"Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again" - CS Lewis

Robert Crumb – The Book of Genesis

- 13/05/18 Books,Reviews

The Book of Genesis is a 224-page graphic novel by noted cartoonist Robert Crumb, based on the book of the same name by noted deity God. It’s literally the full text of Genesis, painstakingly hand-lettered in (and around) cramped panels of Crumbian imagery. It’s all here: the famous stories, the less famous stories, and even the “Jokshan begat Dedan, who begat Ashirum, who begat…” parts. Not a verse has been cut, no matter how boring or inappropriate for the comic medium.

Nothing like this has been done before, and hopefully nothing like this will be done again.

While reading The Book of Genesis, I kept asking myself: what’s the point? What am I supposed to get out of this? Crumb spent four years working on a product with no entertainment value at all. Maybe he feels pride in being the first person to adapt Genesis unabridged as a comic book, just as the first astronaut to land on Pluto will feel pride, despite it being a dull lump of rock.

So why doesn’t it work? Biblical-themed comics tend to either be didactic, cloying efforts by believers (Jack Chick’s tracts being the most famous example) or angry reactionary polemics by atheists (see Jesus and Mo and a thousand other webcomics). I assumed Crumb – who has perfected body duplication technology so that he can be a fly in every jar of ointment – would be in the second group, and that the Book of Genesis would be full of gleeful blasphemy.

Instead, it’s exactly what I’ve described: a comic version of Genesis. Not a single other adjective applies – perhaps not even “good” or “bad”. This is a huge problem: the stories of Genesis are so familiar and famous that artists have stripped them to their bones. If you’re attempting to tell (and sell) the tale of Noah’s Ark or Jacob and Esau once again, you damned well need a second adjective!

Despite doing the art, Crumb leaves no trace of himself in the book. Does he like the stories he’s writing down, letter by letter for fifty straight months? Does he hate them? What emotions do they inspire? Is he realizing any spiritual truths? Or is he growing even more sure of his decision (at age sixteen) to become an atheist? I have no clue. I’m not Crumb’s biggest fan but I understand why he’s liked: he has a style, and it’s a compelling one (nobody else could have written Fritz the Cat, for example). But he approaches this project with all the verve of a manga letterer making a thousand yen a page. There’s no creative elan to be seen here.

His imagery is trite, cribbed from Michelangelo, Ignatius of Loyola, and Cecil B DeMille. God has white hair and a beard. He creates the earth like a wizard casting a spell in a Saturday morning cartoon. The Garden of Eden looks like Bambi. The Ark is a large floating shoebox. There are some unintentionally funny parts. During the genealogies, he needs to come up with a visual element, so he just draws headshots of what these dozens of people might have looked like. It looks like the fighter select screen in an SNK fighting game.

Crumb’s form constantly works to undercut him. The Bible’s stories are big and epic, and they would have benefited from double-page spreads, not tiny panels. Again, there’s unintentional laughter. During the flood, we see drowned people and animals, floating face-up in the boiling sea. It would have been a striking piece of art, except it’s too small. They look like toys bobbing in a child’s bathtub.

If I could guess at Crumb’s purpose, it was to provide a comic that contains no exegesis or interpretation whatsoever. The mere act of editing a work, by definition, changes it, so by leaving everything in, he was free from the charge of distorting the Bible. However, Genesis is quite a long book, and cramming it into a comic makes it virtually unreadable. So much text crowds the page that it induces claustrophobia. Combined with Crumb’s signature art style (itchy, hairy, and uncomfortable) and you have one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had so far in a graphic novel.

Occasionally, he takes a few small liberties. Potiphar’s wife is depicted as a harridan, not remotely beautiful. The city of Sodom is obviously (and anachronistically) Babylonian, with Ishtar Gate inspired architecture. The passages at the end where Crumb discusses some of the stories are quite interesting, but again he keeps his feelings close to his chest. And that’s something nobody wants to see from Crumb.

The Book of Genesis is a little like a sculpture of the Brooklyn Bridge made of toothpicks, more interesting for its existence than its function. “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Mt. 5:17-18). Well, it’s been accomplished. And now I will move ahead to never thinking about it again.


Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain – David Gerard

- 11/04/18 Books,Reviews

An investor once gave advice to a man invested in a speculative bubble. “Enjoy the party, but dance near the door.” If you own bitcoin, litecoin, or ethereum, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain will make you want to dance near the fire escape. Author David Gerard argues (successfully, I think) against virtually every technology derived from blockchains.

His view can be summarised as “blockchains fail at solving nonexistent problems.” They are speculative and sexy, making them flypaper for con artists, but that’s not the point – even good-faith implementations don’t work.

