Monday 31 January 2022

Poem: Low Walls



why do low walls fascinate? 
why do they always seduce your attention 
and lure you with their teasing challenge? 
but they always do, and always have, 
when I see a low wall, I just have to 
climb up and walk along it, 
there’s simply no other option, 
I’m helpless against its invitation, 
so you climb and you teeter along its length, extending 
your arms at either side like an agile tightrope-walker, 
pretending it’s scary, pretending you’re about to fall 
and plummet to some terrible mangling doom, 
even though its barely knee-high from the street, 
the tops of some low walls, like the ornamental 
walls around municipal flowerbeds, are raised into a 
central ridge which makes them even more precarious, 
and hence more of a challenge to your nimble skills, 
some have hazardous mossy patches or even ivy 
growing across them which you must carefully navigate... 
until you finally reach the end of the wall, and 
have to descend down to dull pavement-level again, 
until the next wall... 

Published in: 
‘GARGOYLE no.74’ 
(Paycock Press, Richard Peabody) 
(USA – December 2021)

Thursday 27 January 2022

Classic Poem: Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Lady Of Shalott'



Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady Of Shalott” 
was my Mother’s favourite poem. Perhaps she 
empathised with the predicament of a woman 
confined, able to view the passing carnival of 
life only through a lens? Is it a Feminist poem, 
a poem of female empowerment? 
Or just a romantic medieval fantasy? 
Andrew Darlington re-reads the poem… 

The first thing you notice about the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem “The Lady Of Shalott” is that it is written in a rhyming narrative form. Sometimes the simplest most obvious observations can be the most telling. The poem consists of a story. It tells a tale. Unlike the self-focused confessional poems with which we surround ourselves today, Tennyson himself is not a presence. Whatever it says about the twenty-four-year-old poet must remain informed guesswork for literary academics, to be intuited in tangential ways. And it rhymes. Not the rhyming-dictionary doggerel of Rap, where line-endings plunder thesaurus variations to exhaustion point. In fact, the rhyme is so virtually invisible it must be tracked to even appreciate its flow. The other thing about the poem is that it is beautiful. It needs no other justification.

Although Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were early models, Tennyson was more cautiously gradualist than revolutionary. During a time of political turmoil he debated radical issues as part of the Trinity College Apostles undergrad group, showing support for the 1832 Reform Bill which extended democratic entitlements. With close friend Arthur Hallam – whose early death in 1933 inspired his “In Memoriam”, he took up the cause of Spanish revolutionaries and travelled to the Pyrenees in an unsuccessful mission to aid them, although the trip would yield the poem “Mariana In The South”. Even as a student, others were more impressed by Tennyson’s commanding physical presence and youthful literary achievements than by his degree of social involvements. Readers today, if they know him at all, are familiar with the bardic bearded image of the older Tennyson, by which time his views had become more conservative and patriotic. 

His father – the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson, was a comfortably middle-class country clergyman, yet Alfred never harboured traditional religious views, and wrote ‘there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds’ (in “In Memoriam”). Respected by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his debut collection, ‘Poems, Chiefly Lyrical’ (1830) was nevertheless criticised for being cloyingly sentimental. It includes “Claribel”, the doomy narrative “Mariana” and the mythic Nordic “The Kraken”. Later, after his father’s death, Tennyson quit Cambridge without taking his degree, to live with his family in his father’s rectory. It was there he wrote the first version of “The Lady Of Shalott”, which was included in his poorly-received second volume ‘Poems’ (1833). 

In an era of increasingly dirty industrial urbanisation there was a contrastingly strong escapist vision at large in the polluted air, a yearning towards some lost idyll of romantic chivalry that, in reality, had never existed. Folklore carved it out of the barbarism of post-Roman Britain and reinterpreted it through lavish literary invention. It was a gothic revival drawn – like a sword from a stone, by the 1816 republication of Malory’s 1634 ‘Le Mort d’Arthur’. “The Lady Of Shalott” itself is based loosely around Arthurian myths and legends. Here is a rich source material that Tennyson would continue to delve into in poems about ‘Galahad’ and ‘Sir Launcelot And Queen Guinevere’, as well as his epic cycle ‘Idylls Of The King’ (published 1859-1885). It paints visual imagery so strong that it urges painterly representation. To see William Holman Hunt’s 1888-1905 “The Lady Of Shalott” painting, as part of the Tate Britain Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, is truly breathtaking. The rich depth of colour, the storm of auburn hair in a wild haloing mane above her are employed in order to represent the freedom her ensorcellment denies. 

