"Maybe not always, but a lot of the time, it doesn't matter where I actually am, it's all the same..." And so starts this Sisyphean caterwaul - something scarecrow can relate to. Seven chapters of this tidy debut have the same title: "It's taking so damn long to get here." Each exemplifies the point of this book adroitly. First things first Well is a debut of prosodic virtuoso. The book is rattled by, spattered with and soaked to the bone by voices - it is a loud book (in the Gaddisian sense of the word). Well is set in a working-class American wasteland, Seattle to be precise and each of its character's are embroiled in, or escaping from disparate situations they can see no exit from. Some characters make fleeting appearances within the narrative, others more substantial, but all - in some way or another - are lost in a dark chasm of no escaping: A dark well, if you will allow me. Well is a classic debut, brimming with all the right ingredients - male angst, dissatisfaction - that help to drive such writers. But, it is Matthew McIntosh's prose style that screams the loudest. It is quite simply breathtaking in its density. Plot? A multi-narrative gone askew. The disparate of a working-class Seattle suburb eke out miserable existences while clinging on to the vain hope that something else, something better, or anything is just around the next corner. It isn't, of course. You get the picture. Debuts such as Well are seldom published - and if they are we rarely see them. Increasingly we see mainstream publishers taking fewer risks, ignoring such fresh work. Well is testimony to the realization that forward-thinking fiction can still find the support it so necessarily needs. Faber are publishing this gem over here - if only they would have the same trust in similar home-grown talent. Their last big-hitter also a state-side voice. But, as readers, we must continue to seek out these gems. Well is cutting, acerbic, dry and ravaged by every disappointment felt - this wearisome lament is a wretched, yet strangely heartwarming tale and McIntosh seems to have the ability to suck out all that is real and honest from the deepest of wounds. Well is pure dissatisfaction, a smudge, a long scratch through the white, pristine wall of contemporary fiction. Throw away Palahniuk's studied nihilism and think Manhattan Transfer with extra bite. In the wise argot of Shaun Ryder: double good.
Lee Rourke © 2005.
A while back scarecrow opined that the American novel literally oozed voice. And here, quite frankly, is proof of just that. Charles Portis is a writer who can draw the reader into his narrative. Just ask Donna Tartt, she has “loved this book” since she was a child - as have her mother and grandmother (not since children you understand). We very rarely hear that much from Donna Tartt in the media so her introduction to this Bloomsbury edition is quite refreshing. And the book itself? (We’re not concerned with the film adaptation staring John Wayne). Well, True Grit is quite mesmerizing in its simplicity. It follows fourteen-year-old Mattie as she travels to claim her father’s – Frank Ross – body, gunned down in cold bitter blood by Tom Chancey. Along the way Mattie realizes that the authorities are doing nothing to find Chancey. Mattie soon bumps into Rooster – a man who possess, well he’s said to at least, oh the suspense, true grit. At this juncture the book begins to move as Rooster pulls Mattie with him deep down into Indian Country to help avenge her father’s murder. The book is quite a simple little tale really, as most good books are. True Grit is a bitter-sweet lament with a voice and inner-drive that is at once immediate and terse yet always comforting. Portis captures, one imagines, the idioms of the American South with passion, accuracy and aplomb. On the whole True Grit taps into the uncomplicated regions of the human condition, those same signifiers we can all relate to at once: pain, revenge, longing and love. Portis doesn’t overstep the mark and it is within this clarity of narrative True Grit gains its strength. This marvellous little cult classic is a book that thoroughly deserves the acclaim it is now receiving. And, like other American cult classics, such as Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn, True Grit is completely accessible to all. Read this book.
Lee Rourke © 2005.