No major company utilises blockchain-based technology at scale. Ten years after the Satoshi Nakamoto paper, and after five years of loud media hype, cryptocurrency has few visible uses except as an asset (and perhaps it’s already time to remove “except as an asset” from that sentence). In light of this, dramatic fiascoes like the Mt Gox collapse seem more like irrelevant sideshows, distracting from the pervasive pointlessness of the technology. The problem isn’t “suppose your money is stolen.” It’s “suppose it isn’t. Then what?”

The book covers fifteen years of cryptocurrency, from the cypherpunks to the Satoshi whitepaper to the rapidly deflating bubble. It mixes tales of hilarious Wolf of Wall Street-style misadventures with serious analysis of the mathematical and economic weaknesses of blockchains. Bitcoin was supposed to be decentralised. In practice, it is chokepointed by a handful of big exchanges, subjecting their users to increasingly onerous KYC requirements. Bitcoin was supposed to limited to 21 million coins. In practice, any keyboard equipped with Ctrl, C, and V keys can fork the coin, defeating the purpose. Bitcoin’s tamper-proof ledger is frequently cited as a strength, but there are times when you want to tamper with the ledger. Transactions might be made by mistake, for example. The difficulty and risk of bitcoin has all but deep-sixed its small economy of legitimate users, leaving a small number of defiant “HODLers”, convinced that wide adoption is around the corner and things will be better tomorrow.

Gerard also discusses blockchain-based “smart contracts”. Again, they’re hip, and happening, but don’t appear to actually solve any problems with real world contracts, which have always been interpretation (what does “anticipatory breach” mean?) and enforcement (how do you punish anticipatory breach if it happens)?

A famous example: Robin Williams voiced the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, he stipulated that the genie’s likeness not take up more than 25% of the space on any poster associated with the film (he didn’t want to be typecast as a cartoon character). Disney famously screwed him by making the Genie take up 25% of the space…and making the other characters significantly smaller. Williams joked that they drew Mickey Mouse with three fingers so he couldn’t pick up a cheque. How would putting his contract on a blockchain have helped Robin Williams?

These case studies, and many more, give the impression that blockchains aren’t a viable asset so much as a melon dropping towards the pavement. The book is comprehensive, and well written. Certainly out of date date by now, but that’s hard to avoid – in fast-moving fields, a book can easily be out of date before it reaches publication.

The most interesting parts (which could have been elaborated on more) were the mental psychographies of bitcoin’s users. Cryptocurrencies are a selection filter for unusual brains. The concept is futuristic. The very name sounds Gibsonian. They massage your preconceptions and ideologies: you’re John Galt, Johnny Mnemonic, and . Sadly, they’re also attractive to scammers: the concept is complicated enough that you can bamboozle laypeople, but not so complicated that you can’t fake the jargon with a little practice.

I’ve seen bitcoin evangelists in action. They’re like robots. They probably aspire to be robots – robots that don’t need to eat or sleep or do anything except refresh market depth charts twenty four hours a day. Their arguing styles are almost thrilling in their casuistry and dishonesty. “Blockchains might be used for x” is equated to “blockchains are used for x”, which in turn is equated to “blockchains are the best solution for x”. Sometimes they bust out tu quoque arguments. “Fiat money is imaginary, too!” I don’t follow the logic. All money is worthless…so buy bitcoin?

But they’re making money. Or at least, they used to, and they’re convinced they will again, if they weather the storm of negativity and FUD stirred up by the enemies of freedom. In short, they’ve fallen prey to self deception. “I have invested in bitcoin. This can’t possibly be a bad decision, because this would mean I am stupid. And I’m not stupid, so investing in bitcoin was smart.” I think many of them will look back after the crash and wish they could erase every single post and Tweet they ever typed about bitcoin. But that day is not today.

When the Hindenburg fell, it fell hard, billowing fire across many acres. By then, its failure was obvious, but for the people on board this knowledge came too late to save them. Why not get ahead of the curve? Why not stay clear of the Hindenburg altogether? Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain has all the information you need not to throw your money into the blockchain bubble, or at least to be very cautious if you do.


Penni in Vegetaria – Tales from the Ovoid #1

- 28/01/18 Books,Reviews

Dillon Naylor is an Australian comic artist. His most remembered comic strip is Da’n’Dill, which I’m still uncomfortable in my ability to pronounce. It’s the verbal equivalent of a missing stair.

Da’n’Dill comics were endemic to Australia’s mid-90s landscape. They appeared in showbags, and were syndicated in newspapers. They were like a disease, apt to infest any blank piece of paper. Everyone read them. The concept was a riff on Mork and Mindy’s “aliens in suburbia”, but with a critical change. Naylor understood that comedy doesn’t come from insanity, it comes from conflict, and instead of a saccharine little girl, he made the Mindy character a thin-skinned, teeth-grinding nerd who was constantly having his plans foiled by the dumb, well-meaning aliens.

