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Sunday 28 December 2014

All change


changeThis is my last weekly blog for 2014 so I’d just like to wish everyone reading it a Happy New Year when it comes and let’s hope 2015’s a little kinder to the world than 2014’s been. Next year I’m taking a year off. I’ve enough reviews and articles stockpiled (plus a couple I’ve committed to write at the start of the year) to enable me to post one a month for the whole of 2015 and then we’ll see. The rest of the time I’m going to upload my poems, a couple a week probably so you will be kept entertained. Of course I’m not actually taking a year off; it’ll be more of a busman’s holiday. I’ve other stuff I have to do that’s more important and I’ll reassess the situation in a year’s time depending on how successful this experiment is.

So what’s this other stuff, Jim?

Glad you asked. The short answer is: Write. I, of course, write all the time, hundreds of thousands of words. But I mostly don’t write what I want to write. I write what I think I ought to be writing, blogs mostly and comments on blogs (and if you’re familiar with my comments you’ll realise they’re occasionally longer than the blogs I’m commenting on). I like writing. The thing is I don’t write much fiction these days. I don’t have the need. I don’t need to because that urge is being satisfied elsewhere. I’m cheating on my own writing. Off writing other things when I should be putting my effort into my own novels and poems. And that’s not on. Of those few of my friends who still blog most upload something once a week and it probably takes them an hour to rattle off the five- or six-hundred-word post. I can’t do that. I’m not that kind of chatty writer. I simply can’t. But as long as I keep up the schedule I have—which I’ve cut back on and cut back on over the last seven years (there was a point when I was posting a couple of three-and-a-half-thousand-word articles every week)—I’ll never have the space I need to do what matters most to me. Enough is enough.

This is true too: the fun’s gone out of it for me. Blogging (and reading blogs) is becoming less and less popular. I spend maybe three days writing an article and often no one—or his brother, hardly anyone—comments and that’s soul destroying. Readers never mattered to be before I came online. When did they become so damn important? I started blogging because that’s what those who maintained they knew about things said, at the time, you ought to do if you were a writer: set up a static website (check) and a blog (check), post on a regular basis (check) and you will build an audience (which is a euphemism for ‘fan base’ I suppose) who will buy your books and tell all their friends to buy your books. Well that never really happened. Naïve to imagine it would. I developed a few relationships, one or two of which blossomed into bona fide friendships, but that was it. Not that I’m complaining—friends are good. They make good beta readers too.

A lot of writers have moved onto other platforms, so-called microblogging sites like Twitter and, of course, everyone’s favourite, Facebook. I don’t, however, think there’s much useful that can be said in 140 characters or less apart from, “Get up! The bed’s on fire.” And Facebook’s not much better, worse at times since there’s no guarantee that even your friends will get to see what you’ve had to say. Words need space to breathe. They need time spent on them. I recently replied to a friend’s e-mail and my subject line read “9 words a minute” because it’d taken me three hours to write, edit and proofread—yes, I edit and proofread my e-mails—and I’ll let you do the sums yourself if you can be bothered. It was a considered and carefully-written e-mail. And if I’m going to devote three hours to an e-mail just imagine how I feel about my actual writing.

Starting in January I’ll be editing my novel The More Things Change. It took me seven months to edit the short story collection so I can only imagine the work involved in a 90,000-word novel but it needs to be done and there’s no way I can give it the care it deserves whilst trying to maintain two blogs (I’m also putting my McVoices blog on hold for the year). I have a book of poems which was supposed to be out at the end of 2014 but it got delayed for various reasons; mostly my work on Reader (border)that’s done but I still need to keep on top of things. That’ll be out early 2015 and I’ll need to devote time to promoting it too. And then we’ll see if anything else happens. I have ideas—I have ideas all the time—but they get lost in the morass that passes for my mind and half the time even when I write them down I lose them.

I’ve been reading a lot this year—160 books (okay, 160 short books)—and I’ll post something next week talking about that and then the poems’ll start to appear. Some’ve been published before, many are slight and although decent enough poems are not what editors are going to jump at. But they deserve a read and this is a good opportunity to let them see the light of day. I might append the occasional wee note if I can think of something worth adding—where the poem was first published if I can locate the magazine (I was very bad at keeping records when I was young) or where I got the idea from—but nothing that’ll take any real time to write.

Change is inevitable. At times it’s awful—much of the time it’s awful—and we resist it as if we had much choice in the matter. It would be naïve of me to imagine I could go back to being the writer I once was (that guy’s gone and when you read some of the poems next year you might wonder who wrote them but that guy’s gone too) but I would like to be a different writer than the one I’ve become; a better one would be nice but I’d settle for a… for a year off and let nature run its course.

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Buddha in the Attic

buddha in the attic

Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day – Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

The last time my wife went back to the States I watched the documentary To Be Takei. I have to confess to not knowing very much about George Takei other than his work on Star Trek, frequent cameos and occasional guest star spots in shows like The Big Bang Theory and his renaissance as a wit on the World Wide Web. I didn’t know that after Japan entered the war in 1942 the Takei family had been sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Centre for internment and then later transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Centre in California. I knew that it’d happened just like I knew about the camps here in the UK for the internment of civilian enemy aliens but I didn’t know details and what the documentary makers did in the relatively short time they devoted to this time in Takei’s life was put a human face to the tragedy. It also helped us appreciate that there’s more to being Takei than any of us probably imagined.

When I picked up Julie Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, I knew little about it which is always the best way to approach a book if possible. I knew nothing about her or the fact her debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, was set in an internment camp in Utah. (In an article in Newsweek she talks at length about her family’s wartime experiences.) I might’ve been tempted to read it first because the documentary had piqued my interest. It’s good though that I didn’t because The Buddha in the Attic really serves as a sort of prequel—maybe prelude would be a better term—dealing with a group of picture brides who sail to the States in the 1920’s under a variety of illusions all of which are shattered within a few days of their ship reaching land:

ON THE BOAT we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were twenty years old. That the letters we had been written had been written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts.

It is a most unusual book.

Ways of DyingA few weeks back I came across a novel by Zakes Mda called Ways of Dying which was written in the first person plural—the book is narrated by the community as a whole:

When in our orature the storyteller begins the story, ‘They say it once happened . . .’, we are the ‘they’. No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story, and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.

If one of them has not been there to see events unfold with their own eyes all they can do is report what others have told them. It’s a novel approach to narration but the story itself is a straightforward relationship drama and mostly we forget who’s telling the story. Imagine my surprise when I came across a second book written in the first person plural. (Since writing this article I’ve encountered a third: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.) Otsuka’s approach is very different. We are never in doubt, not for a moment, that the narrator is a ‘we’ and that we’re not getting one person’s story, we’re getting snippets from the lives of dozens upon dozens of young girls but eventually a different kind of story appears. It was a book the author struggled to give form to. In an interview she explains:

One day, while reading over my notes for the book, I found, buried in the middle of a paragraph several pages in, a sentence I had written months earlier: ‘On the boat we were mostly virgins.’ I knew at once that this would be the first line of my novel. There would be no main character. I would tell the story from the point of view of a group of young picture brides who sail together from Japan to America.

