The Gone–Away World by Nick Harkaway (twitter.com/Harkaway)
There are many fine, hardworking craftsmen of the written word, and the sum of the parts of their novels are very enjoyable to read, but then there are writers who also possess the skill of an artist. In their novels every word is perfectly chosen and placed in combination with every other word in an inevitability that makes structure disappear, and the whole is much greater than just the sum of its parts. The Gone–Away World by Nick Harkaway is such a work.
In it we follow an unnamed protagonist through childhood and college into a proxy “Un-War” in the Elective Theatre, formerly known as the prosperous and peaceful country of Addeh Katir. There he is reunited with his childhood best friend Gonzo. When the enemy launches a chemical attack, our side answers with “the most advanced weapon in the history of warfare,” The Go Away Bomb that disappears the enemy: “We are… feeling a bit superior and waiting for the order to do some more demonstrative world-editing, when our very own Green Sector vanishes from the map… like a sandcastle being washed away by the tide… The same thing is happening everywhere. Not just in the Elective Theatre.”
Predictably, the effects are unpredictable and uncontrollable; the tide that ebbs also flows, carrying back a recombinant and deadly genesis of the thoughts, forms, feelings, memories, dreams and nightmares of everything it supposedly erased. Most of humanity has been made “Gone-Away” and the survivors battle desperately: “this is not an attack. It’s an atmosphere.”
Protagonist, Gonzo and a ragtag group are rescued by Piper 90 (“love child of a bulldozer and a shopping mall”) which is laying “The Pipe” that contains the anti-stuff, called FOX, which makes the Gone-Away stuff go away, “making a strip of land which is safe to live in.” This is where the remnants of humanity begin to rebuild.
Fast forward a few years and this outfit of roughnecks is hired for a dangerous job of putting out a fire on The Pipe that looks like sabotage. Here the story takes a shocking turn that throws into question the protagonist’s entire history and future, and a horrible secret is found to underlie the system that keeps this strip of the old world, this “Livable Zone,” intact.
A rousing dystopian story with a terrific story arc that can be enjoyed on just those terms, The Gone-Away World is also a cautionary tale that confronts the endemic, species-defining stupidity and hidden moral equivocations of human life on Earth. Notwithstanding, Nick Harkaway is fundamentally an optimist, and quite funny; I will definitely be reading more of him. Highly recommended!
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Once upon a time in a mall in Orange County CA with my paternal aunt and her husband, as we were exiting past Barnes & Noble Jody and I noticed a display of William S. Burroughs' newly published novel, Queer, which naturally we rushed over to look at. Dozens of copies, stacked high, the word queer repeating over and over in large, bold type.
My Catholic aunt (rabid fan of Elvis, who once gigglingly exclaimed, "He can park his shoes under my bed anytime") and her husband (soon-to-be transplants to Colorado Springs CO, birthplace of the 1992 anti-gay hate bill Amendment Two, of which they were staunch supporters- not that we knew that then of course) were shocked.
It was scandalous that a publisher and a mainstream bookstore in a mall in conservative Orange County, and Jody and I by our attention, together with some degenerate writer were forcing the "gay agenda" upon their delicate heteronormative sensibilities. Or so I assume it seemed to them.
Which anecdote I share with you because it's sadly absurd, but also apropos as introduction to this month's Censorable Ideas post about William S. Burroughs, Jody's minor connection to him, and some musings on queer and other "outsider" writers who influenced Jody and WSB.
Michael Stevens is a Burroughs scholar who recently contacted me about WSB's connection to Jody (he wrote a nice comment about I, Vampire when it first came out) for future editions of his book. The Road to Interzone: reading William S. Burroughs reading is "an index to the books known to have been read, blurbed, or cut up by the author of Naked Lunch," including any known commentary on that work or writer, and it is surprisingly revelatory as a portrait.
While this may not be the sort of titillating page-turner you read cover to cover, it is a fascinating treasure trove of insights, influences and previously unknown writers you'll want to dip into again and again with your laptop open to google and your favorite bookseller. Highly recommend.