This was my Mother’s favourite poem. She loved this poem. Perhaps she empathised with the predicament of a woman confined to her chamber, able to view the passing carnival of life only through a lens? So is it a Feminist poem, a poem of female empowerment? Is the Lady’s imprisonment a metaphor for the general repression of female aspirations that were particularly acute during the period in which the poem was written? And why is she supernaturally imprisoned in the tower in the first place, bewitched into weaving her ‘magic web of colours gay’? What occult power has she offended? The reader is not informed. ‘She knows not what the curse may be.’ Perhaps there is no message, other than the ones the reader chooses to impose?

The poem was revised for an 1842 edition – edited down from twenty to nineteen stanzas, and although this is the version most popularly read now, both texts have a unique flavour. The original makes greater use of an arcane and mannered vocabulary, as if to evoke a sense of deliberate antiquity. The latter has a more liquid flow. The ‘yellowleavèd waterlily, the greensheathèd daffoilly, tremble in the water chilly’ in the first version becomes ‘up and down the people go, gazing where the lilies blow, round an island there below, the island of Shalott’ in the second. The reaper ‘reaping late and early… piling the sheaves in furrows airy’ who whispers ‘tis the fairy Lady of Shalott,’ becomes ‘the heavy barges trail’d, by slow horses… skimming down to Camelot’ in the second. Both establish the rural image setting for the silent isle with its ‘four grey walls and four gray towers’ which ‘overlook a space of flowers’ – intact in both revisions, in which the Lady is ‘imbowered’. It is magical in every sense of that much-abused overused word. It is lavish and ornate, a poem written in light, because that is where its energies lie. It is romantic in the true sense of it being a romance, a flight of fancy, rich with imagery, ‘below the starry clusters bright, some bearded meteor, trailing light.’ 

Unnamed in the poem, the Lady is supposedly adapted from the Elayne of Ascolat who died of unrequited love for Lancelot of the Lake, as told by various thirteenth-century French and Italian romances, including ‘La Damigella Di Scalot’ as well as in Sir Tomas Malory’s work. Yet Tennyson weaves a sorcery of his own magical elements into the tale. She sits alone endlessly weaving at her loom, confined to her tower, watching the outside procession only as ‘shadows of the world’ that go by in her mirror. She weaves tapestries of a world she sees only in reflection, and delights in creating her solitary art. Until she sees bold Lancelot reflected in her lens, his ‘bridle glitter’d free, like to some branch of stars we see, hung in the golden galaxy,’ with his helmet and helmet-feather ‘burn’d like one burning flame together,’ his saddle-leather shining as though ‘thick-jewell’d’. Orphaned child of royalty, raised by the same water-spirits who will later retrieve Excalibur, Lancelot – the grail-quester whose adulterous love for Guinevere will eventually bring the entire Camelot idyll crashing down, is the epitome of the chivalrous ideal. And the flash of his visage on her crystal mirror, singing ‘Tirra lirra’ as he rides, is the trigger that releases her. 

She is essentially a passive presence. Her one act of willed self-determination is the one that also destroys her. And yet she’s aware of the consequences of her defiance. The poem’s most oftly quoted line ‘the mirror crack’d from side to side’ – picked up by Agatha Christie to title her 1962 Miss Marple novel, is the warning that tells her ‘the curse is come upon me.’ Yet the curse has not been randomly invoked, she has consciously taken the decision that will trigger it. ‘She left the web, she left the loom, she made three paces thro’ the room.’ She has summoned that fate down upon herself. So is it a Feminist poem, a poem of female empowerment? In the sense that to choose to die in freedom is preferable to live on enduring enslavement. To act for the moment, irrespective of the price to be paid. 

Unlike the self-focused confessional poems with which we surround ourselves today, this poem consists of a story, it tells a tale. That renders it open to interpretation. Some have seen it as a metaphor for the essential isolation and solitary nature of the artist, distanced from the world. Another sees it as an allegory for the process of growing up, exchanging the world of illusion for the harder realities of adulthood, for a life that consists of fancy must be corrosive, even in the comfort of dreams. They must be cast away, despite the penalty to be paid. This was my Mother’s favourite poem. She loved this poem. She saw the message in a more literal way. A woman lives her life within the limits decided for her, imposed upon her by social pressures. If she breaks the rules, she pays a terrible price. I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how far she rationalised it. But she had transgressed the rules by birthing an illegitimate child – me, it was her one act of willed self-determination. And on a day-to-day basis she struggled through the repercussions. She sat alone as I slept. She read this poem. 

