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Archive for August, 2010

Namely, Brobdingnag.

The nurse, to quiet her babe, made use of a rattle, which was a kind of hollow vessel filled with great stones, and fastned by a cable to the child’s waist: but all in vain, so that she was forced to apply the last remedy by giving it suck. I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six foot, and could not be less than sixteen in in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug so varified with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous: for I had a near sight of her, she sitting down the more conveniently to give suck, and I standing on the table. This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen, but through a magnifying glass, where we find by experiment, that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured.

Source: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Voyage to Brobdingnag’, Chapter I.

That which gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honour, when my nurse carried me to visit them, was to see them use me without any manner of ceremony, like a creature who had no sort of consequence. For, they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their toylet directly before their naked bodies: which, I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other motions that those of horror and disgust. Their skins appeared so coarse and uneaven, so variously coloured when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than pack-threads; to say nothing further concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at all scruple while I was by, to discharge what they had drunk, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a vessel that held above three tuns. The handsomest among these maids of honour, a pleasant frolicksome girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples; with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular.

Source: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Voyage to Brobdingnag’, Chapter V.

Earlier in the book, in ‘A Voyage to Lilliput’, the narrator describes how he voided his bowels for the first time since washing ashore and the Lilliputians carted his effluence away in wheelbarrows; later, Gulliver puts out a fire at the Emperor’s palace with his own, personal, built-in fire hose. In addition to the very accessible style of writing, this somewhat puerile interest in bodies and bodily functions has made reading the book quite a pleasure.

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A strange book. A short one, too. The first ten or so chapters are set out as individual, spaced paragraphs, each one starting with a bold title in line with the text. These paragraphs are linked, but they don’t read like the consecutive paragraphs of a conventional story. Each contains an idea or a scene. Each chapter functions (or is supposed to function) as a separate novel – but these novels are linked. They are about the same characters with the same preoccupations. One character, although he is the same throughout, changes name from chapter to chapter – Traven, Travers, Travis etc. The chapters, therefore, are very repetitive; they are modulations of the same idea. The last few chapters vary this form, but not by too much.

The subject of the book is at once extremely specific, yet disturbingly ambiguous. It is about the deaths of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others, it is about fatal car accidents, it is about sex, it is about the media. There is a lot of sex in this book – but there isn’t. Sex and death are presented, interpreted, recreated in the form of auto-crashes, in collections of photographs and other documents, in the angles of stairs and walls.

Where it works best, the book is about the maniacal and surreal investigations of Traven and his alter egos into the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe – and his own wife. He does this by staging their conceptual re-deaths; simulating – or perhaps achieving – the death of a female character. He is endlessly searching for meaning in the angle of a woman’s thighs, in the wrecks of American cars. These first ten or so chapters are a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown. His story is like a mirror, smashed and then inexpertly pieced back together.

The remaining few chapters don’t add much to this story (such as it is). One is entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Raegan’ and describes the politician’s rabidly reactionary views spoken in his friendly, reassuring voice – a voice that deafens listeners to his meaning. Another later chapter portrays the assassination of President Kennedy as a motor race.

The copy I read (which I bought at a branch of Fopp for the pleasingly small sum of £3 a few years ago while at university) was padded out somewhat with annotation written by Ballard for a 1993 edition. Each chapter concludes with notes on the author’s inspiration and memories relating to the content of the text. He talks a little about his experience as a child in war-time China, its liberation by the Americans, his love of things American, his wife who – like the main character’s – died. These notes are a little distracting, but for the most part are interesting and provide a much needed context for the book. There is also an introduction written by William Burroughs.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages of War and Peace.

These words, written in the late 1960s, are scarily prophetic – just think of Basic Instinct. While The Atrocity Exhibition is bizarre, surreal, difficult, obscene, the above quote highlights the seriousness of its intent. It’s a satire of the fragmentation, mechanisation, sexualisation, trivialisation of modern society.

