Reflections on White

Back in the Spring of 2016, David Shakes tweeted that he wanted contributions to a horror anthology called The Infernal Clock. The premise was simple: the action of each story would take place in one hour. There would be 24 tales, covering one hellish day. David invited writers to bagsy specific hours. I put my virtual hand up for the midday-to-one-o’clock slot straight away. 

I don’t know much about horror fiction. I’ve seen lots of horror films and am a particular fan of classic Japanese films such as the Ring series and The Grudge, but I have read few modern horror novels. When I volunteered for The Infernal Clock, I didn’t consider my lack of knowledge of the genre a disadvantage. Much of my writing has a nightmarish quality and I unconsciously default to the monstrous, so I felt equal to the task of creating something weird, unsettling, frightening.

I asked for the noon slot because I wanted to create horror out of light and heat, rather than the more usual darkness and cold. My story would begin at noon in the height of summer, on a particularly hot day. When I was 14 I had a paper round. Once a week, I would deliver unsolicited free copies of the local rag to all the houses and flats in a couple of streets. I tended to start the round at about five o’clock in the afternoon. However, on one occasion in the summer holidays I covered for someone who was ill and so delivered to a different street, full of affluent houses. I started the extra round in the late morning of a very hot day, and at around midday I walked up the pathway towards an imposing house, painted brilliant white. It’s no exaggeration to say that I had to squint as I approached the whitewashed facade, which reflected the sun at me aggressively. The combination of dazzling light and unpleasant heat made me sluggish, nauseous. It made everything seem unreal. The whiteness of the house was inimical, poisonous. That memory came back to me as soon as I decided to write a story exploring the horrors of daylight, and it informed the narrative itself, even supplying the title: White

I also knew that my story would be about a mirror, and someone seeing something in the mirror and as a result experiencing a crisis. I keep coming back to mirrors in my work.

Writing the thing was not so straightforward. My first attempt was telegrammatic in style, but lacked momentum. The protagonist was a little boy. This excerpt gives a flavour:

Outside, everything is too bright, too solid. Sounds have a hard quality. The world is amplified. He hears the scuttling of beetles in the flower beds, the drone of bees, birdsong, his own breathing.

He runs around on the lawn and the gravel pathways, but soon he’s exhausted. He sits down and looks up at the house. Something in him wants to go back to the bathroom, to look in the mirror again. He doesn’t know why.

Above the house, there is a cloud that looks like a skull.

It just didn’t feel right for The Infernal Clock. Really, I was writing a fragment for my novel, which is about a boy entering puberty amidst the silence and strangeness of a new home. So I started again. This time, the protagonist was a grown man:

So he went up to the bathroom. The village church bell rang twelve as he opened the door. The beginning of the afternoon. He stood in front of the basin, put the plug in and turned on the cold tap. He was looking forward to the feeling of the water on his face and the sight of it on his face when he looked in the mirror. 

When the basin was half full, he turned off the tap, stooped to bring his face closer to the water, cupped his hands together in the water, closed his eyes and splashed his face. The water was like a slap, icy blue. His face tingled. The summer sun had been quenched. 

He straightened up and opened his eyes. 

Initially, he didn’t see the other man. He was looking at the mirror, enjoying the sight of the droplets of water running down his face. He felt refreshed, awake. 

But after a few seconds he thought, That isn’t me. The man in the mirror is someone else.

Now I had a scenario that could work, but the writing was dull dull dull. I had thought that by presenting the story as simply and unemotively as possible, I would enable the reader to experience fully the uncanniness of the situation described. I hadn’t anticipated the results being so stilted. I realised that the first attempt, for all its faults, was better, partly because it benefitted from the immediacy and intensity of the present tense. 

