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.)

Posted in the life of the writer, visual artists | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in the life of the writer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in the sceptic's guide to astrology & more | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in innovative cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visions from Underground


Has anyone, lately, glanced up from their smartphones for long enough to notice how fast our planet appears to be going to hell in a handcart? My fringe-dwelling friends are responding in various ways. One chooses to boycott the news, while others research conspiracies (flat earth, reptilian Satanists, the trap of rebirth) or use astrology to modulate incoming signals. Meanwhile, I seek to stay creative, and other artists provide inspiration.

So stories and images from their books and films sometimes haunt me. But with recent trends towards ‘realism’ in fiction and CGI in film (literature lacking magic, sensationalist cinema), only radical departures from the mainstream hold my interest.

Speaking of which, though I’d seen just one of Antero Alli’s indie films (at a screening on the US west coast where he’s based), two decades later I recalled how The Oracle (1993) had transported me in a way reminiscent of dreams and altered states. So I watched four more of his visionary films on DVD: Under a Shipwrecked Moon (2003), The Greater Circulation (2005), The Invisible Forest (2008) and, finally, The Book of Jane (2013), which lingered in my mind, so I’ve watched it again.

After the vertical opening take – blue sky, ghost ravens, coastal skyline, suburban sprawl, university campus – a calm voice accompanies the limp of an ageing female vagrant. Not a typical voiceover telling us where she’s been or is going; Jane (Luna Olcott) dwells in the present, not the past or the future, unlike the first character to cross her path: Alice (Marianne Shine). From that name, we can guess Alice is destined to fall down a rabbit hole.

The film’s title implicates Jane as a writer, yet Alice never suspects as much when they meet by chance on a bench in the grounds of the campus where she lectures. Aptly divided into chapters – Book suggests an alternative gospel (in polemical terms, matriarchal or feminist) – Jane deals with transformation. But its subtext feels mythic, not biblical. Scriptures are prescriptive, proscriptive. Myths incite imagination.

Middle-aged (menopausal?) Alice, a comparative religion professor writing on pre-Hellenic goddess mythologies, lives with her cute younger lover, Colette (Madeline H. D. Brown), a painter of the sacred feminine. And we get some overtly feminist dialogue when these two women (whose bourgeois niceties and hippie-boho ideals coexist without irony) invite Jane (who typically dines on pickings from dumpsters) to dinner.

Yet I doubt anyone could take Alli’s project for social realism. Early scenes showing Jane’s idyllic lifestyle around the campus befit a fable, not a documentary. Unless sleeping rough holds less risk in Berkeley than in Sydney? Though if sane, sober, hyper-educated, Anglo women don’t live under bridges here, maybe we can thank Australia’s superior social safety net?

Or does Alli (despite the side effects of Jane’s pain meds) romanticise homelessness? According to his director’s notes, which touch on his process of finding the story: ‘shocks and traumas can sometimes act as evolutionary triggers that transform our lives for the better, even though by outward appearances it may seem otherwise’.

Indeed. No wonder Jane, which I’ve now watched three times, continues to haunt me. Though I’ve suffered no comparable losses, nor ever stayed homeless (‘nomadic’) for long, I’m no less redundant in the context of a consumer culture, while with growing global rivalry over resources, the spectre of homelessness threatens more and more of us. And due to an unforeseen plot twist, it catches up with Alice. Ergo, Jane’s prediction – ‘I am you in the future’ – comes true.

Which implies Jane was Alice in the past, though I saw no credible evidence. Shown Alice’s work in progress, she merely grabs a red pen and circles the word is wherever it appears… Has agnostic mystic author Robert Anton Wilson hijacked the script? Not that his astute critique of the misuse of ‘is’ was unique; surrealist painter Rene Magritte made a similar point with visual wit in The Treachery of Images (This is not a Pipe) . Yet Alice seems so receptive to Jane’s wisdom that I felt sceptical. Which isn’t to say such quirks in the script can eclipse Jane’s (or the director’s) intelligence.

Ageing, anonymous, solitary and shorn like a monk, Jane appears to find all she needs (apart from opiates for her pain) in the trash that others (like Alice) reject and the subtle realms they can’t sense. Yet I could also relate to the challenge facing Alice (though ‘higher’ education has always left me disenchanted). Immersed in theories about the practice of goddess worship, she enacts a key contradiction of our age: gesturing towards soulful/spiritual knowing in a culture based on disembodied/displaced information (the transmission of which earns her a living). Though Alli’s notes don’t refer to this theme, it emerges as key when the two comparatively sheltered women must contend with a sudden death, and find the rituals of the law inimical to their instincts.

