Tom Towers Reads in April
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: Harlan Ellison
I was first exposed to Harlan Ellison in the fluorescent glow of public library lighting—perhaps: Not enough of the text was familiar for me to, in good conscience, claim to have read the whole compilation. But great swathes of text from individual stories were Statistically and Sensuously and Photographically recalled—more of some stories than others: More of stories I could not possibly have read recently, than of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream; which I have statistical recollection of having read and also physical, paper and ink evidence in the form of the dusty, pirated version of the story I originally read only decades (years) ago.
In this profane form, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was offensive to any and all sensibilities related to style and content. Although the work’s original typographical intentions—with AM’s Talkfields illustrated as ITA2 and instead of alphabetical text—but the blocky, double spaced paragraphs made the prose otherwise unappreciable. In this form, only the ending provided any shock: an anticlimax to accidentally amuse and outrage—the disturbing, powerful promise of the title reduced to a human aspic of comical description.
In this entirely inoffensive typographical setting (where one might even be seduced into imagining the font as Times No Roman—the sort of font that one has seen, but cannot place due to its inconspicuous, widespread use; in short: a powerfully unremarkable font perfect for prosaic fiction), the prose could breathe and reveal the exciting, original structural properties undulating within: Harlan Ellison not only presents himself with the purity of a child, but writes as one as well. Not only in I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but in all of the short stories contained within this collection: the structures follow along in malleable, beautiful abstractness the plots and the narrative devices of the stories which it composes. One may equally present such an exciting sensation in the reverse: the conventional plots and narrative devices are torn asunder under the weight of the structure in a beautiful, exquisite linguistic violence. Never is any thought given to the false properties of a three act structure, or the poetical numbering vulgarly transposed from meter to narrative description which dictates Western literary discussion in regards to technique. Here: the structure lives and breathes with the story, forming the one powerful, ugly block of momentum; or: if the narrative requires, breaking up the very passages into blocks of text in various unsymmetrical sizes and shapes.
It is beautiful, remarkable, and one cannot help but wonder how Harlan Ellison was ever published—for: he is a genuinely original (outside of the regularly unremarkable, subservient to genre-convention prose and plots), talented writer with a powerful vision that is illustrated within the unliteral confines of genre—that is to say: not bowing to convention, yet published within a canon that only exists through convention: If genre publishers were to publish works that did not follow the defined conventions of the genre, then they would—by definition—not be publishing genre writing; and thus cease to be a genre publisher.. And so they would cease to ostensibly exist.
In this context, the highly amusing and entertaining introduction that compares Harlan Ellison to William Blake is entirely correct: Harlan Ellison is a necessarily flawed visionary due to the age in which he lives (for him to be unflawed, then the public domain would have been forever denied his work); yet he is also of a rarer visionary quality than William Blake: for how many child visionaries survive into adulthood almost entirely unmolested?
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, however, is not the highlight in a collection that does not rely upon its title story as so many others do—but may as well not have even included it at all. The worst story is one of Harlan Ellison’s favourites (apparently: he introduces each story with an amusing anecdote or recollection; or context—usually gestalt or gonadial in nature): a conventional character study of a man who cannot cope with his impending divorce. And it’s entirely autobiographical, of course; as if that automatically gives it gravitas to anyone but the author himself. The prose wanders from the safe grounds of genre fiction into that of mainstream, and the results are ugly; yet I remember the conclusion as clearly as I re-read: it falters only in prose and cliché. The best story contained within is, by some margin, Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: the abstract construction is here illustrated also in the prose; as Harlan Ellison attempts to portray the chaos of a Las Vegas casino in literal, literary terms: sentences are therefore broken up so as to simulate movement (something which Australians do with exceptional ease: simply by writing it down) and—rather than successfully rendering chaos and sensory overload—this results in an intoxicating, beautiful synthesis between prose and structure. As a result: I remembered almost all of Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes verbatim.
The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus to Shore: Harlan Ellison
The truth is that I lied: it must not have been the above compilation I read, for small snippets of this also wandered out of the depths of my memory as I listened. And, even more shocking than the fact that Harlan Ellison was ever published, is that this story was included in the Best American Short Stories Anthology; a popular proponent and celebrator of mediocrity and horse bilge.
