Kehlmann’s Booker shortlisted novel, first published in German in 2017 and released in a supple translation by Ross Benjamin in 2020, brings to life a mercurial figure of German folklore and history, the legendary jester, Tyll Ulenspiegel, whose picaresque exploits were first recorded in a chapbook from 1515. Here, the author skips a century to relocate the ‘eternal fool’ into a particularly unpleasant chapter of European history. Set primarily against the bleak and bloody backdrop of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Kehlmann’s tale transposes elements of the oral traditions of storytelling, balladry, and folklore onto the squalid realism of historicity. The author seems to channel the Hermes-like trickster-thief-magician qualities of the titular character in the way he deftly adopts and changes viewpoints and timelines. This structural boldness and mastery of the form, along with the ability to render scenes of scintillating wit, tension, and psychological acuity, shows Kehlmann as a master able to juggle and dance with the materials at hand in breathtaking ways. We first meet Tyll in his mockingly cruel prime, able to enchant and manipulate a village into violence. Death sweeps in with that first chapter, and his dark presence remains throughout the narrative – a perpetual memento mori. No one and nothing is safe from his sickle and the vicissitudes of fate’s wheel. Each vignette unfolds like a tarot spread, populated by the stark imagery of the major arcana: The Fool, The Magician, Death, The Devil, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hanged Man, The Empress, and so forth. The (mainly) 17th Century could almost be timeless, like some Secondary World fantasy, but then the fog clears and the mise-en-scène focalizes into thoroughly-researched specificity. Tyll’s particular character – misanthropic, amoral, mocking, or shattered by circumstance into nihilism and laughing at the cruel joke of the world – is pathologized as we discover his devastating backstory. Forged by happenstance and tragedy, it is possible to understand the way he turned out, even if he remains, until the very end of the novel, quixotic, unpredictable, and completely liberated from the stifling, ridiculous rules and conventions of community, society, and court. Like some perverted version of a Grail knight, Tyll has seen through the veil of the world – but instead of returning with the cup to heal the wasteland, he instead uses his darkly awakened perception to cock a snook at one and all. He provides a mirror to people’s vanity and foolishness, and releases the truth of the situation like poison from a wound. As an antihero he is a formidable, unforgettable presence, and reminds me of John Gardner’s Grendel, with elements of Alan Garner’s Guizer thrown into the mix. When Tyll is in the frame the narrative crackles with energy, but I must admit to being less enamoured by the protracted sections from the point of view of the unfortunate exiled ‘king’ of Bohemia and his English wife, Elizabeth Stuart. These sections, however exhaustively researched and well-dramatised, tended to drag for me. It felt like Kehlmann was trying to do a Mantel, especially with the extended final section, which lingered on court etiquette and politics rather too long. The sections following the insufferably conceited scholar Athanasius Kircher are a bit more engaging (and more connected to the title character’s story arc), but in any of these digressions it is only when Tyll appears that things electrify again. Their breadth and depth show Kehlmann’s skill and ambition – collectively, they build up to an unflinching, atomised portrait of a broken Europe – but in comparison to the sheer brilliance of the Tyll sections they struggle to shine. In any other novel they would work perfectly well, but here they feel outclassed. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable romp of a novel, and the character of Tyll leaps off the page as a mesmerising embodiment of the zeitgeist.
Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.
Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.
Is free speech a universal and incontestable right, or does it come with necessary conditions and responsibilities?
