married for political and/or financial advantage.

Preferring to be identified by my profession, like the fictional parents of all these fictional females, I’ve rarely thought of myself as a daughter. A word that implies relatedness in the sense of belonging to anyone, irrespective of gender, feels loaded to me. Styled by my mother as a smaller version of herself, I sought my own identity through rebellion. By age three, I’d become ‘a real handful’ and she panicked. Diagnosed as agoraphobic, medicated on Librium, she took her doctor’s advice to find a hobby. And for the next few decades she sewed countless items of clothing, curtains, cushion covers, dachshund doorstops etc., hiding humble objects like toilet seats and boxes of tissues inside pastel padded quilting and frills.

Also covered up, I’ve since learned, was her conception out of wedlock (her parents had married just four months before her birth) and her brother’s illegitimate daughter when he was nineteen. His fiancée sued him for breach of promise and his mother, who paid the price, kept the receipt. When I discovered it I knew what it pertained to because my formerly secret cousin had told me. I’d learned about her after answering a letter from a second cousin, which I’d found among reams of overlooked mail my mother had hoarded for decades.

Anyway, culling my mother’s possessions has led me to reflect on why so much female creativity should be devoted to decorating – covering up – manmade inventions, something I never used to question. My mother encouraged me from an early age to master knitting. Then came crochet, macramé, copper enamelling, origami… But each of these hobbies soon bored me; riding a horse or even a skateboard would have been far more rewarding.

On leaving school, I explored more exciting ways to kill time than making Afghan rugs, cloche hats and toe socks while watching TV. Handicrafts existed to keep restless girls like me out of trouble, out of touch with real-world issues, safely out of sight – too sheltered to develop courage, strength or an intellect. Patience? To the extent that repetition is trance inducing, these pastimes may be a form of meditation. But the fruit of any truly spiritual practice isn’t as tangible as a beaded belt or a woollen tank top. Besides, why bother when technology was churning out blouses, trousers and knitwear much faster and more cheaply than my mother could make them by hand?

The thing was, these pursuits not only quietened her anxiety; they connected her to a local social sewing circle of women who eventually became her friends for life. One of these friends even met my illegitimate cousin’s father during a holiday in Bali – providing photos of him and his family that fill a chronological gap.

But what my mother didn’t consider, as she steered me towards domesticity, was that my peers had other interests. So I knitted, knotted and crocheted in solitude until art school offered escape. I moved out of home at the first opportunity, which on a student allowance meant a tiny room in a huge share house. Suddenly my social life and world view expanded. And the more I craved travel, the less I wanted to own things that wouldn’t fit in a backpack. What mattered were skills like improvising meals at short notice for hordes of people – resourcefulness and flexibility, not dependence on patterns. Loath to be seen in a hand-knitted scarf or beanie, I bought boho clothes from op shops, while my mother stored my cast-offs in plastic bags with mothballs.

Last month a bric-a-brac dealer came to pick through family heirlooms and rubbish (now my widowed mother’s confined to a small shared room with only one cupboard – the sort of place you can land when you abandon normal hygiene standards and neglect to answer your phone and front door). And the first dealer gave my number to a second – who turned out to be a woman I’d lived with in that huge share house. Hunting through the mess in search of retro treasures, my former housemate stumbled on a stash of child-sized crocheted clothes. As she started to laugh, I cringed with shame. But, ‘I like these!’ she said, and added them to her haul. I never let on who’d made them.

One early sign of my mother’s decline was her loss of interest in such activities. Sewing got sidelined while she nursed her dying husband, to be resumed after his death – but without conviction. And as time passed, and her depression didn’t, unfinished garments stuck full of pins piled up. She couldn’t imagine herself as other than a wife (and a mother): defined by her relationship – of necessity – to loved ones. Meanwhile her sewing circle dispersed, to aged care and beyond, leaving her alone. And finally I was left to dispose of the hundreds of out-of-date handmade tops, pants, skirts, frocks, jackets and jumpers she’d refused to sell or donate during the 14 years that much of it lay untouched in musty cupboards.

On my parents’ vintage cane bookshelf I found Catherine Gaskin’s Daughter of the House (1952) and A Daughter of the Land (1918) by Gene Stratton-Porter – ‘daughter’ has featured in book titles for a long time. But even now, where are the titles referring to men as belonging to women? (The Lap Dancer’s Son; The Checkout Chick’s Husband; The Romance Novelist’s Uncle…?) Apparently they exist. Yet one comprehensive commentary notes that males are less likely to be defined by their relationships.

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The illusion of realism

There was a time when painting from photos was radical, or denounced as cheating. Now it’s taken for granted, while styles like expressionism are out of fashion. It’s as if the ubiquity of the photographic image, fuelled by digital media, promotes blandly sterile art geared to impress superficially rather than evoke deep feeling – which negates at least one good reason for working in a tactile medium.

What a paradox that, despite its fidelity and speed, modern technology can’t beat painting straight from life for immediacy. The artist must submit to the limits imposed by using a sitter who tires, twitches and shifts unpredictably. And during the process, an atmosphere, a mood, develops in the studio, whether or not artist and model chat and/or hold eye contact – an unavoidable intimacy that makes the stakes higher (as with plein-air painting, through exposure to weather, insects etc.).

A painter friend of mine sometimes used to pay me to model for him. I appreciated the cash in hand, but a typical pose would mean standing, perhaps with an arm raised or most of my weight on one leg for hours, the time between breaks diminishing as blood drained from my limbs, one side of me covered in gooseflesh, the other seared by the kerosene heater. My friend – I’ll call him R – was dedicated to realism, seeking verisimilitude in the smallest details.

And yet, an elusive strangeness distinguished his paintings. The ambiguous relationship of the figures to the settings – some looked displaced, others like actors in an obscure ritual – partly explained the surreal effect. And inevitably, some unfortunate distortion – of a hand or a mouth or a leg’s foreshortening – would shoot any illusion of realism in the foot.

I never knew whether R couldn’t afford the time (or the money) to fix these flaws, whether he couldn’t actually see them, or whether he just didn’t care. But no dealer would represent him. In all the years of our friendship I never saw his work hung in a gallery, only on or stacked against the walls of his front room-cum-studio. The odds of success were stacked against R.

Originality rarely commands gallery space, except in retrospect. It alienates investors shopping for a sure bet. But contacts count. And R, the defiant cuss, would get drunk and shoot his mouth off at openings. His mentor, an art-world darling (and a more docile drunk), did his best. Yet R made wealthy middle-class art collectors uncomfortable.

So what? I loved R’s paintings. Even those that didn’t work emanated mystery, not least by defamiliarising recognisable places. Carting a stretched canvas, R would bike to local sites like the stairs below Sydney Harbour Bridge, where he’d set up and paint, despite stares and questions from passers-by. His enigmatic compositions of places and figures couldn’t be called landscapes or portraits, though some would fit the ‘genre’ definition: scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people at work or play, depicted in a generally realistic way. And a fair few, flaws and all, deserved to be Sulman Prize finalists, the criteria for eligibility being confusingly broad. In fact, one did get hung, once (before I knew R, so I never saw it).

