Review of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New Paris

China Miéville

London: Picador, 2017

ISBN: 9-781509-841882

207 pp.

“Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations (Breton, 1934).”

By juxtaposing images in a way that bypasses normal thought processes, for example the man with an apple for a face, surrealism exposes the hypocrisy and contradictions of the bourgeois world. This has, clearly, revolutionary potential and Trotsky took an interest in the movement as part of a deeper commitment to art. Surrealists may have lacked engagement with the byproduct of colonialism that was the First World War but they clearly recognised the threat of Fascism and its apologists wherever they were to be found. Control of the present and the future, of course, involves control of the past. As Jameson (2014:25) explains: “Nor is surrealist agency – the unconscious – at stake here: but rather the repression or occultation of agency as such (we will see later on that the very temporality of capitalist production, along with market exchange, consists in the obliteration of the past.”

The role of the artist, therefore, incorporates the need to help other people understand the purpose and value of change and to promote, as Gramsci had it, the optimism of the will that improvements to the world can be made. Generally speaking, this is attempted through production and dissemination of various works of art but there are occasions on which the artist is called upon to become a person of action and a protagonist in the struggle. One such occasion was the defence of Paris against the approaching Nazi forces. Fighting in the streets might be all that was possible in our history but what if other possibilities existed What if, for example, a scientific-occult experiment were to occur that brought about a transformation of surrealism into a real life phenomenon that conjures up physical likenesses of manifs – manifestations of the conceptual made real. Great warriors arise, such as the exquisite corpse, which strike at the fascists and undermine their morale through demonstrating the failures of their ideology.

This is the basis of China Miéville’s new novella, which is set in the Paris of 1941 and the New Paris of 1950, in which the creatures of the S-Force continue to battle for control of the streets. They are faced by antithetical forces conjured by the Nazis, which consumer the manifs to bring forth hell-flesh monstrosities. They are joined in this by the manifestations of a certain Austrian water colourist’s vapid creatures, whose emptiness poses a threat to the city as a whole. Desperate measures are required to control both the past and the present so as to be able to hope for the future.

The text is presented as a representation of interviews given by a mysterious figure who may have been one of the central figures in the struggle and now wishes the truth – or at least his version of the truth – to be known to all. As the tale is told, a profusion of notable surrealist images come into play as part of the wider battle. These are tied into our normal understanding of the world by a series of endnotes, which have a scholarly quality to them. Miéville is a scholarly person and has demonstrated this elsewhere, not least with his retelling of the Russian revolution, October. Occult themes and the transformative powers of human emotions and actions have been present in much of his work, including masterpieces such as Perdido Street Station and The Scar. He continues that tradition here in a very readable tale that zips along at a rapid pace, despite the oddity of the surroundings:

“Here, the Palais Garnier, its stairs dinosaur bones. He squints. Le Chabanais, the walls of the great building dissolved, light glimmering through the resin that has set around suspended women and men and the opulence and billowing cloths and gilded fittings within. A vegetal puppet, stringy, composite floral thing with fleeting human face ooze-growing up boulevard Edgar Quintet (p.56).”

This is a terrific and fascinating work and one which, despite the slenderness of the text, nevertheless plays an important part in Miéville’s oeuvre. Readers who do not know his work but enjoy this book have a great deal of pleasure in front of them discovering the other books he has written.

References

Breton, Andre, “What Is Surrealism?” 1934, available at: www.generation-online.org/c/fcsurrealism2.htm.

Jameson, Fredric, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (London and New York, NY: Verso, 2014).

 

 

Advertisements

Border Economic Zones Linking China with Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam

Announcing: Walsh, John, “Border Economic Zones Linking China with Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam,” in Herlin Chien, ed., Southeast Asia: Beyond Borders and Boundaries (Kaohsiung: Wenzao Ursuline University Press, 2018), pp.128-42.

More details about the book may be found here.

Review of Brix Smith Start’s The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise

The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise

Brix Smith Start

London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2017

ISBN: 978-0-571-32506-1

XII + 461 pp.