Naylor’s comics were funny. And they seemed even funnier when you were riding a sugar high on the train home from Luna Park. There are legends about how casinos hyper-oxygenate the air, to induce euphoria and compulsive gambling in their patrons. Naylor had this same racket all sewn up with the under twelve set.

Penni in Vegetaria is another of Naylor’s works. The setup is cute: it’s dinner time, and Penni doesn’t want to eat her greens. While hiding from her parents, she discovers an alien spaceship under a pile of leaves. She presses buttons, and is whisked away to a far-away planet inhabited by a race of giant sentient plants. The vegetable and fruit races are at war, and Penni is swept up in their conflict.

The story is safe, and layered with moralistic overtones. But there’s also some classic Naylor subversiveness: such as a funny visual gag involving a WWII-style POW camp (the prisoners are tomatoes, of course, because nobody’s sure which side they’re on).

Naylor’s art is wonderfully grotesque and expressive. Australian writers (Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths) have always excelled at making twisted and disturbing nightmare fuel that actually isn’t objectionable at all, and Penni in Vegetaria is no exception. The comic itself is printed on incredibly thin A4 pulp, which might be a result of pro-plant lobbying. It’s pretty short and Naylor might have taken the concept further, if he’d had more pages (it’s a disappointment to see the fruit and vegetables fight each other with human weapons, rather than in some funny plant-based way. Also, I just know that Queen Broccoli was busy planning the Final Solution to the Tomato Problem.)

I’m not sure if there were more Tales from the Ovoid, or whether there’s any connection to the Da’n’Dill universe. Memory tells me that Penni is the sister of the aforementioned nerd, but this might not be true. It’s a pretty fun comic, and might be worth tracking down. Luna Park closed in the middle of the 90s, but then came back. Perhaps Naylor’s work is overdue for a similar renaissance.


Ellen Ullman – The Bug

- 07/01/18 Books,Reviews

Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein, about a creation overpowering its creator. Unknowingly, she lived out the drama of her story – nothing else she wrote achieved the same fame, and her entire existence is a footnote to Victor Frankenstein. One day, Mary Shelley’s name will be spoken for the last time. Some other day afterwards, Frankenstein’s name will be spoken for the last time. The interval in between might be thousands of years.

Think of “Frankenstein’s monster” and what comes to mind? A shambling green Boris Karloff, with bolts sticking out of his neck? In the original book, the monster’s skin is yellow, and it has long black hair. The public’s conception of the monster changed with the years, to where it bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s creation.

It mutated. It evolved. Mary Shelley called it a monster. But perhaps in modern nomenclature it could be called a virus.

Ellen Ullman’s The Bug is a cyberpunk addendum to Frankenstein. A corporate programmer encounters a bug in his company’s software. This bug has a life of its own, resists his efforts to document and eradicate it, and cripples the program to the point of threatening the company’s big IPO.

At first, it’s called U-1017, as it’s the thousandth and seventeenth bug discovered in the program (although you’d think the programmers would use zero-indexing, making it U-1016). Then, matters become personal, and he calls it Jester. The fight against it takes on mythic proportions.

While he struggles against the bug, his personal life is falling to bits. His wife is unfaithful, the company is screwing him, and his neighbors play music too loud. His failure to defeat U-1017 feels like a referendum against his existence on Earth. Programming is literally the only thing he does. If he fails at that, then what’s left? He liberally comments his code with existential angst.

Ullman adds lots of interesting asides about programming, linguistics, and math. One of the book’s most interesting themes is Conway’s Game of Life: an x-y grid where cell-like automata live, breed, and die in accordance with simple rules. This is introduced as a parallel to corporate programming. There’s a brilliant typographical conceit where the beginning of each chapter contains an iteration of the Game. Clever though this is, it spoils the book. The reader can guess the ending after seeing the final iteration.

(John Horton Conway, by the way, is another Mary Shelley. The Game of Life is so visually intuitive and thought-provoking that it overshadows most of Conway’s other work, much of which he feels is more significant.)

The novel is set in 1984, the age of the Apple Macintosh and the IBM. A lot of bands like Van Halen and Quiet Riot are name-dropped. Women are described as having padded shoulders so frequently that it becomes like a tic. A book like The Bug could never have been written today. The programmer would have posted his code on StackExchange and gotten six solutions by his midmorning break.

The Bug evokes a pretty powerful response from modest ingredients. It’s fascinating, and emotionally affecting. And Ullman doesn’t cheat: we actually do learn the solution to the bug in the end.