Two writers that were unknown to me are Jack Black
and the POET LOUISE BOGAN.
"Jack Black’s You Can’t Win was probably the longest lasting literary
influence on Burroughs’ writing . From his first novel to his final memoirs he
was making references to its characters and philosophy. He incorporated the
hobo jungles, the criminal code, cat burglars, safe crackers, robbers
and rodriders into his mythology and virtual worlds. WSB’s appreciation
of the nobility of the criminal and the underground lifestyle found its inception here. Many readers are not even aware that the Johnson family and Salt Chunk Mary are not Burroughs’ creations, but key players in Black’s work. Burroughs first read the book when he was fifteen and it had a profound effect, not only on his literary life but his personal life as well. His reading of You Can’t Win was his earliest exposure to the criminal lifestyle that he attempted to recreate in his life and his fiction from that moment on." (Interzone)
It's worthwhile asking here why artists are attracted to the forbidden and the outlaw. The great American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson explains it this way: "Society is a joint-stock company which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."
To violate these customs is to invite society's punishment, be it ostracism in the schoolyard, mass incarceration of black folk, or coercive economic duress.... What artists, writers, and outlaws have in common is an instinctual rage against this. ("Society represented law and order, discipline, punishment. Society was a machine geared to grind me to pieces." -You Can't Win)
In the case of the criminal, this manifest as self-destructive sociopathy; in the case of Burroughs, Jody Scott, et al it gives us great art and literature, music and philosophy- all that counterbalances the oppressive side of society and makes of it (sometimes) a civilization.
Another who influenced both Jody and WSB- and celebrated the outcast and criminal- was the french novelist Jean Genet. Jody considered him a tremendous stylist and her transgressive gay novel of the 70's, Kiss the Whip, was greatly influenced by him. "Burroughs consistently listed Genet among his favorite writers and on several occasions said that Genet and Samuel Beckett were his favorite authors. 'Every man, no matter what his sexual tastes- likes the characters in Genet'" (Interzone)
For your pleasure and scholarly edification, here are excerpts from Genet, Burroughs and Scott:
You should have listened to me lover and abandoned this journal but now it's too late, much too late. To pry into St. Michael's life is to invite that most terrible curse, the Deuce of Vapors. Do you know how serious this is? Remember one thing. Whatever happens, dear reader, I love you. Watch closely as I come to the forefront of the canvas and look you straight in the eye--lock eyes!, Goddamn you, you evasive little bastard, and listen: "love" is much too timid a word; I adore you, my stone angel with the greedy greedy mouth. We deserve each other! For despite my flaws and crimes I am the One you've waited for, such a long time, such an empty, barren, windswept, crying-in-the dark long time, my darling.
-Jody Scott, Kiss the Whip
Before Armand had granted me the esteem of which I have already spoken, I probably would not have betrayed him. The mere idea would have horrified me. So long as he had not given me his confidence, betraying him had no meaning: it meant simply obeying the elementary rule which governed my life. But now I loved him. I recognized his omnipotence. And though he might not love me, he contained me within him. His moral authority was so absolute, so generous, that it made intellectual rebellion within his bosom impossible. The only way I could prove my independence was by acting on the emotional level. The idea of betraying Armand set me aglow. I feared and loved him too much not to want to deceive and betray and rob him. I sensed the anxious pleasure that goes with sacrilege..
― Jean Genet, Thief's Journal
A curse. Been in our family for generations. The Lees have always been perverts. I shall never forget the unspeakable horror that froze the lymph in my glands--the lymph glands that is, of course--when the baneful word seared my reeling brain: I was a homosexual. I thought of the painted, simpering female impersonators I'd seen in a Baltimore nightclub. Could it be possible I was one of those subhuman things? I walked the streets in a daze like a man with a light concussion--just a minute, Doctor Kildare, this isn't your script. I might well have destroyed myself, ending an existence which seemed to offer nothing but grotesque misery and humiliation. Nobler, I thought, to die a man than live on, a sex monster. It was a wise old queen--Bobo, we called her--who taught me that I had a duty to live and bear my burden proudly for all to see, to conquer prejudice and ignorance and hate with knowledge and sincerity and love.