Does genre mean something different in the context of fiction? Its typically formulaic plots have little to do with the quotidian. Which leaves literary fiction to do the heavy lifting of depicting everyday life (even if ordinary folk watch TV more than they read) – much like the work of realist painters who, however highly skilled, lack the mystical vision that gripped R between stints at his day job as builder. According to novelist Amitav Ghosh: ‘the very gestures with which [the “realist” novel] conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. And media theorist McKenzie Wark more or less agrees: ‘The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic details – filler – to make it appear otherwise.’

As for the visual arts equivalent, viewers of last year’s leading local portrait exhibitions could be forgiven for thinking that most painters today are realists, seeking verisimilitude in the smallest details. Yet nothing strange distinguishes their paintings. Attempts to duplicate the 2D photographic image, with or without false sentiment, the best being hard to distinguish from an enlarged colour print, all tend to look somewhat similar, even if hyperrealist. Flaunting every blemish, hair, pore, vein and wrinkle, the latter are smeared with naturalistic details, to quote Wark again. Filler.

Yet most portrait subjects today, whether public figures, family or friends, lack the time and/or the will to sit still for hours on end, so photos assist the painter to achieve a recognisable likeness and, often, a slicker product than if the subject were present. Realist painting became redundant, though, with the invention of the camera. Freed from the task of recording, painters followed their visions inwards or out to the further reaches of abstraction; defied the conventions of representation. Art, as the Nazis recognised, hence their violent suppression of it, once had the power to shape culture. But is that true now? That so many contemporary artists aspire only to mimic what technology already does better points to a kind of mindlessness, a loss of imagination.

One of the 20th century’s most original artists, Francis Bacon, leaned heavily on photographic sources, yet transformed them. In contrast, the artists favoured by most art prize judges today trade in cliché: the illustrated idea of their subject rather than a direct experience. These artists, whose skill is often outshone by that of top magazine illustrators, could more aptly be termed craftspeople. Demonstrating technical control, if not mastery, they might even achieve a striking likeness. Yet Bacon understood that for a work to be truly good, he had to risk some loss of control. Writes Gilles Deleuze in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, ‘Narration is the correlate of illustration.’ Bacon resisted both. Narration, illustration – both serve the purpose of mediation. Narration leads, distracts, diverts, hypnotises, manipulates, shepherding the reader’s/viewer’s/listener’s attention. Illustrations interpret. They instruct. They entertain. In children’s books, they direct (and contain) the young reader’s imagination. Most advertising relies on narration and illustration.

Bacon sought a more direct expression. He lived dangerously. But an artist like Bacon couldn’t exist, or at least couldn’t succeed, today. Our fetishisation of technology (and attendant dissociation from nature, both inner and outer) has increasingly inclined us to seek virtual thrills and actual safety. Meanwhile, technology dwarfs our capacity for memory, the faculty we humans use to produce what we call reality. And it’s as if, in the process, we’ve forgotten what makes us truly human – messy emotion, immediacy, vulnerability, openness to the unknown…

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Interview with a good old-fashioned troublemaker

Initially I encountered X through a random assignment via the automated system on a writers’ site. Unlike most of the thousand or so other site users whose work I’d critiqued, he was breaking the rules of how to write publisher-friendly fiction yet wished to keep doing so. Though unschooled in the clichés peddled by handbooks, workshops and tertiary courses, this solitary outsider had instead been reading widely. A provocative correspondence ensued, via email and airmail – a cultural exchange that’s lasted nearly three years and rocks to this day…

Observer of Times: Over the years, I’ve noticed that most writers – of fiction, at least – appear to be writing for readers not unlike themselves. So, from reading a few anonymous pages it’s possible to guess an author’s gender, class, level of education, and even their age group. Yet when I first read your work, knowing nothing but your nationality, I nailed just one attribute: picked you for a Gen X-er but only suspected you might be male. Do you have a concept of an audience for your writing and, if so, how would you define or describe it?

Gen X-er: I like the idea of trying to give people what they didn’t know existed, and that sort of an approach rather precludes having a definite audience in mind. As a reader, what I’m always hoping to discover is work that subverts the conventions in some way. I’m not alone in this. There are other picky, adventurous readers out there. That’s who I like to think I’m writing for – though of course my primary allegiance is to my characters.

O: Your idea of trying to give readers what they don’t yet know exists (and to which I also subscribe) deviates from (to put it mildly) the model most publishers use for profit. Devoting the bulk of their marketing budget to formulaic escapism (and at frequent, predictable intervals offering a top-up), they need – and therefore breed – passive, conformist readers.

Which writers have most inspired you, and why? And did they have trouble getting their work published?

X: I can pinpoint what sparked my interest in fiction: non-linear bombsite narratives. The Cornelius stories by Michael Moorcock – and others – were what I found I could relate to in my early teens. Those novels and short stories (and cartoon strips) were contemporary, urban, anarchic, funny, strange and yet familiar (or vice versa). The city I lived in was pitted with thirty-year-old bombsites; it wasn’t difficult to imagine the characters from The English Assassin visiting a weapons dump near the school I went to. From the new wavers I was led, predictably enough perhaps, on to Burroughs and to the realization that a novel can be a type of bizarre sketch show. The writers I respect are seldom, if ever, literary purists.

Modernists, postmodernists, mythologizers, fabulists, surrealists, whatever the convenient tag, I appreciate writers who draw from a diverse range of sources, adopting and adapting techniques from various 20th-century art movements, from cinema, pop culture, television, info tech, any new advance fiction can’t afford to ignore.

Moorcock, Ballard and Angela Carter didn’t, as far as I know, have major struggles getting their work published. Or at least they didn’t in the 1970s, an era when publishing seems to have been more foetidly healthy than it is today. (I only learned this recently but Alice in Wonderland was self-published. It did okay, I hear.)

O: In a note Moorcock wrote on his Cornelius stories in ’76, he says that part of his original intention was ‘to “liberate” the narrative; to leave it open to the reader’s interpretation as much as possible – to involve the reader in such a way as to bring their own imagination into play’. From what I’ve read of your work, I’d guess that’s part of your intention. If so, and given the growing challenge of finding active readers today, how do you know if you’ve left your narrative open enough to their interpretation?

X: You guess right, and the truth is I’m not always sure whether I’ve negotiated a successful path between the too obvious and the too obscure. But why not go all out, run the risk of alienating some readers and trusting that you’ll intrigue some of the, dare I say, more discriminating ones? For me it comes down to imagery. Take an image as sharp as, say, de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. There, the real work’s done and each viewer’s free to come up with an interpretation to satisfy themselves. Chances are it will then change and develop over time. Interpretations have a habit of doing just that.

Gut feeling is also crucial. A writer can’t go too far wrong when she seizes upon what’s surprised her most while immersed in a project. That said, I’ve had reactions of polar extremity to the same story, incomprehension on the one hand, ‘I know where this comes from’ on the other. One reader’s scary neighbourhood turns out to be another reader’s backyard.