A Clockwork Orange

- 04/09/17 Books,Reviews

A teenage delinquent is arrested for murder. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he submits himself to an experimental medical cure that quashes all of his violent impulses, along with his ability to enjoy classical music: the thing that gave his life fulfillment and meaning. He emerges from prison a changed man, but also a broken one. Should the state be allowed to do this?

Burgess seems to disagree. But he also stacks the deck against the state by not asking an important question: “if not the Ludovico Technique, what should happen to Alex?”

What’s the alternative? Life in prison? The electric chair? Should he be allowed to resume his crime spree? Roger Ebert once said that it’s difficult to cheer for the hero when the villain is the one making sense, and a similar problem occurs here: we’re told . Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet only seems like a bad idea until you notice the smoke spiraling from the engines, and Burgess cheats by not considering the even worse alternatives. Much is made of Alex’s lost ability to enjoy classical music (a metaphor for his humanity), but the woman he murdered is now incapable of enjoying music of any genre or style.

A Clockwork Orange‘s theme is stated within the book itself: Alex is like an orange, once bursting with juice and sweetness, changed by the state into a piece of machinery. The natural, turned into the unnatural. But to what extent was Alex’s behavior ever natural? At the start, he and his gang drink “milk-plus” to fortify themselves for a night of carnage. The inference is that this is stimulant-laced milk. Alex chose to put a mind-altering substance into his body…just like he chose the Ludovico Technique. Why is the first an act of free choice, but the second isn’t? Beyond that, it opens the question as to whether “natural” is even a defensible word, or “free will” a tenable concept.

Oranges are a poor choice of metaphor, because they are clockwork to begin with. No wild oranges exist, and they were presumably bred from some other citrus fruit. That fruit was probably bad tasting, and perhaps inedible or toxic. Through a combination of genetic mutations, planned breeding programs, and hybridization, we have the modern orange. Many kinds, in fact! You can get a Valencia orange, which is sweet with a lot of juice. Or a blood orange, a tarter fruit with an attractive red color. None of this is natural. The orange was guided towards its present forms by mankind’s hand.

In the same way, Alex didn’t sprout from the forehead of Zeus – he was created and shaped by factors beyond his control. Alex’s “free will” is actually the genes of his mother and his father, the prenatal environment in his mother’s womb, and the society he was raised in. Some think that the increase in crime in the latter 20th century was fuelled (literally) by the presence of leaded gasoline in the soil. After gasoline became unleaded, crime rates dropped. Imagine if Alex’s sociopathy came from lead – a mistake by the government. The Ludovico Technique is an attempt to correct that mistake. Why confuse the mistake as Alex’s free will, and the correction as abhuman meddling?

As a novel, the book is very good. I wish it had only tried to be a novel. It moves quickly, except for the prison scenes in the middle part. The depravity is as nasty as it is exciting, and Burgess’s dystopian England is fleshed out just enough to seem realistic, leaving the attention on Alex (as he surely would have wanted.)

Most of Burgess’s other work are comic novels, and there’s lots of humor here: after Alex finally suffers some consequences for his actions, he writes “this is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning.” That was a Good laugh. (Unfortunately, the book also contains a Bad Laugh: at the start, Alex is beating up a stewbum who suddenly launches into a melodramatic speech worthy of Hiawatha.) Burgess’s most brilliant concept here is nadsat, an argot based on Russian, schoolboy talk, and Cockney rhyming slang. It adds an alien, disaffected quality to Alex’s mind, as though we’re seeing the world through a Babelfish translation. It also might have been a tactical move on Burgess’s part. Harder to get outraged over in-out-in-out performed on a devotchka then rape performed on a woman.

Even so, the US version of the book didn’t escape a critical (and notorious) edit, the omission of the final chapter. Alex, having broken through the Ludovico Technique, nonetheless decides that ultra-violence isn’t for him. In other words, he grows up. This chapter was cut over Burgess’s objections by his US publisher, probably for marketing reasons. Readers are used to the storytelling convention of “fall, then rise, then fall”, or “rise, then fall, then rise”. The uncut version of A Clockwork Orange is more like “fall, then rise, then fall, then rise”. For decades, only the 20 chapter version was available in the US. In 1986, the full 21 chapter book was published for the first time.

The extra chapter completely transforms A Clockwork Orange, and I don’t know which version I prefer. The 21 chapter version is didactic, and feels like Burgess tying too neat a bow on the story. “Well, Alex grows up anyway, so that proves it was all for nothing.” At 20 chapters, A Clockwork Orange falls more into line with the film. And I strongly dislike the film.