―William S. Burroughs, Queer
There are many authors I could include here, and I may well return to this fertile subject in future Censorable Ideas, but for now I will conclude with the other new-to-me writer from Interzone (though not a direct influence on either Jody or WSB), the poet Louise Bogan. a brilliant minor poet of the ‘reactionary generation.’
Yes, Bogan is indeed a “minor” poet, but that does not mean she isn't worth reading. As the Poetry Foundation website puts it, “her poetry is modern and emotive without being sentimental, and her language is immediate and contemporary.”
A woman born in 1897 insisting upon her right to live her life her way (something hardly acceptable for women today, revolutionary then) definitely qualifies as a societal “outlier.” In a letter to Theodore Roethke she writes, “I, too, have been imprisoned by a family, who held out the bait of a nice hot cup of tea and a nice clean bed. . . the only way to get away is to get away: pack up and go. Anywhere. I had a child, from the age of 20, remember that, to hold me back, but I got up and went just the same, and I was, God help us, a woman.”
"Burroughs may have been familiar with her work as a youth, but didn’t make reference to this poem until The Western Lands,” writes Stevens in Interzone. The poem that caught his eye was SEVERAL VOICES OUT OF A CLOUD and it seems a fitting note to end on:
Come, drunks and drug takers; come, perverts unnerved!
Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit, to who
and wherever deserved.
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is Deathless
And it isn’t for you.
* * *
Last month I wrote about Wicky, one of the many fascinating characters Jody knew. This month's Censorable Ideas is a sort of addendum to that post, a sweet little story Jody penned on a napkin for Wicky, when they were a couple.
Once upon a time a little W. woke up, got out of glorp, and descended gracefully into her cereal bowl; when all at once she saw a big gigantic spoon begin to drop towards her location in the bowl. It was terrifying! Her little arms and legs flashed wildly, as she tried to swim away through the curdled milk and sugar and floating grains of Grape Nuts; but faster and faster descended the great spoon-- behind which was a great, hungry, gaping FACE-- the face of J.S. Wood!
Reaching for her silver sergeant's whistle on a lanyard around her neck, the frantic W. gave a short, sharp blast. Instantly the hideous face, which had pores the size of coal cars, became transparent and disappeared, leaving a gaping hole in the air.
"Whew, that was a close one," declared the relieved W.; whereupon she florked into the shower and had breakfast.
She would have bragged about her coolness and presence of mind to the other monks around the srab, BUT, they were all doing impressions of Mae West, so she went back to glorp and dreamed a hero's dreams.
Jody knew a lot of interesting characters in her life, one of them was Noel Wickman, sculptor, trailblazer, raconteur at-large, whose fascinating story, as much as I know it, I will share with you.
Canadian by birth, Wicky was one of three siblings who early in life watched their mother commit suicide by drinking drain cleaner. Parked by their father in an assortment of brothels until they were adopted (to serve as free farm labor), Wicky had a large repertoire of dirty limericks she learned from the prostitutes who took care of her.
Wicky was a sculptor, she made paper mache figures at half or 2/3 scale. When she died, her partner Susan asked Jody if we wanted Wicky's sculptures. We called her back two days later to arrange to get them, and after a lengthy and very pregnant pause, she informed us she'd thrown them in the garbage. So we never even got to take photos of them. They were quite good. Susan was quite bad.
Wicky was the owner of a music box shop in Seattle's famed Pike Place Market, and was the source for much of the Market material in Death in Seattle.