The prose is far more polished, constrained, and powerful than that of Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes; and its synthesis with the structure is not so constrictingly literal. This does not matter, for the narrative is composed in small snippets which leap from setting to setting; and thus complement the abstract, original, juvenile spirit of its author without the need for complementary prose: thus jet setting from motif to motif: from rape to revenge. Never does an adherence to genre convention constrain spirit here—instead, the inexplicable American obsession with ostentation combined with the simultaneous and deliberate avoidance of ever being misunderstood as pretentious, while somehow also projecting a contrived pretence of insincerity and jovial, blissfully ignorant and fatally sincere inferiority (the highest of possible pretensions), results in a synthesis between humour and narrative momentum and prose that is even more powerful than that of the symbiosis between the prose andthe structure of Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes. And thus Shagging Fungoes is a genuinely great short story; perhaps even a masterpiece of the form. And he didn’t even use the word “gestalt” once! The gonads were definitely engorged, though.
Mary Poppins Comes Back: P.L. Travers, illustrated by Mary Shepard.
Ms. Travers proves her claim here that the original Mary Poppins was not written for children by indulging in patronisation and condescension. Any character tick or trademark is here overtly and carefully repeated for the sake of the unintelligent child reader. Every indignation Mary Poppins expresses must be illustrated through the same physical actions (most usually her addiction to cocaine). The ugly way in which old characters are reintroduced is akin to fan fiction in its unsubtlety. And their performances are no less fan fictional in their constrained, meek illustration of themes from the first book.
But the new adventures, the new characters, and the asides making use of new allegories (the ode to instinct and ignorance in the form of Middle Ages brutality immediately brings to mind The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon in its royal bureaucracy; punishing the serfs upon whom the masters do rely) are almost as amusing and sharp as—at the very least—the worst stories from the first book (which were uniformly great). But it is not merely a question of new content, for the reused upside down tea party makes for just as effective a passage on romance as the original upside down tea party made for an effective passage of absurd philosophy. The sun dances melancholy.
Hergé and Tintin: Philippe Godin, my apologies to the translator whose name I did not record either mentally or physically—perhaps a mercy. (NOPE TRANSLATED BY Michael Farr)!
Suitably bad translations are just as fascinating as they are amusing. Although there are genuine moments of humour to be found within the ambling English of Hergé and Tintin, there are moments of poetic beauty, too. The strange physiological sensation of reading a sentence that appears to make sense upon light reading, but upon closer inspection is nonsensical and meaningless, excites the lungs; or a sentence which must be read several times to discover the literal meaning contained within the confused prose is as pleasant as it is parasitically foreign in nature. In this way one is more closely exposed to the inherent qualities and senses of a foreign language—without ever genuinely understanding the language itself, and thus through familiarity dismissing its beauties as common; or its idiotic idiosyncrasies and rules as grudging necessity. One may also just as easily understand English more intimately in this way, too: an insight into a language which one understands so naturally, but through the expression of someone who struggles to express oneself under the confusing confines of its crushing rules and powerful ennui.
Luckily the text is secondary to the pictures contained within; all of which are clearly and colourfully printed. Hergé’s early drawings demonstrate not only his genuine talent and incredible draughtsmanship, but also the main philosophical intention of the book: that Hergé is Tintin and Tintin is Hergé. Tintin is often popularly referred to as a relatively personality-less, populist analogue to the reader; but in reality he is an analogue to the author: all of his character comes from within his author—and yet all meaning from within the author is expressed through the world and narrative of Tintin. Therefore, if Tintin was in any way more overbearing when placed within a setting or the story, Hergé would be less present in the work. Tintin must be translucent for the sake of Hergé’s milieu and aesthetic oeuvre; not for the sake of the reader.