Say what you will about Burgess, but he never tries to make Alex your pal. Never, ever, ever. He’s an evil kid, and you are supposed to dislike him. Stanley Kubrick almost seems to hero-worship Alex, even modifying his crimes so that they’re less awful (instead of raping a pair of ten year old girls, Film-Alex has consensual sex with two adult women). You can go over the film scene by scene, and note the shots Kubrick takes of Malcolm McDowell, making him look dashing, romantic, even darkly Messianic. You can also note the way he portrays Alex’s victims as bug-eyed goons and creeps. Burgess’s book seems to say “Alex is evil, but was it right for the state to alter his brain?” Kubrick’s film seems to say “hey, don’t harsh Alex’s flow, man.”

Films have an annoying habit of colonising the books they’re based on. Now it’s hard to read A Clockwork Orange and not see Kubrick’s milk-plus bar, or Kubrick’s Durango ’95 speeding down the highway. The Ludovico Technique is now the Kudobricko Technique. The film amplified the very parts of the story that Burgess had tried so hard to tamp down, and this may have been why he later disowned it. Once, he could have claimed ownership of A Clockwork Orange. But now, in the minds of millions, Burgess’s most famous work is…someone else’s!

On its own, the book is a great story. Very dark. Too bad Burgess also wanted it to be a gedankenexperiment, because it doesn’t have much gedank.


Dean Koontz – Odd Hours

- 30/07/17 Books,Reviews

Some bad books are like buildings, collapsing safely in their own footprint. Cordon off the area, wear protective gear, and you’ll escape the obliteration unscathed.

But other bad books are like trees, falling sideways. They don’t just doom themselves, they also destroy other books that happen to be nearby.

Dean Koontz writes many bad books. If they’re standalone, I don’t have a problem, as they kill nothing but themselves. But this is the fourth book in the Odd Thomas series, and as the first Odd Thomas was very good I’m not impressed that he keeps cheapening it with afterthoughts.

The story is familiar by now. Odd can see ghosts, and he must resolve the lingering conflict that keeps them from moving on. The concept is derivative of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Stephen King’s generic “big secret in a small town” conceit, and Art Bell’s radio broadcasts, but back then, it was fun. It no longer is. If Odd Thomas was The Godfather and Forever Odd was the Godfather 3, then Odd Hours is squarely in The Godfather X: Electric Boogaloo territory. It has a terrible, meandering story, a cast of “colorful” characters with no purpose beyond chewing the scenery, and a bone-deep sense of pointlessness. Odd Thomas should resolve the lingering conflict that stops his own series from moving on. I think the author murdered it, midway through book two.

Odd now lives at a place with the alarming title of Magic Beach. He has dreams of a nuclear-red storm coming in with the tide. Some thugs try to kill him. He meets a woman who gets lots of character development until Dean Koontz literally seems to forget that she’s in the story. Is there an intelligent dog? You bet. Does the main character use a gun and is consumed with guilt and regret afterwards? See, these things write themselves!

The plot is insane and nonsensical. It doesn’t have logic, it has a series of events, all occurring without reference to one another.

The sheriff of Magic Beach is plotting a dastardly conspiracy – I don’t buy that a guy running a small-town cop shop would be capable of buying nuclear warheads, but your mileage may vary – and Odd Hours soon enters a familiar rhythm of the hero running away from bad guys and solving problems with author’s convenience. In this case, it doesn’t take too much convenience, because the (six or seven) villains are all bumbling idiots who could be thwarted by a childproof seal. Dean Koontz can’t figure out how to resolve the story, so he has them all shoot each other. Then the book ends.

Dean Koontz is still a good prose stylist, but he’s a heavy-handed good prose stylist. Every sentence aspires to be a lyrical utterance of lapidary beauty. Every page is crammed with wordplay, literary allusions, “clever” character names, and other pukesome shit. Dean, stop trying so hard. No, seriously, stop trying so hard. You are fish and chips. I don’t need fish and chips served on a fine Kensington tea set.

He also does that annoying thing where he writes something clever and then nudges you, to make sure you got it. Early in the book, a character is described as having “hair like wool-of-bat and tongue like fillet of fenny snake”. I’d hoped he’d leave it alone, but of course he has someone point out (for the reader’s benefit) that this is a Shakespeare reference. Thanks. Literary allusions should always be bashed through the reader’s skull with a Louisville slugger.

Koontz’s recycling is now obvious, and impossible to ignore. All the cliches make an appearance. The frequent references to classic Hollywood cinema. The angry old man rants about popular culture and modern music (you can immediately detect a bad egg in Dean Koontz’s novels, because they enjoy gangsta rap or heavy metal). At one point, he writes the character of Dick Halloran from The Shining into the story, except instead of a black man it’s a white woman and instead of “the shine” it’s “the twinge”. I hoped that he’d also borrow the axe murder scene from Kubrick’s film version, but no luck.