Should we be able to say what we want, when we want, to whom we want? Or should there be restrictions on such freedoms? Should free speech stay free? Yes, you might instinctively cry. But consider how we live in a complex world where, certainly within our own countries we are bound by an intricate network of rules, regulations, and etiquette. However much we may rail against some curbs on our liberty, this is part of living in any civilised society, and of the modern world. Take the current lockdown, for instance. Imagine if we chose to ignore it – apart from putting our own liberty at risk (you may end up in jail, or certainly receive a heavy fine), you are putting at risk anyone you come in to contact with, and then that risk is passed onto to anyone in your bubble. It would be unconscionable to do so, and fortunately, most people agree (excluding the odd exception who feel the law doesn’t apply to them, e.g., Dominic Cummings). Most of us are willing to abide by the law when we realise to do otherwise would be to put lives at risk. Well, the same applies to hate speech – movements to criminalise this is not about restricting free speech in general, but specifically only speech that incites or condones violence. This is very specific and does not prevent rigorously healthy debate about any issue that concerns us. It does not censor ‘heretical’ viewpoints, even very questionable ones such as held by flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or holocaust deniers. The bottom line is – does the speech dehumanise others? Does it incite or condone violence against them? If so, then it should not be given a platform. The intellectual, if provocative, challenges of free speech advocates like Christopher Hitchens and Jordan Peterson only makes sense in a world where people are educated, eloquent, and willing and able to hold rational discourse with others (and allow them to respond in similar fashion). It does not factor in the irrationality of those who, via the influence of Fake News, the echo chambers of social media, and the dog whistling of certain politicians, now mistrust scientific consensus, empirical facts, expertise, and rational discourse. Confused people who believe their civil liberties are being taken away, and who often own semi-automatic weapons such as the so-called ‘Proud Boys’, and who are willing to use them in a misguided ‘defence’ of democracy, to the point of storming Capitol Hill and disrupting the due process of that very same democracy. Right wing commentators such as actor Laurence Fox complain (vociferously) about being ‘silenced’ – a message ubiquitously (and unironically) shared on social media and national news platforms. And yet the toxic discourse of similar ‘public figures’ like Katie Hopkins and Sarah Palin is often one that wishes to silence difference, demonise minorities, and incite hatred against anyone that challenges their paradigm. Meanwhile, the historian David Olusoga is forced to defend his work that brings to light Britain’s roots in slavery, and fellow academic Professor Corinne Fowler is attacked in The Telegraph for her Colonial Countryside project. There should always be a place for reasoned discourse, and nothing should be beyond criticism. Critical thinking should be a key life skill taught in every classroom. As should debating skills. The arts of oratory, of eloquence, should be encouraged and cultivated. Until such skills are ubiquitous, hate speech needs to be carefully regulated – with self-reflexive criticality and full transparency about criteria, and process. The world is a tinderbox right now and allowing people to throw matches is complicity to arson. Do we want the world to burn? Anyone with a conscience, with compassionate intelligence, surely should not.
Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream in this psychedelic satire from TC Boyle...
American novelist TC Boyle is the master of the group dynamic and the pressure cooker scenario, and in his case study of early 60s psychonauts he makes excellent use of these strengths. The meticulously-researched and rendered (another Boyle trademark) novel dramatises Dr Timothy Leary’s early forays into psychotropics with his team of willing psychologists, wives, and hangers on. Initially supported as bona fide research within the hallowed halls of Harvard, Leary’s experiments quickly escalate into drug-fuelled binges last days. The inner circle relocate their Dionysian ‘scene’, a Hakim Bey like ‘Temporary-Autonomous-Zone’, or pirate-utopia, first to Mexico, and then to a sprawling mansion in Poughkeepsie, upstarts New York, attracting notoriety as they go. Our Everyman and woman into this inner circle is one of Leary’s academic acolytes, Fitz, and his wife Joanie. The novel is a kind of bildungsroman, a Hesse-ian Journey to the East, but instead of enlightenment (which is continually just out of reach, despite the increasing dosage) there is an anti-epiphany awaiting at the end of the road. As the Sixties really starts to crank it up, and Hoffman’s LSD or ‘acid’ hits the streets, Fitz and his fellow pioneer psychonauts start to experience the comedown – the disenchantment and ennui of endless hedonism, the dysfunctionality and derangement it causes, and the rapprochement of the mundane. Leary is a kind of Wizard of Oz figure, luring them up the lysergically-soaked yellow-brick road, but behind the hocus pocus of his personality cult there is little substance. All tomorrow’s parties seem like an abnegation of responsibility, a perpetual teenage rebellion by adults who should know better. The children of the psychonauts are allowed to run feral, and indeed, given a taste of the forbidden fairy fruit – so, the book is, among other things, a non-judgemental account of catastrophically bad parenting. And yet there is an exhilarating buzz about the picaresque misadventures of the squares – Fitz and Joanie – in Wonderland. Each scene is lucidly evoked with the loving attention to detail of a master craftsman. Yet combined with the importance of ‘Setting’ (in terms of the ‘trip’ of the book) is the ‘Set’ (the mindset of each of the players), which Boyle, as a shrewd observer of the human condition, does brilliantly. His characters are convincingly depicted in all their ticks, peccadilloes, and raging neuroses. The dialogue is razor-sharp, and there is never a dull chapter. Boyle both entertains and informs, while never preaching. The reader is left to judge the behaviour of these academics behaving badly for themselves – and the ‘rap sheet’ is rather impressive. It is a wild, technicolour ride. Turn on, tune in, drop out and enjoy! But don’t expect to make it back to Kansas.