She expands on this here:

Using the ‘we’ voice allowed me to tell a much larger story than I would have been able to tell otherwise. At first I tried telling. Each sentence gives you a brief window into somebody’s life – it’s like catching a glimpse of someone’s house from a train... the story from the point of view of a single picture bride, but this approach felt too narrow and confining. In my research, I had run across so many fascinating stories, and I wanted to tell them all. Using the ‘we’ voice allowed me to weave them all in. It’s a very capacious and infinitely expandable voice. Each sentence gives you a brief window into somebody’s life – it’s like catching a glimpse of someone’s house from a train – and then we move on.

This, then, is the book’s opening paragraph:

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years—faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.

Many books begin like this but after a page or two we expect to learn who’s doing the talking, who amongst this group has decided to tell their story, but we never do. So to a certain extent this has the feel of a documentary—maybe a new genre, the documentary novel or is that what creative non-fiction is?—but here’s the thing, despite never dwelling on any one individual for more than a sentence or two what presented is an extremely personal picture of what life was like for these women. We begin with the voyage, then there’s the shock of the first night, the jobs they found themselves doing, babies they had (and so many!) and the children they grew up to be. And then, some twenty years on, there’re the notices that begin to appear around town and their newfound Americanness is put to the test.

There are many striking passages in the book and yet finding a clever quote is hard because of the nature of the writing. An image builds over several pages. Think of it like a camera pulling back. You begin with one detail—what am I looking at?—and then you pull back, pull back, pull back and suddenly you go, “Aha! That’s it!” Let me illustrate. This is how the chapter ‘First Night’ begins:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers had promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care. Now let me know if it hurts. They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time. The Kinokuniya Hotel. The Mikado. The Hotel Ogawa. They took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was we were told. Please turn toward the wall and drop down on your hands and knees. They took us by the elbows and said quietly, “It’s time.” They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days. They took us with our white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die. I thought I was being smothered. They took us greedily, hungrily, as though they had been waiting to take us for a thousand and one years. They took us even though we were still nauseous from the boat and the ground had not yet stopped rocking beneath our feet. They took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them.

It goes on and on and on. It’s a single paragraph of almost a thousand words but it feels longer. Never has sex seemed so unsexy. But this technique illustrates how very different the Japanese mentality is to the egocentric western mindset with all its Is, mes and mines. (This article which attempts to summarise the characteristics of the Japanese people makes interesting reading.) It can be tempting to compare the Japanese work ethic to that of bees or ants and although they do work exceptionally well in groups those groups are still made up of individuals and that’s what comes across more than anything in this kaleidoscopic text. The Washington Independent Review of Books says:

Though Knopf, publisher of The Buddha in the Attic, classifies the book as a novel, it is more like a beautifully rendered emakimono, hand-painted horizontal scrolls that depict a series of scenes, telling a story in frozen moments. […] The Buddha in the Attic is a tessellation of the fragments of these women’s stories. Pieced together, the novel comprises a gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country.

By_Grand_Central_Station_I_Sat_Down_and_Wept_CoverThis is the most poetic of novels. One reviewer called The Buddha in the Attic a “lovely poemovella. Or novellem? How would one categorize this hybrid poem-novella?” But it’s not poetic like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept or Eugene Onegin. This is a Japanese book. So think Japanese poetry. Haiku does not use metaphor, personification, simile, or many other poetic devices so popular in other forms of poetry. It is about the essence of a moment, stated simply. And that’s what we have here: moment piled upon moment. It shouldn’t work. It should be exhausting to read. But unlike a writer like David Markson or Padgett Powell (I’m thinking about his novel written entirely in questions) although on the surface you might call this an experimental novel what we have here is accessible writing, the kind you get wrapped up in. You feel for these people. Not just Katsuno or Matsuyo or Roku or Chiyoko “who had always insisted that [people] call her Charlotte”. The names of individuals really don’t matter. Occasionally you recognise one or think you do but there’re simply too many to keep track of and most are nameless. On the subject of innovation the author had this to say:

I wasn’t thinking about genre or how a story “should” be told while I was writing the book, I was just . . . writing the book. And I never thought of myself as being an innovator. I do believe that every book just has its own organic form—and the voice I chose for Buddha was the voice that seemed right for the material. Once I decided to use the “we” voice, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I don’t think it was until I finished the book that I realized it was a little different. Which is probably best. One doesn’t want to get too self-conscious while writing, you know.

The book’s garnered mixed reviews: 709 readers on Goodreads (that’s 3%) and 55 readers on Amazon (that’s a whopping 8%) give the book only one star. The biggest single complaint is that this is not a book but a “laundry list”. Cindy Lutz’s one-star review is particularly creative:

Some of us read "The Buddha in the Attic" because we like well researched historical fiction. Some of us hoped it would evolve into a story. Other of us thought it was fun to read pages of lists. We thought it might narrow down into a real story, but some of us grew bored at 41% and started to guess that each new thought would be followed about how the rest of us did something else. Then some of us readers kept going. It made us feel smart, like scrambling through James Joyce for bragging rights. Some of us got to chat it over in book club. Oh if only Oprah were still on regular TV! Some of us deleted it from our Kindle. Some of us wrote fan fiction listing all of the possible outcomes about another historical event, just to show we can do lots of research and fit it into one book.

Some of thought it was extremely clever to write an entire book suggesting every imaginable outcome to every variation of a situation. Some of us thought it was completely silly and shows a lack of ability to sift through a mountain of excellent research and create a real story. So we wrote an Amazon review in first person plural.

Well, I’m sorry, but I loved this book. I fully understand why others have hated it. But not me. Telling a story is relatively easy. Hundreds of books appear every day telling stories: Girl meets vampire, girl loses vampire, girl meets vampire again. Enough. This was creative and imaginative. It was something unique and risky. I believe she pulled it off and I highly recommend it to you.

Three extracts have been published in Granta and Harper’s and are available online: ‘Come Japanese’, ‘Whites’ and ‘The Children’.


Julie_OtsukaJulie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Asian American Literary Award, and the American Library Association Alex Award.

Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II. It was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. The book is based on Otsuka’s own family history: her grandfather was arrested by the FBI as a suspected spy for Japan the day after Pearl Harbour was bombed, and her mother, uncle and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. When the Emperor Was Divine has been translated into six languages and sold more than 250,000 copies. It has been assigned to all incoming freshmen at more than 35 colleges and universities and is a regular ‘Community Reads’ selection across the US.

Her second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction (2011) and won the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction (2011), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2012) and the Prix Femina Étranger.

Otsuka’s fiction has been published in Granta and Harper’s and read aloud on PRI’s Selected Shorts and BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. She lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in her neighbourhood café (the Hungarian Pastry Shop) which she talks about here and here. Apparently the walnut macaroons—not the cafe's famous strudel—are the must-order.