She read the lines that describe the Lady’s limited moments of willed liberation as ‘down she came and found a boat, beneath a willow left afloat, and round the prow she wrote, The Lady Of Shalott.’ She climbs into the boat robed in white. Singing her last song she leaves her island of isolation. The slow current carries her down towards the distant fairy-tale spires of ‘tower’d Camelot.’ As she glides, the curse takes hold and her blood freezes. Her eyes darken, her gleaming shape floats by trees and buildings, dead-pale on her death-barge. Until, out upon the wharfs of Camelot, her body is discovered. Death has a Gothic romantic appeal, emphasised as the final drama of a doomed love. In this fully-rounded narrative poem it also serves the logical purpose of drawing the tale to a satisfying conclusion. There’s an argument that at the time the poem was conceived, death was more a fellow-travelling part of life than it is now. That we are more distanced, more desensitised to its absolute finality. But death is always a traumatic irruption into life, no matter how impervious we feel ourselves to be. No-one is immune. 

In Camelot, as the knights cross themselves for fear, Lancelot, the Lady’s unrequited love, crouches beside her and muses ‘she has a lovely face; god in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady Of Shalott,’ bringing the poem to a tragic close. Yet the poem goes on. The Lady ghost-walks across time into our present dilemmas. 

It is beautiful. It need be no more. That is all the justification it needs.

Tuesday 25 January 2022

SF Books: Gollancz Gold


           GOLLANCZ GOLD:



Book Reviews of: 

 (‘Gollancz SF Masterworks’ launched 27 March 1986, £2.95)


Bored rebellious teenage girl forms erotic liaison with scaly alien, then flaunts the relationship to provoke and outrage the locals. When they refuse to be shocked, when they even bless the mismatched union, she loses interest in the affair and dumps hapless alien. Despite appearances there’s nothing essentially Science Fictional about this Robert Silverberg storyline – from his ‘Majipoor Chronicles’ series, there’s no reason why the same narrative effect couldn’t equally be achieved by switching the locale to crossing ethnic and cultural lines in Bradford, or Brixton, or even a Belfast Catholic-Protestant tryst. There might even be credibility-points to gain by tackling ‘issues of relevant social concern’ head-on. So why deliberately distance the tale with extraterrestrial imagery? The theme becomes SF through its manipulation of a kind of magical surrealism, the literary ‘code’ of a pretend world, an intriguingly bizarre alien biology, the exotic ‘Travellers Tales’ sense of wonder at haunting strangeness. 

But WHY Science Fiction? With Earth pretty much mapped into domesticity our collective hunger for Folk myths must be projected upwards and outwards, play-acting fables in imaginary space-time continuums. SF has been around a long while. The ‘Gollancz Classic SF’ paperback series was launched to ‘celebrate twenty-five years at the forefront of Science Fiction publishing.’ It’s also an opportunity to take a full body-scan of the literature, monitoring the vigour and health of its state of the art.

I grew up on the stuff. For my adolescent fix it was enough merely to hunt down the shelves of my local library for those distinctive near-luminous yellow Gollancz spines that crammed my head on the evolving fantasies of Frederik Pohl, Clifford D Simak, James Blish, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A Heinlein et al; writers whose (literally) fabulous, (literally) incredible visions are etched so indelibly deep into perceptions of the Solar System – and beyond, that even the most determinedly persistent Voyager probe can’t touch, never mind eradicate them! There never were any ‘Sirens Of Titan’ – look at the fly-by photos! – but the book still suspends your disbelief with the sheer absurd beauty of its invention. 

There’s two ways writers can use this conceptual memory bank, this data gene-pool of ideas, this twenty-year-plus accumulation of tantalising symbols. You can celebrate them – and choosing the classics from the Gollancz back-catalogue is like having to select just twelve tracks for a ‘Best Of Motown’ album. What to choose? What to leave out? Or you can ditch them entirely and reinvent the genre by going back to first principles. In an interview in ‘Words’ magazine JG Ballard advocates stripping this whole escapist cotton-candy fantasia down to its constituent atoms. He attacks the whole superstructure of artificial futures so painstakingly assembled by generations of poorly-paid Pulp hacks. This entire map of hyper-drive eternities, he argues, should be trashed back to the basis of the human vs technology interface. Ballard himself replaces it with more contemporary metaphor-symbols of concrete islands, media satire, autowrecks and urban desolation – which is fine manifesto-wise, but ignores the hypnotic lure of the traditional fictional multiverse, the ‘Billion Year Spree’ that is celebrated through the Gollancz Classics series.