It has to be said that live The Others are tremendous, but transferred to record, well, um, they sound pretty bad I'm afraid. This eponymously titled album is literally split asunder, straight down the middle like a scratch in your favourite record, its dichotomy's and schism's ostensible to all - in the blue corner we have lead vocalist Mr Dominic Masters and in the red his fellow band mates. Can the failure of any debut be more clear cut than this? I doubt it. This record is haunted, let down, nay, dragged down by Mr Masters and it cannot be saved. Never have such adolescent, juvenile downright appallingly laughable and ridiculous lyrics been heard since, well, story-time at the nursery. For instance (from Stan Bowels): "I'd stare at your eyes as you helped the children You're quoting Voltaire or Ginsburg to the adorned in your kitchen Sipping ice tea in the summer Victoria park, yeah" Apparently this little number is about Pete Doherty and not the QPR legend. Or how about this (from current hit Lackey): "Wanna escape for a while I'll get a new idea I'll start up a band get a brand new plan find some way out of here You need some way to be free that's not just a dreeeeaam YOU NEED SOME WAY TO BE FREE THAT'S NOT JUST A DREEEEEAAAAAAM CHICKA-CHICKA-CHICKOWWWWW" I'm not even going to mention the sublimely ridiculous (from This is for the Poor): "This is for the poor and not you rich kids..." Okay fair enough Mr Masters, your atonal warbling voice is starting to grate now - and it really is a bad voice, you could say more Wurzel Gummidge than Iggy Pop. But miraculously, somehow, this record hits you. How? One may wonder. Bassist Johnny Others that's how - his punk-tinged Mancunian-esque bass pulls this record back from the brink. Tracks such as Psycho Vision seriously move along, rumbling with the same desires that make tracks of this ilk great. Music for the hell of it. Bowel-busting cool. Johnny Others steers the listener away from Mr Masters childish rants and the entire record is wondrously saved - just. But I don't think this is enough. The sad thing about this record is the underlying feeling the rest of the band do not seem to acquiesce with Mr Masters' teenage diatribe. And does Dominic Masters seem to care? I seriously doubt it. A shame really. Let's hope I'm wrong, because for the way this raggletaggle outfit treats its fans alone they deserve all the success in the world. So what can I say other than this is no Definitely Maybe and is a weak debut? Not much. This shows, but what the hell does that matter? I'm just a lone voice in the wind. The kids love it it'll be a huge hit. Go and see them live now.
Lee Rourke © 2005.
LEE ROURKE © 2004.
In 1973 The Times Literary supplement, upon the posthumous publication of Guillaume Apollinaire's 'Les Onze Mille Verges', commented: "...Apollinaire was very much Apollinaire". And after reading him this oddity makes perfect sense. Well, if this is the case then the very same can be said about our man Mr Blaise Cendrars - most certainly. So we start with Cendrars' alter-ego: Dan Yack, the wildly eccentric English shipping millionaire "hell-raiser" and all round "envy of St Petersburg" - that is until he is ceremoniously dumped by the love of his life and found drunkenly writhing in a puddle of horse piss in the street, upon which he walks into the nearest bar and promptly falls asleep under the nearest table, finally waking up to find it occupied by three men whom he persuades to join him on a round the world voyage on his ship. Strange stuff indeed. Cendrars was famous for writing himself into his fiction - quite an easy task being quite a fictional character himself. Blaise Cendrars being the nom de plume of Frederic-Louis Sauser, a man who's whole life seemed to be purposely mythologized and interwoven with poetic embellishments. Blaise Cendrars never openly revealed himself - never honestly anyway. We see just what he wanted us to see. On reading Blaise Cendrars he is at once erratic, spiritual, tender, vitriolic, malicious, lucid and confusing. He broke every literary rule in the book and then, in tune with the mystical cliche he created, rewrote every last one of them. A strange, odd being. Everything a writer should be. Dan Yack, as with all Blaise Cendrars fiction, mixes fiction with fact with outright flights of imagination, the resulting novel leaning more on side with the fantastic rather than the fictional. Is it a travel yarn? A Roman-a-clef? A raucous lament? Put your hard earned money on all three I say - and then some. The novel follows the voyage and exploits of Dan Yack and his