Sunday 14 December 2014

A Little Lumpen Novelita


I had to do things and not die – Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita

When starting a new book it’s tempting to hurry through the first few pages. You want to get into the meat of the book and I can’t count the number of books when on finishing them and looking over the opening page or two I realise just how much was said in those four or five hundred words. In this novella it’s the opening clause that one needs to pay close attention to:

Now I’m a mother and a married woman…

It tells us that our narrator is now a grownup, a woman and, most importantly, a survivor. The events outlined in the novella are what she survives. Then she gets married and starts a family so it’s not enough to say she survives—she prospers. Things might’ve gone very differently for her because that short opening sentence ends

…but not long ago I led a life of crime.

She and her brother are orphaned at the start of the book—their parents are killed in a car crash—and they’re left to fend for themselves. Exactly how old they are we’re never told. Her older brother is still a teenager and they’re both still attending school. The dynamic suggests that the girl is younger but probably not by much. Suffice to say they’re old enough to take care of themselves. A small government pension helps. It’s smaller than they’d hoped and so it’s only a matter of time and they’ve drifted out of education and into employment, he as a cleaner in a gym and she as an assistant hairdresser. They both dream—as I suppose everyone in poverty does—of the future. In fact when the novella was adapted for the screen this was its title: Il Futuro:

Once [my brother] told me that he dreamed of being Mr. Rome and then Mr. Italy or Master of the Universe. I laughed in his face and gave him my frank opinion. To be Master of the Universe you have to train from the time you’re ten, I told him. I thought that bodybuilding was like chess. My brother said that if I could dream of owning a mini-salon, he had the right to dream of a better future too. That was the word he used: future. I went into the kitchen and got our dinner started. Spaghetti. Then I set out the plates and silverware. Still thinking. At last I said that I didn’t care about the future, that I had ideas, but those ideas, if I really thought about it, never extended into the future.

“Where do they go, then?” howled my brother.


Il_FuturoThe Future seems like a good title for this book. So why call it A Little Lumpen Novelita? For starters ‘little’ seems redundant. The key—and by ‘key’ I mean the key to the novel—must lie in the word ‘lumpen’. I’m British and I thought of ‘lumpen’ as “lumpy and misshapen; ugly and ponderous” but in a Marxist context it means “uninterested in revolutionary advancement” and that’s where we get the word ‘lumpenproletariat’ from, a term coined by Karl Marx to describe that layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society—the dregs of the dregs in other words.

In some respects the siblings actually do alright for themselves. They have jobs and a place to live. They don’t hate each other. The brother had started to bring home dirty movies which he watched with his sister, to “[l]earn how to make love” he insists; she’s sceptical but doesn’t object strongly and continues to watch them with him. Things could be worse. And the day the brother returns home with two bodybuilders he’s befriended, a Libyan and a Bolognan, it looks like things are going to head in exactly that direction.

The two visitors do not live up to expectations however. They stay for five days and then leave:

Even I couldn’t deny that their conduct had been impeccable for the five days they’d stayed with us. They always washed the dishes, three times they made dinner themselves, and they didn’t try anything with me, which was important. I could sense the interest in their eyes, in the way they moved, and the way they talked to me, but I also noted their self-control and found it flattering.

Eventually they return and this time it looks like they’re there to stay. One night one of them slips into the girl’s bedroom and she doesn’t object and then the next night the other—she shows no preference nor even that much interest in who’s having sex with her—but they take advantage and eventually she cuts them off; a girl’s got to get some sleep. Relations do resume, however, after a time:

Once a week, sometimes twice, I let them into my room. I didn’t need to say anything, I just had to be more talkative than usual or give them a meaningful look (or what at the time I imagined was a meaningful look) and they knew immediately that they could visit me that night and they would find the door open.

So, as I’ve said, things could be worse. The men continue to take care of the flat and (supposedly) look for work—by this time the bother’s been (so he says) laid off but times are hard and there’s (so they say) no work to be had. They tighten their belts and feast on the future to come:

Deep down, I think I was afraid something bad would happen. I think I sensed that it was coming soon and I worried about my brother, whose fate seemed so bound up with his friends’ fate. I didn’t care what happened to them. They were older and they were used to hard times, but my brother was innocent and I didn’t want anything to happen to him.

One day, though, things change:

They had a plan. That much I do remember. A hazy plan on which each of them, my brother included, had gambled his future, and to which each had added his bit, his personal touch, his vision of fate and the turns of fate.

She listens, agrees it’s a good plan and thus begins her life of crime. At least one could call it a life of crime if one included planning and talking about committing a crime. In no court in the land will you be convicted for that. The crime to be committed is one of robbery and the man they intend to rob is known as Maciste, a now-blind and obese former bodybuilder and actor—‘Maciste’ was actually the name of a character he played in several films—who lives alone. The girl is to be the bait. In her account the girl is keen to emphasise, “I’m no prostitute. I used to lead a life of crime, but I was never a prostitute,” but that’s simply not the case. She lets her brother and his friends (effectively serving as pimps) deliver her to Maciste’s house on Via Germanico where she has sex with the old man for money. Any court in the land would call that prostitution but as far as she’s concerned that’s just a means to an end, an act. While there she’s supposed to scope out the place, locate his safe and report back. Finding the safe does not prove to be as easy as they expected and so she keeps having to go back—assuming there ever was a safe and this was all a ruse to get her to sell herself—and that’s where the real story begins because she develops feelings for Maciste and he for her.

film still

I’ve never read anything by Bolaño before but apparently he likes to puts his characters in positions where they must choose between what's right and utter depravity. And they usually choose the latter. While it’s true that the girl goes along with the three guys—and so willingly chooses depravity—as I pointed out at the beginning she survives it, she learns from her experiences. I guess it’s the whole you’ve-got-to-hit-rock-bottom-mentality. Rock bottom’s there for a reason.

In his lengthy review of this book Craig Epplin says that “Bolaño is a master of the simile.” Looking through the book carefully I came across several:

Sometimes I saw the negative of a whole life: a bigger house, a different neighbourhood, children, a better job, time passing, old age, a grandchild, death in the public hospital or covered with a sheet in my parents’ bed, a bed that I would have liked to hear creak, like an ocean liner as it goes down, but that instead was silent as a tomb.

[I]n that brief how are you I sensed an incredible fragility, a fragility like a manta ray falling from the ceiling, the dark foyer the bottom of the sea and the manta ray watching us from above, halfway between the sea floor and the surface.

[F]rom the moment I stepped into his house, from the moment I saw him naked and hulking and white, like a broken refrigerator, everything stopped (or I stopped) and now things were happening at a different speed, an imperceptible speed that was the same as stillness.

The stylist listened without getting up from her chair. It was as if the girl’s words were sliding off her face, a hard face without a hint of indulgence. That’s what I remember. And I remember the sunset, a sunset of rose and ochre that crept all the way to the back of the salon, but never touched me.