O: You recently identified your strengths (rather modestly) as ‘comedy and casual grotesquery’. Others I can think of include your feel for the surreal conveyed through inventive turns of phrase that reveal the known world in strange new ways, which de Chirico does so hauntingly with paint. As a fellow former art student, I’m partial to comparisons between visual and literary vocabularies. But a painting can be viewed in its entirety in an instant, while all but the briefest flash fictions demand an investment of at least a few minutes, with some tomes even taking months. As a writer who (like me) has worked full-time on fiction for 20+ years, what have you done so far to find readers and get feedback?

X: Early on, I’d submit first drafts to publishers – entire manuscripts, no copyediting. I sure knew how not to do it. Nevertheless, the first MS I submitted was considered, briefly, for publication by an up and coming (now defunct) indie imprint. I am happy to report that the deal, the ghost of one at least, came to nothing. The embarrassment of having my name tied to the dross I was hammering out at the time might have thrown cold water on my desire to write. I had short stories published in small press magazines, and I dipped a toe into the cyber paddling pool of a writers’ online community. I’d recommend it for the small number of serious writers you get to correspond with. Lately, I admit, I’ve not felt motivated to seek outlets for my stuff. There’s something off-putting about the relative ease with which it’s now possible to have work published as an e-book. As you’ve said, everyone’s a writer now, published on social media. Access for all, great, I’m nothing if not an indie DIY fan at heart. Only its downside is a typo-polluted, unedited ocean of ordure I’d sooner avoid catching a whiff of. Or add to its stink, for that matter. Laugh.

O: Besides such obvious parallels as a narrow escape from premature indie publication, some short works in print, and exposure to wildly divergent feedback through the writers’ site where we met, it seems we share certain values and attitudes. Have I mentioned how much I deplore the growing incidence of humans viewing other humans solely as potential consumers? (Oz writer Stephen Wright aptly refers to ‘mutant, vultured, panopticised supercapitalism’ in a call for subversion.) And whether our capitalist system creates or results from narcissism, literary culture has changed radically in recent years. Originality, quality and depth can’t figure when today’s author reportedly needs to spend 90% of their time on marketing, not writing, to succeed. No longer can we hide and let the text speak for itself. Once upon a time, publishers handled publicity, leaving us to mine our imaginations. Now our role has been turned inside out. Being read depends on being observed, first of all by the writer: a split. A state towards which writers already tend, it may be a precondition for creating some, if not all, kinds of fiction. But brand building is more restrictive.

And as writers who can’t or won’t conform to the new cultural norm by using (and having our data mined by) corporate-geared social media, we find ourselves with few (if any) readers: a high price to pay for a kind of freedom. But, in 140 characters or less – just stirring – what do you think you gain by not joining the herd?

X: Well, you hang on to the designation: writer. That’s important. If you spend 90% of your time on marketing you’re not a writer. You’re ‘in marketing’. You’re a self-publicist with a cheesy photo grin. You’ve turned yourself into an easily digestible fiction – e.g.: ‘from rags to riches’, ‘I survived’, ‘phew, what a lot of drugs I took’ etc – to sell fiction. What you become is a cheerleader for material success. ‘Hey guys, I sold my zombie sex tales for $$$s and now I own this luxury yacht! Buy my Ten Steps to Successful Authorship and you can be like me. (Please be like me. I own a yacht but I’m still lonely.)’ What kind of a writer needs a bloody yacht?! In my book (okay, MS), a writer cannot help but set herself against the norms. She’s a good old-fashioned troublemaker. Asking awkward questions and making people feel uncomfortable is what she’s all about. (Whoops, that’s over 140 characters…) What you gain from not joining the herd is, above all else, time in which to refine your troublemaking. Time is oh so much more important than amassing cash, self-aggrandizement or shopping. Lack of decent publishing outlets and rejection only sharpens you up. A positive spin, there. Also, it’s worth remembering that having something published can be an anticlimactic experience. You can find yourself thinking I’m sure that isn’t quite what I meant to say.

The bottom line is this: Fernando Pessoa died in relative obscurity and left a trunk full of his writings. Pessoa’s a genius who gains more readers with each passing year. Conversely, there are individuals – you can’t call them writers – who have had a ‘publishing phenomenon’, and have made $$$s. In a less money-mad world, they’d get a horsewhipping. And nobody in the future is going to read them because the era in which they fit so snugly will have vanished. …

O: Your mini pitches – ‘I survived’ etc. – sound like formulas for top-selling memoirs. But spending most of our time on self-promotion won’t make us rich – unless we can outshine or outwit the competition.

It’s true that publication can be anticlimactic – and not always because the author falls short of their own standards. Take one writer I met, whose debut novel sank without a trace. He left his manuscript with the editor while he spent the advance on time out to write his second novel. When he finally saw the end product he barely recognised it. The young editor had slashed 100 pages plus a main character. And if he’d stuck around to negotiate, they’d have had a power struggle. No art dealer does that to the work of a painter (though much can go wrong in the process of framing or hanging) – which raises some interesting questions re what readers want or expect from a narrative.

Pessoa’s a fascinating case (not least because experts can’t agree on how to sequence his fragments). Do you think something similar could occur in today’s world (maybe even an online version)? Or has the value we place on literature changed? Does today’s reader seek anything more than diversion, entertainment?

X: In our 2-for-1 cliché giveaway: Stranger things have happened – but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The internet, it worries me. Despite its surface flashiness, I have more faith in the old trunk and the 1000-year-old landfill site as repositories for litter, literature and for litter that through some strange alchemical transmutation is finally lauded as literature. Get a hard copy. A major systems meltdown or the Hiroshima of cyber-attacks could, conceivably, obliterate the communications landscape. Get hard copies. Invest, maybe, in a sturdy trunk. Because if Pessoa teaches us nothing else…

The value we place on literature – no, I don’t believe that has changed. Not for committed, lifelong readers it hasn’t. They still hope to see the world illuminated in unheralded, magical ways. (Yep, I used the word ‘magical’.)

The sheer volume of diverting ephemera, of dumb entertainment, makes it seem otherwise. We are living through a play-it-safe period, not only in the literary sphere, in most of them, terrorism and reckless gambling with eco ruin excepted.

(Look at car design. New cars all look the same these days. They all have the same rounded chassis. More often than not they’re shiny metallic grey. ‘Don’t notice me!’ Though it’s hard not to when they’re screaming it.)

However, with TV boxed sets offering what the Victorian triple-decker novel once did – the plot twists and big reveals we all know are coming, even if we are a bit sketchy on the details – I don’t see why more writers don’t grasp the opportunity to short-circuit expectations, to try to do other things. That’s the tricky part – tricky but fun.

O: Shouldn’t the internet worry us all – if only because we’ve come to depend on it for so much in such a short time? Without it, you and I (and countless others) might never have met. And convenience is addictive.

The thing is, when you talk about ‘committed, lifelong readers’ who ‘still hope to see the world illuminated in unheralded, magical ways’, I’m sure many Harry Potter tragics would relate, even if you or I think J K Rowling – who, unlike Pessoa, rates an entry in my dictionary; yes, there’s nothing between pessimistic and pest! – exemplifies the play-it-safe mentality you mention.