Nick Hayes asks who owns the land and who has the right to access it?
Nick Hayes is an illustrator, best known for his graphic novels and distinctive black-and-white prints, but in this substantial hardback he shows he has the chops to carry off a very well-researched and engagingly-written non-fiction book. With the same precision that he renders the natural world through his art, Hayes, identifies the various layers of rights, rules, expectations, and entitlements around land-usage in Britain – the ‘spells’, as he puts it, of law that prevent us from crossing the sometimes invisible walls, fences, or thresholds of property. Each chapter is named after an animal – instilling an atavistic presence into Hayes’ conceptual and physical forays and incursions – ones often heedless of the artificial barriers humans impose on nature. The author weaves in his own experiences of trespass into his erudite interrogations into notions of property, space, boundaries, the rights of the commoner and the landowner, corporation, community, and individual. His firsthand accounts of stealthy flits into the vast estates of the mega-rich have a visceral frisson of transgression to them. And yet these aren’t macho versions of ‘urb-ex’ or rural flâneury, but often reflective ramblings with plenty of time to stand and stare, or, in Hayes’ case, sit and sketch. The ruminations on the rights of the (rambling) citizen amid the forests of legalese and doxas (ultra-orthodoxies considered a sacrosanct part of the status quo) and shibboleths of society, are counter-balanced with beers and sausages around campfires, and even the odd illegal high. Forbidden fruit is here to be tasted, Gardens of Edens scrumped, and grass definitely not kept off of. Two chapters stand out – one about the colonial spectre that haunts the ‘picturesque’ countryside: the slavery in stone of many a stately home; and the other about the Greenham Peace Camp and the rights (or lack) of women and property. These are impressive in their own right, but add to the heartfelt deconstruction of the glamourye of the property barons and (Conservative) consensus reality. To his credit, Hayes consider both sides of the fence, and wishes for a more porous communication between polarised positions: it is the legal fiction of the fence that makes criminals of the commoner, and sows enmity between those who live on and love the land. Hayes considers other models of land usage and rights – and shows how the Scottish model is perfectly workable, with education and shared obligations of care and consideration. Other countries in Europe offer better access than the United Kingdom where 92% of the land and 97% of the waterways are off limits, often owned by offshore companies registered in tax utopias like the British Virgin Islands, and subsidised massively by government grants. Like Don Quixote, Hayes tilts at these windmills. His chutzpah and sheer cheekiness has to be admired, for it is done with wit, skill, and an artistic flourish. He is a most civilised interloper, even as he yearns for our wild roots to be see the light of day. Full of fascinating, eye-opening facts about the ‘countryside’ and the ‘rights’ we are deprived or begrudgingly granted by the descendants of those who stole the commons from us, The Book of Trespass is a must read for anyone who cares about access to the land – wherever one lives. Hayes reminds us that the stories we tell change our perception of place, of ecos and community, and it is time for those stories to change.
‘Trespass shines a light on the unequal share of wealth and power in England, it threatens to unlock a new mindset of our community’s rights to the land, and, most radical of all, it jinxes the spell of an old, paternalistic order that tell us everything is just as it should be.’
An impressive meta-narrative fantasy in which a group of friends become trapped in the secondary world of their role-playing game – one that draws knowingly upon the legendarium of classic writers of the genre.