I’ve come to remember each of Maciste’s words as a key or a dark bridge that surely could have led me elsewhere, as if he were a fortune-telling machine designed exclusively for me, which I know isn’t true, though sometimes I like to think so, not often, because I don’t lie to myself the way I used to, but every once in a while.

Because much of what happens in this book is frankly banal it’s easy not to notice these little gems. There is poetry here but it’s deadpan, indifferent almost. And because of the book’s length it’s also easy to think of it as a slight work but it’s really not. Its central theme is about a young woman taking control of her life and of course since she’s telling her tale sometime in the future we know everything works out but there’s an underlying regret here. She survived—she did what she felt she had to to survive—but it cost her to get where she ends up. If she was a criminal then this is her confession. But what exactly is she owning up to? What was her crime?

The book has an interesting—but not especially helpful—quote at the beginning:

All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put
into words any part of what goes on in their minds
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.


The book’s not about being a writer. There are very few books in the novella; only the schoolbooks they turn away from. They only read newspapers and magazines when they can afford them. Most of their time is spent vegetating in front of the telly. Maciste has a room he calls a library “in which there wasn’t a single book” which is noteworthy because in an interview with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo first published in Capital in 1999 Bolaño said:

A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

So how am I to understand the novella’s opening quote?

In an interview Bolaño said:

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. […] For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.

The girl does admit to being a storyteller. Dan Piepenbring has some thoughts on the subject in The Paris Review as does Craig Epplin in his review. I also found a tweet from Aaron Boothby that expands on the quote: “All writing is garbage" because it pretends a solution to the unsayable. ... All are tormented because all words fail to do what they promise: communicate.” I wonder though if the answer to why Bolaño uses this opening quote might be explained by what Susan Sontag had to say in her essay ‘Artaud’:

For Artaud, the extreme mental—and also physical—pain that feeds (and authenticates) the act of writing is necessarily falsified when that energy is transformed into artistry: when it attains the benign status of a finished, literary product. The verbal humiliation of literature ("All writing is garbage," Artaud declares in The Nerve Meter) safeguards the dangerous, quasi-magical status of writing as a vessel worthy of bearing another's pain. Insulting art (like insulting the audience is an attempt to head off the corruption of art, the banalisation of suffering).

The link between suffering and writing is one of Artaud's leading themes: one earns the right to speak through having suffered, but the necessity of using language is itself the central occasion for suffering.

Let’s take an extreme example: Is a painting of Holocaust atrocities art? Technically, yes, of course, but what right does anyone have to record another’s suffering? And that is what Bolaño is doing even if the people involved are works of fiction. Only the girl can tell her story, can take the garbage that her life was comprised of and reform it into art or literature or something greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t know. You’ll have to read the book—it’s not long—and see what you come up with.

The film adaptation is mostly in Italian so if subtitles annoy you then you won’t much care for it. What might help is the casting of Rutger Hauer as Maciste. He only speaks English and so (conveniently) does the girl when she’s with him. When I was reading the book and imagining Maciste I couldn’t help but think of the character of Prétextat Tach in Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin. The dynamic is different but for purely practical reasons neither actor cast in the films is nearly as obese as the characters they’re being asked to play. For a seventy-year-old Hauer is actually in pretty decent shape. That’s he’s not gross is really neither here nor there; it’s enough that he’s old enough to be her grandfather. I actually think he was a good choice. He’s no Marcello Mastroianni but he does a decent enough job. My only real problem was how chatty he is but that’s the scriptwriter’s fault. He’s not like that in the book. Here’s a clip of their first meeting which will give you an idea what I’m talking about. You can view the trailer (with subtitles) here.

The Future


Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile on April 28, 1953. He’s led a nomadic existence from an early age. His family moved between several towns in Chile, before they moved to Mexico City in 1968. Bolaño was dyslexic and as a result, no academic. He dropped out of high school in 1968 to focus on poetry and, as at this time there were often mass riots in the streets of Mexico City, he identified with the leftist movement and went off to El Salvador where he spent time with other leftist poets as well as an El Salvadorian left wing guerrilla group.

He returned to El Salvador in 1973 where he became a spy for the resistance during the coup of Augusto Pinochet. In 1974, Bolaño returned to Mexico City where, along with poet Mario Santiago and a handful of others, he formed the Infrarealists, a poetic movement that identified with both French Surrealism and Dadaism. He published two poetry collections during his time in Mexico before heading abroad in 1977.

Bolaño spent a year traveling France, Spain, and North Africa before settling near Barcelona. He job-jumped during those years, working as a dockworker, grape harvester, and campground watchman. He also continued to write poetry and short stories, which he would submit to contests. His switch to writing fiction—short stories and later novels—had much to do with his maturation and the birth of his son in 1990, which instilled in him a sense of responsibility to earn a living, which he knew he could barely do as a poet.

Bolaño was most prolific during his forties and fifties. He wrote a dozen novels during these years, poetic works that concerned themselves largely with the purpose of literature and its relationship to life. His most famous work, The Savage Detectives, concerns the life and adventures of Arturo Bolaño, an alter-ego who appears in other stories and novels.

Written in 1989 and published posthumously, Bolaño's The Third Reich predates The Savage Detectives and shows some of the traits that Bolaño had yet to fully develop—particularly surrealism and an obsessive attention to detail. Between Parentheses similarly provides an excellent retrospective on Bolaño's work, bolano2collecting as it does many of the newspaper columns and articles that he wrote during the last five years of his life.

Perhaps the most well-known of the posthumously published Bolaño oeuvre is 2666, 900 apocalyptic pages of stories within stories and murder after murder. Bolaño was posthumously awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for 2666, and Time also awarded it the honour of Best Fiction Book of 2008.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003 from liver disease.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Falling Out of Time

falling out of time cover

[T]here is no there, of course there isn’t, but what if you go there? David Grossman, Falling Out of Time

The blurb describes this book as follows: “Part prose, part play, and pure poetry, David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time is a powerful exploration of mortality, mourning, and the long good-bye that follows the death of a loved one.” It’s an apt description but this description also pinpoints the book’s weakness: it’s neither fish nor fowl nor, as I suppose we need a third creature to pad out our comparison, beast. For my purposes I treated it as a novel in dialogue since I’ve been searching these out of late. I’ve also found myself reading quite a bit about loss recently—not exactly planned but these books keep falling into my hands—and so this was one more to compare with the others. And a very different exploration of loss and grief it was too.

Larkin has said his aim in writing a poem is “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” I believe this goal can be achieved by carefully written prose too and a good example is the book I’ve just finished reading—Us by Michael Kimball—a book the author spent a great deal of time perfecting. Grossman also didn’t rush the writing of this slim volume—the dates at the end state it took him from April 2009 to May 2011 to complete the work and it’s much shorter than Kimball’s—but it takes a markedly different approach to the problem of reproducing the process of grieving.