You won’t find JG Ballard, Italo Calvino or Angela Carter in my dictionary either. And since it’s the standard reference for Oz editors – and writers – maybe that’s a clue to why writers don’t defy expectations? Though how do we know more writers aren’t trying to do other things, like us, yet can’t get past the gatekeepers? Or are most writers, like most readers (or zombie film extras) herd animals?

X: The many positives of the internet are offset by its breathtaking toxicity. Read some of the comments on internet message boards and one could be forgiven for believing we’d perfected a technology for exposing users’ character flaws. Did its inventors anticipate that? Or did it take them by surprise? If the internet did go on the permanent blink I reckon we’d cope. The baby boomers would. (It’d give them a warm post-war frisson.) You and I, and most other Gen X tykes, would. For us it would mean a return to the slow club of letters and postcards. For the millennials, though, it would feel like the end of their world, and the clinics would overflow with nerve-racked youngsters cut off from their fix.

J K Rowling rates an entry in your dictionary? That just goes to show that money talks. The gatekeepers are usually bean counters as well.

I should perhaps have put ‘unheralded, mysterious ways’. The writer I had in mind when I used the word ‘magical’ was in fact – no, not J K – David Foster Wallace. He used that very word while talking about mind-to-mind experiential transference via the printed page. (And he even smiles. It’s on YouTube. He didn’t grimace the way he had a habit of doing during interviews, as if what he was saying was half killing him with embarrassment. It’s rather a heartening moment.) I didn’t mean to conjure up – groan – any Disneyesque wand-waving malarkey.

J K Rowling’s cobbling together of road-tested favourites – as in, Tom Brown’s Wizardy Dracula Schooldays – was heralded, by bean counters, rather than unheralded, I’d argue. Yet no one can deny that J K got masses of kids reading. Some of those Potter fans will go on to read DFW, or Lautreamont (dark magic), or whoever. Or already have. (Okay, I must admit to being a tad sniffy about adult Potter fans. Read something aimed at grownups, why don’t you. I’m not consistent, though. I see no wrong in anyone of whatever age reading Lewis Carroll. And everyone should goof off now and then. It’s good for you. But those adult Potter fans, they should know better…)

It’s funny but I suspect that I’m probably more pessimistic than you about life in general and less pessimistic about the future of lit. Is there something in that? Hey, it’s a lot darker where I live. I have to try and stay upbeat about something.

The problem, as I see it, is writers and their publishers chasing a dead cert payday. Sound financial bland out is all you’ll get from trying to second-guess readers’ expectations. No, no, no, Observer of Times, writers aren’t herd animals. They’re solitary cats or lone wolves. (Maybe some of the commercial ones are still solitary cats or lone wolves at heart.) It’s just that most of the solitary cats are sleeping, and most of the lone wolves have lost their teeth.

The strange ones and the one-offs are still out there. They always are.

Getting past the bean counting gatekeepers? I’m not sure what you say to people who are only attuned to the song of the cash register. Um, why are you so boring?

O: If the internet got knocked out, a fair few boomers might die; we Westerners rely on it in ways we aren’t even aware of, and humans tend to revert to infantile helplessness with relatively little incitement. But we’ll get to the topic of your optimism in a minute…

A thriller writer/reader recently asked me what authors I like, and, on googling most of them, discovered that Foster Wallace was ‘one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century’. Will J K Rowling leave behind such a legacy? Of course Lewis Carroll’s in a different league. And 19th-century children, despite being seen and not heard, became adults earlier. Take Mary Shelley: could any twenty-year-old publish a novel like Frankenstein today?

Now, how do you figure you’re more pessimistic about life than I am? I’m the person who thinks corporate-funded AI will render our species obsolete if Earth doesn’t get too hot for us first. And the future of lit is in algorithms, just like CGI and animation are replacing flesh and blood actors on film – pessimism or realism? But don’t let me rain on your parade; you must get more than enough rain in Coventry.

When referring to herd animals I was using the term ‘writer’ broadly, thinking of every blogger, every fanfic and e-book author – because hasn’t the definition of writer, as we might use it, changed?

I just reread a 1991 essay by Oz author Peter Goldsworthy, who seems down on the most influential Modernists – especially Woolf, but even Kafka and Borges – because they lost sight of story:

Such elements as story, or metaphoric resonance, are of minor importance. This seems to me an exquisite decadence, the decadence perhaps of those who read too much, whose palates become blunted, and need an ever-increasing fix of the new, the different, the tangy.

Personally, I find this argument lame. Sales figures show that hoards of romance and fantasy readers not only read heaps; they continue to crave more of the same. But I’d like to hear your retort to his championing of story as natural, ‘an emotional, often cathartic experience’, which is ‘primarily a process of transport, and rapture’. (I suspect Goldsworthy might be left no less cold by Foster Wallace and the postmodernists…)

X: While the internet and infantilization go together like peaches and cream – more thoughts on this fascinating subject – there are, as ever, contending forces at play, and they are a hardy crop those baby boomers. Some of them have remained stubbornly unimpressed by the web. One can use it to send Auntie Myrtle birthday greetings, ‘but I sent her a card as well because a card is so much nicer. You can keep a card.’ Arguably, the new tech that had the most profound effect on their generation’s behaviour was the Dansette and collection of 45s. Imagination is crucial here, as one sits and dreams the Beatles. The same can’t be said for the internet. Someone is being paid to imagine for you, and doing a slack-arsed job of it.

My guess is J K Rowling’s legacy will be similar to Enid Blyton’s – a sort of heritage blight that hangs around like the smell of damp wallpaper for decades too long. A blighton, if you will.

At least your brand of pessimism, or realism, admits the possibility of change. My fear is that when the robots take over I’ll be one of the humans who won’t be set free. I’ll be left slaving in a 19th-century theme park – a minimum wage prison – where the physical toil is no playact. (The Industrial Revolution was a mistake. The internal combustion engine can do one as well … all those funny little tin boxes on wheels as containers for the ego, and the only gridlocked trip there is to go on ends with psychic death in a garden centre.)

(Rain on my parade? That’s unlikely. I’d never have one in the first place. Mass gatherings of any kind make me uneasy. Besides, you’re more like a summer rain of thought that leaves me feeling refreshed and ready for a bit of a think, and indeed a rethink of what I thought I think. Emoticon: Wink.)

Getting back to those contending forces, the antithesis of lit’s future in algorithms will, I’m sure, produce works of signal-jamming disruption. Every time I scan the shelves in my local Waterstones I’m able to instantly dismiss most of the stuff on offer. The cover art alone tells me I’d be wasting my time. And yet I did find a copy of John Hartley Williams’ Mystery in Spiderville in there one day. To discover work as singular as that, wow! At the margins is where the truly interesting things happen – always at the margins.