A passage somewhere in the middle of the book which pontificates in typical French verbosity upon the nature of myth, not only provides the most salient execution of the ongoing dialogue but also serves as a most interesting rumination upon the nature of the undeniable quality of great art through the comparison of fiction to the more mystical power of mythology; and then—in this context—describes Tintin as undeniably great art not because Tintin is beyond criticism; but because Tintin can only be criticised or lauded: thus to criticise Tintin is to consciously accept the conceit that Tintin is of a great artistic and cultural importance.
The political correctness with which Hergé’s personal life is treated is hardly surprising, but does make for a jarring narrative: his childhood is discussed in some detail and, so too, is his Nazi collaboration; yet his second wife, while appearing in the form of transposed interviews, receives barely any commentary—perhaps because she was originally Hergé’s mistress. But the abstract way in which Hergé’s personal life is treated herein thus creates a consistency in theme: contrasting Hergé’s nightmares of white with Tintin in Tibet, and by not discussing his bouts of depression in any detail beyond the abstract or irrelevant, only helps to further the idea that Tintin is Hergé and Hergé is Tintin through an imitation of the way in which Hergé treated his own struggles in his artistic work: both as translucent as the other; and thus one may understand that as much as Hergé is Tintin; Tintin is also Hergé.
The Red Sea Sharks, The Seven Crystal Balls, Prisoners of the Sun, King Ottokar’s Sceptre: Hergé
In the Mammoth edition of all the above books, the colour plates are not correctly aligned. This misprinting creates a fascinating effect; not dissimilar to the deliberate or accidental use of lens distortion in filmic photography to create a different sense or sensation when thus contrasting depths beyond the simple, literal juxtaposition of physical distance from the audience to the scene.
The verbose evolution of Hergé’s bureaucratic production techniques are amusing when contrasted against one another: the draughtsmanship and the composition are of equal quality across all books; yet the polish and realism vary drastically. One can’t help but wonder why Hergé didn’t simply do it all himself.
The Silver Sword: Ian Serraillier, illustrated by C. Walter Hodges
A strange concoction: structurally and spiritually written by a child; or perhaps by an author of fan fiction. The narrative events and devices are presented as mystically as within those styles (a coincidence is driven not merely by chance, but by God or magic or simply narrative necessity; and as such require no further justification); the prose is journalistic and entirely adult.
American sensibilities insidiously infect the historical setting: the school founded by one of the protagonist is not merely a way for her to cope, but a propagandised necessity to prove her virtue. The illustrations are oftentimes equally absurd: a “plump and comfortable looking” woman is illustrated as frigid and thin; with none of the maternal appeal important to her character.
Ultimately an offensive failure; but a noble one: adolescence in writing is rare, even in unpublished works, and here it is never restrained or inhibited; except for the journalistic prose which provides a highly amusing contrast so as to amplify the hilarious, irrelevant characterisation—unsuccessfully mixed with regular and failed attempts to illustrate characters through their actions.
The House on Mango Street: Sandra Cisneros
“Insidious, violating, disgusting,” my ******, an actual woman, said of this feminist profanity. I had read it before: I read it again to be sure; because the only extended passage I remembered verbatim was the advertising at the end of the book (but for the bad similes; my neurosis knows no bounds): so I had successfully removed this molestation from my mind. I can only hope I will succeed again. “Disturbing to think that it is part of curriculum,” my ******; “curricula,” my ******; then we argued about its merits as New Yorker trash.
The Very Pulse of the Machine: Michael Swanwick
Some mildly successful descriptive prose does not redeem the abysmal characterisation through exposition; and the jargon does not convince one of intellect.
The Vane Sisters: Vladimir Nabokov
Notable not for the gimmick that the editors of the New Yorker did not perceive upon first reading; but because the editors of the New Yorkers did not perceive it upon first reading. Thus, to save face, they were forced into publishing it.
Tonoharu: Lars Martinson
A true story demands empathy. The introduction demands empathy through realistic banality, not through prose or its own inherent quality. Empathy here is actually sympathy: through empathy the reader is rendered as vacuous as the work: through sympathy the author is sucked via vacuum into the work.
Due to being a more literal media than literature, this does not matter. After one has survived the offensively cowardly opening passages, then the banality becomes engaging and dull: decently draughted but incompetently composed artwork becomes arousing. Piracy would lead me to read the next instalment.