That this work might get compared to Beckett—Edward Hirsch in his review for the New York Times described the book as “a medieval allegory or a Beckett play”—but the works it actually reminded me of were not plays but rather the novellas Stirrings Still and Ill Seen Ill Said particularly the latter from which this is an extract:

ill seen ill saidThe cabin. Its situation. Careful. On. At the inexistent centre of a formless place. Rather more circular than otherwise finally. Flat to be sure. To cross it in a straight line takes her from five to ten minutes. Depending on her speed and radius taken. Here she who loves to – here she who now can only stray never strays. Stones increasingly abound. Ever scanter even the rankest weed. Meagre pastures hem it round on which it slowly gains. With none to gainsay. To have gainsaid. As if doomed to spread. How come a cabin in such a place? How came? Careful. Before replying that in the far past at the time of its building there was clover growing to its very walls. Implying furthermore that it the culprit. And from it as from an evil core that the what is the wrong word the evil spread. And none to urge – none to have urged its demolition. As if doomed to endure. Question answered. Chalkstones of striking effect in the light of the moon. Let it be in opposition when the skies are clear. Quick then still under the spell of Venus quick to the other window to see the other marvel rise. How whiter and whiter as it climbs it whitens more and more the stones. Rigid with face and hands against the pane she stands and marvels long.

The two zones form a roughly circular whole. As though outlined by a trembling hand. Diameter. Careful. Say one furlong. On an average. Beyond the unknown.

As with many of Beckett’s texts we’re given only as little information as is necessary—think of setting to Waiting for Godot: A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.—and it’s the same with Grossman. This is how Falling Out of Time begins:

TOWN CHRONICLER: As they sit eating dinner, the man’s face suddenly turns. He thrusts his plate away. Knives and forks clang. He stands up and seems not to know where he is. The woman recoils in her chair. His gaze hovers around her without taking hold, and she—wounded already by disaster—senses immediately: it’s here again, touching me, its cold fingers on my lips. But what happened? she whispers with her eyes. Bewildered, the man looks at her and speaks:

So reminiscent of Stirrings Still:

stirrings still_One night or day then as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. First rise and stand clinging to the table. Then sit again. Then rise again and stand clinging to the table again. Then go.

We’ve no idea what place this is, not even the country (the town’s troops are called hussars but that’s little help), what type of dwelling, how old the couple are (assuming they are a couple) or where in history this is taking place. Or even where the Town Chronicler is. Is he in the room with the couple or is he somewhere else relating or making up this tale? Since the town has a train station it can’t be set in medieval times, that’s for sure, but that aside the setting is timeless and placeless and, most importantly, in a political vacuum. What we do know is this has happened before, this ‘it’ that’s here again. A stage setting is not hard to imagine. An empty room, empty bar, a table and two chairs. Very Beckettian. The man begins talking:

—I have to go.
—To him.
—To him, there.
—To the place where it happened?
—No, no. There.
—What do you mean, there?
—I don’t know.
—You’re scaring me.
—Just to see him once more.
—But what could you see now? What is left to see?
—I might be able to see him there. Maybe even talk to him?

TOWN CHRONICLER: Now they both unfold, awaken. The man speaks again.

—Your voice.
—It’s back. Yours too.
—How I missed your voice.
—I thought we … that we’d never …
—I missed your voice more than I missed my own.
—But what is there? There’s no such place. There doesn’t exist!
—If you go there, it does.
—But you don’t come back. No one ever has.
—Because only the dead have gone.

Superman_v_1_666There is like tomorrow. There is an idea. We, the living, are trapped in the here and now. Only in myths do people go there (Orpheus) or poems (Dante) or comics (Superman briefly became lord of Hell in Superman #666). We don’t even know where there is. Or, as the woman says, what there is. But if someone isn’t here they must be there otherwise they’d be nowhere and that’s even harder to imagine:

we are here
and he—
but it’s impossible!

We learn, as the two talk, it’s been five years since they lost their son, Uwi. They have now, as the wife puts it, “come back to life”, got on with their lives, but clearly grief is not done with them. The future is a place we can only imagine visiting but the past is easily accessible, too easy. “Don’t go back there,” the woman begs him. But it, whatever this ‘it’ is, has a hold of him:

For five years
we unspoke
that night.
You fell mute,
then I.
For you the quiet
was good,
and I felt it clutch
at my throat. One after
the other, the words
died, and we were
like a house
where the lights
go slowly out


And together
we were born
on the other side,
without words,
without colours,
and we learned to live
the inverse
of life.


Eventually the man can stand it no longer. He paces round and round the table. He has to go and begs his wife to come too but she won’t:

I would go
to the end
of the world with you,
you know. But you are not
going to him, you are going
somewhere else, and there
I will not go, I cannot.
I will not.
It is easier to go
than to stay.
I have bitten my flesh
for five years
so as not to go, not
there is
no there!

But the man insists:

There will be,
if we go

and he ends up leaving the cabin alone.

Again I’m reminded of Beckett. From Worstward Ho:

worstward hoA place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once whence no return. No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.

At first he trudges round the house and then widens his circle until eventually he ends up walking around the entire town. Again from Stirrings Still:

Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. The back roads. Now as one in a strange place seeking the way out. In the dark. In a strange place blindly in the dark of night or day seeking the way out. A way out. To the roads. The back roads.

In this respect he is similar to the woman in Ill Seen Ill Said who is “drawn to a certain spot. At times.” The man too is being drawn to a certain spot, a wall at it turns out, a stone wall (stones are important metaphors in Beckett’s writing), but first he has to journey there. But, of course, it’s not a linear journey—he doesn’t go straight there (does he even know where there is?)—but, like May in Footfalls (whose ‘journey’ is also circular (or at least elliptical)), he still needs to feel as if he’s going somewhere. As Beckett’s Molloy puts it:

When a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping to go in a straight line.

At this point in the text he stops being Man and becomes Walking Man. Later on we encounter a woman walking round and around a belfry and she is very much like May:

What do they see? A woman
from the village, from by the swamps,
with a village face and heavyset legs,
a long silver braid, barely moving, walking
three or four steps
an hour, a madwoman.
They can laugh.
Laugh all they want. I walk
around the spire slowly, one step,
another, and another step.

The Town Chronicler, who had been watching events unfold through the cabin’s window, follows The Walking Man for a bit before being distracted by others. What has happened in his house is, apparently, not an isolated instance. The man is only the first of many beginning with The Cobbler who, as the text progresses, all join The Walking Man in his perambulations. In his notebook the Town Chronicler writes:

At times it seems, Your Highness, that a nameless power hovers over the town, envelops it, and—like a person sucking an egg through a hole in the shell—it draws these people and others toward it, from kitchens and squares and wharves and beds. (And—if there is truth to the shocking, dizzying rumours, Your Highness—even from palace rooms?)