(I’m not sure I agree that CGI and animation are replacing flesh and blood actors. I’m too lazy to research the subject, but my bet is the ratio of live action to animated pictures hasn’t changed much since the ’60s. For each animated Disney film I saw as a child I’d see perhaps nine live action flicks. For one thing, animated features took, and still take, longer to make than live action films. All hail the mighty ’puter, but it isn’t up to the task of replacing the human face just yet. CGI is a fashion, as was ‘plastic reality’ before it. Both can now look equally risible, but ‘plastic reality’ had ‘body’, it suggested weight, whereas obvious CGI often looks flimsy. It works best when used in subtle ways viewers fail to notice: changing words on signage without having to hire a signwriter to come and get his paintbrushes out, for example.)

Ah, yes, the Just Do It ‘writer’, busy, busy, busy in every department. They run their own e-business, and writing is just one of the many fun things they do to be an ‘impactful creative’. Of course I’d like to see those fluffy pestilential dweebs chased by rabid dogs.

Hmm, Peter Goldsworthy – going purely on the lines you quoted – seems like a stick-in-the-mud to me. If someone describes themselves as ‘a storyteller first, a writer second’ I think I’m about to be dragged through a take on a tale I’ve heard countless times before, and I’ll find little in the weft and warp of their prose to surprise and delight me. I don’t even agree that Woolf, Kafka, Borges or Joyce, who I’m adding to the list, lost sight of story. They just recognized its limits. Got bored. Tried new approaches. And what’s so bad about a splash of decadence from time to time? (The clichéd signposting of sure and certain cultural decline is a supine Roman in a toga eating grapes. More decadence, say I. More grapes!) Stories don’t grow on trees. (Money does, weirdly: ‘Who’ll buy my apples?’) Stories are no more or less ‘natural’ than any other concept – money, ice cream, death camps etc. What we as a species seem to be is colonisers of the unnatural. Human beings are really strange. ‘Transport, and rapture’, yes, put my name down for some of that. Those things are there by the sackful in Ulysses. I should point out that my route into postmodernism was far from academic. Bugs Bunny introduced the idea to me. Bugs getting into an argument with the cartoonist who’s drawn him… Then there was the nod and the wink of later episodes of The Avengers, silly Cold War spy-fi. The subtext here was: Look, we know this is nonsense. You know this is nonsense. Let’s have fun with it. You’re back at work or school tomorrow. – So, I have no fear of the postmodern. (Maybe there’s a drop of French blood in my veins?)

I see Goldsworthy’s ‘natural’ storyteller sat at the campfire with the village faithful (dull boobs some of them. Nice people, but … you know). I used to love his stories. Now they leave me cold. I’m behind a tree at the edge of the clearing. ‘Psst. Kids,’ I whisper to the other restless souls who pass by. ‘There is more harm in the village than is dreamt of.’

O: What an ideal note to end on, X. Thanks for the conversation and the Mystery in Spiderville recommendation. (Read a few pages and it knocked my socks off.)

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Where do atheist writers go when they die?

I first met Michael Alan (his pen name) in 2007 on a British Arts Council–funded writers’ site when his work was randomly assigned to me for review. In those days YouWriteOn attracted real talent; writers of high calibre along with clueless wannabes. Some went on to score deals with major publishers. Others had already been published or won short-story awards.

Both amateurs and professionals would often respond to my feedback with questions, thanks and/or justifications. But Alan wanted to pick my brains because he’d begun to devise a better and fairer writers’ website. Alan was a creator of worlds, some fictional, some virtual. Like the hacker narrator of his novel, The Lorelei Effect, which won third prize in the YouWriteOn Book of the Year Award 2007, he’d been designing software since the ’60s. He’d gazed out at the Brooklyn Bridge from his 31st-floor corner office on Wall Street while I was still reading Beatrix Potter.

Yet as our correspondence continued, I marvelled at his innocence. He’d never tried illicit drugs, alternative therapies, meditation, communal living or open relationships. The only ’70s revolution he’d joined was interactive computing. He’d married young, moved to the suburbs and had two sons, in contrast to my frequent changes of partner, address and job. Yet neither of us felt we belonged. Misfits observing life on Earth like interstellar visitors, we’d both had surgery for physical deformities. Our fathers had both fought in the Second World War, worked for a quarter century in car factories, been good with their hands, and died of bad hearts. And we both abhorred the widespread mindless conformity that allows a few control freaks to seize too much power.

Over the next decade, though he never built that ideal website, Alan and I shared our writing, compared notes on publishing, and debated topics like the Earth’s fate, the use of higher education, and the nature of consciousness and its opposite. Free from any religious or spiritual conviction, he’d often joke about God as if daring Him/Her/them to contradict him. No deity was barred from his creative imagination. He was one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever known, seeking through the medium of sci-fi to warn readers and explore how self-sufficient, well-organised human communities might combat global corporate dominance and birth a better and fairer world. Sharing a New Hampshire mountainside farmhouse with his partner and their family of furred and feathered pets, working for a friend and fellow writer, he believed dreams can be achieved when like minds come together, even as he acknowledged we’d already been superseded by ‘Corpo Sapiens’, the next evolutionary stage (a given if you’ve been following Silicon Valley developments in virtual reality and artificial intelligence). Technology had begun to reprogram the minds of its users, compelling dependency, distracting us from what we stood to lose.

But fiction can’t save the world, I argued, it’s preaching to the converted. People read popular novels to escape, not to burst their bubbles. Yet as Alan grew increasingly preoccupied with his mortality, he tired of rejections from publishers and, like countless authors who lack his brilliance, used free online tools to produce stillborn thrillers. And he’d start yet another self-marketing blog while feeling inspired then lose momentum when it didn’t go viral. I began to fear ill health had impinged on his thinking. When tests showed tumours riddling his liver and kidneys, he had to face the prospect of oblivion as an atheist unconsoled by faith, his mission to rally readers unrealised, his life’s work trailing loose ends. Soon he couldn’t even email friends. Ten days before his death on the solstice, I received one last message headed ‘still kicking’, to say that his computer had crashed, not him. Technology, like his body, had ceased to make sense.

Towards the end of our extensive and often hilarious correspondence, I asked Alan whether he’d mind my sharing a piece or two of his writing. So what follows is the original version of his short story ‘Thursday’. Though not all readers got the punch line, his second version isn’t as funny. And I think this first one makes a fitting epitaph.


Okay. So I was feeling really lazy for the last couple of weeks. I noticed that my pee was coming out a kind of orange color and I doubled up on iron pills because that usually means some bleeding going on inside. It’s not the first time it’s happened. In any case, I went to bed at about 8:00 and I woke up the next morning dead.

I know what you’re thinking. “How could you be dead and still write this story?” I could try to make up some baloney about zombies or something but the truth is I just don’t know. I do know that I woke up dead.

If you don’t believe me you can stop reading right here.

Okay. You’re still reading. So you’re probably asking, “What’s it like?”

Well, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Forget about following a light and harps and wings. The first thing I knew I was in a giant line like security at a big airport. The people just went on forever. I stood behind these rope barriers that snaked back and forth and kids and old people and whole families moved along in front of me at a pretty good clip.