Die is an ongoing comic book series from British writer, Kieron Gillen, and French artist Stephanie Hans (along with lettering from Clayton Cowles; and design from Rian Hughes). It follows the (mis)adventures of a group of friends who, in 1991 had played a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy table-top role-playing game invented by one of their group, Solomon. They get sucked into the Secondary World it depicts, in the form of their avatar-characters, each one assigned a symbolic die (d4: Dictator; d6: Fool; d8: Grief Knight; d10: Neo; d12: Godbinder; d20: Master). Two years later, they re-emerged traumatised, wounded, and missing a group member. The story picks up a generation later, when, as dysfunctional adults, the unexpected arrival of the magical d20, an icosahedronic call-to-adventure, catalyses them to return to the Fantasy world to free themselves of the various wounds that haunt them. Here they encounter a world ravaged by a seemingly endless war between humanoid races (humans; elves; hobbits) and a mechanoid Prussian army. Here the metanarrative layering (‘real’ people playing characters in a Fantasy world) takes on a literary level, as Gillen draws upon the legendarium of the Brontës juvenilia, (Angria; Gondal; Glass Town); and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But all is perverted by the virus of its deranged demi-urge. Here, in an act of ironic instauration hobbits are cast as Tommies in a version of the First World War presided over by Tolkien himself (whose first-hand experience of the Somme and loss of two of his dearest fellowship influenced the creation of his epic). In the second volume, a gothed-up Charlotte Brontë makes an appearance as another demiurge haunting her own creation (and in one of the better sequences, the ‘backstory’ of the Brontës is related by her). In later issues other literary luminaries make appearances, such as H.G. Wells. This layering could easily become a post-modernist hall of mirrors. Endless intertextuality does not in itself make something work – indeed it can seem pretentious, overly showy (a magician drawing attention to his own tricks: ‘Look at me! Aren’t I clever!’) and can belie a lack of confidence in one’s own ideas. Fortunately, the main characters are well written – each with their exceptional skills and demons to face – and the dynamic between them convincing. This is a great ensemble piece. The dialogue is snappy. The artwork is stunning. I must admit I am less engaged with the plot. Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker brilliantly sets everything up – slickly introducing the characters, the backstory, and the inciting incident. It quickly plunges us into the glorious technicolour of the Fantasy world, where there are dragons, sexy elf queens (based on a sixth form crush of one of the characters), and a lot of action. The second volume ‘splits the party’, and the narrative traction is impaired, I felt, by a somewhat atomised plot. Characters go off and ‘do stuff’, but it is harder to relate or care. It still looks impressive, and if you are hooked by this stage, no doubt you will want more ‘fixes’ – and there are 3 collected volumes, and 14 issues to date to feed your habit. To take the metanarrative to the extreme, Gillen has created a RPG based on Die, so you can now play a person, playing a character… This is perhaps a bit mind-bending for some, but it shows Gillen’s creative verve. It certainly takes what could easily be a formulaic ‘hack-and-slay’ to a whole new level. Die is well-written and beautifully illustrated (and designed). The collected volumes come with some interesting essays and variant covers, adding to the value-for-money. This is a fine example of creative collaboration from a talented team.