three companions: the artists Arkadie Goischman, a Jewish poet; Ivan Sabakov, a peasant sculptor and Andre Lamont, a French musician. Of course the voyage is doomed from the very outset - it couldn't be anything but - and it isn't long until the good ship GREEN STAR becomes stranded in pack-ice. With foolish arrogance Dan Yack orders the entire crew onto land - and it is here the novel takes its maddening turn. Do they have enough provisions? Will they keep their sanity throughout the harsh polar winter? Not a chance. The ensemble is doomed from start to finish. Arkadie Goischman loses his mind, Ivan Sabakov becomes obsessed with Dan Yack and Andre Lamont decides to smash up everything in sight - all this while Dan Yack himself ponders the sorry fact that he has lost the love of his life: Hedwiga. Unrequited love is most definitely not a bore. Blaise Cendrars' prose is unquestionably unique - almost alarmingly so. Yet, at times it borders on literary cliche itself, but for the sheer inventiveness and imaginative leaps in narrative and voice that never fail in pulling the prose back from the brink just at the right moment - and for the reader this is just what makes a book by this author so rewarding. Blaise Cendrars, maybe it's his swirling imaginative mix, his heady fictional mish-mash, his being different anyway that helps. Not surprising, given his French/Swiss/Scottish ancestry. Whatever it is, whatever they put in his veins, Blaise Cendrars positively reeked of it and it poured out from every pour like liquid gold. Henry Miller once tried to explain: "Everything is written in blood, but a blood that is saturated with starlight. You can look clean through him and see the planets wheeling. The silence he creates is deafening. It takes you back to the beginning of the world, to that hush which is engraved on the face of mystery." Bravo Henry! I couldn't have put it better myself. This mish-mash mirrored Blaise Cendrars' self-mythologized life, his life being as hectic - if not more so - than any of his books, but still, somehow, set in concrete, still and defined - whether embellished incident or absolute fact. Where, exactly, hasn't this man been to? What, for instance, hasn't he done? A truly wondrous mystery. So why, oh why is Blaise Cendrars not up there with the big guns? Most people I've spoken to - and I'd drop them all into the little dusty folder in my head entitled: BOOK PEOPLE - have never heard of poor old Cendrars, let alone read anything by him. This utterly perplexes me, but maybe I'm just not mixing in the right circles, I don't know. I'm starting to babble, I'll stop. So back to Dan Yack: with his companions raving mad, the ice-caps melting, the advent of the First World War looming on the horizon and poor old broken hearted Dan Yack, the novel's hectic conclusion is somewhat fraught. Dan Yack is a marvellous book to read - a pure baptism of fire for a Blaise Cendrars virgin. Read it and weep long tears of happiness goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to every other writer you've ever admired. Seriously, because Blaise Cendrars is very much Blaise Cendrars.
LEE ROURKE © 2004.
Aria Fritta is Ellis Sharp’s 9th title to date and his most recent (others include The Dump, Unbelievable Things, Lenin’s Trousers, To Wanstonia, Giacinta’s clams, Aleppo Button, Driving My Baby Back Home and Engels on Video). All are published by London’s marvellous Zoilus Press. But I could be quite wrong, as very little is known about this writer, there are probably countless more chap-books and pamphlets written by him circulating the back rooms of smoky subterranean cafés and independent bookstores the width and breath of Great Britain. You see, Ellis Sharp is that kind of writer, his prose (some would say surreal social commentary) is suffocating in its closeness and accuracy yet he, the writer, is as achingly distant and remote as can be and I, for one, like that about him, it’s quite a refreshing change in this age of crass commercialism. You certainly don’t see Ellis Sharp’s face leering out from yet another ubiquitous Borders high-street publicity blitzkrieg, oh no, budding readers have to search high and wide for this man, his work is passed down via word of mouth from one reader to another, his books sitting on the shelves of those rickety eons-old bookshops down dark alleyways the rabble just daren’t tread. Ellis Sharp is the genuine article – ever-so bitter-sweet, fervently underground and as Avant Garde as it gets in this rugged, idiosyncratic little isle. And the great thing is – he’ll probably hate me for saying it.