The earliest reissue is Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’ from November 1953, a time when the genre was still considered a disreputable under-the-counter purchase targeted at acne-cratered adolescents, a furtive activity akin to masturbation. It’s an Earthbound next-stage-in-evolution novel, developed from a novella called “Baby Is Three” expanded by the addition of “The Fabulous Idiot” and “Morality”, concerning five misfit individuals; two black girls with speech impediments, the introspective daughter of a sex-worker, a mongoloid baby and an idiot-savant with unsuspected depths, who ‘blesh’ together to form a gestalt entity of unpredictable power. It’s a fine understated work by a writer who died in May 1985 aged sixty-seven, a writer whose skill did much to open the scope of, and legitimise his chosen genre. Kurt Vonnegut readily acknowledges the pioneering role that Sturgeon played. ‘It’s a tradition in Science Fiction to go as fast as possible; that grew out of the fact that people were being paid by the word when they began, quarter of a cent a word, you know?’ he explained. But ‘Ted Sturgeon for instance – if he could have spent more time on his books, he would have had those books accepted as mainstream’ (interview in ‘Space Voyager no.7’). 

Samuel R Delany paid Sturgeon his dues too, in the form of a eulogy spoken by Lump, a ‘linguistic’ from the short novel ‘Empire Star’ (1966), ‘there was one ancient Science Fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, who would break me up every time I read him. He seemed to have seen every flash of light on a window, every leaf shadow on a screen door that I had ever seen, done everything I had ever done from playing the guitar to laying over for a couple of weeks on a boat in Arkansas Pass, Texas.’ 

But perhaps more than anyone else, it was Vonnegut who benefitted from this increasing sophistication and the eventual critical acceptance of SF, although he never underestimated the value of traditional Space-Fiction paraphernalia. His second novel – ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ from 1959, is a manic romp through the full widescreen pantheon of Pulp myth, a conscious ransacking of its every ludicrous invention, an affectionate piss-take, and a deliciously absurd concoction. Vonnegut’s protagonist, Malachi ‘Unk’ Constant, becomes involved in a well-intentioned but disastrous Martian invasion of Earth, gets trapped on Mercury with friendly luminous triangles called Harmoniums, and eventually winds up on Titan with a Tralfamadorian robot called Salo who is marooned in the Solar System midway in a journey across the galaxy to deliver a message that reads – simply, ‘Greetings’. It’s less Science Fiction, and more a careful send-up of the genre set neither in a recognisable Solar System or even an internally rational universe. He realised that SF was an entire alternative reality in which a wealth of interchangeable story components could be unquestioningly accepted, things that don’t exist, have never and probably never will exist outside fiction – Faster-Than-Light travel, telepathy, androids, laser swords, time travel, force-fields. Taken collectively they form a ‘code’, a complex web of off-the-peg myth symbols of remarkable potency.

Around the time that ‘More Than Human’ was shiny new, Robert Silverberg was poised to launch his own Pulp hack phase. Then, several phases on, he was mixing and matching genre-styles and story-ingredients with a juggler’s dexterity. ‘A Time For Changes’ (1971), originally serialised in ‘Galaxy’ and winner of a 1971 Nebula award, is far from his best novel – my vote would go to his ‘Nightwings’ (1969), but it is a highly readable example of his Majipoor-style neo-feudalism. It concerns the forbidden history of one Kinnall Darwal, prince of Salla, whose Borthan morality is eroded by ‘soul-sharing’ hallucinogens provided by a visiting Earthman. The narcotic counters the strict social taboos against the use of the ‘first person,’ and by becoming its ‘pusher’, the story becomes an LSD fable that runs its course when Kinnall’s bond-sister Halum suicides after a soul-sharing session, and Kinnall himself is hunted, presumably to death, as a result. 

While Samuel ‘Chip’ Delany’s New Wave epic ‘Nova’ (1968) takes the reader not only forward into the internal rivalries of the galactic empire of the thirty-first-century, but also through the heart of an imploding sun with Lorq Von Ray’s grail-quest for the elusive Illyrion. A dense, rich work of some lyrical complexity it demonstrates just how far the genre has evolved, while remaining true to its well-used and oft-abused basic tenets. And, these four reissues taken collectively, display the breadth of diversity that exists within that definition, as well as its inter-relationships. ‘In a sense’ Delany explained, ‘ ‘Nova’ is a specialised kind of thing, because it’s a pastiche of a very classical type of Science Fiction novel… everyone has gotten this idea that I was going to do New and Different Things – and then what I essentially tried to do was write the perfect ‘Planet Stories’ novel’ (in ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ Vol.2 no.3). 

