Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Lightly Sautéed Savant

This photograph shows the face of a writer and editor by the name of Gary Fry. It is being fried. Visual puns of this nature are wholly pointless, but I like them anyway. And who are you to deny a complex man his simple pleasures? Only a meanie would do that...

Although bigheaded I am also lovely. When it comes to the writing of fiction I believe that my own concepts and conceits are nearly always vastly superior to those of other writers; that's the bigheaded part of my personality. However, I am willing to admit that occasionally a writer who isn't me comes up with an even better concept or conceit than my own average standard; that's the lovely part of my character. Which do you prefer? Come on, don't be shy.

It doesn't happen very often that a contemporary writer creates a concept or conceit that has me frothing with envy, but it
does happen. A few years ago, a writer (whose name I have forgotten) casually mentioned that he was writing a novel about a town full of quaint buildings and people that is found up Dylan Thomas's arse. I jumped up and grabbed my shadow by the scruff. "Why the heck didn't I think of that myself?" I thundered. For anyone who isn't Welsh the satirical genius of that idea will probably be lost. If so, take my word for the fact of its brilliance.

The kind of fiction I like best tends to be generated or guided by fundamental concepts that are rather more abstract than those favoured by readers of more orthodox fiction. Crack addicts huddled in sodium shadows don't do much for me; nor am I overly interested in the use of physical props; emotional entanglements and psychological interactions don't move me as much as they ought to. I prefer highly formal, abstract, unique and absurdist logical frameworks. My taste in literature isn't solely confined to works that bear this hallmark, of course, but writers who do tend in this direction (at least some of the time) will always command my attention more than writers who never do.

A few days ago, on August 21st 2010 at 7:59 PM, the aforementioned Mr Gary Fry made an off-the-cuff remark that set wheels of joy in my head spinning. At the same time I frothed with envy. His remark contained one of the neatest, slyest, daftest and potentially most fruitful conceits for a novel I have heard for many years. He said simply, "I have a novel in mind about a guy who invents aphorisms so great that he has to transform world events around him in order to use them. Wilde or what? I'm Shaw it'll be a bestseller."

Imagine! The genius of this conceit is that aphorisms and maxims are rarely true or accurate (think of all the clever generalisations made by such luminaries as Lichtenberg, Chateaubriand, Nietzsche; none of which ever apply in every case and some of which apply in no instances at all). So the potential for genuinely satirical and philosophical absurdist comedy is enormous!

For instance, the lead character might quip something like, "A man who wears a necktie at breakfast is like an aardvark that pilots a balloon!" A completely meaningless comparison -- until he forces it to have meaning by arranging for all aardvarks to pilot balloons. The nightmare logistics of that! A novel constructed along these lines could be a new
Candide, or at least rival the strange allegorical texts of René Daumal.

So full marks to Gary Fry! Now I'm going to have him with onions!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

When Satire Goes Too Far

What happens when satire is misunderstood?

The point of satire is that it should be accessible on two levels simultaneously. The surface text tells one story, the subtext tells another; or to put it more accurately, the subtext tells the exact opposite story of the surface text. We might even say that the subtext reverses the polarity of the visible story, coinciding with it word for word, image for image, but in the wrong direction. In this case, the wrong way is the right way.

Writers of satire are surely always aware that their satire may be misunderstood, that the surface text might be the only one that is noticed, that they might be held responsible for holding views they despise. The history of Literature is full of examples of a general misunderstanding of rather obvious satire.

If blatant satire can be so easily misunderstood, what about the more subtle kinds of satire? Surely an author is deluding himself or herself as to their own intentions and motivations when subtlety becomes the key rule of a satirical text? These authors must be comfortable deep down with the realisation that their satire will be misunderstood. One almost wants to claim that they hope it will be misunderstood.

But why would any satirist deliberately manage affairs to encourage a misreading of their own works?

It’s clear that the psychology of such satirists is more complex than a simple desire to criticise something by mocking it. Some satires are so ambiguous that one is forced to conclude that the author has a foot in both camps, that they are pushing both messages equally, that they stand both for and against the object or force that is the subject of the satire, that in effect they are also satirising themselves and their own satire.

One of the finest satires in modern fiction must surely be The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad. First published in 1972, this novel has drawn praise from Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, James Sallis and many other influential writers and critics. In many ways it is the supreme achievement of the ‘New Wave’ movement that reinvigorated science fiction in Britain and America in the 1960s and 70s.

The central conceit behind The Iron Dream is that the grandiose dreams of most SF writers bear too many disturbing parallels with the grandiose dreams of the Nazis. In other words, the galactic empires, glorification of force and xenophobic elements found in so much science fiction betray a purely Fascistic mentality on behalf of their creators.

