Friday, 29 August 2008

When is a computer like a departing lover?

... When you try to send an email and get this back: wrote:

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at

I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.

This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.

We could all learn something, I feel, from Mailer Daemon, with his heavyhearted semicolons, who certainly breaks it to us gently – but doesn't leave any room for doubt.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Heavy Soil

Like music?

Well, do you?

Back at school, in French lessons, would you heartily respond to the question, "Qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire?" with a joyous, "Moi, j'aime beaucoup ecouter de la musique!"?

Does your CV list, "A keen interest in and enthusiasm for contemporary popular beat combos" under the 'hobbies' section?

(Your CV has a hobbies section, right?)

When you're making your suave, casanovan move on a delectable human being (er ... or non-human being, if that's the way you roll), do you cosy up with the heart-melting question, "What bands are you into?"

If the answer to the above is yes (and, knowing my readers as I do, I suspect it will be), may I ask you to cast your e-gaze towards the latest addition to my family. Of blogs.

Her name is Heavy Soil.

What a pretty name.

The idea? Every day, one - just one - mp3 that's available or listenable-to freely and legitimately via the wonders of the worldwide web. And some burblings by me about what makes it interesting.

Short(ish) posts, if you can believe it.

And ... music.

So: get heavily soiled. Maintenant!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Bored of the Credit Crunch

When did it happen? Was it when the 'man on the street' on BBC News complained about "not being able to put bread on the table"?

Was it when I overheard a Gucci-handbagged woman in Marks & Spencers complain that a lemon now cost 46p?

Or was it when I received a marketing email which included the line, "We know: times are tough"?

I'm not sure when it was, my friends.

But I have this to say to the global economic downturn:

Crunch my ass.

(Something I've said, in a number of contexts, as you may well imagine.)

Crunch my mo-foing ass.

Man on the street: sell your goddamn flatscreen TV and start taking the frickin' bus before you start complaining about "not being able to put bread on the table". Or take a trip to Haiti: that's crunch, mate.

Gucci-woman: buy a nice big string bag of organic lemons. Open 'er up. Savour that zingy, citric aroma ...

... And stick one of them into every orifice.

Roasted on a spit, you'd feed a famine-ravaged family for months.

And to whoever wrote that marketing email: let me tell you - times are not tough. Really, really not tough. If 'times' were a steak, they might be medium-rare at most.

Get a sense of perspective.

Friday, 8 August 2008

I'm incredibly sorry

... I just realised that my last post was over 1,000 words long.

Without subheads.

Not very web-friendly, innit?

What can I say? I got carried away. Heck, it almost felt as if I were at university again.

Next time, I'll serialise. Or, at very least, subheadise.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Martin Amis. Like Henry James. But way more of a bastard.

I just came to the end of The Rachel Papers.

Actually, what am I saying? "Came to the end"?

I was like one of those cartoon characters, running straight off a cliff, pedaling the air for several seconds, before plummeting. I careered to the end. The abrupt finish-line of my Olympic 100p dash. (See what I did there? Topical Hooligan.)

Martin Amis is a savage writer. He is also, very clearly, an extremely intelligent man.

The Rachel Papers is a story about intolerable adolescent arrogance (inevitably stemming, of course, from titanic insecurity). I suppose – from a zoomed-out perspective – it's a kind of 'coming of age' novel. But it's the kind of 'coming of age' novel that Henry James might've written if he'd been rampantly heterosexual and dosed up on amphetamines.

What do I mean by that? How could a writer like Amis – whose prose is so angular, cynical, brittle, aggressive – possibly be likened to the elaborate, nuanced, increasingly (with age) fussy writing of James?

(I should add: I may wheel in a pejorative adjective like 'fussy', but be assured: I hold few authors in higher esteem than I do Henry James).

Well. Amis accomplishes - by the end of The Rachel Papers - a rather Jamesian coup de theatre. Via a technique called ironic inversion. This technique is a little like the 'twist in a tale' so beloved of short story writers ... but instead of being executed over the course of, say, 50 pages, it plays itself out across the rather wider-ranging (and more subtly-contoured) landscape of a whole novel.

And – whereas a twist-in-the-tale is presented more or less starkly to the reader, the ironic inversion is often invisible – because it has been developed so slowly. When he reaches the end of the novel, the unwary reader may well not even realise the extent to which his expectations have been overturned. Indeed, James typically does this so subtly and seamlessly that a good few critics (ha!) are utterly oblivious.

Take Portrait of a Lady, James's most popular novel. James sets us up to expect that Isabel Archer (the lady of the title) is going to become the victim of unscrupulous 'fortune-hunters', thanks to her large inheritance.