Attempt number three was the one that ended up in The Infernal Clock. I kept the storyline of attempt two, but wrote it again from scratch, as an unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness, narrated by the protagonist himself. This time, the words came intuitively, organising themselves in the final section into lines of free verse. Here’s a taster, from the beginning:

starting at noon at midday twelve o’clock exactly this story if it is that this event more accurate that has left me doubting my own mind wondering if I’m right in the head doubting even the facts as I remember them if they are facts in the absence of any means of verifying them no one else having been there no witnesses to any part of what happened to me is happening to me the sequence of events starting at midday when I closed the bathroom door behind me wiped out exhausted by the white slab of sunshine outside the whiteness of everything white walls white gravel white roses wiped out slightly dizzy dots appearing and disappearing before my eyes from the hot white day desperate to feel cold water on my face in my mouth down my throat anxious not just to obtain that relief the relief of the feeling of the cold water but also wanting to see the droplets of water on my parched face see them running down my baked face seeing is believing seeing would reinforce the existence of the water make it more real appealing to more than just the sense of touch the sense of sight being more powerful anyway sights swaying us all the time images making up minds I wanted my mind made by that image that vision of little droplets of water running down my face a spectacle a miniature piece of theatre not possible downstairs in the kitchen where there is a sink but no mirror possible only upstairs in the bathroom

I am proud to be part of The Infernal Clock. There is an impressive variety of storytelling in the book, and the venture as a whole is ambitious. Hats off to David Shakes and Stephanie Ellis for their editorial work, and to Tamara Rogers for her striking cover design. I urge you to get a copy and savour every horrible hour!

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Twitterature at the London Book Fair

 

Trains and coffee. Hot sky. Kensington Olympia: a greenhouse labyrinth, a pleasant Hell.

Barcoded enthusiasm. Stands, displays, declarations, theatre. I wander. 

I’m soon lost. The floor plan creases up. Everyone else seems to know where they are. They exhibit the smiling purposefulness of the comfortably off. 

OUP offers trustworthy sources. 

Omnibus Press offers three masked men.

The London Stereoscopic Company offers 3D Adventures in Hell. 

Miraculous stairs lead me to the first floor. Author HQ. I’m early. I tweet about the fact. #interesting

I bide my time with etcetera.

  
 
—–
 
A phantom has materialised. Warm grin, tweed jacket. “Are you James?” @Elhombredetweed is Mauricio Montiel Figueiras. He is affably real, as is his girlfriend, Ana Luelmo. 
 
Now the stairs bring @george_szirtes, struggling with a trolley suitcase that wants to be elsewhere.  
 
We’re all here. 
 
—-
 
Julio Trujillo is chair. Words of introduction: Internet, social media, reading and writing habits. Short literary texts posted on Twitter.  
 
We start with readings of our work. 
 
George stands and reads some selections of linked tweets. The London Book Fair curls up, licks its paws, watches little birds circling just out of reach. 
 
Mauricio introduces the Man of Tweed, who takes up residence in our skulls, rearranging some of the furniture so he can sit by the window and look down at the Street of Dreams. 
 
My turn. I cough up the Bird King. He flounders on the floor, wings wrecked, head a mess.  
 
The people in the audience seem to like us. Their faces are friendly. Some take photos or tweet.  
 
Then the serious business of discussion. A mic is passed round. I’m reminded of the conch in Lord of the Flies. But this is a civilised colloquy. We talk about the characteristics of Twitterature, its liberation of whimsy, the power of masks, the creative dialogue between reader and writer. Julio asks how Twitter affects the way people think. Big question, little time. Questions from the floor. 
 
Our allotted time is up.
 
  
 
George, me and Mauricio 

—-
 
I can’t provide a comprehensive or objective account of the discussion George, Mauricio and I had at Author HQ. My memories of the event won’t stay still. They scuttle under chairs. Some of them seem to have escaped. But then, who can say for certain what happened last year or yesterday or one minute ago?
 
—- 
 
An Italian restaurant. Mauricio, Ana, George, me. Shared starters. I struggle to cut up some prosciutto. Red wine. The conversation ranges widely. Sátántangó. W G Sebald. Samuel Beckett. Cats. Wrestling. Children’s books. Maurice Sendak. Twitterature (of course). Mina Polen. Viviana Hinojosa. Aspects of Mexican culture. Film noir. Nosferatu.The Vampyr. Pink Floyd – The Wall. Sam Riviere. My companions wear their intellect and erudition lightly. They are interesting, likeable, generous. I am among friends.  
 