Full circle…? 

But if fiction is ‘things that never happened to people who never existed,’ then SF, no matter how sophisticated, just fast-forwards the tense into futures imperfect. So can it REALLY be taken seriously as literature? Science Fiction is a serious literature of dreams, and a serious flirtation with nightmare. That’s at least as serious as Sigmund Freud, or Salvador Dalí! It was Theodore Sturgeon himself who first formulated the equation that ninety-percent of everything is crap, it’s the remaining ten percent that provides the justification. The dictum passed into SF lore – and beyond, as ‘Sturgeon’s Law’. Gollancz Classics re-presents that justifying percent in attractive new editions. Although it still falls short of explaining WHY SF? The spaceship as phallic symbol? The future as political metaphor for now? The likes of Silverberg’s scaly alien romance universalises and codifies syndromes that no amount of gritty accurate localising could do. All this and more is probably true. And sure, it’s escapist as hell too. It’s a fix like any other kind of addiction, one I still can’t clean out of my head. You can rationalise it, intellectualise it with all manner of smart-ass sophistry as technological poetry and speculative prose, but its lure remains the romance of the Traveller’s Tale. JG Ballard is correct too. Art must continually reinvent itself, for without action there can be no reaction. Without vocabulary there can be no fables. 

If ‘Gollancz Classics’ exist to indoctrinate SF virgins into a sense of wonder, with a new compendium of Folk myths, then I’m grateful for the opportunity of buying in for a second time round. It’s still my favourite waste of time!

SF Books: Kurt Vonnegut's 'Sirens Of Titan'




Book Review of: 
(Gollancz Classic SF, 1986, £2.95)

Vonnegut was a big dead. Lecture tours, interviews and full-spread feature reviews in the heavy’s Lit Sections – the full ‘serious contemporary writer’ scam. While this timely reissue was part of a process through which the Gollancz SF imprint was deluging itself in twenty-five-year anniversary self-congratulation, leaving the impartial reviewer conscience-bound to wonder whether the whole circus measures up. Whether perhaps – like the fourteenth volume of ‘The Book Of Bokonin’, these literary achievements don’t add up to the single word ‘nothing’? 

‘The Sirens Of Titan’ – first unleashed in 1959, is a central dogma in the Vonnegut canon. Devotees will already know that it’s a veritable fountainhead of Vonnegutian profundity, breeding all manner of mythos-components and traceable in-references. Take one at random: ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ has the city of Ilium destroyed by a Martian invasion. The previous novel, ‘Player Piano’ (1952), was set in Ilium, a fictional eastern suburb of New York State. Literary critic Peter J Reed speculates that the Ilium preoccupation could derive from the great man’s period of employment at General Electric in Schenectady N.Y (in ‘Kurt Vonnegut Jr’ by Peter J Reed, Warner Paperback Library ‘Writers For The Seventies’ series), his contention is reinforced by the fact that General Electric becomes the first employers of Howard Campbell in Vonnegut’s later ‘Mother Night’ (1962). The Ilium Works also figure in a 1955 ‘Esquire’ short story “Deer In The Works”, a Kafkaesque exercise in which a prospective PR man becomes lost in the incomprehensible labyrinths of its industrial complex. Jonah in ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963) spends time in Ilium researching Dr Felix Hoenikker who worked most of his life there for the General Forge & Foundry Company and… there’s more! The central character from ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969), Billy Pilgrim, passes through the city while returning from fire-bombed Dresden. It’s also perhaps worth noting that Ilium is Troy in Homeric legend. 