It’s at this point we realise that when the Town Chronicler’s talking he’s not addressing us. Actually he’s writing to someone he calls “my lord” and “Your Highness” who turns out to be The Duke but we don’t learn anything more about him at this point and the action shifts to “midnight, at the old wharf by the lake” where we encounter the mute Net-mender. (Not quite sure why she’s described as mute because she’s given lines to say a few pages on. Maybe they’re thoughts. No, later on the Town Chronicler says, “Now she notices me and falls silent.” Then again the first man and woman talk about being mute so maybe they all have been and now, suddenly, their tongues have been untied.) Days pass. On his third night’s watch the Town Chronicler comes across The Centaur, not a literal centaur, but a writer we discover sitting at a table:

A dirty blanket is spread out on the desk before him. A few empty beer bottles, pens, pencils, a school notebook, all scattered around. The notebook is open; its pages have thin blue lines. As best I can tell from here, they are all empty.

“Scram before I wring your balls,” the centaur growls without opening his eyes, and I flee for my life.

We learn that the Town Chronicler has a wife and like the others they too have lost a child (thirteen years before, a daughter) as has the Net-Mender (a six-year-old), the Centaur (an eleven-year-old boy, Adam, fifteen years earlier), the Cobbler and his stuttering wife (a daughter, Lilli), the Elderly Maths Teacher (his son, Michael, twenty-six years for him: a prank gone awry, / a bathtub, a razor, / veins slashed / in the course of a game) and the Woman atop the Belfry (a son, a soldier I think). And the Duke himself it transpires (a son one August and now every day is August).

As the text progresses we find out a few things about the Town Chronicler and his relationship with the Duke:

It was he who commanded me, in a royal edict, to exile myself from my home, to walk the streets day and night recording the townspeople’s stories of their children. And it was he who forbade me—by explicit order!—to remember her, my one. Yes, immediately after it happened, he sentenced me, after she drowned, I mean the daughter, Hanna, after she drowned in a lake right before my eyes, and I couldn’t, listen, there were tall waves, huge, and I couldn’t … What could I …


[W]e used to be good friends, the duke and I. Soul mates. Yes, after all, I was his jester for twenty years, until the disaster befell me. His beloved jester … And to think that he, of all people, decreed such a terrible decree … How did it even occur to him?

Only it may not be as simple as that.

As the days slouch on and more and more join this seemingly aimless trek the Town Chronicler’s wife notices a strange thing:

In recent days I think I see, over their heads, in the air, some sort of reddish flicker, a chain of embers hovering above …

The only thing I could think of when this was mentioned was the tongues of flames that appeared above the apostles at Pentecost. It is not explained, not at first, but when he has his attention drawn to it the old teacher notes:

My heart tells me, my boy, that from the moment a person notices the blaze, he is destined to get up and go to it.

And they do.

TOWN CHRONICLER: They walk on the hills and I follow them, constantly darting between them and the town. They groan and trip and stand, hold on to each other, carry those who sleep, falling asleep themselves. Nights, days, over and over they circle the town, through rain and cold and burning sun. Who knows how long they will walk and what will happen when they are roused from their madness? The duke, for example—who would have believed it—walking shoulder to shoulder with the net-mender, her fluttering nets occasionally wrapping themselves around him. And the elderly teacher, with his thin halo of hair, walking swiftly, as he is wont, hopping from one foot to the other and reaching his head out to either side with immense curiosity, even in sleep. And the cobbler and the midwife, hand in hand, eyes tightly closed, with stubborn resolve. And at the end of the small procession walks my wife, dragging her heavy feet, her breath laboured, her head drooping on her chest, with no one to hold her hand.


Sleeping … They’ve been sleeping almost constantly for days, sleeping their minds away. Sleeping and walking, speaking to one another in their dream, each head leaning on another walker’s shoulder. I do not know who carries whom and what force drives them to walk—

But not the Centaur, welded to his desk. He watches at a distance, through binoculars, and notes and records what happens once the Town Chronicler is also caught up in the crowd.

I’ve often wondered about graveyards. I think they exist so that there can be a there to go to. We go there and stand in front of a stone marker, a wall if you like, and that’s as close as we can get. In Ill Seen Ill Said a stone draws the woman to a certain spot. In Falling Out of Time the townspeople end up facing a stone wall, a communal marker although probably not a literal one otherwise the Walking Man would’ve reached it on his own on the first day. It’s as far as they can go and yet they seek to go further and so they dig their own graves, strip and get into them. I bet Beckett’s kicking himself in his own grave for not coming up with that one.

At one point the Walkers, talking as one like a Greek chorus—as they often do towards the end of the book although what we really have here is an exchange between the Net-mender and Duke—say:

                               Well, m’lord,
that’s because poems suddenly
tumble out my mouth. It is the same
with me, my lady: poetry
is the language
of my grief.

How do we make the private language of grief intelligible to others? Is poetry the way? As a poet I’ve written several pieces prompted by grief and loss and so I’m a very bad person to ask; poetry’s where I go at times like this. But what about ordinary people, net-menders and cobblers and maths teachers? They’re not poets, not practiced poets (I suspect that everyone is a poet at heart) and yet so many of them in this book find they need to express themselves in chopped-up prose that resembles poetry and occasionally is actually poetic:

Who will sustain her,
who will embrace,
if our two bodies
do not

Here I will fall
now I will fall—
I do not fall.
Now, here,
the heart will stop—
it does not stop—

unnamableNow doesn’t that last quote remind you so of the end of The Unnamable which closes with the phrase “You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on,” That said I find myself agreeing with Hirsch when he notes, “the staccato line breaks are flawed and the lineation is probably the weakest aspect of this otherwise well-written book.” What is interesting is how the character of the Centaur clings to prose for so much of the novel but only towards the end, when he finally gives into his grief, do his words turn to poetry:

in my room,
on my cursed body-desk,
I finally have written. Like fingers
probing crumbled earth,
I wrote the story.

The writing down is important. In writing down he comes to understand. And that is what Grossman’s been doing. His book was for himself first, and then us. I get that.

David Grossman lost his younger son, Uri, in the last Lebanese incursion by the IDF when an anti-tank missile hit its mark. George Packer’s essay in The New Yorker fills in the details and is worth a read. The statement issued by the family at the time read:

Uri GrossmanUri Grossman was born on August 27, 1985. He was supposed to celebrate his 21st birthday in two weeks. Uri studied at the experimental school in Jerusalem. He reached the armoured corps and fulfilled his aspiration to be a tank commander. He was about to be released (from the army) in November, travel the world, and then study theatre. Friday evening he spoke, from Lebanon, with his parents and sister. He was glad that a decision on a ceasefire was taken. Uri promised that he will be eating the next Shabbat dinner at home. Uri, son to David and Michal and brother to Yonatan and Ruthie, had a fabulous sense of humour and a big soul filled with life and emotion.

That was in 2006 and so Falling Out of Time is very much Grossman’s considered response to his son’s death.

This is a profound book and even if the poetry is not always the most poetic the book as a whole is. It takes us there. And then reveals the hardest truth matter-of-factly: "Maybe there has always been here all this time?"