So I was getting ready to empty my pockets and take off my shoes when I realized I didn’t have any pockets or any shoes. I was completely naked. So was everyone else.

Most of the people were old. They had droopy chests and hair coming out of their ears and you really wanted to look somewhere else. But as the line turned back on itself I kept passing a gal with a pretty face and a great body. All the guys in line were staring at her. She was a walking Viagra pill. I was starting to feel a little embarrassed but then I remembered. I was dead. My crotch was hardwired to my eyeballs by somebody else. Sue me.

In any case I wanted to see what happened when we got to the front of the line. Were we getting shipped somewhere, was there some kind of a test to see if we made it into heaven, was there really a purgatory, a hell?

We must have walked a mile zigzagging back and forth when I finally saw where we were headed. At the front of the line was a bunch of moving walkways with signs over them and people were picking which walkway they wanted to get on.

Adonism, Advaita Vedanta, Agnosticism, Ahl-e Quran, Ahmadiyya, Akhbari, Alawites, Alevi, Ananda Marga, Anishinaabe, Anito, Anthroposophy, Arya Samaj, Asatru, Ash’ari, Ashtanga, Ayyavazhi, Azali, Azraqi. And those were just the A’s. There had to be three or four hundred signs, each in a dozen languages, and each leading to its own moving walkway.

There was a sign for Catholicism and Buddhism and Scientology and Judaism and Hinduism and Muslim and Wicca and Unitarianism and a couple of dozen Protestant sects. But there were also signs for Secular Humanism and Celtic Neopaganism and Invisible Pink Unicornism. No, really. Invisible Pink Unicornism. And Chaos Magic and Last Thursdayism and Tantric Yoga and Vailala Madness.

Standing under each sign was a recruiter extolling the virtues of whatever afterlife that particular religion promised.

The barker under the Catholic sign was offering a limited time special – six millennia off purgatory. I was baptized Catholic but it didn’t take. I never went to confession, never went to mass, never recited a single Hail Mary. I didn’t want to spend eternity playing Bingo in some smoke filled hall so I moved on.

The fellow under the Islam Martyrs sign alternated between English and Arabic. He kept repeating, “Six dozen black-eyed virgins. ستة عشر سوداء العينين العذارى.”

I never studied Islam and certainly didn’t martyr myself. But I had to admit that six-dozen virgins sounded like a pretty good deal. Until then I’d only been friendly with one virgin and even that was a maybe. Six dozen. By the time I said hello to the last one I might not remember the first one and it would seem as if I had an endless supply.

I started to walk toward the Martyrs’ line and the Last Thursdayism recruiter said, “Don’t do it.”

I said, “Six dozen. Sounds pretty good.”

“There’s a reason they’re still virgins. Don’t do it.”

I asked him what Thursdayism was about. He said, “We believe you created the universe last Thursday looking as if it was billions of years old and that the universe will expire next Thursday.”

“I created it last Thursday?”

“At 3:00 in the afternoon you created the universe as a test for yourself. Everyone but you was pre-programmed as part of your test environment. Everyone but you knows this.”

“But I can remember having supper last Wednesday.”

“Last Thursday at 3:00 you came into existence complete with memories of a history that never really happened. Before 3:00 none of this existed.”

“Ahh. You’re making fun of Creationists.”

“Not at all. You created them at 3:00 on Thursday along with everything else as part of your test.”

“Would you mind if I ask others about your theory?”

“Not at all.”

I turned behind me. “Do any of you remember me creating you? Are you just here for a test I made up?”

Most ignored me but a few looked up and said, “No.”

I turned back to the Thursdayism guy. “Nobody seems to think they’re just here for my test.”

“What do you expect? That’s what you told them to say.”

“If I’m the creator of all this and everyone else is just a prop you must not have many Last Thursdayism members.”

“Everyone here is a member. They just keep it quiet.”

“Why are they going to other religion lines?”

“Wouldn’t it be suspicious if they all came here?”

He had me there. “So what kind of eternity do you offer?”

“You will be rewarded or punished based on how well you did with your test.”

“Who grades it?”

“You do.”

So I’m writing this just to let everybody know that I know you’re all just here as part of my test and you can stop being such assholes and start being nice any time you want. It’s 2:59 in the afternoon on a sunny Thursday and I thi

© Michael Alan, 2012

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The Sky’s the Limit: notes towards a profile of today’s flat-Earth mindset

The first I heard of the recent revival of suspicions that our Earth is a disc, not a sphere, was early last year, from a business-minded friend with a post-grad degree. F and I had met up one clear summer day on a sundeck above some public baths by the sea, which afforded us a wide, unobstructed view of the horizon. Having detailed a series of increasingly fringe conspiracy theories – 911 as inside job, faked Moon landings, wealthy Satanist masons (royals, celebs etc.) ritually sacrificing babies – F dropped the bombshell that NASA has used composite images to fabricate evidence of a curved Earth.

‘Are you shocked?’ F asked me. Amazed would be more accurate. Though I knew the other topics were popular online, the flat-Earth model is millennia, not centuries, out of date. Memories of snowdomes, Victorian terrariums, medieval woodcuts and scenes from The Truman Show sprang to mind.

But, I asked, what about eclipses? Lunar phases? Day and night? Tides? Equinoxes and solstices? Technology (telescopes etc.)? Sure, the Sun and Moon look the same size, but you can’t always believe your eyes… Informed by three weeks of online research, F attempted answers. And, charmed by their quaintness, I tried to forget all the seemingly obvious concepts we tend to take for granted; to surrender to the enchantment of a brand new Earth: a motionlessly floating ice-rimmed disc beneath a star-strewn dome, not a dizzily revolving orb among numberless others scattered through space. Gazing out at the sunlit sea, I fleetingly sensed the appeal of believing that Truth can be so simply revealed, while anything too complex (maths? physics? chemistry?) exists to deceive us.

Since then, I’ve come across a few essays by thinkers who share my interest in the cultural implications of what behaves like a religious debate. I’ve also indulged in some of the same sort of research to which F referred, and the best Google results have proved absurdly funny if little else. Meanwhile, on a coastal walk in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, I’ve seen two young women holding placards stating ‘THE EARTH IS FLAT’ (satire? street theatre? activism?) and, months later, spray-painted nearby: ‘RESEARCH FLAT EARTH NASA LIES FLAT HORIZON’. Even a magazine dropped in my mailbox contains an article headed ‘FLAT EARTH’ (filler between advertisements) full of common misconceptions re the natural world, e.g.:

Is [gravity] strong enough to hold the world’s oceans to a spinning ball but weak enough to let butterflies fly around and water to [sic] fly off a spinning tennis ball??

‘Mr X’ doesn’t mention mass. Not that s/he’d need a science degree to understand that whether we call gravity a force or ‘a theory’, a man falling from standing lands harder than an ant dropped from many times its own height. And water weighs more than air. Whatever. Questions like Mr X’s recur without end on flat-Earth websites:

Thousands of planes take off every day, bullets fire through the air, birds, you name it, all fly around in different directions at the same time, while the earth is meant to be spinning at over 1040 mph. But they all seem to land where it is they need to land, and the earth’s rotation or its wobble doesn’t seem to effect [sic] them in anyway [sic]?