Vonnegut’s novels contain a tangle of such tertiary threads. None of his characters are exact stereotypes or exactly predictable. None of his affirmations or condemnations are made without escape-clause qualifications. Hence attempted unravelment becomes an intoxicatingly addictive game. The American National Education TV Network took a sword to this symbolist Gordian Knot with a film, screened by BBC’s ‘Second House’ in February 1973. It used ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ central gimmick – the Chrono Synclastic Infundibula, as a focal point through which a jumbled juxtaposition of Vonnegut themes and ideas could be channelled. It’s an amusingly self-indulgent pastiche essay in which astronaut Stoney Stevenson is launched from Cape Kennedy into the Chrono Syn… etc – a CSI, to be vomited back at intervals into excerpts from Vonnegut’s various novels and short stories throughout the film’s seventy-five-minute duration. The central core of ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ is also fleshed out by encounters with Bokonin – ‘Cat’s Cradle’s Rastafarian-like oracle, and is entertaining while also being thought-provoking. George Roy Hill’s movie version of ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1972) does a similar meltdown job by transforming the planet Tralfamadore into a moon of Saturn – hence becoming Titan. An inaccurate, but intriguing bit of literary scene-shifting. 

Is this getting too complicated? 

Happily, a straight plot rundown of the novel provides little elucidation. According to Peter J Reed the metamorphosed Paul (‘Player Piano’) Proteus becomes Malachi ‘Unk’ Constant; the basic Proteus archetype thus assumes the role of central protagonist of ‘The Sirens Of Titan’. To back up the assertion he points out that both characters feel vaguely dissatisfied with their lives. That, partly through resistance to manipulation by others, and partly out of loyalty to a friend, both undergo a considerable change of values. Both emerge somewhat battered, rather disillusioned but with some beliefs to affirm, and stronger more honest men. In ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ the resistance to manipulation of Reed’s speculation manifests itself through Constant’s loss of wealth. A deliberate attempt on his part to avoid a prediction made by Winston Rumfoord who is trapped, as ‘wave phenomenon’, in a kink in space-time (a CSI). Rumfoord materialises in the real universe at regular intervals. In much the same way that the selectively-bred Rumfoord dynasty turn up with a certain regularity throughout the Vonnegut mythos. The Rumfoord estate appears as an incidental location in ‘God Bless You Mr Rosewater’ (1965), Bertram Copeland and Lance Rumfoord both appear in ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, while Bokonin – as Lionel Boyd Johnson, works as a carpenter and gardener for the Rumfoord’s in ‘Cat’s Cradle’, and almost sails around the world with Remington Rumfoord IV. 

In the meantime – irrevocably, the ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ prediction comes true, as a result of which Constant enters Rumfoord’s Martian army controlled and brainwashed by antennae implanted into the skull. Constant, or Unk as he’s known while part of the army, avoids the Martian’s benevolent but bungled invasion of Earth by travelling to Mercury where he meets and befriends glowing triangles called Harmoniums. Eventually Constant ends up on Titan – as predicted, where his wife dies, his son goes off to live with the moon’s giant Bluebirds, and he meets a friendly robot called Salo. The robot comes from the four-million-years-old Tralfamadorian machine-civilisation, and has been marooned in the solar system for millennia midway across the galaxy on a journey to deliver a message. The message consists of the single word ‘Greetings’! 

In the novel Vonnegut’s side-issues include a religion to whom Constant – The Space Wanderer, becomes a temporary messiah. Converts are made equal by carrying weights and marring the unfair advantage of beauty, a concept salvaged from an earlier short story called “Harrison Bergeron”. Another interesting subplot is the almost casual observation that the Tralfamadorians have regularly intervened in human history, directing the construction of Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, the Golden House of Nero, the Kremlin and the Palace of the League of Nations – all as messages of reassurance to Salo. The Tralfamadorians are another of Vonnegut’s leitmotifs; the cerebrally time-travelling hero of ‘Slaughterouse Five’ journeys to their planet in a Flying Saucer to be ‘mated’ in a Geodesic Dome with kidnapped movie star Montana Wildhack. The alien’s philosophy is expounded at some length; the conjecture that all of time coexists and each moment is hence eternal, that life is predetermined and hence free will is negated. They know that their experiments with Saucer fuel will ultimately lead to the destruction of the universe, but accept this future as unchangeable. 

To Brian Aldiss ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ is ‘a cascade of absurd invention, its hither-thither technique a sophisticated pinch from the widescreen baroque school’ (from ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973). To ‘The Observer’ review section it’s ‘whizzing with meteorites of wit and invention in a space version of the Bluebird parable, as a soul comes home to roost through the multiverse’ (November 1975). To Reed the novel is something altogether more unwieldy. Unlike Aldiss he misses, or at least fails to communicate Vonnegut’s essential humour. A humour that’s bizarre, surreal, almost existential, but also ludicrously funny in its intrinsic absurdity. Anyone who can conjure up a religion called The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent – ‘take care of the people and god almighty will take care of himself’, and invent the First Church of Barnhouse by deifying a short stout scientist (in the 1950 short story “The Barnhouse Effect”), then create something called a Chrono Synclastic Infundibulum (in fun – ?) has got to be kidding. At least on one level. 