("The bewildering morass put him in mind of a cannibal-pot, it was so carnal and so mundane; all clamor and tumult with its oyster bars, barbecue, incense and spice, the spiny lobster, the whelk and the prawn side by side with smutty magazines and blatant perishables, the vulgar trinkets of the multitude hawked along sidewalks crammed with bric-a-brac and crawling with loafers, street walkers and dope addicts whose antics Rawlence eyed with scorn; all of this intermixed with steaming cauldrons and smoking grills and always the new faces backdropped by the same old many-colored kites, windsocks, marijuana pipes, tourists in perpetual rejoicing, the strife and babel of polyglot tongues of savage nations (including his own) not to mention drugged teenagers smacking their lips over chili dogs that dripped hotsauce amid the glitter of inconsequential baubles and posters and T-shirts and rings and necklaces and knives of every make, set out on wooden tables open to the wind and the rain, everything permeated by a democratic reek of bakery goods or stir-frying that drifted on the Puget Sound breeze.")
Noel worked in the 60's at The Blind Lemon in Berkeley and once saw Bob Dylan (before he was "Bob Dylan") playing there. Wicky mistook him for a woman and liked the song, commenting, "Not bad, but she can't sing."
They met when Wicky answered Jody's ad for Irondale lots. At the time she was with a woman named Amy. Later when she was no longer with Amy but with Jody, Amy reported them to immigration for being gay. Agents came to the house to investigate, Jody also became freaked out lest that somehow spread to an investigation of her fitness as a parent. You know, because she was a lesbian.
I don't know the details, but Wicky was never deported, and Jody was never investigated. (She was later investigated by the FBI for her involvement in the distribution of an interracial porn film in the south, but that is an unrelated story.)
Wicky was the first female draftsman at Boeing Aerospace Company. Some of the material in I, Vampire about the character Blake Reardon came from Wicky.
("In any big company, a drafting room is a sham. It’s a complete lie! Hypocrisy in motion! You sit and draw pla-pla. Pretend to draw something that might work. Act busy. Then along comes the engineer supervisor. He takes ten minutes and redesigns the whole thing you’ve been working on for six months. Correction: he doesn’t redesign it; he copies it out of the book. Didn’t the old Romans design a thumbscrew pretty much like this one? But the point is, Boeing has got to hire ten thousand bodies, because the government says ten thousand people must work on the project, or else money won’t be funneled into the Seattle plant. It’s a nuthouse!")
Wick was also diabetic. Once when she hospitalized, Jody and I were waiting on bench in Denny's for a land appointment, who was late. We went into a roll of silliness and hilarity while we waited, riffing on anything and everything, cracking ourselves up. After the appointment Jody called the hospital and asked for Noel Wickman's room. "We don't have any patient by that name," she was told.
Turns out Wicky died in the hospital while Jody and I were laughing in Denny's.
We liked to think that Wicky was with us, part of that hilarity, a sort of bon voyage party.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick
To the list of dystopian cautionary tales suddenly relevant again (as if they ever weren't!) in the trumpian, post-truth, authoritarian-leaning era I recommend adding Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which answers the question, What if Germany and Japan had won WWII?
If you've seen the Amazon adaptation, there is little resemblance. Character names are the same but the plot is very different; the subversive video of the series is, in the novel, a novel. Germany controls Europe, the eastern U.S., is expanding into the solar system and has attempted a"final solution" on the entire continent of Africa. From The Home Islands Japan controls South America, Asia and the west coast. A nominal U.S. neutral zone separates Nazi and Nippon territories.
The setting is San Francisco and the neutral zone, the reader learns of life in Nazi territory only from secondhand reporting.
The IChing or "oracle", the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, features importantly for all the main characters, and is in a way, another character through which Dick explores the themes of fatalism and enduring in a world in which there is no shining light on the hill, no safe refuges left to flee to- or take hope from. All is authoritarianism- of the brutish Nazi stripe or the more civilized Japanese variety.
Into this reality of despair is dropped the surprisingly bestselling novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate fiction in which the allies won the war, defeating Germany and Japan. A fiction unimaginable for some, a revelation of Truth for others.