It is a slightly curious thing that Brix Smith Start writes so much and so intensely of her family life while the three names she uses are all exonymous in that they were conferred on her through adult relationships she had established. She was born Laura Elisse Salenger in Los Angeles in 1962. Her glamour, blondeness, Jewishness all seem far removed from her career with The Fall and her quite short marriage to the group’s central figure Mark E. Smith (who seems to have had a complex and possibly contradictory relationship with Germany, the Second World War and Jewish people – at one stage a second female member of the band, keyboard player Marcia Schofield, who was tall and striking and also Jewish and Brix writes of Smith’s fascination with both of them). Yet despite all the other things she has done in her life (she is only two years older than me so I hope she may have many more productive years in front of her), it is her time with The Fall that seems to be central to most readers’ interest and is certainly paced centrally in this autobiography. It is not always an easy story to read and it was not, presumably, a very easy story to tell. She concludes her acknowledgements with “This book was written in bed(s) (p.461)” and given her self-reported issues with mental health it is not difficult to imagine that tears and sighs accompanied the words as they were forced out of her memory.

There are three principal sections: before The Fall, The Fall, after The Fall (and a return). The first and final sections are enlivened by the presence of animals, who bring cheer and emotional support to Brix. It is difficult to imagine MES taking care of any kind of animal successfully but there is a cat, Frau, which she is able to look after and which urinates on the Smith microphone, perhaps in wordless feline sympathy. Other cats had been introduced by former girlfriend Kay Carroll. He seemed to have been oblivious to them but they did survive – as I have written elsewhere, the City Hobgoblin persona was not the only aspect to his character.

As the daughter of a noted West Coast psychotherapist of some sort and a mother who had been a model, worked in a brokerage and then as a researcher for CBS, when she bought a convertible Porsche for her personal use, it is clear that the young Laura had many advantages in life and a form of Californian social capital that in many cases acts as the basis of confidence and happiness. Unfortunately, Laura is troubled – her father is described as abusive on an emotional level (it is not clear to me exactly what he has done that is so bad but she is quite firm on this) and, like many people who go to secondary school in the USA, she seems to have found it difficult to establish her identity and role in society. Important features in her life include Disneyworld, music and a willingness to experiment with drugs of various sorts. Her musical tastes bring her the nickname Brix, after the Clash song The Guns of Brixton. There are some exciting interludes and some dangerous ones. She suffers physical abuse and is raped. The mental health issues might be related to this period, although it is always problematic to assign cause and effect in such cases. She speaks several times of the anorexia that she experiences as a means of trying to control at least one aspect of her body. However, she dates her relationship with bulimia to when she was four years old.

Act 2 is ushered in when she is introduced to the music of The Fall (Slags, Slates seems to have been her favourite LP, well EP) and then meets MES in a night club. She was apparently almost immediately smitten with him and soon she is moving to sunny Manchester to be his wife – to outraged protestations from various family members. She was very young when the name Smith became appended to the Brix.

After six weeks, Brix flies to the UK, knowing very little about it: “I never expected Manchester to be so grim. Glowering, Victorian red-brick buildings lined the sides of the streets. They looked like mean structures, where horrible atrocities had been committed in decades past. The sky was toxic: heavy, with ominous grey clouds. The few people I saw, as we rode in the back of the taxi from Piccadilly train station to Prestwich, seemed joyless. Nobody smiled (pp.167-8).” She goes on to observe: “I didn’t expect Mark to be so poor. Once I got past the cats and got a good look at the flat, I was shocked (p.169).” It was all a long way from the LA sunshine. Nonetheless, she does her best to brighten up the world by inserting poppy guitar riffs and upbeat backing vocals into some Fall songs and persuading MES to record music which people could actually understand the words. There is a measure of commercial success and the band briefly wears designer clothes. The creative process, though, was subject to the drink and drug-fuelled mood swings of MES and his desire to maintain a tyrannical grip over the nature and direction of the group and its music. Brix goes through the various LPs on which she worked and takes the understandable but perhaps flawed approach that the more she appears on a record, the better the record is. We now know how all of this ends: Smith behaves increasingly badly, other women are involved and he breaks up with her. Heartbreak and depression follow.