He plays upon the literary cliche that is 'rich yet innocent woman is seduced by cynical, blackhearted man; innocence is besmirched by loveless greed'.

But then goes on to invert the expectations. Gilbert Osmond – holder of the fortune hunter role – does end up marrying Isabel. But the point is: he actually does so out of love. Not cynicism.

Sure, it is love that does indeed prove misguided, and does indeed descend into mutual spite and acrimony. But the kernel around which it is built was in fact pure. Which throws the whole of the rest of the tired cliche into astounding technicolour.

Portrait of a Lady gives all the cliched framework of the conventional trash romance tragedy –but subverts it with genuine, complex psychology.

(Wikipedia, of course, totally misses this crucial fact in its trashy summary, setting its horns about James's finest crockery with taurean abandon. Are we surprised?)

The point of all this? Ah, yes: Mr Amis.

So, The Rachel Papers is a coming-of-age novel with an ironic inversion. As it turns out, it is twisted in on itself with an irony rather more uncompromisingly nihilistic (or, at least, more starkly painted) than any of James's.

The narrator is an arrogant, self-centred, hideously realistic 19-year-old boy. Narcissistic, manipulative, borderline misogynistic. But, maybe halfway through the novel, we realise with alarm that our initial distaste has somehow been transmuted: we are actually rooting for him –hoping that he does succeed in his pursuit of the elusive Rachel.

What's going on here? Why are we sympathising with this bastard protagonist whose ill-treatment of females we have already witnessed? Clever Mr Amis has been at work on us.

... and, magically, we have started to side with said protagonist. We have realised that we are seeing through his adolescent nastiness to a vulnerable, insecure child. Amis has maneuvered us neatly between his sights. We have started to believe (and, what's more, to hope) that, over the course of this novel, our immature narrator will come to see (however fitfully and incompletely) the error of his ways. And this will be thanks to the love of a good woman. Natch.

Amis, though, is resolutely unjamesian in the savage manner in which, in the novel's closing chapters, he brings us eye to unblinking eye with our own sentimental 'coming of age' fantasies – before (absolutely without mercy) crushing them.

As a result of this savagery and abruptness, I finished the book with a sensation reminiscent to that I might experience at the close of a very intelligent, very pacey, very well-made cinema semi-thriller. Something like Fight Club or Memento. It's that kind of a novel. Not, I think, a brilliant and enduring work of art. But an extraordinarily intense experience. One has been laid out, had one's wrinkles smoothed by faux-tender hands – and then been put through the mangle. Quite deliberately.

What would make it a brilliant novel – and more of a work of art?

For my money, if Amis had only half-crushed our sentimentality. Or had crushed it subtly, with a light seasoning of ambiguity, rather than thrusting its maimed, flattened corpse in our faces.

So intent is he upon achieving the breathtakingly unpleasant emotional effect of his close that he goes too far, is too extreme, and loses sight of realism. I don't propose to spoil the plot – actually, to be honest, I'm just too lazy to explain it all. I couldn't care less about spoiling anything ... everyone knows what's going to happen in a Shakespeare play, and that doesn't seem to spoil 'em much ...

... But, yes, I don't propose to tell you how the novel ends. But the weakness, I think, is this – that I'm left wondering, of Amis's narrator: Christ ... was that likely? Could anyone actually be that much of an idiot?

Interesting enough, as a thought to be left with, of course. But not with the delicate, torturous, balanced subtlety of a genius like Henry James.

Similar posts
Enjoy that? Why not cast an eye over Shakespeare hated Hamlet
– The Intellectual Hooligan: putting the 'lite' into 'literary criticism'

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Brilliant Bechdel

Some time soon, I'd like to write about Alison Bechdel's fantastic Fun Home. The book that made me realise what an exciting, potential-stuffed form the graphic novel is.

Some time. Soon.

Meanwhile, though, I've just stumbled across Bechdel's own blog – upon which she (relatively) recently posted what I suppose is the graphic equivalent of a short story. About reading. Here's the first page. A hook, yes? But I urge you, go read the whole thing.

Then go and buy Fun Home, and read that too.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Making customers like me feel special

Two great ties. Arriving in one equally mouthwatering bag.

Aw, I'm such a goddamn sucker for packaging.

Friday, 1 August 2008

EXTRA! EXTRA! Kleptomaniac Operagoers! Read all about it!

I'm not sure I'd enjoy an opera break-in.

Bloody hooligans in their DJs (= tuxedos), smashing windows with their opera-glasses – all the while yobbishly belting out Bizet arias.

Bolt your doors, hide away your valuables. The Kleptomaniac Operagoers are in town.

Previous amusing (in fact, borderline terrifying) sightings:

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