Mauricio insists on paying the bill. He had invited George and me to the London Book Fair, to speak at today’s event. I cannot thank him enough. 
 
  
 
Me, Mauricio, Ana and George 

—–
 
The day stretches and looks around. It needs to move on. George has a flight to catch and I’m meeting my brother near Paddington. The two of us head for Kensington Olympia Station. Along the way, we chat. George’s trolley suitcase objects to being dragged across London, and it digs its heels in whenever it can.
 
—-
 
Another train. Night. Home bound. A gift from George: Uncle Zoltán, a book of tweets. I’m tired. I close my eyes between chapters. Reading in short bursts. The little book sketches a world.  
 
The train clatters into tomorrow.

 

This is not an essay: fragmentary reflections on the experiences of reading and writing on Twitter.

Twitter is a gigantic, unstable cut-up text. Tweets jostle, create striking juxtapositions. The banal, the poetic, the humorous, succeed each other with mercurial rapidity. Shifts in register resemble The Waste Land. Occasionally something memorable and lasting emerges. 

—-

We don’t read an ever-lengthening time line, a text forever in the process of being written, in the same way we read a novel or a newspaper. Reading is hasty, happening in short bursts. We scan, skim, sometimes pausing for half a second to fav or RT. And then we move on, like restless toddlers, to the next bauble. 

—-

Twitter infantilises us. Colourful treats are presented to us. Buy this product, buy this idea. We react intuitively, emotionally, often irrationally. We don’t think too hard. This is why so many people get themselves in trouble with the police when using Twitter. 

—-

As a result of a polemical tweet, one of my followers accused me of having made an assertion. Of course I have, I retorted; Twitter is not conducive to substantiated argumentation. 

—-

Twitter is an environment that favours monsters of the id. 

—-

Be bold and unreasonable, gain followers. Be sensible, lose them. 

—-

I’m not bemoaning our infantilisation by social media. It has dangers, certainly, in encouraging our uncritical acceptance of consumerism and its root cause, capitalism. But it also gives us an opportunity to indulge our sense of whimsy, to enjoy the mad ideas streaming down our smartphone screens, maybe even to experience a child’s enchantment in an online world that is perpetually surprising.

—-

Tweets are retweeted because they have provided a moment’s entertainment or struck a chord. Common feelings and prejudices flourish. But there’s still room for minority interests. The internet connects the disconnected, those who believe themselves alone in their philosophy or interests. A Twitter readership is a community. 

—-

On Twitter, the reader becomes the writer’s collaborator. In retweeting, the reader expands the distribution of the author’s material. Sometimes, a reader might respond to microfiction by tweeting the author a continuation, variation or pastiche of the piece. The author, flattered or amused or impressed, might retweet this response to his work, and in so doing partially blur the distinction between himself and his readers. Creativity becomes a shared experience, a game in which anyone can participate. 

—-

Authors who have Twitter accounts and proclaim, “I am the Author!” are missing the point of Twitter.

—-

Twitter is a dismal marketplace. It’s up to us to invade it with music and laughter.

—-

Interactivity is one of the most interesting aspects of Twitterature. Many of my fiction tweets, particularly those to do with the Bird King and his grotesque world, have stimulated responses from my followers in a similar vein. At first, I was ambivalent about this: I enjoyed seeing the Bird King develop outside the nest I’d made for him, but I also felt a little insecure, as if the character I had created was being appropriated by others. But I soon realised that some of the most productive creativity on Twitter comes about via this challenge to the traditional categories of author and reader. 

—-

There’s a danger that writers of Twitterature are crafting their microfiction too carefully, making exquisite, perfect, predictable, bland work. 

—-

Too much short-form fiction is neat and rounded. What a wasted opportunity to challenge, annoy, agitate, enchant!

—-

Microfiction should be no more bound by conventions of structure, narrative, characterisation and genre than the novel is.