Aria Fritta comprises of forty-four short-short stories (some barely a page long). So what do we get? Well, Dubya gets stuck on level one of Goldeneye. An alien from Pluto tries its hand at a little earthly suburban domesticity. A young boy reacts to his first encounter with sweetcorn. A national TV treasure is targeted by the local vermin catcher. The Presidents penis is mistaken for a UFO. A sausage factory isn’t all that it appears to be. And a Puerperal Fever invades the land causing mass literary clichés. Yes, this is an odd, odd assortment. The whole collection can be read in one sitting or delved into at random – either way it does exactly what it says on the tin. And when you’re through with it you’re going to want to read the whole lot again. Believe me. For those of you who don’t already know Aria Fritta literally translates from the Italian as: Fried Air. A term the Italians use with punch when someone is talking absolute nonsense. But let’s get one thing straight: Ellis Sharp’s Aria Fritta is no book of nonsense. This book makes complete sense. Aria Fritta continues, with utter verve and conviction, the same vitriolic journey William Burroughs started in Naked Lunch – attacking all that is corrupt and absurd; waving its critical baton in the face of society’s accepted myopia’s, bourgeois follies and the sickening ubiquity of consumer-driven decadence and ambivalence. And Ellis Sharp’s weapon? Surreal, humorous, absurd acts of wild metaphor of course. But beneath all this clever tomfoolery lies a bona fide anger, an anger so ostensible it positively permeates from each page. It is this fury which propels the reader towards one hapless target after another. So who/what are Ellis Sharp’s targets? Judging from Aria Fritta just about everyone and everything; including US Presidents, George Bush, power, people of power, the abuse of power, society, society as construct, normality, social ambivalence, consumerism, capitalism, politics, the right, the left, the novel, the novelist, the Play Station generation (a self-flagellatory love of Ellis Sharp’s own it seems) – to name but a few.
The anger which fuels the surreal Aria Fritta paradoxically gives this collection a heavy dose of realism. We, as readers, just cannot ignore the underlying meaning of such vignettes, especially within our tumultuous epoch. As a collection of short fiction Ellis Sharp gets to his aim quite early – this is fiction as construct. A metafiction of spiralling maze-like metaphor and literary trapdoors. In Tom’s Childhood Trauma we see characterization used for this very purpose. In a clever nod and a wink to the work of B. S Johnson (whose spectre seems to willingly pervade at various intervals) we see young Tom fully aware of his purpose within the narrative, enough to have saved his first “gasp of Breath” for the narratives pivotal moment. Ellis Sharp, in the same way B. S. Johnson gave thought to space, sentence and paragraph, pulls the reader away from descriptive cul-de-sacs via omniscient characterization in the narrative. For example, in a longer story, Vermin, the narrator instructs the reader with nonchalance:
“Believing a rush of new paragraphs would break up the monotony of the printed page at this point (interestingly, this was just six weeks before he read Christie Marly’s Own Double Entry), Dr Bananes paused.”
Ellis Sharp uses his constructed characters to steer and encourage the reader within the narrative. With Vermin and Tom’s Childhood Trauma we see a debunking, a severe mocking of all bourgeois literary constructs – and, indeed, the literary status quo. Aria Fritta, in this respect, is an anti-narrative with literary, social and political purpose, in the same way we see writers such as Stuart Home delivering, novel after novel, bowel busting blows into the flabby, fat, self-indulgent gut of established intellectual form, Aria Fritta is yet more proof that literary fiction has imploded and is finally moving on again. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Ellis Sharp is anti-intellectual, he isn’t, and how can he be? His point has been sharpened with precision and when thrust it hits home. Ellis Sharp’s take on 9/11, for instance, is both refreshing and brutally honest. Ellis Sharp quite often aims straight for the jugular, quite literally. In Sausages a story which follows a conveyor belt in a sausage making factory the cow is substituted with a line of new-born babies awaiting their slaughter – babies procured via the internet one might add. Please bear with me. Vermin sticks a jagged dagger straight through the absurd notion that such procedures in the slaughterhouse/abattoir/meat industry are harmless to the animal. When the reader is forced to visualise each new-born baby, just like a row of dead cows, hanging from “hooks inserted into each baby’s rectum” it is hard to swallow the – overused and hackneyed – nonsensical diatribe of the meat industry (we’ve all heard it before and still seem to accept it) and the brutality begins to hit home: “humanely stunned”, “a simple slicing device which causes no discomfort what-so-ever”, “decapitated in a manner which causes the absolute minimum distress and discomfort. Good use is made of the heads, which are pulverised in a crusher. Powdered bone is high in both fibre and nutrients. Some is manufactured into cakes which provide a nutritious mid-day snack for babies in the truck cages on the long journey to Ireland. The rest is mixed with amputated and crushed toes to provide an excellent fertiliser sold under the brand name Naythan’s Garden-Gro”. I think we kind of get the picture. But it’s not all blood and guts. The book is hilarious, and will have many a reader smirking and guffawing.