Wild Cat Falling: Mudrooroo
A strange Australian approximation of American literary and popular prose that partly succeeds as a mediocre imitation. The strange feeling of empathy that impoverished aborigines have with black Americans is also apparent—the protagonist is a Bodgie appreciator of jazz and, as if due to his pigment, his body is closer to that of the sinuous African stereotype, than that of the fat, corned beef-fed Islander. A fantasy which is also falsely projected by the white characters: in reality the exotic quality of a genuine aborigine is even more powerful than that of a black American because—unlike an ostentatious black American—a genuine aborigine is still a victim of persistent genocide; while a black American never was. Something aborigines might but do well to consider when they apply foreign narratives of oppression to their own: so diminishing the atrocities which they have suffered in a misguided attempt to empower themselves with the success of an oppressed people who have never faced such powerful adversities as they themselves have. The impoverished destroy themselves utterly before any genocidal force may proclaim their victory.
A final dalliance with the countryside and a return to aboriginal sensuality demonstrate a strange element of the Australian artistic character: inherent aboriginality regardless of the author’s familial history. The mediocre or bad prose of the rest of the book is here—in the country—exceptional: the ideals of the American Gothic author who attempts—and generally fails—to create a consistency between emotion and setting; and the fantasy of the naturalist or realist poet who can render with incomparable fidelity or beauty the inhuman world (and by this very distinction can only ever conceive an incomplete reconstruction: through the aboriginality of an Australian author, humanity and setting are one; and nature itself is therefore undeniably a slave of one’s own physiology: and one’s own physiology is undeniably a slave of the natural world; yet this distinction does not exist in reality: thus the intangible quality of the urban scenes where the environment is built to create a foreign, unnatural and imagined distinction—even reinforced by reinforced concrete: it can never tangibly or actually exist) are achieved with consummate ease.
Sign of the Green Arrow: Roy J. Snell
Upon being rescued from almost certain death in the depths of the ocean, the (old enough to go to college) protagonist, Johnny Thompson, celebrates with his Freudian maternal love interest and his adult friends by imbuing lemonade and consuming marshmallows at a celebratory (off-page) banquet.
Sign of the Green Arrow is a sumptuously saccharine boy’s own adventure featuring some exceptional examples of genre-specific and descriptive prose. Natives are fetishised and condescended in equal measure; and an unspecific European menace lurks as shadow or bright, ghostly projection in the jungle.
The American sensibilities are completed with a complete lack of suspense or any sense of momentum; and an ending which involves the inevitability of college. It’s impressively crafted, and impossible to dislike. It is simply fun.
Intimacy: Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Lloyd Alexander
A collection of short stories elsewhere titled The Wall, or the Room—(or perhaps any short story contained within). The former of which is a relatively unremarkable punchline, and the latter of which is a sensuous, intoxicating rebellion. Sartre’s prose is almost at its best in The Room—so moving with a great sense of ease and confidence from perspective to perspective; and from description to internal thought; and then on to internal or external monologue or dialogue. With a modern eye, one might disregard Sartre’s vision and in its place project Dr. Who’s Weeping Angels to humorous effect: Je me révolte donc j’existe, after all—excuse me; but they’re all bourgeois, aren’t they? And the richly, thickly, moistly fondanted, salty, savoury sponge cake flavour and texture is satisfying on the tongue; and springy and strong between the chewing teeth of the mouthing mouth; or the reading mind—quite delicious.
The Childhood of a Future Leader flirts with genuine greatness. The only flaw is the opening passages depicting the titular leader as a young child; the characterisation is unconvincing: at best the depiction is shallow and clichéd and stereotypical; and at worst little more than a caricature. The intellectual inner monologues of the child are written in a powerful aesthetic consistency with those of the teenager—and therein lurks the problem. Unless we are to believe that the titular’s leader’s brain did not develop—and in a way it did not; and in way that is the point: but an even more talented writer would have handled this duality without jarring the intellect and the senses of the sensitive reader.