‘The Sirens Of Titan’ is now being marketed as ‘Classic’ Science Fiction. But it’s also an affectionate satire of the genre, a cut-up collage of SF ideas. ‘Billion Year Spree’ opines ‘Vonnegut harps on SF, its themes and characteristics, while denying that he writes anything of the kind,’ an opinion confirmed when Vonnegut told a ‘Radio Times’ interviewer ‘I do not write SF. All science is fiction. I try to expose it as magic. But because people tend to impose themselves on one another by violence, I try jokes instead. The strongest influence on my life has been Laurel & Hardy – especially Stan Laurel.’ For those in doubt, Laurel is the thinner member of the comic duo. 

Vonnegut’s issues, like his characters and his humour, are rough-edged and humanly idiosyncratic. Life’s absurd, without meaning or compassion – but it’s still possible to say ‘as stupid and vicious as men are, this is a lovely day.’ Vonnegut’s novels reflect the drunken homely chaotic humour of the rambling never-quite-concluded raconteur routine. They’re narrated, often in the first person, as episodic conversational anecdotes with bawdy illustrations – using Norman Mailer’s ‘fuggin’ expletive, along with often deliberately infantile wordplay, not just ‘the top’ but ‘the teeny-weeny bowl at the tippy-tippy top,’ not just ‘cradle’ but ‘cray-dul’. There’s comic observation such as the ‘policemen in yellow rain-capes at every intersection contradicting with their white-gloved hands what the Stop-&-Go signs said.’ 

If the novels can be said to have objective meaning with a capital ‘M’, then it must be in the structuralist sense that readers invest them with meaning. Vonnegut’s philosophy is haphazardly cracker-barrel. A persona he extends to robots, computers and the other diverse mishmash components of his novels. He is, according to Martin Amis in ‘The Observer’, ‘as soft as a sneaker full of slime’ and ‘if the sentimentality were not there, probably nothing else would be.’ But undoubtedly Vonnegut’s an intriguing figure, and probably even an important one in as much as he predates much of Science Fiction’s New Wave, and there is depth – on a considerably more intuitive level than his disciples acknowledge. ‘The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved’ advises ‘The Sirens Of Titan’, ‘the worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be not to be used by anything or anybody.’ These observations probably contain as much depth and simple truth as any of his devotees philosophical artifice. That is what made Vonnegut a big deal.

Monday 24 January 2022




Review of: ‘XX’ 
With Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, Christina Kirk 
Director: Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Erin ‘St Vincent’ 
Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic and animator Sofia Carrillo. 
Original Release: Magnet Releasing/ XYZ Films, January 2017.
80-minutes. DVD, Soda Pictures, May 2017 

The big lipstick kiss-print on the DVD cover-art, which also forms a skull, neatly catches the tone. Less triple-X status, more a defiant gesture. Although surely a female-centric project such as this is already as much an anachronism as a crusading quartet by Gay directors or black directors? At the risk of sounding tokenist, we already have movie-activists Diablo Cody (‘Jennifer’s Body’, 2009), Drew Barrymore (‘Charlie’s Angels’, 2000), Megan Ellison (‘Zero Dark Thirty’, 2012), Karen Rosenfelt (‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2’, 2012), Nina Jacobson (‘The Hunger Games’, 2012), as well as Kathryn Bigelow, Gale Anne Hurd, Sofia Coppola, Emma Thomas and on. But glass ceilings are there to be shattered, and every splinter counts. 

This is an anthology, or portmanteau movie of four twenty-minute segments. Arty ‘Twilight Zone’ short story episodes with no obvious theme, linked only by spooked nursery inter-titles of decapitated dolls, butterfly animations, a pincushion with human teeth, and a haunted doll’s house. Cine-literate Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box” quotes from George A Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968), but its ambiguity has an inexorably clinical momentum sprung from a seemingly random incident on the 3:55 subway back to the suburbs. Little Danny (Peter DaCunha) asks the stranger with the lazy eye what he has in the red gift box tied up in a red ribbon. After glimpsing inside, he loses his appetite. No breakfast, no evening meal. Is he sneaking junk-food from the school cafeteria? No, despite the delectable culinary food-porn on offer, despite Daddy Robert (Jonathan Watton)’s ultimatum, he refuses. After five days without food they take him to the Doctor who explains ‘if you don’t eat, you’ll die.’ ‘So?’ says Danny. Mom Susan (Natalie Brown) resumes secret smoking, Dad’s under pressure. Danny whispers the secret of the box to sister Jenny (Peyton Kennedy), then to Daddy, who both also stop eating. On Xmas Day nobody’s new clothes fit, they’re all too skinny. With the three in terminal intensive care Mom starts haunting the subway hunting the man with the red box. She’s hungry. Zero resolution.