The third act follows Brix and her reinvention, eventually, as a remarried woman (hence the Start part of her name) via somewhat manic episodes with punk violin star Nigel Kennedy (whose opinions of her musical ability would be interesting to read) and her fashion retail empire and then appearances with Gok Wan on the television (I remember the first time I saw the programme on an Asian Food and Lifestyle channel unexpectedly. I had no idea). There is a lot more along the way – indeed, reviewing the book for this piece, I was surprised how long and important both the first and third sections were, which is perhaps a symptom of my own bias. However, I was only interested in the book because of Brix’s life with The Fall and others with the same interest will find many fascinating details and insights here.

 

Review of Simon Wolstonecroft’s You Can Drum but You Can’t Hide

You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide

Simon Wolstonecroft

Pontefract: Route, 2017

ISBN: 9-781901927696

280 pp.

“I’ve heard Mark likened to the late football manager Brian Clough. I discovered that Mark was an admirer and could see similarities in their man-management style. They both wanted to be very hands-on with their players and didn’t suffer fools gladly. If Mark saw potential in a ‘new signing’ and actually liked you, he would encourage you to develop your style. In my case he kept telling me to keep the beat simple and to keep drum rolls to a bare minimum (p.91).”

In various ways, this passage encapsulates the story of Simon Wolstonecroft, one of the great survivors of The Fall, whose vocalist Mark E. Smith managed to keep up a relentless change of personnel in what he considered to be his band. By keeping the beat simple and therefore not attracting too much of Smith’s attention of fuelling displeasure by appearing to seek the limelight, he lasted for a decade with the band and seems to have escaped with his mental health more or less intact. Along the way, he has been able to tour Europe, Japan, Australia, America and other places that might otherwise have been beyond the reach of the son of a GP who lacked aptitude for academic studies and a knack of getting into dodgy situations. Funky Si – that is how he would have liked to have played if he had had the choice – may be seen as a fortunate survivor.

However, there is another way he might have told his story. As a boyhood friend of both Johnny Marr and Ian Brown, he was only a drumstick’s breadth away from playing either with The Smiths or The Stone Roses, which would have been likely to lead to international superstardom and all the privileges that rank implies. Instead, he drummed for The Fall with all of the psychodrama involved with that.

“After receiving instructions from Mark over the phone from a hotel near Seattle airport, the tour manager was thrown off the bus in the middle of downtown by Steve (bassist Hanley) and Karl (percussionist Burns). He cut a sad figure as he trudged off to catch a bus back to his native Boston.

With a complete lack of management and crew, Steve was asked to take control of the tour. But it had been chaos.

Worse, the gigs were only half-full, if we were lucky (p.193).”

Given a half-serious offer from Noel Gallagher, when Oasis were also going through a period of turmoil, it is not surprising that Wolstonecroft occasionally questioned whether he had been making the right choices. He was certainly bold in his willingness to experiment with drugs, as the saying has it. There are brushes with the police and lost nights out. His marriage ends badly and he is left with very little: “Memory is a fickle thing. I’m 50 now at the time of writing and even if I had a good memory, a lot of these stories happened when I as as high as a kite (p.265).” Perhaps this is one reason why his recollections can seem a little trite and his personal philosophy occasionally veers into David Brent territory. Yet how many interesting drummers are there in the world, especially in the world of rock’n’roll? The traditional role of the drummer is to be slightly out of control, producing a terrible racket at the centre of the band that is inspired by otherwise unreleased creative energy. That is the role played in The Fall by Karl Burns, who was in and out of the band several times during his career and with whom Wolstonecroft necessarily had a somewhat ambivalent attitude. Karl Burns liked to blow things up – there is a story of a barbecue in Smith’s garden which began with an explosion because of the over-enthusiastic application of petrol and concludes with MES having some kind of seizure and having to be taken away by ambulance. Had Funky Si explored his funkiness musically more extensively would it have helped to develop his own inner self? This is not necessarily the case since Burns seems incapable of living within human society and his whereabouts have been a mystery for a number of years.