The Diary of Samuel Pepys

- 13/06/17 Books,Reviews

In 1660, an English functionary called Samuel Pepys began keeping a diary. This diary would eventually run for a million words, covering ten years of his life (and England’s history). He documents some of the most important events in history, along with things like his masturbation in church, his affairs with a variety of household maids, and the first performance of Romeo and Juliet (“it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”). The diary has no longer just describes history, it has become history. It’s like the Great Pyramid: built to memorialize a great man and great times, and now great for its own sake. People will know of the Great Pyramid long after they have forgotten Khnum-Khufu.

A lot of the diary is spent documenting minutia of Pepys’s day to day life. The diary begins not long after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and the rearrangement of the state has landed Pepys with a new job (he notes at one point that when England suffers, he prospers). Soon we learn more about his personal life, which includes plays, wine, and endless marital strife (Elisabeth Pepys was often unhappy with him. Given his habit of seducing their housemaids, one feels empathy). Some of this is eternally fascinating, and some would have been mundane at the time but now provides a valuable glimpse of how an upper class Englishman lived his life in the days of the Rump.

Almost everything we know about the past is drawn from a stacked deck – conquerors writing of their greatest battles, artists painting their subjects in the full flower of youth and health. Time has an editorial process that winnows out mundane events, but you need the mundanity. A historical document without trivia is like an English sentence without conjunctions or articles – informative, but jarring, and you spend a lot of effort reconstructing the missing words. Pepys’s diary, even in its most boring pages, provides one of the clearest windows we have into Renaissance England. Most of the others are made of stained glass.

The diary’s most harrowing pages are the eyewitness descriptions of the Great Fire. Pepys’s prose is evocative and almost Blakean (“the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down”), which is appropriate, because the fire was apocalyptic, a bowl of wrath spilled before the appointed time. And it was very typical of Pepys to notice the poor pigeons. Earlier parts of the diary are hard to read (particularly Pepys describing his careful renovations of his home) because you know what will happen soon.

But the diary leaves mysteries as well as answers. For example, was this really a window into Pepys’s private, unfiltered thoughts? Or did he intend for it to be read by the public?

We don’t really know. The diary was written in a nearly impenetrable shorthand, and was deciphered in the 19th century by a St John’s College undergraduate (he would later learn that his effort was needless, and the key to the cipher was in the college’s very library). Modern editions of the diary are very clean and readable, once the reader trains his brain out of imposing anachronisms on the text (“sack” means wine, and when Pepys refers to someone as “a black man” he means that their hair is black, not their skin.)

A lot of this is embarassing and frank. I suspect Pepys knew that he might be playing to crowd. The prose seems not just precise but laboured – the work of a man not just trying to get words down, but gets not getting the ideas down, but getting the ideas down right. But he certainly composed the diary in a variety of different moods, and there’s probably portions he would have edited or excised, had he reviewed it with a cooler head.

A politician (who was not Pepys) said that writing a diary lets you experience life three times. Once, in the living. Twice, in the writing. Thrice, in the reading afterwards. But sometimes diaries reach the outside world, which means the experience was lived thousands or millions of times, or a number that might approach infinity (depending on how long such books are read). Khnum-Khufu obtained immortality, but not the sort he was hoping for. Pepys captured that immortality even better, in written words of his own design. “Dear diary” usually precedes boredom and narcissism. But here, a diary becomes genuinely great literature.


The Burning Book

- 28/05/17 Books,Reviews

In the 1970s, there was a book called The Anarchist Cookbook. Hippies had many gods, and just as many bibles. This was the bible of the Church of the Broken Window.

The book isn’t much. It’s a “how to” guide for picking locks and phreaking phones and building shoebox bombs. Although never outright banned in America, it was printed in small quantities and was highly sought after in certain circles. Owning a copy made you the belle of the domestic terrorism ball.

Unfortunately, many of the recipes were a little “off”, plus the people who tried them generally didn’t know what they were doing. The book’s actual recipe was 1) dumbass kids try to make nitroglycerine 2) they blow off their own fingers or burn down the Podunk High gym hall 3) juvie prison sentences all around, plus the school goes into lockdown from now until the end of time. Over and over. There is quite possibly more authoritarianism in the world thanks to The Anarchist Cookbook than there would have been without it.

There were always conspiracy theories that the Cookbook was written by an “outsider”, someone trying to discredit anarchy or sabotage the movement from within. As of 2013 the copyright resided with a publisher just two blocks away from a National Security Agency depot in Arkansas, but that’s probably a poetic concidence. Regardless of his intentions, the book could be viewed as reverse-activism, advocating violence and accidentally making the world a safer and more secure place.