Despite Annie Clark’s primary genre being experimental Rock under her St Vincent persona – collaborating with Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne across five albums, her one-woman segment “The Birthday Party” is a contrasting black comedy, albeit Mom-themed and with a twittering electro-score. Subtitled ‘The memory Lucy suppressed from her seventh birthday…’ it has moments recalling the Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Kipper And The Corpse’, as effectively-frazzled Mom Mary (Melanie Lynskey) strives to conceal Daddy David’s corpse from creepy Nanny Carla (Sheila Vand), so as not to embarrass her daughter (Sanai Victoria)’s birthday event. With dead-Daddy finally revealed as the funky-Panda head sitting at the table. Cue kiddy-screams, and long-term trauma. 

From domestic interiors to ‘so fucking epic’ vast desert exterior, Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” moves into more gut-wrenching traditional Horror Channel group-jeopardy splatter-core. Four slackers who’s ‘internal compass has failed me never’ go off-trail in a Camper-van, and find pre-Native American rock-art in the form of a horned beast territorial marker. ‘Maybe it’s cursed?’ Yup, it’s cursed. Gretchen (Breeda Wool)’s toxic graze turns shock-mutational in a convincingly nasty slasher killing spree. Her physical contortions recall Andy Serkis at his most grotesque. Until the rock-art has a new set of blood-red additional images. 

Finally, Karyn Kusama has the strongest resumé, directing femme-actioneer ‘Aeon Flux’ (2005), and ‘The Invitation’ (2016) as well as cheer-leader flesh-eating romp ‘Jennifer’s Body’. In “Her Only Living Son” single-Mom Cora (Christina Kirk) wears a cross on a chain, while bratty tousle-haired son Andy (Kyle Allen), is a troubled prodigy who also tears classmate Stacy’s fingernails off, spatters bloodstains across the bathroom, and has hairy horned toes. Everyone, including the mailman, seems in on the secret that this episode envisages the outcome of Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), with Andy’s real father – Satan, soon coming to claim him. Which force will triumph, Mom’s love or Andy’s dreams of ‘empires of misery’? With the same kind of maternal self-immolation as the vivid dream sequence in “The Box” where the family carve and devour Mom as she’s sprawled on the dinner-table, making the ultimate sacrifice for their appetites, Mother and Son crush each other to death in a killer embrace. A closure probably dictated more by time-constraints than by reasoned plotting. 

By necessity sharp and razored to the bone, as a show-reel, this impressive and disturbingly varied female-centric quartet of miniatures should lead to follow-on mainstream commissions very soon.


‘XX’ Original Release: Magnet Releasing/ XYZ Films, January 2017. ‘The Box’ (Scythia Films) director/screenplay Jovanka Vuckovic from story by Jack Ketchum, produced by Daniel Bekerman, with Natalie Brown (as Susan Jacobs), Jonathan Watton (as Robert Jacobs), Peter DaCunha (as son Danny), Peyton Kennedy (as daughter Jenny). ‘The Birthday Cake’ (Willowbrook Regent) writer/producer/director and music Annie Erin ‘St Vincent’ Clark (Roxanne Benjamin) with with Melanie Lynskey (as Mom Mary), Seth Duhame (as David), Sanai Victoria (as daughter Lucy), Sheila Vand (as Nanny Carla). ‘Don’t Fall’ (Willowbrook Regent) writer/director Roxanne Benjamin, produced by Chris Harding, with Casey Adams (as Paul), Breeda Wool (as Gretchen), Angela Trimbur (as Jess), Morgan Krantz (as Jay) Music by the Gifted. ‘Her Only Living Son’ (Snowfort Pictures) writer/director Karyn Kusama, produced by Travis Stevens, with Christina Kirk (as Cora), Kyle Allen (as Andy), Mike Doyle (as Chet), Brenda Wehie (as Principal Jenks). 
Stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo. 80-minutes. 
DVD, Soda Pictures, May 2017 with Bonus Features, interviews, Trailer, Behind The Scenes 

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(2 May 2017)