“And maybe we’ve been there, too, just a bit, since it happened to us?” [The Town Chronicler’s wife] straightens up and a new momentum seems to drive her steps. “Maybe there has always been here, and we just didn’t know it?”

Some have suggested this might work as a play, specifically a radio play—Kate Kellaway in The Observer and Edward Hirsch—and it might with a little careful adaptation.


grossmanDavid Grossman was born in Jerusalem, where he still lives. He is the best-selling author of several works of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, which have been translated into thirty-six languages. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Buxtehuder Bulle in Germany, Rome’s Premio per la Pace e L’Azione Umanitaria, the Premio Ischia International Award for Journalism, Israel’s Emet Prize, and the 2010 Frankfurt Peace Prize.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Half Life

half life

Vanishing twin syndrome usually occurs in the womb. In our case it came about considerably later in the developmental process. – Shelley Jackson, Half Life

If, as I did, you struggled with this book (especially its ending) you might want to read Stéphane Vanderhaeghe’s essay ‘How to Unread Shelley Jackson?’ published in Transatlantica. It won’t answer all your questions but it’ll probably help you ask more sensible questions than, “WTF?” I’ll come back to that.

For the most part this is… correction, appears to be, a fairly straightforward novel. It tells the story of two conjoined twins: Nora and Blanche Olney. There are two overlapping storylines that run chronologically: the first charts their lives from conception until, when she’s thirteen, Blanche falls asleep and refuses to wake up; the second thread begins some fifteen years later when Nora, tired of carrying around what she’s come to regard as dead weight, decides it’s time for Blanche to go (in fact the very first chapter of the book is a copy of her medical release and waiver document). Sandwiched between these two storylines are extracts from ‘The Siamese Twin Reference Manual’ which is really more of a scrapbook Nora has compiled over the years but it serves to provide the readers with some much needed exposition like, for example, why the world is suddenly teaming with “twofers” which is slang term for conjoined twins adopted by North Americans; in the UK it’s apparently “mushies” (“Mushy peas, Siamese … Cockney rhyming slang).

So this is a what-if? book, what would the world be like if, following the detonation of the first atomic bomb, something happened and women started having two-headed babies? Not every pregnancy results in a two-headed baby but there is a considerable escalation. That part of the book was dead interesting. There have been many books written that tweak history and set their storylines in alternate realities: for example The Plot Against America by Philip Roth looks at an America where Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in 1940 in his bid for a third term as President of the United States, and Charles Lindbergh was elected, leading to increasing fascism and anti-Semitism in the States; Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series of novels are set in a world in which the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War, and Resurrection Day is a novel written by Brendan DuBois that depicts a world where the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated to a full-scale war, the Soviet Union is devastated, and the USA has been reduced to a third-rate power, relying on Britain for aid. It’s basically the butterfly effect.

The world as it now stands is full of minorities all banding together trying to first define and then assert their rights: the right to believe what they want, to marry who they want, to die when they want. This new world is no different in that regard:

[S]ome groups, like the Siamists, Togetherists, and so-called fusion theologists, aver that radiation has nothing to do with twinning. It was a deeper, more metaphysical split that took place when the first nuclear bomb was exploded at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945. Many consider this split no accident, but the essential next stage in the spiritual evolution of a species finally advancing beyond self-interest. To others, it is just the latest fissure in that ever-widening crack in the relation of Self to World whose warning signs first appeared in ancient Greece. Revisionist scholars, on the other hand, claim that a sizeable population of twofers has existed throughout history (“theirstory”), many more than were sung in ballads and broadsides. Indeed, the Togetherists, the most radical of the “fusion” groups, lay claim to an antiquity that rivals the Masons’.

man in the high castleI’ve been a fan of alternate histories for years. Oddly I’ve not read one until now and I really don’t know why—considering the amount of Philip K Dick I’ve read you’d’ve thought I’d’ve got round to The Man in the High Castle—but I did enjoy the setting part of the novel very much and there’re plenty of opportunities for humour, for example, reimagining the premises of television shows:

Three’s Company, about a sexy twofer and her male roommate, and Mork & Mindy: a dark comedy, in which one half of a two-headed alien falls under the delusion that he is a simple American girl.

Or films. She couldn’t resist slipping in a reference to Anna and the Siamese Kings.

But although there’s plenty of sly, wry and often dry humour in this book it has a serious, even a dark undercurrent. What right does Nora have to agree to have her sister’s head removed? Just as with the abortion and assisted suicide issues today there are widely differing opinions. In most countries surgical decapitation is illegal…

…to commit … an act of surgery against your other half, even if she is deaf, mute, an idiot, or insane, unless she’s also gangrenous and leaking pus out of her ears? And even then you have to get a court hearing and the consent of, like, everyone in the world: parents, both dead and alive, spouse, pet goldfish, next-door neighbour, kindergarten teacher, and five total strangers who looked at you once on the street.

But that doesn’t stop people doing it. And one of those whose services are available for a price—and not even an exorbitant price (she’s not in it for the money)—is Dr. Ozka, known in the press as “Doctor Decapitate”; her service is referred to as “The Divorce”.

brothers of the headWhen Nora completes her form she indicates that her twin is non compos mentis but what sort of book would this be if that was truly the case? It’s like the third head in Brian Aldiss’s Brothers of the Head. You just know it’s going to wake up at the end and that’s not going to be good. So is that what happens here?

I’m not going to spoil the book by saying what happens but the ending is far from straightforward. And this is where we start to get into WTF territory. But bear with me.

The book’s narrated by Nora who’s very much her own woman. Even as a child when Blanche was conscious Nora was the dominant twin but not necessarily the bad twin; things aren’t as black and white as they appear. (Nora ó noir ó black; Blanche ó white.) If Nora isn’t as attached (sorry, irresistible pun) to her sister as you might imagine there could be a good reason. The problem is remembering the past and as Nora tells the story of what it was like for the two of them to grow up in the ghost town of Too Bad, Nevada it appears she might not quite have all her ducks in a row. Especially when it comes to the foulmouthed girl she remembers as Donkey-Skin and the girl’s father Dr. Goat. To be honest if you extracted all the chapters about them growing up you’d have quite an acceptable YA novel. The big problem in childhood is gaining acceptance and it doesn’t matter if you’re the only kid with braces or ginger hair or a stutter or a sibling growing out of your shoulder you’re going to find it hard. I’ve known a couple of sets of twins in my life, an identical pair and a non-identical. The identical twins were inseparable—they might as well have been joined at the hip—but the other pair were like chalk and cheese. I was friends with George but I really didn’t have much time for David. Nora and Blanche have similar problems:

Gradually, something changed. The other kids decided that we were not one, but two girls. One had cooties, but the other was all right. They shared their lunch with Blanche—bartered chocolate pudding cup for fruit leather, peanut butter crackers for devil-dog—while I ate chopped olives. Once I tried to swap for a bag of raisins.

“Gross. Nobody wants to touch your food, Nora. Get a clue.” Blanche rolled her eyes apologetically at me and took another bite of Twinkie.