—-

Once upon a time, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to sign up with Twitter and tweet, not about my life, but in the third person, narrating the surreal adventures of a fictional character. So, on 1 October 2011, I created my @badbadpoet account (@badpoet was taken), and began tweeting the continuous narrative that I was later to collect into a piece called “Still Life.”  In the process, as I started exploring Twitter and following other users, I realised that hundreds of other people had beaten me to it, and were tweeting microfiction, micropoetry and all sorts of inventive lunacy. Among them was Jeff Noon, an author I’d admired since the 1990s. Jeff and I struck up a rapport online, and in March 2012 I was very lucky to be one of the eleven writers who made up Jeff’s collective Twitter entity @echovirus12. Echovirus works like an online version of the surrealist exquisite corpse, the rules being simple:

1. Write a fiction tweet. 

2. Echo the previous tweet. 

3. Don’t follow your own tweet. 

Writing for Echovirus is a game, ludic and competitive. Through playing it and setting up another group called Chimera I have met some of the most talented and original writers and artists on Twitter. 

—-

Everyone who has ever tweeted is a published author. 

Manifesto of ism

We walk though the streets of London, New York, Paris, Prague, Barcelona, Skegness, inhaling air heavy with metaphors, eyes set alight by the microscopic pyrotechnics of quotidian symbols hitherto debased by the outmoded conventions of a bankrupt civilisation decomposing in the land-fill of philosophy.

For too long we have laboured under the yolk of a reality fabricated by those with a vested interest in maintaining the outmoded conventions of performative narco-capitalist post-imperialist antineoquasilibertyrannepotism.

What is to be done to smash the walls of the rat-infested dead-end in which we as artists, citizens, human beings and artists find ourselves?

We propose a total, wholesale, tautological, hyperbolic rejection of the outmoded conventions of everything that everyone has ever done before, combined dialectically with the utter, rhetorical, portentous adoption of other conventions arguably just as outmoded but less visible to the bovine masses and scum-sucking journalists, on account of the intimidatingly foreign names of their proponents, theorists and practitioners.

We shout the names you can’t pronounce from the ruined rooftops: Bataille! Baudrillard! Lukács! Kierkegaard! Debord! Duchamp! Schwitters! Etc!

In brief:

Everything is part of a system!
The system is shit!
All systems are shit!
Ism offers a new system!
The ism system is not shit!
Everything is simple!
Everything is complex!
Everything is nothing!
Nothing is something!
Words are nothing!
Words are the only things!
We must set fire to the ladder of reality!
We must drown the puppies of cultural hegemony!
We must humiliatingly probe the anus of discourse!
I am a big ape!
I have big hairy testicles!
I have ism!
You are a smaller ape!
You have small, bald testicles!
You have no ism!

The artist of the future has a duty to dismantle the certainties of apples, oranges and bananas. He will put a metaphor of a metaphor in their place, metaphorically.

Wordless

As children, we read illustrated books all the time. Many of my most distinct memories of books read in childhood are of their pictures. Hercules in the blind rage of a bad dream, club in hand, running into the darkness of murder. The White Witch frog-marching Edmund through Narnia. Max cavorting with the Wild Things. In my young eyes the pictures were as important as the words, and I would gaze at them, taking in every detail. Their beautiful stasis was enchanting.

But there’s something in the adult psyche that is disdainful of pictures in books of fiction or poetry. A book containing illustrations is often considered less challenging a read than one without, as if words are puzzles and pictures their solutions. To look at pictures is to cheat at the reading test. Furthermore, novels for adults are usually published without illustrations, perhaps because words can convey places, characters and situations on their own. If a paragraph of description can create a London street, why commission an artist to draw it? Indeed, a line drawing might be reductive or so different from the vision of the mind’s eye as to diminish the reader’s enjoyment.