But hold on, Ellis Sharp is not for everyone, how could he be? That would simply be absurd. Aria Fritta, though, is an important collection, just as Ellis Sharp is an important lone voice, confidently treading water in a commercial sea of filth and wretchedness. Ellis Sharp is simply rising above it and, most importantly, doing it his own way. The little man is starting to bite back and his voice is beginning to be heard. Ellis Sharp is a writer we should be seeking out in a climate such as ours – and I predict he will be. The insurrection starts here. Certain readers are beginning to turn their backs on the conglomerates, we’ve lost faith and Ellis Sharp and Zoilus Press will be where we turn to. And dare I say it, yes I will damn you, literary fiction is most definitely cool again. And I for one am quite deliriously happy about that.
Lee Rourke © 2005.
In his candid preface Jeff Bursey quotes Blaise Cendrars from a letter to the painter Robert Delaunay circa 1917, in it Cendrars proclaims: "I don't want to be part of the gang. I am not behind, as you say, but ahead...It all belongs to yesterday, not to today. I will be visible tomorrow. Today, I'm working". This little snippet of pure Cendrars arrogance is the true crux to his thinking and his workman-like philosophy. For, indeed, Cendrars was a worker, a real writer who experienced life in all its various phases and then put pen to paper until he was happy with the result. And the end result? Well, think big, elongated works of surreal humour, deadpan caricature, heartbreaking melancholy and a virtuoso prose style matched by few. Blaise Cendrars never ceased working, he liked it that way and this fiery dynamo never gave in. So what is The Astonished Man? Well, it's a memoir with a difference - the simple difference being it was written by Blaise Cendrars. As a writers writer Blaise Cendrars knew many, he also mixed with actors, filmmakers, poets, artists and aristocrats; yet none are mentioned in this so called memoir. In The Astonished Man Cendrars litters his narrative, not with the artists of his generation but with the Gypsies he met on his travels, the pimps, the prostitutes, the thieves; he takes the reader from the First World War trenches across vast continents in sprawling, complex, sonorous sentences that lift the reader out of the humdrum. Blaise Cendrars wrote against the grain in a style that preceded Gonzo luminaries such as Hunter. S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe a good thirty years or so. His reportage was assiduous, garrulous and inimitable. Taciturn in nature with an honest voice that somehow manages to shine through all the vainglorious bombast and braggadocio. Admittedly this boastful book is difficult to absorb and at times quite antiquated in world views, but, as in most of his books, the unique structure and prose style lift you away from such thoughts, snatched in the blink of an eye, hoodwinked and press-ganged back for the remainder of his journey - like it or not. And for this Cendrars needs to be saluted; a man who created his own myth and then pissed all over it, a man who knew the power of form, a man who embellished a story for the sheer excitement it caused, a man whose tone and pitch could balance absurd reasoning with melancholic pathos without straining the weight of each measured line; and finally a man who lived for the written word/world and nothing else. Blaise Cendrars and The Astonished Man is worth reading for this if nothing else.
Lee Rourke © 2005.
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