One wonders what Wolstonecroft will do with the rest of his life. Being a member of The Fall never did pay very well and there is evidence to suggest that MES kept more than his fair share of what was generated. A number of personal relationships seem to resemble burnt bridges, although some might be repaired in time. He ends on a cheerful note, mentioning his daughter, his new girlfriend and his ongoing interest in making music still. His attitude is positive: “Today, I’ve never been busier. I feel happier than ever and appreciate the life I have led. I’m not proud of the drug abuse and the affairs, but what has happened has happened. I’m fortunate, in some ways, to be alive, considering some of my earlier lifestyle choices (p.277).” I’m pleased to have read this book but I wonder whether its appeal might be a little limited to those have not been fans of The Fall.

 

Review of Dave Simpson’s The Fallen

51D0HjzzR3L._AC_US327_QL65_

The Fallen: Life in and out of Britain’s Most Insane Group

Dave Simpson

Edinburgh and London: Canongate, 2009

ISBN: 9-781847-671448

323 pp

In a slightly manic attempt to interview all the former members of The Fall, Dave Simpson of The Guardian spent from 2005-7 chasing around the country in his car, apparently risking his mental health as well as his marriage. He lists 50 such people and a few others who managed to evade him, including the almost legendary drummer Karl Burns (I was at the Top Rank in Reading when the band, supported by The Birthday Party and an outfit from Iceland whose name escapes me, were at the beginning of the double drums line-up). It seems to be a somewhat quixotic thing to do: the later Mark E. Smith, vocal vocalist until his recently untimely death, once claimed, ‘if it’s me and yer grannie on bongos, it’s The Fall.’ He certainly went through periods of treating band members as the musical equivalent of factory hands, to be hired and dismissed as and when the need arose. His arbitrary decisions as to who was to be accorded credit for writing songs is another sign of the tyrannical reign of a man who would claim credit for himself while being unable to play a single note on any instrument (apart from the toy violin used as the basis for ‘Who Makes the Nazis?’). The banfd itself was kept on a relentless schedule of touring and recording, both of which could be derailed by Smith himself as his behaviour became more erratic and his belief in his own superior understanding of music led to him throwing out weeks of detailed recording work in order to use low-fi demo tracks instead, in the same way he would fiddle with the amplifiers and equipment during live gigs. Does it matter who was involved along the way?

Of course it matters. Anyone who has been enchanted with the work of The fall in any of their various manifestations will, surely, want to know more about what it was like to be part of the group, how the music was made, what were the relationships between the various members and so forth. To a considerable extent, Simson has achieved this, despite the fact that the great range of people involved means that none of them will be dealt with at any length and, also, despite the fact that (for the readers, at least) the most important and interesting aspect of their lives was their relationship with a central figure who is effectively absent from the action. Fall fans will know the intensity of the early music, which brightened with the arrival of Brix Smith when the group achieved a modicum of mainstream success, although nearly always with the cover songs they disdained in the early years. After their divorce, the band changed direction and Smith’s drinking, always extensive, reached a new level as the appetite for whisky which flowered during his sojourn in Edinburgh, took a firmer grip. Is this what really happened? “From the outside, with Brix gone and The Fall making more and more non-commercial music once again, it seemed as if Smith had almost deliberately sabotaged his own success, as if he’d started to fear that too much was beyond his control, or that existing in the ultra-mainstream wasn’t very Fall … live reviews of the period comment less humourously on Smith’s condition, noting how he was suddenly looking aged and was often visibly drunk while performing (pp.193-5).” Smith, of course, passed up on the opportunity to provide real context on this period in his autobiography, Renegade, which is often hilarious and scabrous but not always long on self-awareness.

So much for what The Fallen is not; what is it? It is as good an exploration of what it was like to be in The Fall as might be wished. Most commonly, the experience is likened to a drink and drug-heavy cult. “Cults dictate what members wear and where they will sleep (including sleep deprivation techniques). From what I’ve heard so far of The Fall, they don’t sleep very much and Fall musicians almost universally have short hair and basic, functional clothing (p.166).” Most members of the Fallen also retain a devotion to the cult leader that seems difficult to explain, not least by Brix herself, whom he seems to have treated very badly. She speaks of him as a poet and, less persuasively, of having psychic powers such as precognition, while also being a challenging colleague: “She claims he was ‘never, ever sober. He was irrational and scary and almost impossible to work with. When you’re young you can metabolise it and keep [the lifestyle] under control, but it got out of hand (p.154).’” She herself managed to escape and recreate herself, first with the help of punk violin star Nigel Kennedy and then with her third husband and reinvention as a fashion star and pundit.