If literary works are better off without illustrations, they can be enhanced by non-illustrative pictures, images that offer something distinct from the sum total of the words next to which they are placed. Words and pictures can speak to each other and us simultaneously in their own languages. Or, to put it another way, the reader’s intellect and imagination are set free in the wide space between text and image. I could cite dozens of examples of books for adults in which this is the case: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive, Jindřich Heisler’s From the Strongholds of Sleep, Alex Garland’s The Coma, W G Sebald’s novels…

We must add Wordless to this list. It is an unassuming book, modest in dimensions and length, in which Kevin Reid’s photographs of a bowler hat and a white mask in various locations are accompanied by some laconic prose poems by George Szirtes. The collaborators take us into the flickering dreamworld of silent movies; the artfully degraded monochrome photographs are juxtaposed with texts printed in white on near-black with framing decorations, like captions. Indeed, much of the book’s charm lies in its deliberate quaintness, evident also in the image of the bowler hat and Szirtes’ occasionally old-fashioned turn-of-phrase:

One should always be astonished at such things.

Anyone familiar with Szirtes’ work on Twitter will recognise here the thoughtful, sometimes arch voice of his tweets. He delights in everyday language, finding elegant new possibilities in idioms and cliches:

We ate our hats and still we were hungry.

Szirtes wrote his miniatures in response to Reid’s subtly disquieting photographs; text illustrates or elaborates on image (rather than vice-versa) in a book that explores the polarities of male and female, sex and death, presence and absence. It’s interesting how a simple white mask and a bowler hat suggest characters and emotional states; Reid plays on our anthropomorphic imagination and our desire to find meaning in the strange. Like Szirtes, he has a sense of humour: in one picture the hat is placed on top of a toilet, transforming the object into a comical character. In another, a fork on one side and a knife on the other turn the hat into a plate. Through the simplest means, in a visual language as understated as the verbal language of his collaborator, Reid, like Szirtes, finds whimsy and poetry in the everyday.

Wordless began as an online project, and you can still see the whole sequence here. But I recommend you buy the book, which makes for a more satisfying reading experience. Holding the little paperback and poring over its pictures and words is a pleasure that will bring out the child in you. You can buy it here.

Larva

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Larva, the latest collection of poetry by the wonderful Mina Polen, is out now, in a dual language edition catering for both English and Spanish readers.

Many of the poems and prose poems in Larva comprise series of tweets (illustrating the author’s skills as a practitioner of Twitterature), and they all explore the theme of transformation, in Mina’s characteristically bold, taut style. Here, as in her previous book (Scylla & Charybdis) the reader encounters a surrealistic synthesis of the real and the imaginary, deftly delivered and free of arbitrariness; Mina’s juxtapositions, though outlandish, obey a playful logic that shows a delight in language, and always resonate deeply with the reader.

I’ll say no more: what follows are two poems from the book, in their English versions. If they whet your appetite, you can buy Larva here.

 

Transformations

His thoughts crystallized in drops, marbles and bubbles.
The room flooded with glass.
Self-absorbed, he kept thinking.

His sighs materialized in silk and a river was born from them.
There were meanders and wetlands.
Some of them -very deep- created canyons.

His concealed cries penetrated the earth.
Now they move beneath, direct heart quakes, coordinate erupting volcanoes.
They are fluid rock.

His nostalgia became fog.
It dripped down windows and walls, forming a dense bank below the ceiling. Above all, his nostalgia fogged his eyes.

His rancor became dark curtain, shining shadow.
Like oil it dripped, heavy, to the ocean floor.
From there, it went back to the night.

His sadness became a place in his chest where it was always raining.
A storm in his lungs when he cried.
An internal flooding.

His longings rose to the sky.
The vertical ones became cumulus, the wet ones nimbus and the cold ones
cirrus. They all reddened at dusk.

His desperation exploded.
Leaving behind sparkles, flame pieces, burnt traces.
His eyes gleam, the heart roasts and boils.

His will became a shadow: it grew, it shrank, disappeared.
Soft in the fog, intense under the sun light: viscous, ephemeral.
Inseparable.

His fear became not darkness but blinding light.
Gaseous light growing and blinding everything and everybody.
Some say it is still growing.

His love took all shapes.
Cloud, oil, marble, wave, fog, shadow, drop, fluid rock, rain and volcanic eruption.
It became everything.

 

Dust

The dust he releases contains minute skin fragments and DNA. A half dead, half alive dust that creates a map of his presence in the world.