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Philip K. Dick
Rodney Ascher’s mind-bending documentary explores the question ‘Are we living in a computer simulation?’ – an ontological conundrum posited by Simulation Theory. He weaves together interviews from individuals who fully believe they are living a Matrix-style construct, with experts. Many of these are portrayed in avatar form, but within their own homes – like Zoom calls from Second Life. And their anecdotes and theories are dramatised through, appropriately, computer animation. This is oddly retro, and the effect is somewhere between Tron, The Lawnmower Man and Max Headroom. Liberally interspersed throughout are clips from science fiction movies, many of which happen to be adaptations of the novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick, the godfather of this strange realm. His famous interview from Paris, 1977, in which he revealed his belief that we are living in said simulation, is used to introduce each section. To provide some intellectual perspective on it all, there is a talking head interview with the Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, who is one of the few portrayed in the flesh, but who actually comes across rather stilted, indeed like a glitching avatar at times. His much-cited ‘simulation hypothesis’ article is seen as a seminal text in this field. There is a disturbing testimony from an inmate of a maximum security prison who, as a 19 year old man, murdered his parents because he thought he was in the ‘Matrix’, self-identifying with Neo from the Wachowski Brothers movies. This is presented as the only sobering correlative to these (tellingly all male) advocates or devotees. A solitary female academic suggests that a lack of erotic or emotional life creates the disconnect from an embodied reality – an entropic solipsism, which computer games and social media endlessly fuels. Yet beyond this is, there is no real exegesis or critical interpretation. Ashchew presents us with these oddballs as though they are specimens in a virtual zoo, and it reminded me a little of Nick Park’s Oscar-winning short ‘Creature Comforts’, in which interviews with normal people were dubbed onto stop-motion plasticine animals in their enclosures. Here, the ‘brains-in-a-vat’ speak from within their CGI ‘suits’, and the effect is disembodied, adding a layer of cognitive estrangement to it as in the rotoscope animation of Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’ and ‘A Scanner Darkly’, both of which have more substance. Ascher’s documentary is certainly visually interesting, and thought-provoking – but feels strangely shallow for a something ostensibly exploring the nature of reality. It provides a gateway drug, at best, to those who wish to go deeper into the works of PKD, or other writers on Simulation Theory.
Kevan Manwaring, 5 February 2021
A Glitch in the Matrix – released 5 February, 2021
Well, this was an interesting read. Harrison’s novel is a double portrait of Brexit Britain and the isolated lives within it. It explores epistemological uncertainty: the subsidence of identity and slippage of meaning in the everyday. The author refuses the comforts of closure. He jabs a stick at the disturbing folklore of the urban & the rural … the little myths and rituals we furnish our lives with. With surreal disquietude the population seem to be devolving into some kind of aquatic throwback – a deliquescent infantilism: Brexitanian water babies.
Harrison is the master of the memorable sentence – with exhaustive invention he continually fashions glittering shards of prose, like freshly unearthed microliths glinting in the sun. And yet the prose is rarely hard to follow – the obscurity is in the precise nature of things, which he continually destabilises. He offers a sharp-eyed portrait of contemporary life in a small, damp island off the Atlantic seaboard – isolated by its own cultural solipsism, living off former glories that long ago lost any kind of global cache beyond the tourist cash cow of ‘heritage’. But unlike the regulated, signposted trails that the characters come across in their almost somnambulistic wanderings, there is minimal signposting here. The reader, like the two main protagonists, are left to flounder in their own strange, twilight lives. Shaw, unstable and undermined by the unreliable narrations of his uncaring care-home bound mother, lives in London and ends up working for a purveyor of a curious aquatic conspiracy; his sometime lover, Victoria, relocates to the ‘sticks’, inheriting her mother’s house in the Welsh Marches – an ostensibly idyllic rural ‘escape’ that comes with its own set of problems. The anti-pastoral disenchantment is mirrored by the enchantment of the urban. Domestic and public spaces are destabilised by increasingly weird happenings. Nothing is quite what it seems, and it is almost impossible to grasp entirely what is going on – like the protagonists, we are left in the dark, refused admittance to the occult inner circles, and continually thrown by the disquieting tides around them. Harrison’s agenda seems to be to induce ontological anxiety: can we trust anything, even ourselves? Nothing and nobody is quite what is seems. Something chthonic emerges in the interstices of people’s atomised lives. The characters drift apart, missing each other’s calls or letters, or choosing to ignore them. And in the gaps the uncanny enters in – creating the unheimlich within the home, until what ‘should’ be native becomes alien, and vice versa. We become othered from our own lives.
From his long career in Fantasy and Science Fiction (in which he has gained many loyal fans), Harrison has ‘emerged’ as one of Britain’s most original writers. His hybrid writing refuses to play by the rules, and as a result it produces the very best kind of Fantastika – genre-fluid writing that is truly innovative. Winning the Goldsmiths Prize for experimental fiction, Harrison’s book reminds us what the novel form is truly for.