As an adult things have changed. For starters Nora’s no longer living in a backwater; she in the city where there are clubs and bars and a whole social world devoted to twofers. Oddly enough she doesn’t really seem to be a part of this. And the problem here is something along the lines of body dysmorphia: she feels like a singleton born in the body of a twofer and really isn’t that comfortable in the company of conjoined twins.

devil2Oddballs abound. Not quite sure Nora encounters anyone who isn’t a little peculiar or who doesn’t have some agenda. She’s certainly more than a little mixed-up herself. But she knows her own mind. For as long as she’s sure it is her own mind. Because then there’s all that Lithobolia business:

I named the phenomenon after Lithobolia, the stone-throwing demon: a beige blur would whisper past my head, and somewhere, something would smash. I’d look up in mild, disinterested surprise.

The “beige blur” is her own arm or, since she’s not in control of it during these moments, perhaps it would be best to think of it as Blanche’s arm. Blanche who’s still asleep and, presumably, sleep-throwing random object. This is new. And worrying. But as long as Blanche is out of it Nora’s determined to proceed and, after some effort and a few adventures, does indeed make contact with Dr. Ozka. Needless to say things do not go as planned at the clinic and Nora nearly loses her own head. She’s forced to return to the States where she finds herself pulled irresistibly—is Blanche driving?—home where it (whatever ‘it’ is because even some 400 pages into the book at this point I still wasn’t sure) all began.

This is where we start to get into WTF territory and I would recommend reading the final section of this book with a clear head and not, as I did, rush to try to get the damn thing finished because you’d already spent days on it. No, it is not an especially quick read despite keeping my interest pretty much throughout. In her essay Vanderhaeghe writes:

Shelley Jackson’s novel barely functions as this old-fashioned object once called a book used to… Well, it is a book all right, or at least bears every external resemblance to what we usually call a “book”. As such, the object is tangible enough to let anyone open it and adventurously get lost amid pages (white) covered with ink (black)—pages “stained with words” as Nora will eventually claim. But, naïve as the question surely is, does that make it a “book”? And what, then, is a “book”, or what is left of it, in the age of digital manipulation and electronic saturation? One possible answer is that a “book” is something we can always go back to and find unchanged, its contents there for eternity, forever preserved on a bookshelf somewhere in the library next door ; in that case, then, and despite all contrary evidence, Shelley Jackson’s Half Life is probably not a book ; for a simple experiential, hence subjective reason at least : when the readers reach its last page, they suddenly feel it vanish between their hands, even as they are grasping it, and grasping it tight, to get a reassuring sense of ontological certainty. If Jackson parodically makes use of conventional novelistic devices throughout, it seems relevant that, among them, the climax that one usually finds towards the end of a well-driven plot is reinterpreted along literal lines. As a metaphor that over the years has become so familiar as to have lost its full, though ambiguous meaning (if full meaning, ambiguous or not, it ever had), the novel’s “climax” is here envisioned as an atom bomb exploding. Yet the ending of Half Life is not the expected final explosion that would conventionally give birth to its mushroom-cloud of an offspring, but rather its parodic, self-cancelling reversal: the bomb, going off, sucks back its offspring off a mushroom-cloud. In other words, one had better follow the (metafictional) suggestion of One and a Half, this two-headed kitten singing songs to Nora, and refer to Half Life not as a book in the end, but as a “device” instead which leaves nothing intact, least of all the “text” or the “novel”.

Yeah, I had to read that over a couple of times too. There is a diagram at the end of the novel which is slightly helpful once you’ve actually read the book so I’m not really spoiling anything by including it here:

Venn Diagram

When Nora writes “I start to write” this is the point in the book she’s looking back from and from that point on she’s not looking back she’s writing about what’s happening to them day by day because I’m not actually sure what’s left at the end of the book. Not once we’ve gone full (twin) circles. Nora writes:

Everything happens twice, first in the fact, and then in the telling. At least twice: the telling, too, is doubled by the hearing of it. A cleft passes through the centre of things, things that do not exist except in this twinship. That cleft is what we sometimes call I. It has no more substance than the slash between either and or.

Either and or, exclusive or: XOR, one of the four terms that serve as section headings: NOT, XOR, OR and AND. Yeah, it doesn’t hurt to have some idea how Boolean logic works. And Venn Diagrams.

The book gets mixed reviews. According to Goodreads at the time of writing:

5 stars 15% 92
4 stars 28% 174
3 stars 29% 181
2 stars 17% 109
1 star 8% 51

I can understand why. Of the one-star reviews I think Wealhtheow puts it best:

This book is the written equivalent of the last twenty minutes of “2001”—I’m sure *something* “deep” is going on, but I’m not sure what and mostly I just feel bored and nauseated.

To be fair Nora is not the most likeable of characters—I’m actually not sure there was a single likeable character in the book (maybe Mooncalf, a chocolate lab)—and I can understand her thinking of herself as a singleton but what disappointed me most were the other twofers she meets along the way. None of them felt like twins, dicephalusconjoined or not. There was none of this cute finishing off each other’s sentences or making up their own language (cryptophasia) or anything like that but to be honest I was basing my judgement on what little I’ve seen of Abby and Brittany Hensel:

Dicephalus dipus dibrachius. That’s two heads, two legs, and two arms: standard-issue twofer.

plus what I know of Poto and Cabengo and June and Jennifer Gibbons. And, of course, my own experiences.

Half Life is an ambitious book and there’s a lot crammed into it. Perhaps too much. As Stacey D’Erasmo puts it in her review for The New York Times:

All this razzle-dazzle, all the allusions, the narrative loop-de-loops: it gets a bit busy. By the middle of the book, I wasn’t sure how many more cleverness hurdles I could clear, and I’m sure I stumbled over some. I don’t really know what a Boolean system is; I looked it up, then I forgot again. I skipped past the Venn diagram, though it was charmingly drawn.

Those bits I got but then I’ve always had a head for maths. It was other bits that lost me or at least lost my interest. But I was glad I read it despite its length; 450 pages is really my upper limit these days. I would read her again. She manages to balance the intellectual and the visceral quite nicely and at 179 pages her short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy is more my length; should’ve read it first I think. Bodies clearly fascinate her. In an interview she says:

[T]he body interests me most as something to write about, not to touch (not in a professional capacity, anyway). I am fascinated above all with using it as a object of fantastical transformations, because we care about the body and we know it intimately, and I think that makes it possible to invest bizarre scenarios with very strong, creepy, personal feelings.


Shelley_JacksonBorn in 1963 Shelley Jackson is the author of the novel Half Life, the story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl and Doll Games (with Pamela Jackson), several children’s books featuring her own illustrations, and SKIN, a story published in tattoos on the skin of 2,095 volunteers. A Village Voice “Writer on the Verge” and Pushcart Prize winner, she is also the co-founder of the Interstitial Library, Circulating Collection. Shelley Jackson lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at the New School University. Her website can be found at

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