The dust of tears is an infinitesimal diamantine that plagues the world. You can see it against the light: ephemeral sparkly sad clouds.

The dust of desire slides in zig zag over silky surfaces searching for a destiny and an orgasm. It produces very small spasmodic echoes.

The dust of sweat jumps and explodes in confetti of activity, fear and anxiety. It survives in small universes that expand and contract.

Guerrilla literature

Lunar splashed. Fragile liquid wings. Spine cracking mornings. Keyboard played and fingers flitting…the upload begins..icon initialization – Virulent Blurb

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Twitterary innovation

I have written elsewhere about Twitterature’s quiet revolution. I suspect it is about to get much noisier, thanks to Kneel Downe, a Twitter writer of exceptional boldness and energy, whose work is creating a buzz online. His long narrative @VirulentBlurb, begun in January 2012, depicts a poetic sci-fi universe that has spawned diverse side projects, from the detective fiction of @DetectiveLobo to the mythicism of Amelia, tweeted from Kneel’s main account (@kneeldowne) and recently collected into a beautiful book, Amelia’s Song. Yes, there are books (three so far and more promised), but they’re just one manifestation of Kneel’s tireless creativity.

Kneel shares with other Twitterateurs a facility for condensed expression, but he differs from many of them in his refreshingly heterogeneous style. The reader experiences a series of jolts as the prose shifts gear; hard-boiled brutality is juxtaposed with poetry, archaic syntactic inversions with outlandish neologisms. Kneel enjoys the sound and feel of words, the story as song. The effect is often thrilling. Here are two examples, one from @VirulentBlurb and one from Amelia’s Song.

Mine ears have heard the thrumming and the humming of the Lord. Secreted in the basement on a bed of circuit swords… the fatherlode shifts.

When Amelia was a little boy she dreamed of her husband… she saw maybes in a pool of when… so long ago. Steam trains and lonely queens…

Kneel’s polyphonic writing is most at home amidst the multitude of voices murmuring though a Twitter feed. His tweets come in manic bursts, out of nowhere, vivid and loud as parakeets. He improvises, riffs, lets the words take their natural course. He’s unguarded and volatile. This is guerrilla literature, raw and dangerous, a world away from the stability of books.

Part of the attraction of following Kneel’s main feed (@kneeldowne) is his personality. Much of what he tweets is not fiction. Like most Twitter users, he makes observations, interacts, retweets. But the personality that comes through those tweets is bigger than most. His enthusiasm, sense of humour and occasional irascibility are evident throughout his timeline. He delights and provokes, laying himself bare and not attempting to create a smooth persona that will gain him book sales. He tweets about other authors’ books more than he does about his own. Ironically, it’s his disregard for conventional marketing that is his most marketable trait.

 

Power to the self-published!

Although Kneel is self-published, he has friends on Twitter who promote his books. His agent, Steve Taylor-Bryant (@opiniongeeks), runs the DreamCage media group, which has its own Twitter feed (@DreamCageAgency), advertising books by Kneel and others. Meanwhile, Kneel’s creative partner, the supremely talented Susan Omand (@OmandOriginal) markets his books through another Twitter feed, @Blurbinfo. Both of these official channels have low numbers of followers at present, but everyone has to start somewhere. Because Kneel, Steve and Susan have cultivated strong friendships online, between their various personal and official accounts they have plenty of followers (including me) who are happy to retweet a book plug or help spread news of Kneel’s activity.

 

Rock n roll

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Probably the most exciting and unique aspect of Kneel’s publicity machine is the merchandise, designed by Susan and sold through various websites, notably Kneel’s main hub, www.virulentblurb.com. Kneel’s not just an author; he’s rock n roll! You can buy some very cool t-shirts, mugs, calendars… I can think of no other author whose work is promoted in the same way. Even his fictional rock band, the Phaze Lords, has its own website (www.phazelords.com), where you can read tributes to the band and information about the albums and tours. As André Breton put it, “the imaginary is what tends to become real.”

I’ll finish by recommending you check Kneel out for yourself. The best place to start is his main Twitter account, @kneeldowne. Say hi and tell him the Bird King sent you.