Or maybe the world would have become safer anyway – books usually don’t matter much. Writers are very excited by the prospect of book burning, the way Christians are excited by tales of Satanic cults running global governments, and it’s easy to see why. Life frequently stomps on us, seemingly for no reason at all, and it’s flattering to believe that we’re being stomped on because we’re important.

BBSs soon became popular, and the Cookbook obtained a fragmentary second life. Bits of it (literally) were streamed over 1200 baud modems, often interpolated with additions by someone calling himself “The Jolly Roger”. This person appeared to be barely literate, someone who learned English from the txt files in Doom wads, and his advice was even worse than the original’s.

“Break a ton of matchheads off. Then cut a SMALL hole in the tennis ball. Stuff all of the matchheads into the ball, until you can’t fit any more in. Then tape over it with duct tape. Make sure it is real nice and tight! Then, when you see a geek walking down the street, give it a good throw. He will have a blast!!” -Jolly Roger-

Consider putting a fuse in the tennis ball too, otherwise it won’t blow up and he’ll think you’re challenging him to tennis for two. Aerobic exercise is linked to positive health outcomes, and you won’t have killed him, you’ll have made him stronger.

Decades later, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook went public and disowned the book, thus inspiring perhaps even more people to seek it out and learn from its recipes. This page has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Do you doubt that at least one pair belong to a young, impressionable person who will actually try the recipes in the book? And that we’ll soon hear about him on the news, along with the twenty or thirty unfortunates who happened to be standing near his trailer at the time?

I don’t believe William Powell has ever made a decision that worked out the way he wanted it to. He should have gone to Vietnam, and watched the war effort crumble within a week. Or he should have advocated for cleaner streets, and watched as whole communities drowned in an apocalyptic tide of cigarette butts and plastic bags. There are hippie gods, and hippie bibles. William Powell, apparently, was the hippie Jonah.


Flesh Inferno – Simon Whitechapel

- 05/05/17 Books,Reviews

Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world. Light obtained by burning heretics on pyres is probably not what he had in mind. Flesh Inferno is the third book in Creation’s Blood History series, and covers the Spanish Inquisition in general, Torquemada in particular, and religion in abstract. Although Whitechapel writes from a secular background (the very first sentence contains the words “I despise the Catholic church”), the book is evenhanded and fair. It’s not full of gruesome descriptions of torture, which might have been a miscalculation. The audience for the Blood History books probably wanted gruesome descriptions of torture.

Sadly, there might not have been as much of it as we thought. Although the cover blurb states that “nearly some 9,000 perished in [autos-da-fe] – and nearly 100,000 in the dungeons – during Torquemada’s reign alone” the actual book states that Torquemada was probably responsible for only around 2,000 direct executions. But isn’t that still a lot? Maybe. It’s also the number of homicides reported in the United States of America every two weeks during the crack epidemic. Museums often feature recreations of elaborate and diabolical torture equipment supposedly used by the Inquisition, but most of them seem to be artifacts from the Victorian period. If you were tortured by the Inquisition, it would probably be with something cheap and easy to hand. Nothing the Inquisition did was unique to the Inquisition, and a secular version might be even better at it: the Inquisition’s hand was forced, because it had the nominal goal of saving souls. A nonreligious Inquisition would be free to explore sadism for its own sake.

The historical parts were a bit boring. The parts I liked were the speculation and theories. Whitechapel’s really good at coming up with interesting connections, and cross-breeding ideas from unrelated fields. The reciting of Psalms during torture is contrasted with Pavlovian conditioning. The smell of roasting human flesh (evocative of pork) is suggested as a possible inspiration for a Spanish anti-Semitic slur “marrano” (filthy pig). I didn’t like the editorial decision to have every translated passage matched with its untranslated Spanish, regardless of length or relevance. On page 75 there’s a block of uninterrupted Spanish that spans across four straight pages. There’s simply no need for this, and it comes across as a strategy to push the book’s page count as high as possible.

Comparisons between the Inquisition and Nazism are inevitable and obvious, but Whitechapel gets something out of it: the similarities between the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) and the Nazi concept of Blutschande (“blood defilement”). This is something I’ve always wondered – why has Christianity, a faith with overt universalist literature (Romans 5:1, among many others) so often associated with ethnic concerns of blood? Is this a universal impulse that finds its way into all human affairs? Or is there something in the religion itself that enables this thinking? We never get near the answer in this book, but maybe nobody ever has.