Others have retained a measure of their younger selves, despite apparent reinvention. An important early figure was Kay Carroll, who helped forge the dictatorial nature of being part of the band:

“I track down Kay Carroll – now married and surnamed Bateman – to Portland. Oregon, where she’s working as a doctor’s assistant. Even with several thousand miles’ distance, I get an immediate sense of the character who so ‘terrified’ the Hanleys [i.e. bassist Steve and drummer Paul] when she emails to ask if I’m ‘a stalker.’ Credentials suitably established, she breaks several decades of near silence to mail me an hour of taped Mancunian vitriol (p.75).”

These episodes are a delight and fascinating in what they reveal about the music and they ways the songs were written and played. Now that the band no longer exists (although it is rumoured that there is one more LP to be released and no doubt previously unreleased and perhaps not very good footage is yet to be discovered), it seems to be a suitable moment at which to celebrate its achievements. This is a book that will help with that.

 

Review of Mark E. Smith’s Renegade

51Zs4p2arDL._AC_US327_QL65_

Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings

London: Penguin Books, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-141-02866-8

X + 240 pp.

“To certain people you’ve got yo be a bit poetic, or a bit aggressive. They have their image of you – and I play up to it. But it’s a protection, a screen. I can pull it out when I need it, because with some people you do need it (p.71).”

I avoided reading this book for some years, at least in part because I didn’t want to get too close to the City Hobgoblin persona that Smith was fond of portraying and, also, because I rather drifted away from The Fall and from most music for a number of years. When I returned to it, all the musicians were different and there was not the same sense of connection – no Steve Hanley? Where is Karl Burns? Craig Scanlon? Not even a Brix?

However, with the illness and death of the great man earlier this year, I realised it was time for me to get to grips with The Fall overall and not just my relationship to the group (of almost 40 years). I started with Hanley’s The Big Midweek (which is reviewed elsewhere on this site) and others will follow (I have three to hand as I write this). The front cover of Renegade is also slightly off-putting – there is Smith, stagily pouring beer from a bottle into a glass and looking rather haggard. We now know, of course, that he had been struggling with cancer for some years but it is also true that the later years marked a quite rapid decline both in his writing and also, apparently, in his behaviour: he ended up after all in prison in the USA and could have been banged up for quite some time had events fallen out differently. This episode is not fully explained here (in fact, almost nothing of a factual nature is explained satisfactorily throughout the whole book) but there is evidence from elsewhere that sheds some more light on the issue. Smith claims that he was on the verge of being shipped off to Rikers Island, perhaps never to return (despite protesting his mostly innocence) but there is no independent verification of this.

It is not just his writing that went downhill – where once his writing had been dense, difficult, infuriatingly hard to make out but always enjoyable when it could be interpreted, later it degenerated in sophistication and content, with a number of songs seemingly taking revenge on band members or past lovers. The music itself became less interesting as Smith’s stature and endurance increased in relation to newer band members (and this relationship was reinforced structurally by the judicious choice of credits when it came to being paid) and he insisted on simplicity and control of the sound. This was made evident during gigs when he would wander around the stage, turning down amplifiers and dismantling the equipment. In part, this behaviour seemed to result from questionable lifestyle choices:

“At least you know where you are with booze. You drink two bottles of whisky and wake up in the morning, you know you’ve done something wrong, you know you won’t be doing it again. But experience tells you it’ll lift soon. And with liquor, if you drink any more, you’ll be dead. You can’t move. But with E you start seeing chickens on the road – I know I was (p.178).”

I was not a fan of the interference with the music – in the early period of his career when I was listening to The Fall quite intensively (Dragnet was my first LP), the voice and the lyrics were integral parts of a much bigger whole. Smith announced that if it were just him and ‘your granny on bongos,’ then it would still be The Fall. He then set out to prove this, often by sacking musicians when on tour and leaving them stranded in remote parts of the rural areas of other countries. It would only be when he contemplated performing on an otherwise empty stage that he would be obliged to reconsider.