As one would expect, the novel is contemplative, internal, philosophical, and the ending ambiguous (perhaps a disappointment to readers weaned on flattering sales pitches and attention-eroding tech gadgetry who find their way to the novel from the Amazon series), but Dick's The Man in the High Castle sheds insightful, unsettling light onto life under totalitarianism. A light very much needed these days. Highly recommended!
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SOUTHBOUND by Joseph Ferguson
"Society everywhere is in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self Reliance.
The protagonist of Southbound has assuredly never read Emerson but he knows whereof Emerson speaks. Cruising the literary highway of counterculture anti-heroes, Basement Man, transplant from Alabama, pulls up to a bar in New Jersey and we hitch a ride for this episodic portrait of his lifelong, booze-fueled rebellion.
From the tragicomic death of his friend on the docks of Hoboken to beaches a little less respectable for his presence ("Avast ye scurvy lubbers!") to a retirement home, Basement Man is aware but not resigned (to paraphrase Edna Millay). I've heard it said that 'your integrity to yourself is more important than your immediate life,' and that's a sentiment Basement Man would drink to: "Better a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy, spider!"
Southbound by Joseph Ferguson makes us look around and perceive the poetry in life. And that is a very good thing.
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In 1978 Passing for Human was published.
Also published that year was Natural Shocks by Richard Stern.
Jody died at the age of 84. Richard Stern died at the age of 84 a few years later.
Stern was called by the New Republic, "the best American author of whom you have never heard." Jody was called by the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction "The best unknown science fiction writer."
Random, insignificant coincidences to be sure, and interesting only because in 1978 Jody was also writing reviews of books and one of the books she reviewed was Natural Shocks.
Her career as a book reviewer was short-lived. She kept telling the truth about what she perceived as slice-em-off schlock being foisted upon the reading public by publishers and the toadying literary press. But as various book review editors kept trying to explain to Jody before firing her, 'our function is to sell books.'
Here is Jody's review of Natural Shocks by Richard Stern:
"Celebrity," writes Richard Stern, "is the vengeance of the unfamous. They turn the famous into stage settings. It's a way of paralyzing them."
Maybe this is what happened to Stern himself. He has been supported by Guggenheims and Rockefellers, has been gorged with plums and approval. His dustjacket fluoresces with praise from Bellow, Burgess, Richler, Roth, the roster of men who, because there are no Fitzgeralds or Steinbecks around today, are at the top of the American heap.
Did any of them really read this book? Roth tells us that Stern exhibits "a sweet purity of felling." I'd say he has about as much feeling as a piece of Portnoy liver. the only time the hero Wursup feels anything much, is when he discovers that his dying girlfriend's hair has all fallen out after her hospital treatment. What he "feels" then is a semi-prurient survivory thrill.
And Stern is no Camus delineating "lack of feeling" with a powerful grace; he's just another drudge mastering a few dull routines and repeating them for audiences who don't demand any better. His skill in developing a character runs to, "Dolly was a woman of rough intelligence, but the intelligence produced nothing but malice, like a machine which undoes at one end what it assembled at another."
Here is Stern describing a character he really loves, a rancidly "brainy" lecturer at Columbia: "There was Benny, in his party outfit, his great persimmon head coming from a steak-colored turtleneck... Benny had been chewing a salami; there were meat flecks on his large lips, and he exhaled spicy aromas."
Stern's male characters are blubbery fatcats, his women are wind-up dolls. ("Perfect little teeth spread in her wonderful cheeks, gleaming amidst the small lights hopping off her desk.") A good novel should enhance life (even if by satirizing it mercilessly as a Burroughs does) but for me, Stern and his admirers have the whole thing reversed: they strip the life from life and leave a slimy coldness that reeks of emptiness.
I contend that this honors-encrusted tribe of mendicants has been over-pampered for years. They are accepting the gravy without doing the honest work. Natural Shocks is a thoroughly rotten novel. It is a Book of the Month Club Alternate selection. This may say something about the state of "letters" in our country today.
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