12 May 2013

Two things I’ve noticed about a lot of things I’ve been reading recently: their formats, and their topics.

I’ve been reading a lot of shorter things. I think that comes down to having a lot on, and not always being to devote the brain-cycles (even if I have the time) to large, ongoing works. So I’ve been diving into short stories – notably, George Saunders’ most recent collection – and the Kindle Single, which appears to be reviving the novella for the early 21st century.

50-100 pages is a really nice length for fiction – longer than the ultra-tight focus of a short story, but still confining enough to give it a focus that novels don’t always have. It also means you can finish something in a single hour, which is, I think, why I’m warming to these so much: I get the satisfaction of finishing a lot of fiction without committing to the emotional and time demands of a novel.

But going beyond the format, I began to see echoes in the content.

Towards the beginning of the year, I read Nicholas Royle’s First Novel. I’m a big fan of Royle’s fiction; I can never tell if I’m in a minority, or if it’s just underrated. This might be my favourite book of his yet. Perhaps the most unsettling, too. It is very aware of its status as fiction, and yet the tale of an author who teaches creative writing at a redbrick university begins to feel like it’s slipping into an autobiographical mode… until it lurches, and you begin to worry for Royle’s own sanity – which is, of course, part of the point of that perspective; he’s playing with you, and completely in control of the fantasy of the novel. The way it jars with what we know of reality is part of what makes it work.

The frequent trips to sit in parking lots on business parks reminded me a lot of Marc Augé’s non-places, and as I say that, I realise that all these books and stories are about unplaces of one kind or another. The parking trips interrupt the flow of the narrative, punctuating it with emptiness. these episodes set the increasingly unsettling tone, which the main narrative picks up and runs with in the final act, and you realise that whilst various events of the plot were red herrings and blind alleys, the tone of events up to this point has been very carefully focused on producing a singular sensation.

It’s a similar conceit to Nic Roeg’s direction of Don’t Look Now: whilst the A-plot marches forward, the bodies dredged from the Venetian canals serve primarily to set tone – Venice, beautiful Venice, becomes unsettling and unpleasant, all dark alleys and a serial murderer on the loose. The murderer is seemingly unrelated to the A-plot, and yet in the final act, Roeg brings this background action into the foreground… only to prove how unrelated it is in the closing scenes. I know Royle is an admirer of Roeg, and there’s something of Roeg in his plotting.

What’s really stuck with me, though, is the depection of familiar spaces to the point they become unfamiliar. That also emerged in Keith Ridgway’s The Spectacular, a Kindle Single about a literary author trying to construct a pulpy thriller around the Olympics to finally earn some money. The character’s obsessive research begins to take him down some strange routes, and as he begins to emulate the terrorist (if only in his imagination), the shape of the world changes; he sees it differently. By the end, when the plot takes a sharp 90º turn, the author decides he may as well roll with it; reality has shifted far enough in his head. Rod has written about this book before, and I loved it – very topical, somewhat strange, and depicting 2012 London (very familiar to me) as if it were a foreign country.

That notion of the familiar and the unfamiliar then came to a head in M John Harrison’s Autotelia works – firstly In Autotelia, featured in Arc 1.1, and then Cave and Julia, available as a Kindle Single.

Autotelia is another country, and they do things differently there. It is not just foreign; it is the most foreign; actions, events, emotions; all are different in Autotelia. A place one goes to feel different. It is abstractly distant – connected not geographically, but through some kind of transition zone; it is a place you can go to but it doesn’t appear on a map. And as such, it manages to be familiar and unfamiliar all at once; ageographic, ahistoric. Unfamiliar histories leak out of it. (It also bears a little resemblance to Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago, and it’s no surprise that The Affirmation was one of my favourite books from last year, and one that has already become dear to me).

It helps that Cave and Julia is written in Harrison’s wonderful, sparse, prose. I’ve been reading a lot of his work recently, and am growing to love his use of language, his knack for description in such little space. His blog is worth a subscription – fragmented prose leaks out of it, and the quotations and excerpts stand shoulder to shoulder with blogposts and even short fictions; it becomes hard to tell which is which, which is old, which is new, and is better for it.

And: I think, based on things written in a variety of places, there’s some degree of social overlap between these writers; Harrison and Royle seem to know one another, I think.

I mainly wanted to jot this down because, over two months, I kept going back to similar spaces in similar short fictions, similar notions touched on in different stories by different writers with very different intents, and I wanted to jot them down – because if you like one, you’ll probably like the others. A series of stories all, in their own ways, about unplaces.

  • "Currently your Arduino can only beep like a microwave oven. Mozzi brings your Arduino to life by allowing it to produce much more complex and interesting growls, sweeps and chorusing atmospherics. These sounds can be quickly and easily constructed from familiar synthesis units like oscillators, delays, filters and envelopes.

    You can use Mozzi to generate algorithmic music for an installation or performance, or make interactive sonifications of sensors, on a small, modular and super cheap Arduino, without the need for additional shields, message passing or external synths." Ooooooh

  • "In the interim, Defense Distributed’s hack is interesting as a provocation. They’ve taken the world’s categories and grabbed and twisted the kaleidoscope. Suddenly, Maker movement adherents find themselves uncomfortably on the side of gun owners, which is a place I suspect few of them wanted to be or realized they were in the first place. Sales people and advocates for 3D printers promising that these new machines will let us make anything are learning that weapons are things. Now they find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with gun enthusiasts arguing that a tool is just a tool and you can’t ban a thing just because of a few bad apples." A good article by Tim Maly: I really liked this nugget, though. The problem is: when you can make anything, who is to say what a thing is? Utopian idealism crashes into a reality; we're wobbling briefly through some turbulence. We'll probably make it out the other side, and we'll see which way things are heading. I also really liked the Deb Chachra quotation in this article.
  • "Xray is the missing link between the browser and your app code. Press cmd+shift+x (Mac) or ctrl+shift+x to reveal an overlay of what files are powering your UI – click anything to open the associated file in your editor." A lifesaver, if only for working with other people's code.
    (tags: rails views tools gem )
  • Truly beautiful: a games console built around patchcords, in Eurorack format; the system exposed to the user, and directly manipulable. The direct manipulation of the physics is kind of brilliant, the more I think about it. Just wonderful.
  • "Aside the proportions and general ‘80s cuteness, I get obsessed with the PC Engine’s moulded details. Such fine relief work doesn’t seem to appear on modern consumer electronics; it’s all transfers, printing or stickers these days. I personally think really good relief moulding is something of a lost art so it’s nice that the PC Engine has a surprisingly large amount of such details." Which Tony goes on to describe and photograph at length. Lovely post about a beautiful little piece of hardware – but which Tony loves for its stains, scorching, and dust.
  • "i'm tired of feeling like i'm writing to 17 year olds when i write about games. if we can't accept a base level of validity to the thing we're talking about without having to constantly feel shame and prove and defend its existence, then i'm not interested in participating in discussions surrounding games. it's stupid and boring to have so much of the talk be constantly channeled through that. who cares what Roger Ebert or whoever else who never played a videogame thinks or has thought. games are games and they can do good or bad things depending on how they're used. they're only just one tool." Yes, all of this post, and this in particular. I like games; I also like books and films and art an all manner of things. Culture is culture, and I engage with it all in a pretty similar way. A nice piece of writing expressing that, though, and reminding us of the ways we _can_ engage with our cultures and media.