All of these issues are extraneous to the merits of the book, of course, although they do indicate the reasons why I cannot approach the text in an objective and non-judgmental manner. So what is the text like? Well, it contains an extraordinary series of rants, with truth proving less attractive than a good line of invective. It is quite difficult to quote examples of this because of the relentless use of expletives, which I don’t particularly mind myself but do not want to include on this site. There are chapters about football (gone to hell in a handcart), other music (pretty much all rubbish) and various relationships (nearly everyone in the world is deficient in some way and has probably done him wrong behind his back at some stage). It is all very funny and plays well, as I said at the beginning, to his City Hobgoblin persona. Some of it may even be true. It was noticeable when the obituaries and discussion of his life was in full flight how fulsome in praise his various women were (brix, Elena, his sisters) about his chivalrous manners, his kindness and gentility. He had, I suppose, many sides to his character.

 

Review of Cixin Liu’s The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2017

ISBN: 9-781786-696717

447 pp.

Translated by Ken Liu, Elizabeth Hanlon, Zac Haluza, Adam Lanphier and Holger Nahm

Cixin Liu rose to prominence in the western world after publication of the translated trilogy which began with The Three Body Problem (each of which is reviewed elsewhere on this site). In those books, Liu showed his propensity to create science fiction on the very broadest of levels in terms of both time and space – in English, Stephen Baxter would be a writer often working on the same scale. Yet Liu’s vision is very bleak and he rarely permits the occasional breath of optimism that Baxter will allow from time to time. Instead, all ventures seem to lead to failure and the deaths of millions. Failure is often plucked from the jaws of a victory that a stroke of unexpected genius might just have achieved. The genius may not be named – in one of the stories in this collection of mostly earlier works, an unspecified ‘captain’ rises from the crowd to represent humanity in the endless and relentlessly unequal struggle against implacable alien enemies and the unforgiving physics of this universe. This is not a book or, indeed, an author for readers who are only satisfied by a happy ending.

Cixin Liu is partial to the examination of large-scale change in societies under conditions of  profound stress, such as the knowledge that an unstoppable death machine is approaching the Earth and will arrive to destroy it in a fixed period. He discusses societies n different forms of ‘depression’ as a result. It is tempting to consider this to be a form of Chinese characteristic that might also be present in some other East Asian states that exhibit Confucian influence. It is quite common for him to portray people behaving as part of a collective in a way that seems much less likely in  western work, which would tend to emphasise the more diverse forms of behaviour that individualism is thought to demonstrate. It is also difficult to imagine a western author describing characters who have just received an enormous trove of alien, far-future knowledge as rejoicing as this would mean Communism could be embedded in society permanently. However, this viewpoint does contribute to the critique of capitalism in its various forms that occasionally may be seen – particularly in the case of the Last Capitalist, who owns the entire world. It also means a certain lack of sensual detail, so that the deaths of millions in cosmic disasters take place without much in the way of sound and vision.

These are quite substantial pieces. There are ten stories in the 447 pages of text and most of them are composed of multiple episodes, which are used to advance the story on an often epic scale. In The Wandering Earth, for example, the title suggests it is not really a spoiler to reveal that as a result of another cosmic crisis the Earth is forcibly detached from its orbit around the Sun and sent off to seek its future as an independent body. There are various phases of the odyssey to consider and so each receives its own episode. The same structure displays the progress of an otherwise unexceptional man from a small village to becoming a spiderman (who clean the windows of large skyscrapers – presumably spiderwomen exist somewhere) and then on into space. These are stories that, in other words, depend on the ability of the intellectual content to engage the mind of the reader rather than in the characterisation or the language. This issue is exacerbated by the nature of the translation. There are five translators in all but the stories overall display a high level of consistency in terms of language that might be characterised as functional without being exciting. I cannot really think of a text written in Chinese that has been rendered into English in a dense and poetic manner and without footnotes and perhaps this is not the place to look for the first. Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating book which will please many readers of hard science fiction and those who are interested in thinking about what we might do if faced by the sudden appearance of hostile aliens wielding effortlessly superior technology.