Whether or not errors of grammar point to deeper disorders, dispelling such mysteries isn’t rocket science. Or so I thought. But over the months, when I’ve spoken of folk like Mr X, others tend to close off. Many scoff – as if flat-Earth assertions affront their intelligence – yet propose no sound, logical counterargument. It’s as if they believe uncritically in science… not unlike some devotees of democracy who scorn Trump supporters. Yet, to go to the polls those voters had to be motivated. And, like flat-earthers, many are tired not just of lies but of being ignored. Disenchanted, defiant and angry, what have they got to lose? But electing a wacko president has widespread consequences. Does it matter if a few misfits insist the Earth is flat? Many already share equally left-field beliefs re other conspiracies that can’t (and might never) be verified.

But loss of faith in the word of mainstream authority creates a niche for YouTube’s webcam gurus spouting the rhetoric of ‘truth’ – such as greybeard flat-Earth conspiracy theorist Rich West, self-professed veteran of hundreds of out-of-body experiences, whose nebulous thesis amounts to reality’s being whatever you choose to believe. For old souls who’ve endured too many incarnations in our terrestrial prison system, he offers ‘soul contract revocation’ training. PayPal accepted. Advocate of liberating alternative choices, Rich West (is that his real name or a cynical wink at his detractors?) seems happy to exploit global belief in capitalism.

So, what might the flat-Earth revolution indicate (if it continues) in the face of globalisation? Does language shape our world view or must perception come first? Can religious fervour reverse the equation of ‘Seeing is believing’? And if so, which do you trust – the judgemental, parental, protective guardian of Eden in Genesis, or the coolly rational, seemingly soulless spirit of scientific advancement? To this day, F hasn’t quite been converted, ‘sitting on the fence’. Maybe something more fundamental than mere material shape is at stake. Yet F’s doubts about a spherical Earth (how can water curve?) sound wilfully dense. What might make more sense (and I generalise) is the idea of resistance.

Not all of us feel at home with the runaway momentum of dehumanisation and dissociation from nature wrought by corporate-driven technological progress. And one form of protest may be the childlike regressiveness of rejecting concepts that strain your comprehension – to seek refuge in geo(ego)centric myths and magical images: such as a Sun and Moon wheeling by turns above us like baubles on a mobile dangling from a nursery ceiling. Putting faith only in what they can witness, pitting their innocent minds against Science, like righteous Christians fighting evil infidels, flat-earthers can think themselves spiritually superior – the irony being that science has developed the complex technologies enabling viral proliferation of the conspiracist hash they keep swallowing: narratives of epic scope, with corners smoothed off and holes glossed over, their symbols and patterns interpreted as the deeds or schemes of gods and demons, and illustrated like all good bedtime stories… briefings for an ascent into dreamland.

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The Indivisible Forest

We live in a medial reality. All modern experience is mediated: via technology, the media, language and even thought. Our processed diets and sterile environments promote dissociation from our bodies and from nature. We enter a forest only to find a meta-forest of signs that warn us, identify local flora and fauna, and mark out predictable paths. And the same syndrome afflicts fiction that sells well, films that fill mainstream cinemas: recognisable stories safely signposted. Nowadays we can’t cross town, let alone an ocean, without intervention from satellites; can’t survive a day without updating our Facebook status. And the moving image that began as miraculous entertainment now doubles as an omnipresent tool of surveillance. The more we just want to watch, to be mere passive spectators, the more we find ourselves actively watched, monitored and data-mined, our rhythms reduced to algorithms in the program of capitalism.

A century ago, the surrealists sought to bypass conscious thought. Yet art is a form of mediation too. Originally mediating between matter and spirit, it holds no numinous power now (unless you’re schizoid). It’s a rare piece of work indeed that offers immediacy. Starved for it as a young art student, I dwelt on abstract expressionism, art brut and painters like Francis Bacon who courted chance and accident. Then I discovered dramatist Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and his essays in The Theatre and its Double (1938). And Artaud’s ideas – or the idea of Artaud – inspired me more than those of pioneers in my own field. It wasn’t just his inner demons in extremis that appealed. I had enough martyrs for art (Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Plath) to revere. It was Artaud’s fierce desire to destroy bourgeois boundaries between art and life.

Words failed Artaud. And, likewise, paint failed me. Within a year, I’d begun to explore the creative force of ritual magic; within two, I’d plunged (like most of my idols) into psychosis. A decade later, I made ritual theatre from personal themes: let my madness unravel into improvised dance narratives – a stage in a journey that eventually led to words.

But Artaud’s words, though failing him, inspired some great trailblazers. Visionary theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999) sought to bridge the divide between performers and audience. And his paratheatrical work (circa ’70s) rates a mention in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), a groundbreaking dinner-length film about seeking and finding meaning in life.

Wally (Wallace Shawn) meets Andre (Andre Gregory) at a restaurant. And as their dialogue (monologue for the film’s first half) unfolds, the plot thickens; not in the rambling story Andre tells, but on a meta-level: are these two old friends playing themselves? Not just actors, they co-wrote the script. How much of it is factual? The ambiguity generates tension.

Aware that insomniac Andre’s been having personal problems, Wally falls into the role of asking questions and listening attentively. In effect, he plays therapist. And, on the wild side of the dialectic, Andre recalls with delight an experiment in which his real-life friend Grotowski involved him (though we never see Andre in a Polish forest with actors who don’t speak his language, just a black-and-white snap he shows Wally, which could have been taken anywhere, his words evoke vivid impressions).

Yet a series of peak experiences has left Andre disenchanted with life. And Wally responds to Andre’s bleak view of humanity like a psychiatrist, his version of sanity making Andre sound mad. In fact, Andre sounds prophetic thirty-six years later. But Wally ridicules his estrangement from the quotidian. Is Wally’s professed contentment with his compartmentalised lifestyle (where theatre, like film, exists just to entertain) an implied critique not only of Andre but also of his mentor, Grotowski? The line between artist and critic is like the line between love and hate: debatable. In an essay on Artaud, ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’ (1967), Grotowski writes:

When an eminent creator with an achieved style and personality, like Peter Brook, turns to Artaud, it’s not to hide his own weaknesses, or to ape the man. It just happens that at a given point of his development he finds himself in agreement with Artaud, feels the need of a confrontation, tests Artaud, and retains whatever stands up to this test. He remains himself.

Antero Alli’s eighth feature film, The Invisible Forest (2008), a nod to Artaud’s influence on his work in theatre, reminded me of Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967), adapted from Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade (1963), which tests Artaud against Brecht. But Alli’s film also conjured up Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991). Theatre, cinema, literature… All the arts partake in one vast, unending conversation. And, à la Woody Allen, indie auteur Alli stars as an edgy theatre director haunted by the ghost of Artaud. How could a hardcore avant-gardist not be? But in director Alex’s dreams, Artaud is a frenzied French female. No wonder Alex doubts his own sanity.