Yet all of Alli’s films that I’ve seen, while exploring archetypal depths, and despite the relevance of their themes to contemporary society, seem – at least on the surface – to exist in a time warp. The ones I’ve missed may well engage with definitively modern problems and document a world increasingly subject to technology – but that would take money. To what extent is Alli’s aesthetic subject to his budget? And yet what can seem like constraints on, for one, special effects don’t extend to the stylistic range of the at times sublime soundtrack. It’s as if Alli doesn’t want to commit to a genre. Why not?

In the vision statement on his website, he says: ‘I don’t call myself an artist. Best to let others, the world, decide what to call you.’ But isn’t film an art form? It can also impart propaganda; these roles aren’t mutually exclusive. And isn’t art in some sense always a messenger (of change, doom, love, renewal etc.)? Artists need to remain responsive to the demands of their art form, while trusting the alchemy of the work. Activists too must learn to surrender, albeit to external realities. Yet, unlike even the most pressing message, art – i.e. as it manifested not just for centuries but millennia, before pomo theorists moved (or removed?) the goalposts – had a shot at relative immortality. It may be no accident, nor just due to historical distance, that great art strikes most of us, even critics, as enigmatic. Take any random sample of Alli’s influences: e.g. Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Lynch, von Trier… auteurs whose art transcends their personal beliefs. If the medium is just a means to an end, art suffers (instead of the artist?).

Does The Book of Jane ever suffer artistically? Here and there (where Alli wears his ideology on his sleeve), I cringed at its seeming naivety. And today’s viewers, sated on state-of-the-art high-tech sophistication (and programmed by subliminal cues) expect seamless illusions. Yet the mostly stellar performances Alli elicits from his leads, the wildly talented Olcott and the luminous Shine, are as compelling as any star turns I’ve seen on film in a while. Between them, he’s assembled enough divine feminine energy that the succession of women, and/or their images, with wings sometimes struck me as too much of a good thing.

Towards the end, Alice’s circumstances change for the worse – from the stance of her ego – due to a landlady we never see. So the lack of Asian actors in the film (an anachronism?) begs the question: why make this landlady Asian? Well, if nothing else, it points to her otherness. If the Goddess has a hand in the twist of Alice’s fate, this may be as close as She needs to come to showing Her face.

As a cineaste engaged by the questions Alli raises, I may be alone in finding his symbolism overstated. That it appears to cater to a cult following of fellow mystics, Jungians, pagans, new agers etc. might explain why his aesthetic (unlike his state) hasn’t much altered in decades. Alli offers the world an alternative vision, not a mirror. Though maybe his fans recognise their own reflection in it – what member of a minority can’t use acknowledgement of their existence?

So The Book of Jane ends on a liberating high – unless the prospect of seeing spirits and dancing to inner rhythms frightens you? I love participating in ritual theatre, where symbols, physical actions etc. serve to focus and ground ideas. But for me the experience doesn’t wholly translate to film – just as I can’t smell pipe tobacco if I sniff a print of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. Still, the image might stimulate my brain to recall the aroma – and for those so inclined, the taste of pipe smoke. Words on a page, too, can evoke that. Yet each viewer or reader is unique. And so, isn’t a crucial part of any artist’s struggle gauging how much to leave to the imagination?

Posted in innovative cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prose & cons of outsider status as a writer


The art world has a name for work produced outside the mainstream by untrained creators who conform to marginal norms (e.g. eccentric recluses, criminals, schizophrenics and visionaries). And, like most else under capitalism, Outsider Art has become an industry. You know the kind of thing: introverted, obsessive, repetitive, decorative yet subtly unsettling; cryptic words embedded in intricate images…

Writes Colin Rhodes, in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000): ‘The artist outsiders are, by definition, fundamentally different to their audience, often thought of as being dysfunctional in respect of the parameters for normality set by the dominant culture.’ Just how tricky it is, in some cases, to judge that goes without saying.

In today’s all-inclusive art world, work by ‘outsiders’ has become institutionalised (if not in the same way as were many of its initial producers), so it’s started to assume its, ahem, rightful place among major art movements, while not yet claiming comparable space (if any) in large public galleries. Yet now that Outsider Art is in, what sets it and its creators apart from other collectible brand names is no more than style (+ an apt bio). Because once you emerge from seclusion, prison, the asylum or anonymity, and take your wares to market, you’re arguably not so marginal. Besides, the ubiquity of digital culture is changing the meaning of marginal and continuing what postmodernism started by broadening definitions of artist. Is a rural-dwelling recluse whose DIY conspiracy videos on YouTube go viral an outsider or an insider?

And if Outsider Art had a literary equivalent – let’s say ‘Outsider Writing’ – what would it look or sound like? Where could it be found? How to identify it? Might bizarre grammar, punctuation and spelling repel the intelligentsia? According to anarchist poet Hakim Bey, in ‘Raw Vision’:

All art can be positioned or labelled in relation to [capitalist] “discourse.” And it is precisely & only in relation to this “metaphysical” commodity-spectacle that “outsider” art can be seen as marginal. […] It does not pass thru the paramedium of the spectacle. It is meant only for the artist & the artist’s ‘immediate entourage” (friends, family, neighbours, tribe); & it participates only in a “gift” economy of positive reciprocity.