History is an Ouija board, and when you imagine the past, you are also (at least in part, sometimes in whole) imagining the present. Facts are facts, but our interpretation of them changes with the weather. Joan of Arc was a nationalist figure until that went out of fashion, an ecclesiastical figure until that went out of fashion, and now exists as a cross between a Disney princess and a “grrl power” feminist icon. Christopher Columbus has been an explorer, a pioneer, a symbol of Italian pride, and is now a disreputable villain. Soon he’ll be alchemized into something else. Time’s crucible spares nobody except the obscure and forgotten, and when we are dead our descendents will imagine inaccurate things about us.

In particular, there’s often a bias to depict the past as more violent, lurid, and gruesome than it actually was. Maybe this is to exculpate our current society – a failing civilisation can appear successful by rewriting history to be worse. Or maybe it comes from a need to create interesting stories. Romantic 19th century woodcuts of the Barbary wars depict dramatic swordfights on crowded decks, gunsmoke swirling around scimitars and turbans. The actual diaries of the soldiers involved in these battles recall lots of boredom and pipe smoking, with occasional pauses to fire a cannon. The past doesn’t complain when we revise it. Nobody’s ever been sued for libel by a historical figure. But one can’t escape the impression that historians are like those Jewish POWs who swallowed the family jewelry so it wouldn’t be discovered. Yeah, there’s a pearl in there somewhere. Are you ready to go searching through shit to find it?

The book is out of print now, and used copies might be hard to find. If you’re looking for a history book, there are surely better options available, but Flesh Inferno asks a number of interesting questions about the past, and finds an angle that probably would have been impossible within the confines of straight history. It’s difficult to study a pile of ashes and discern the causes and reasons, but it’s a worthy task, and perhaps a necessary one. Someday, the fires might burn again.


Watchfiends & Rack Screams – Antonin Artaud

- 24/03/17 Books,Reviews

watchfiendsandrackscreamsI wish you could say “he wasn’t crazy, he just played one in his pictures”, but that would be a lie. Artaud was insane. Translator Clayton Eshleman describes his films, poetry, and prose as the partial salvation of a life broken beyond repair, and that cuts to the heart of Artaud: He was a cracked plate, glued together by golden strands of art.

Artaud’s life almost feels like a play. It’s full of narratory techniques: callbacks, references, echoes of past events. The amateur electroshock therapy administered by his father in childhood prefigures the far more brutal electroshock therapy he received decades later in a Rodez asylum. A damaging relationship with laudanum prefigures a lethal relationship with chloral hydrate. Artaud’s life has a diegetic quality, a “written” quality, and the sense that things are screeching off the rails into an inevitable tragedy.

“Watchfiends and Rack Screams” collects most of Artaud’s later writings. There’s not much theory, not much organisation, and most of it resembles an opium-deranged brain evacuating and ejaculating over a blank page.

“Artaud, The Mômo” is a typical display, with profane rants going back and forth with tracts of unintelligible gibberish, written in a language I cannot understand or identify.

“To Have Done with the Judgment of God” is a planned radio play that was cancelled the night before it was scheduled to air. It is a twisted, convoluted helix of words, delving into themes both personal and political. “Is God a being? If he is one, he is shit.” Artaud’s relationship with religion was as tumultuous as his relationship with everything else. At certain points, he was possessed with a foul-mouthed, blasphemous kind of heathenism – think the Marquis de Sade with Tourettes. At other points, he tried to become a priest, and compared the Tarahumaran peyote god Ciguri with Christ.

As with everything he does, “entertaining” isn’t the word for it. “Important” is close. “Strong” is closer still. Artaud wrote and did many things that were striking and difficult to ignore, and a decent number of them are collected here.

But was his work ever good? I don’t know. While his work has the impact of bloody viscera on the hood of a car, his contributions to film theory are gnomish and impenetrable, and so is much of his prose. He’s an important figure in surrealistic film and literature, but mostly because he broke things apart – I don’t think he was capable of building them back up again.
Un Chien Andalou is probably the best exposition of Artaudian ideas, and he didn’t make it. Luis Buñuel and Salvadore Dali did.

But here’s a better question: did he ever have the chance to be a great film-maker? No. He was broken, and he couldn’t do anything except document his brokenness. The rock band KISS once had a stage act where bassist Gene Simmons would “fly” around the stage by a crane-mounted hook on his back. One day, the crane broken down in the middle of a gig, and Simmons was left dangling helplessly in the air. He tried to continue his act, scowling and wagging his tongue and breathing fire, but it was soon obvious to everyone that he was a puppet on a string.

Antonin Artaud was like that. He went down into the darkest depths of the psyche without a net, a plunge he ultmately didn’t survive. Heroic? No. Heroism means you have a choice, and Antonin Artaud never had one.


Older Posts »