In Spinrad’s amazing novel, we are presented with an alternate history in which Adolf Hitler left Germany in 1919 and emigrated to New York, where he became a science fiction writer instead of a politician but with his essential psychology unchanged, a fact that made his integration into the world of pulp SF very smooth indeed. In this parallel dimension, Hitler’s greatest work is a novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, and here at last, in Spinrad’s own book, we are presented with the definitive version. But this is no novel within a novel; Hitler’s novel and Spinrad’s are identical.

The events that propel the main character, Feric Jaggar, to ultimate control over the world, and eventually the universe, parallel the rise of the real Hitler. There are analogues of the SS, the Brownshirts, the Soviets and the Weimar politicians. Instead of democrats, communists and pacifists, the enemies are mutants, mongrels and Universalists. Instead of the clichéd Jew pulling strings in the background, there is the non-human Dominator, a being capable of sapping the will of true men.

Feric Jaggar and his followers wear black leather and are constantly thrusting out their arms in phallic salutes and kissing the tips of shiny truncheons. There are no female characters in The Iron Dream. Everything is masculine and direct.

So this book is a straightforward satire against Nazi tendencies in the SF world? No. Spinrad does something more clever and devious here. He makes it impossible not to root for the wrong guys. The reader is coerced into cheering for Jaggar and his purebred warriors; the reader becomes an authentic Nazi for the duration of the novel, thrilling to the cracking of mongrel heads under the truncheons of the Sons of the Swastika, feeling delight and relief at the incineration of foul Doms by cleansing fire, wishing to participate in the utter destruction of the racially contaminated cities where parrotface mutants openly interbreed with harlequins, lizardmen and blueskins. The reader has no ambiguous feelings at all as Jaggar surges to victory. The reader is one of the bad guys too.

This is a very interesting effect. It is easy to proclaim one’s own superiority in terms of holding correct opinions. I am against prejudice of all kinds, totally opposed to racism, homophobia, sexism. And yet under the surface, perhaps not so deep, I am driven by egotism, intolerance and the lust for power. Just as you are. It’s called the Human Condition and it’s purely a tactical device to pretend that one’s stated beliefs are always representative of the way one feels. Morality isn’t really about not having evil urges, but about having evil urges and declining to act on them. While reading The Iron Dream I felt that Feric Jaggar was in the right. After finishing the book I am free to reject his values, even though I enjoyed them throughout the novel. This novel questioned me, and emotionally I gave all the wrong answers, but that doesn’t mean that my reason has to follow suit.

In one of my own novels, Mister Gum, I attempted to do something along similar lines. I wanted to satirise the teaching of Creative Writing in the same way that Spinrad satirised the SF world. So I created a monstrous egotist whose appalling adventures are designed to be unconditionally enjoyed by the reader while reading them; only when the book is over is the reader free to reverse the polarity of their own opinions on the matters treated by my book, namely power, control, exploitation, solipsism and the sublimation of cowardice. I also attempted to satirise satire itself. One of the first reviews of Mister Gum declared that it was guilty of “feeding the worst tropes of modern culture rather than opposing them.” In fact it does neither on its own, but the reader of my book should do both.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Portable Spill

Here's something that's very topical at the moment. Spillage. Oh look, I've created a portable spill! So instead of waiting for irresponsible idiots such as the senior management of BP to create major spills that spread from only one point of origin and are at the whim of unpredictable sea currents, my invention means that spills can be easily carried to any desired location, put in position and adjusted when necessary; they can even be taken back home after they have fulfilled their purpose! Isn't that just dandy?

My portable spill (patent pending) has another advantage over the standard slicks. What is that advantage, you cry? I'll answer you in due course, probably in the next sentence. On second thoughts not in that one. Nor in this one: maybe in the next. Unlike all other spills, mine can flow uphill. Yes, it's true. Look closely. Here's the evidence. It's flowing up the side of the hardback edition of an important and fairly recent Thomas Pynchon novel, Against the Day. Amazing but true! The novel is also amazing. But not true. Do you like Pynchon? My own view is that, with the solitary exception of John Barth, he's the greatest American writer ever.

As if all this wasn't enough, my portable spill also doubles up as a teardrop. The biggest teardrop in the world! Don't believe me? Here's proof! If you ever feel overwhelmingly sad in future, perhaps as a result of listening to heartwrenching music, Brian Eno's Apollo album for instance, you now have a simple and safe way of expressing your melancholy. This teardrop will not dampen clothes: it's a uniquely dry lachrymal. And it doesn't express just sadness; it can be used on any occasion when weeping is appropriate, at a joyous event or during times of immense frustration. The portable spill. You know it makes sense.