Post-early childhood, The Childhood of a Future Leader begins to build an irresistible, rhythmic momentum that ends with a powerfully amusing and adroit description of social status: leaders demand rights—not: leaders are those who inherently deserve rights. Unlike the protagonist of no social status or distinction in Erostratus who does demand his rights as a human being; and who neither receives them from humanity, nor is capable of dignifying and justifying himself, the future leader merely needs to reach the epiphany that these are rights he has always had; and will always have; and thus are, in fact, through social status inherent—natural selection in the social consciousness.
The Fall: Albert Camus
Fifty years after Guy de Maupassant, and French literature still lives through the physiological: the body is not merely sensuous, but the entirety of human experience is: thus the internal and the external are filtered alike through the nervous system: the happy are vital and strong; the anxious physically sick and hallucinating.
And I felt sick while reading The Fall (—and perhaps I was hallucinating?): long passages were vomited hotly out of my memory: mostly the places and expositions; and not the prose; and a vague sense of paper and cardboard, but more likely this was an aesthetic coincidence—the prose is cardboard to the physical touch, and smells very much of dusty libraries expunged of all their unnatural perfumes or impressions of freshly boiled linoleum flooring; or the odours of those who inhabit them. But the ending was wholly unfamiliar; so: skimmed on the internet? Thus a system has been conceived—reality will be revealed.
Alva Boyle: Teller (of Penn fame?)
The chronological placement of this short story is unclear. The mediocrity is crystal. A successful parody of punchline schlock. An unsuccessful example of it.
The Shooting Man: Kevin [unfortunately not Bloody] Wilson [or A.M. Lewis]
The unlikeable sort of story that one can only describe in traditional terms: noise factory flicks pennies at the heads of any number of other meaningless mediocrities, who provide a perfect analogue for the predictable; inoffensive ending.
The unlikeable sort of story that raises only traditional questions: why didn’t you just fucking go to the show by yourself you fucking cunt of a man? Jesus Christ. Do you have to do every-fucking-little-thing with your girlfriend, you utter dipshite? Do you change her tampons, too? And the language is entirely justified.
Kevin Wilson does not exist: his legacy is his children, who are probably perfect analogues of Kevin Wilson: and thus Kevin Wilson’s children do not exist: and thus Kevin Wilson does not exist. The Shooting Man is merely a photograph of this perpetual state of non-existence, in which humanity is forced to unexist. Kevin Wilson does not exist: his legacy is his children, who are probably perfect analogues of Kevin Wilson: and thus Kevin Wilson’s children do not exist: and thus Kevin Wilson does not exist. R.I.P. Kevin Wilson.
Where We Must Be: Laura van den Berg
An instructional manual for unscrupulous literary reviews reviewing Where We Must Be by the copywriter Laura van den Berg. The overwrought Bigfoot symbolism is carefully explained via inner monologue, so that any reviewer already has the basis for his review written: “Laura van den Berg powerfully contrasts the loneliness of Bigfoot with that of her protagonist.” Allow me to introduce you to the Tom Towers literary scale: a normal ten point scale is not enough. Literature requires more accuracy, and thus we must go deeper than a mere ten points of varying distinction! As such it is necessary that the scale includes thirty points of distinction: -20 being the worst score any work may receive, and 10 being the best. On this scale The House on Mango Street receives a -20 because there is some faint sensation of talent and vision, and Where We Must Be receives no score whatsoever because, much like Kevin Wilson, it does not exist; even if the writer is more talented (but significantly less skilled) than Sandra Cisneros. And because Advertising and propaganda are both immaterial; unless they are tangibly produced within the context of an inherent medium. Literature exists only through abstract representation. As a technical guide on how to review itself, Where We Must Be would receives a 5/10. 5/10 meaning the same thing as elsewhere: mediocrity. The 5 to -20 are the depths to which literature can plunge; 6 to 10 the narrow vein of success.
A post-postmodern aside related to the above: “Your’e not jane austen, shut the fuck up and stick to your bigfoot bullshit; atthough your dialogue is even worse than Jane Austen, so you have that going for you. Fuck me.” Unedited.
An unrelated blooper: does not rely upon its title story as so many otters do