So, like a Woody Allen hero, Alex seeks professional help, which on the laid-back West Coast is not psychoanalysis, but psychotherapy. The ghost (Clody Cates) is more psychedelic than East Coast intellectual. Her frizzed hair and stylised makeup don’t recall Artaud’s era, but the glam-rock ’70s when I guess Alli first read Artaud – from whose writings choice lines inform the ghost’s sometimes subtitled provocations. But is she taunting Alex or the audience? Is Alli subjecting the film medium (not just the theatre it depicts) to Artaud’s revolutionary edicts?

‘No matter how loudly you clamour for magic in your life,’ the ghost tells Alex telepathically, ‘you have been afraid to pursue an existence entirely under its influence and sign.’ Such fears don’t limit Alli, nor the spirited actors with whom he’s spent forty years pioneering his own brand of paratheatre – the practice of which lies behind this film’s surface like an interior world for which the forest might be a metaphor. Did I get that on my first viewing? Not quite. Though Alex sometimes seemed self-conscious to me, I didn’t consider that Alli might be improvising, let alone why. But I likewise wondered what possessed Sally Potter to dare play herself when I first watched The Tango Lesson (1997), one of the most exciting films I saw late last century. And does Alli play himself? Or is that an irrelevant question?

‘I don’t have a fucken self-image,’ Alex assures Dr Phil (Garret Dailey). Which could be a symptom of depression (or pick your own DSM-V label). But Alex qualifies his disclosure: ‘It’s not a problem, I like being nothing.’ Sleep deprivation aside, this implies an expanded mind. To be nothing in the straitjacket of our narrow consensus reality is to suffer intolerable ego deflation (witness the narcissistic excesses of futile mass resistance to the truth). But beyond the corporate-driven matrix blanketing our planet, nothingness equals freedom: a recurring theme in Alli’s work and an attitude he affects; not for him the formal rigours of Brook’s Brecht/Artaud dialectic, nor the five-act structure of Shakespeare, from whose scripts The Invisible Forest’s borrows. And none of the strands in its loose yet layered quest narrative dominates. Like members of an ensemble cast, they make the whole more than the sum of its parts (some of which I may have missed; nor is this list in order):

1. Alex keeping a (black-and-white) video diary while fearing he’s losing his mind during a forest sojourn with his theatre troupe. This comic yet driven persona seems close enough to Alli’s own that, as in My Dinner with Andre, the ambiguity teases the viewer.

2. Alex in therapy (colour) after staying awake for three days in a counterintuitive bid to stop hallucinating.

3. The troupe enacting scenes from two Shakespeare plays in wild locations (the Super 8 grain and filtered hues suggestive of other times or dimensions). Knowing of Alli’s ongoing theatre project (akin to if distinct from Grotowski’s), in which performance doubles as initiatory ritual, I took these dreamlike sequences for pre-existing documentation.

4. The flame-haired ghost haranguing Alex, whose dreams, under hypnosis, unspool with the lurid intensity of Alli’s trademark trippy effects. While such sequences frequently feel authentic and work well, despite (or because of?) overt symbolism, the busyness of Alli’s cinematic vision – a mild version of horror vacui – seems incongruous in someone so hip to transcendent emptiness.

5. An actor, his bald dome starred with hieroglyphs, waxing joyful about the void from a tree (mostly black and white).

The latter two strands draw on Artaud’s texts. And while Alli’s instinctual writing style typically offers relief from the Bob McKee ‘Story Seminar’ logic that’s colonised Hollywood screenplays, he and his cast improvised much of this script. Stories (as process, not content) wield awesome power in a culture as emptied of meaning as ours. Yet story doesn’t appear to be Alli’s raison d’être, serving the purpose of exploration rather than the reverse.

The thing about stories that audiences crave is total emotional engagement, from the first manipulative hook, through rising suspense, to a contrived resolution. And the more a viewer/reader identifies with a hero/heroine, the better. Could I identify with Alex? Sometimes. But maybe that’s not Alli’s intention. Alex’s lack of self-image points to otherness. And what else can take us beyond that which we already know?

In fact, the hypnotist guides Alex beyond what he already knows: facilitating a deeper engagement with forces he’d resisted – a contrast to the dialectic underpinning My Dinner with Andre. While Wally and Andre function as opposites, Alex and Phil face the same direction – just at different stages, from different perspectives. Less straight than he seems, Dr Phil alludes to Australian Aboriginal mysteries (though stalking movements from dreams sounds more like Alli’s style to me); he might even be a 21st-century West Coast answer to RD Laing. Not that a lot of viewers would notice, since maverick Laing’s approach (mediatory vs. repressive) has long been outmoded by corporate-sponsored medical models of madness (oops, ‘mental illness’). So, for any viewers who’ve stayed wide awake, Alex undertakes an antiheroic journey through a subconscious wilderness, challenged – or challenging us – to see the forest for the trees. And the ending, such as it is, feels like we’ve reached a beginning.

So, when making art isn’t just a profession but essential to psycho-spiritual survival, can film maybe not just entertain but mediate, like Dr Phil – offering guidance without the obligatory trappings of morality? Far easier to swallow a Hollywood pill, or even a PC indie prescription, as long as the remedy works – what patient or spectator cares to exert themselves? Just as leisure and pleasure go together, work implies suffering in our culture. Yet creative and/or intellectual effort can be its own reward. Or so I thought when I lived alone in a garret, painting and reading Artaud – compelled, though his ideas electrified me, by his raw passion, his lucid madness.

But, watching The Invisible Forest, I never believed, despite visible signs, that Alex risked losing his mind. Nor could I feel it. And Clody Cates, for all her fiery ferocity, didn’t shock me; her fairytale quirkiness rendered Artaud’s words benign. The Artaud I once imagined I knew, inventor of a Theatre of Cruelty, needed his audience to bleed, burn, gnash its teeth and wail with him. Might he have dug the extremity of Gaspar Noé’s superb Irréversible? Or can film simply never achieve what Artaud dreamed of – is it too medial? Just as a photo can’t elicit the body identification that absorbs me when I stand facing a massive abstract expressionist canvas, the immediacy of avant-garde theatre doesn’t, for me, translate to the screen. But maybe it becomes something else no less potent, albeit less tangible.

Is that why The Invisible Forest somehow worked for… or on me? The discordant threads would make less sense without such a spellbinding soundtrack. Most notably, Sylvi Alli’s ravishing music and emotive vocals merge with her husband’s ideas into a coherent experience. So, despite his shoestring budget and the odd lapse of subtlety, Alli gives Malle a run for his money with regard to keeping the viewer awake. My Dinner with Andre took thrilling risks thirty-six years ago. But is breaking new cinematic ground still possible? Less, I’m guessing, in terms of form and content (and I hope I’m wrong) than through process. Like his arboreal actor, Alli may have touched the unknown.

At the end, I asked my partner what he thought Alli’s film was about. ‘Death,’ he said without hesitation. ‘Yeah?’ I said, slightly surprised. But then, in Malle’s film, Andre observes that awareness of death necessarily comes with knowing you’re truly alive.

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