For a writer to find a readership that extends beyond family, friends and acquaintances used to depend on major publication, which in Oz meant growing a CV from the baby steps favoured by publishers/agents: minor publication, prizes, grants, mentorships, writing degrees… but new options for exposure have appeared in recent years. Self-published authors have overcome stigma (and hack work) with entrepreneurship; new literary forms – like the humble blog – have taken our culture by storm.

In art-world discourse, outsider is synonymous with untrained or self-taught: true of two of my writer friends (in the UK and the US respectively), each of whom is, to quote Rhodes, ‘fundamentally different to [his] audience’, if not as ‘dysfunctional’ re the dominant culture’s norms as each might contend. The eccentric can work when forced to while the visionary earns a regular wage. In some ways I’m more dysfunctional than both these friends and yet, since wasting money and time on a creative writing MA, can’t pretend I’m untrained. Yet at heart I remain an outsider. And there’s the rub…

Like publishers, funding bodies for ‘emerging’ writers favour those whose work has appeared enough times in elite literary journals (they need to agree on some sort of benchmark). And your typical lit journal editor is a left-leaning, PC academic; political correctness implying awareness of and respect for unfairly disadvantaged (human) others – relative outsiders – so it’s cool to write on their behalf (PC-ness has yet to admit powerlessness over its addiction: ‘Hi, my name is P and I’m a co-dependent…’).

The thing is, PC-ness is a culture of guilt. Why else, during its heyday, could Christian Lander’s blog, Stuff White People Like, take the piss and yet be so popular? An insider teasing his own privileged kind about their fixations, like Grammar, Writers Workshops and Facebook, he’s eminently PC himself, and so presumably aware that people who feel guilty are easy to manipulate (as preachers, professional beggars/swindlers and partners of adulterers know). Guilt is an itch that needs scratching, a scab that seals in riskier feelings. Guilt will settle for pay-offs. Guilt resists change… a subject for a thesis?

In short, too much formal education, social mediation or both can narrow instead of expand understanding. So outsiders make insiders feel embarrassed, so we need gatekeepers. Speaking of which, the last time I submitted work to a certain journal, I noticed new questions on their cover sheet. What was the first issue I’d read? What was the most recent? And what pieces had I most enjoyed? Do the editors use this mini survey for market research (assuming would-be contributors comprise their customer base)… or to assist a preliminary cull (don’t expect us to read you unless you’ve read us)?

Market research makes sense, as the field grows ever more competitive: innovative lit journals springing up like mushrooms and publishers slashing their long-fiction lists – as if the decay of one form is fertilising the rise of another. But I digress. Several journals that publish short fiction also require contributors to disclose whether or not they’re subscribers. Work by some of the authors they publish appears in diverse journals (in the Oz small publishing scene, ‘diverse’ is relative). But wouldn’t subscribing to all of those journals cost authors more than they’d earn from them?

And while some brilliant, diligent writers with something pressing to say can lack the social skill it takes to break into the locally published club, similar laws govern success in the blogosphere, on Facebook etc. To be PC is not enough; you must also show others you’re someone with whom it’s safe to be seen associating; ergo, the more ‘followers’ or ‘friends’, the better. So bloggers solicit followers by following etc. OK, it’s time-consuming and fake. But hey, that’s the dark side of equality.

So I don’t read all the trendy PC Oz journals from front to back, every quarter; don’t aspire to write like their regulars, some of whom I respect and even admire. If I lost the outsider edge that gives me my perspective, I might become more palatable to insider editors and subscribers. But then I’d be domesticated rather than feral, mediated instead of rare, too processed and not raw enough… Yawn

Posted in the life of the writer, visual artists | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Challenging sacred cows

ice-cream cone

Humane is a confusingly versatile word. Lately, it’s featured in the Oz media, and beyond, with public outcries for humane treatment of refugees and our livestock exports. Re the former, just for starters, ‘humane’ would mean not incarcerating those who’ve chosen to throw themselves on our mercy, as if they were criminals (rather than victims) until proven innocent. But in the case of innocent creatures that are at our mercy to begin with, ‘humane’ means a bolt shot into the brain, a slit throat, and bleeding out, heart still pumping, so consumers can eat unspoiled meat.

How can we use one word for such different circumstances? The Macquarie Dictionary (2009) offers two definitions: 1. characterised by tenderness and compassion for the suffering or distressed: humane feelings. 2. (of branches of learning or literature): humane studies.