I’ve read a few J G Ballard books, and this is the first one I’ve read since his death a year or two ago. His earlier ones, like this, are not easy to read; his later ones, while taking similar topics, are much more conventional narratives. I think, with the benefit of greater age and maturity, I’m better able to appreciate works like The Atrocity Exhibition. Which isn’t to say I loved this book; I respect it greatly, but it is, nevertheless – by its very nature – cold and alienating.

What has always most intrigued me about Ballard is his interpretation of and position within the science fiction genre. As he wrote in his introduction to Crash – a novel that this one closly prefigures – he is not interested in the science fiction of outer space – laser guns and spaceships and the like – but in the science fiction of inner space – man’s relationship to techology and its effects. The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates that interest in ways that are both crude and subtle.

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Ade Edmondson was interviewed by Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction on Friday (the format of the show is that one comedian interviews another and one week’s interviewee becomes the following week’s interviewer). He talked about his retirement from comedy towards the end:

You’ll think, I’m stuck. Do I have to constantly be this funny man? It’s a very big pressure to put on yourself. I equate it to, you know, I really like caviar. If you’re forced to eat caviar every day for 28 years, you’ll probably want something else – and that’s the same with comedy, I think, in the end. You really work at it and it takes up every ounce of your being and you have to think about it, you have to really concentrate all that time and constantly be trying to turn everything you ever hear into a gag. In the end, what are you doing? It’s weird. I just kind of lost the bug for that.

Lee Mack replied:

I know what you mean. A comedian once said to me, the problem with comedy is you can’t watch a sunset without trying to think of a joke about it. And I remember thinking for about the two minutes after that, I bet I could think of a joke about the sunset.

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US anchorman Keith Olbermann presents an essay on the controversy over the planned ‘mosque’ (it isn’t a mosque) ‘on’ (it’s a few blocks away from) the site World Trade Center in New York. His words are incredibly potent and percipient, and highlight the danger of the world’s most powerful nation turning into the kind of state it has taken up a crusade against.

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I just learnt, listening to the ‘Friday Boss’ segment of the Today programme, that the iconic British chocolate bar, the Mars Bar, was reduced in size a couple of years ago. The Mars company made out initially (some time after the change happened) that it was an attempt to combat obesity, but later admitted they were cutting costs. This isn’t an unusual phenomenon – especially in recession-struck times – and has been referred to as the Grocery Shrink Ray.

The Mars Bar wasn’t named after the planet, as you might suppose, but after Forrest Mars – son of an American confectioner, Frank Mars. Mars junior set up production in Slough in 1932 and based the bar on the America Milky Way bar (which is not the same as the British Milky Way).

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On the subject of books, this autumn looks like being a great season for book releases from some of my favourite authors. In addition to Against All Things Ending (see below), there’s Towers of Midnight (book 13 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson,

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin,

and I just found out that there’s a new Iain M Banks book coming out – a Culture novel, no less – called Surface Detail:

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I asked Stephen R Donaldson this question:

You’ve answered a couple of questions lately about the cover art of the upcoming US edition of Against All Things Ending, but I was wondering what your thoughts on the UK edition were. It seems to me it’s not as mysterious as the previous two – it’s too clean – almost happy. But I do like the continuation of the elemental theme – forest, mountain, sea. And I much prefer the less representative, more oblique approach of the UK covers.

What do you think?

He answered:

In general, I prefer the UK approach rather than the US one. And in general, I don’t think that the UK “Against All Things Ending” is up to the standard of the previous two books. But have you seen the “revised” UK cover? I’m told that the unrevised version (before both my agent and I screamed) is still floating around on the web somewhere. It makes the book look like a box of laundry detergent. By *that* standard, the revised cover is a huge improvement.

I’d only seen one UK edition cover – the blue one:

I think the laundry detergent cover he referred to was this:

For comparison, the US edition looks like this:

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