The first definition involves subjectivity; the second, objectivity – so #1 would apply to widespread sentiment re our government’s harsh stance towards refugees (both prior to and after arrival, if they survive their trial by sea). But what does ‘tenderness’ have to do with killing – unless it refers to the flesh consumed by carnivores harbouring qualms (whether of ethics or personal health or due to flashes of true compassion)?

In his profoundly provocative book about what we eat, The World Peace Diet (2004), Will Tuttle sets the bar for definition #1 far higher. And though I’d been warned before reading, I still find the title misleading. Tuttle offers scant guidance to anyone needing advice on balanced meat-freedom. Did he hope for a slice of the vast diet books market?

Tuttle firmly believes we can achieve world peace by going vegan; our animal-based diet is unnatural, a hangover from 8–10 millennia ago when a wrong turn in human culture gave rise to capitalism. But you don’t need to credit his uneven research, let alone agree world peace is possible, to see from the stats, now way out of date, that to eat meat, dairy products and eggs on a regular basis isn’t just cruel but self-defeating.

A heretic on a heroic mission, Tuttle exhorts us all to adopt a plant-based diet for ethical reasons. Yet he tells us that to do so first requires a ‘genuine spiritual breakthrough’. It did for him, as he recounts in the engaging penultimate chapter, but elsewhere, I found the loose language of his mysticism problematic. The word ‘sacred’ recurs in the text so often, it lost meaning for me, variously referring to life, feasts, the feminine, the masculine and work. The World Peace Diet doubles as religious treatise and scholarly thesis, mixing new-age rhetoric and hardcore vegan dogma with notable quotes, statistics, ethics, history, anthropology etc. I’m not saying Tuttle should have narrowed his focus. Readers quick to grasp his thesis may find some points repeated ad nauseam. Yet other points could have been explored in greater depth. The more simplistic his logic gets, the less Tuttle convinces. For instance, ‘to stop viewing animals as commodities,’ he says, ‘means we would have to stop viewing them as food.’ Then why, some readers may wonder, when some animals eat others, shouldn’t we, if we’re animals too? Because, Tuttle argues, we’re herbivores:

Could anyone, or would anyone chase down, say, a deer, cow, pig, sheep, goat, or rabbit in the wild and then, somehow catching her (highly unlikely) fall on her neck with our small, flat human mouth, tear through the fur and skin into the living flesh with our small human teeth, and fill our mouth with the fresh, hot blood of the unfortunate creature? This scenario shows the complete absurdity of what we humans are doing when we eat animal flesh (p. 68).

Does Tuttle likewise see the absurdity of driving (with his wife Madeleine, like a modern-day Jesus spreading the gospel) around the US in a solar-powered mobile home? Besides lacking long, sharp canines, we weren’t born on wheels. And how many herbivores work in auto plants (or Apple factories)? Presumably Tuttle doesn’t eat lentils or soybeans raw either. He makes a stronger case re the insane unsustainability of our uniquely human sense of entitlement:

A conservative estimate is that the amount of land, grain, water, petroleum, and pollution required to feed one of us the Standard American Diet could feed fifteen of us eating a plant-based diet (p. 185).

That alone should give any leftist pause if they aren’t yet vegan. And if it doesn’t: ‘[…] we have become agents of ugliness and death, serving the interests of enormous industrial conglomerates and corporations that exist primarily to maximize their own self-centered profits and power (p. 146).’ Or, for those who need it spelled out:

[…] to work for social justice and environmental protection while continuing to purchase the flesh, milk, and eggs of horribly abused animals exposes a disconnect that is so fundamental that it renders our efforts absurd, hypocritical, and doomed to certain failure (p. 133).

Tuttle also gently points out the hypocrisy of would-be Buddhists who regularly eat sentient beings, exercising especial tact with regard to the Dalai Lama (who’d cited his doctors’ advice as an excuse). And did I mention Tuttle’s feminist?

‘Like science, the religious establishment has tended to reinforce the domination of animals, women, and nature, and to further the interests of the ruling elite. Like science, it tends toward being hierarchical, patriarchal, and exclusivist…(p. 160)’.

Spiritual breakthrough or not, maybe what’s needed is some research and to stop distracting oneself long enough to let in some sobering facts. For instance, more than 70 billion land animals are killed for food each year: more than nine animals for each human on the planet? (Even if some folk are eating more than their share, there must be some gross waste somewhere. Oh yeah – more than a third of all food produced each year for human consumption?)

And ever wonder why politicians (and the media) fixate on the issue of CO2 emissions, forgetting the far more potent methane cattle emit? Tuttle’s metaphor, ‘eating animal foods is the elephant in our living room’, is apt. But even if so much crazy injustice remains ‘taboo to confront or discuss’, at the rate our species is breeding, soon we may all be forced towards veganism. To instead approach it voluntarily may be one of the few consequential choices left to most humans as corporate-ruled, increasingly dispensable consumers.

Posted in books to read before you die, use & abuse of language | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment