The Irreal Reader

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The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal, edited by GS Evans and Alice Whittenburg (Guide Dog Books, 2013).

The Kafka Effect
Although Franz Kafka died in 1924, having written fiction rooted in his life as a Jew in early Twentieth Century Prague, his influence continues. The nightmarish logic of stories such as The Trial and The Metamorphosis seems to spring from a source common to all humanity, and has made the Kafkaesque an easily identified and understood quality, in need of no further explanation. It is only to be expected, then, that numerous authors not lacking in individuality have nevertheless written in a Kafkaesque vein. The stories of Jacques Sternberg, Roland Topor’s Le locataire chimérique and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled typify a mode of writing, or rather an outlook, that I suspect would have come about anyway at some point in the last century, but which is described as Kafkaesque in recognition of the man who expressed it first.

GS Evans and Alice Whittenburg, editors of the handsome Irreal Reader, make no bones of the fact that the contemporary fiction they describe as “irrealist” belongs to a tradition traceable to Kafka. Borges is acknowledged too, as is Kobo Abe, but of the three Kafka is probably the writer whose work best exemplifies irrealism.

What is Irrealism?
The second section of the book comprises theoretical texts, explaining irrealism. Arguably, the notion of the ism is a quaint one; the Twentieth Century abounded with isms (with attendant theories and manifestos, the academic’s delight), but I wonder if we need a new one now. An ism generalises and divides, and often an author or artist’s idiosyncrasies are overlooked, to accommodate him or her in the school or movement. The fiction in The Irreal Reader is diverse in style and spirit, which perhaps explains the inclusion of the theoretical texts; without them, what would “irrealism” mean to the reader?

In his essay “What is Irrealism?” GS Evans writes:

In an irreal story… not only is the physics underlying the story impossible… but it is also fundamentally and essentially unpredictable… and unexplained.

Evans makes the useful distinction between irreal and fantasy fiction, stating that impossible events in the latter are explicable in terms of the physical laws of the setting. So a man might turn into an insect because of a spell or curse. But in The Metamorphosis there is no physical explanation for Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a dung beetle. Neither is there a metaphysical one; we might interpret the story in terms of castration anxiety or the effects of anti-Semitism, but an allegorical reading will feel inadequate and incomplete. The power of Kafka’s fiction lies in its elegant enigmas. By extension, contemporary irreal fiction is inscrutable and dream-like, taking as its starting point the threshold between the real and the unreal. In Evans’s words, irrealism is “a device that can… reveal and enlighten us in respect to reality (in this case, an absurd and ambiguous one.)”

Irrealism & Surrealism
Comparisons between irrealism and surrealism are inevitable, and it is here that I found the theoretical texts in The Irreal Reader unconvincing. In “Irrealism and the Visual Arts” Garrett Rowlan makes the case that Giorgio de Chirico was a painter who could be considered irrealist because his art depicts real objects in disquieting combinations, creating a sense of mystery. Exactly the same could be said of René Magritte, an artist who identified himself as a surrealist. So what’s the difference between the two isms? In “Irrealism Is Not Surrealism” GS Evans offers a distinction (namely that surrealists are researchers of the unconscious, whereas irrealists are self-conscious artists), but it’s based on a very narrow definition of surrealism, implicit in a statement made by the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists in 2002 and deriving ultimately from the theories of André Breton. Although Breton’s pronouncements on surrealism, its aims and practices have been useful to cultural historians, they don’t tell the whole story, and many of surrealism’s most interesting writers (for example, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Joyce Mansour and Leonora Carrington) don’t count as surrealists at all, if we apply Breton’s famous “pure psychic automatism” definition and assume, as Evans does, that the surrealists were less preoccupied with aesthetics and the activity of creating art than other writers and artists. And what would Evans make of the writings of Marcel Lecomte? My guess is that he’d see the spirit of irrealism in the work of the Belgian surrealist.

In short, I see no evidence that an irrealist text has characteristics that aren’t to be found in the writings of that most disparate of groups, the surrealists.

However, there is one crucial difference between irrealism and surrealism. The former, according to GS Evans, is concerned solely with art, while the latter (I, too, lapse into generalisation) was an attempt to change the world, through revolutions on both a social and a personal level. Surrealism was far more ambitious than irrealism.

So much for isms. Let’s move on.

Short Stories
The anthology’s strength lies in the quality of the short stories and prose poems it contains, some of which are by big names in the world of literature. Collected under the Borgesian heading “Fictions”, several of the pieces show a debt to the great Argentine writer (notably Emilio Martinez’s “News from Burgundia” and Michal Ajvaz’s “The City and Heaven”), but are deftly executed. All of the writers in the anthology deserve a mention, but I’ll touch on just a few, to give a flavour of the book.

Ana María Shua’s miniatures are witty and idiosyncratic, and constitute virtuoso exercises in prose poetry. Peter Cherches is equally impressive, the extracts from “Mr Deadman” recalling Michaux’s “Plume” sequence in their deadpan and often darkly humorous treatment of the unreal; anyone who has read my Bird King poems will not be surprised that as soon as I started reading Cherches I recognised in him a kindred spirit! The wonderful Ewald Murrer is represented too (in extracts from The Diary of Mr Pinke), as are Charles Simic (“Seven Prose Poems”) and (what a discovery!) Richard Kostelanetz, whose vertiginous “Openings” reads like a brilliant parody of an exercise undertaken by a student of creative writing. Kevin Sexton’s intoxicating piece, “The Spindler”, is at once delirious and controlled. Other authors whose work left a particularly strong impression on me were D Harlan Wilson, Lee Williams, Vít Erban and the mischievous Tomáš Pridal.

It would be interesting to know if all of the authors in The Irreal Reader consider themselves irrealists. The variety evident in the book suggests that they are linked by an interest in the unfettered imagination, rather than by a philosophy or programme. Not that it matters; this superb book offers the reader an experience of delightful, disturbing inner worlds, and, at times, sheds fresh light on that domineering but uncertain thing called “reality”. Highly recommended.

You can buy The Irreal Reader here (US) and here (UK). Visit the Cafe Irreal here.

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Instructions for the assembly of a junk poem

1. Tweet repeatedly on a theme, image or character. Do not attempt to create a coherent sequence; instead, play with ideas.

2. Optionally, write some longer pieces on the same theme. Be as careless as possible when writing them; they are raw ingredients.

3. When you have amassed a considerable quantity of text, read it all and decide on 13 categories into which it could be organised.

4. Copy all of the tweets and texts in a given category into a new document.

Optionally, add quotations and allusions that seem appropriate.

5. Rearrange the material in each category until it contains the most startling juxtapositions and shifts in tone and register.

6. Cut anything that is too neat or polished or satisfying or poetic.

7. Make arbitrary line breaks, so that your prose resembles free verse.

8. Give your 13-part poem a preposterous title, to encourage people to believe that you take yourself too seriously.

9. Publish your junk poem in book form, in an attempt to make of your ephemeral bric-a-brac a literary monolith.

10. Experience surprise and dismay when very few people buy your book.

11. Find another theme, image or character and begin the process again.

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These instructions describe how I assembled my poems Mr Punch Dreams and the revised Madness of the Bird King, both published in Head Traumas

Why you should read Robbe-Grillet

I shall never forget the opening pages of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel, Jealousy. From the first few sentences it was clear that the author was doing something very interesting with the novel as a form. Here they are, in Richard Howard’s translation:

Now the shadow of the column – the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof – divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts. This veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. Since its width is the same for the central position as on the sides, the line of a shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky.

The reader is taken into a physical world whose features are catalogued and described in obsessive, perhaps excessive detail, and when I first read this I felt as if I was hallucinating.

Robbe-Grillet’s is a universe of intense subjectivity, expressed with deadpan objectivity. Famously rejecting almost all of the conventions of the novel (including character, metaphor and story) in his 1963 collection of essays, For a New Novel, he created a fresh lexicon of fiction and wrote novels that are astonishing and compelling in their inventiveness.

Jealousy is narrated by a jealous husband, reduced to acts of voyeurism as he observes the behaviour of his wife with a man called Franck. The apparent objectivity of the novel’s many descriptive passages is in fact a near-delirious attempt by the fraught narrator to be a detective, to put together the clues that corroborate his destructive state of mind. Episodes are repeated, new details recalled or imagined. Nothing is certain. And it’s impossible to step outside the novel and answer the question, “Is the narrator’s jealousy justified?” There is only his story, his viewpoint. The world beyond it does not exist.

Robbe-Grillet’s later novels are more sinister and phantasmagoric, teaming with abductions, dreams, violence and narrators whose identity isn’t fixed; now the victim, now the villain, a Robbe-Grillet narrator never allows the reader to become complacent. Instead, your role becomes creative; like the narrator of Jealousy, you must put together the pieces of the narrative, deduce or invent your own story from them. I would particularly recommend Recollections of the Golden Triangle, whose source material was the author’s interpretation of some paintings by René Magritte.

Metanarratives are two-a-penny nowadays. Self-reflexivity is probably an overused trope, and one I parodied in a piece called “Insomnia”:

The artist intends you to make a connection between violent death and orgasm. Excuse me if you’ve heard this before…

In Robbe-Grillet’s hands, however, this technique (which at its best makes us question the narrator, the author, the novel, language itself) is electrifying.

I’m glad to say that most of his books are available in English translation, and you can get hold of the original French editions very easily through Amazon. His pared-down, unliterary style is refreshing and bold. Anyone who cares about the novel, its traditions and its future should read this author.

The Independent & Twitter poetry

Yesterday’s edition of The Independent included an article about poetry on Twitter, inaccurately treating it as a nascent phenomenon and citing as the principle exponents of micropoetry established writers who (with the notable exception of George Szirtes) dabble in online writing but write primarily for print. You can read the article here.

And if you’d like to read my response to the article, it can be found on their letters page, here.

Subjective Objects

If you sit in the house on your own, not doing anything, the objects around you change. Useful items become totems, presences. In the absence of human company, inanimate things appear quietly anthropomorphic.

A plant like a hand.
The eyes of lightbulbs.
Electric cables reaching behind sofas.
The coffee table’s quiescence.
Obliging taps.
The blank stare of the TV.

Maybe the human imagination is hard-wired to see the world in this way. We infer agency or project it onto things, so that the material universe seems either to have human characteristics or to have been created by a being or beings with such characteristics.

Our tendency to personify objects as diverse as boats, hurricanes and the sun, illustrates how integral this way of seeing is to our experience and understanding of the world.

The novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet recognised this and famously lambasted authors for the stylistic tic of personification. Interestingly, the world he presents in his fiction, though largely stripped of figurative language, is utterly anthropocentric. Eschewing some of the conventions of the novel, he put a fresh and exciting emphasis on the ineluctability of our subjective perceptions, and on the relationship between our inner life and the world of objects. His collection of short pieces, Instantanés, contains what at first appear to be meticulously objective descriptions of material things, which soon take on an unsettling dream-like quality.

A positive symptom of our tendency to see ourselves reflected in the world, is art. Another is education: aspects of reality such as animals, emotions and modes of transport are often represented to very young children anthropomorphically. It is as if, as adults, we know intuitively that presenting the world in this way will make it comprehensible.

A negative symptom of our anthropomorphic imagination is religion. But that’s a different matter.

Domestic Objects

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13 terrible claws. A tribute to Maurice Sendak…

1. Max’s wolf costume is not a disguise.

2. Darkness makes us susceptible to the irrational. We lose our grip, if only slightly. That scratching noise could be a monster.

3. The colour yellow is suggestive of cowardice or being pissed off. Do the yellow eyes of the wild things signify melancholy?

4. Words in patterns, making rhythms, like a spell.

5. The boat bears his name. It could be argued that this delightful little vessel is not so much Max’s property as a symbol of him.

6. We’ve all met the wild things. When we look at their pictures they don’t surprise us.

7. Art is a wild rumpus.

8. Max’s crown doesn’t fit. He doesn’t know how to enjoy his despotism. Mimicking mummy, he loses himself.

9. What does Max’s mum look like? She’s a voice, a reproach, morality, accepted values. In Freudian terms, she may represent the superego.

10. Max’s dream recurs every time anyone reads the book.

11. The offer of a homecoming: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so!”

12. Max’s tale is one of transgression, forgiveness and redemption. But don’t let that put you off.

13. Everything I have ever written has been a variation on Where the Wild Things Are.

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All texts on this site are the copyright of James Knight. All rights reserved.

Twitterature

Recently, the poet George Szirtes invited me and Aksania Xenogrette to discuss Twitter literature, its characteristics and possibilities. George had been kind enough to review a copy of time lines, an anthology of Twitter poets, and this has led to some interesting discussion of Twitter as a literary medium. We hope to continue the colloquy live on Twitter soon.

Below are some thoughts I emailed to George and Aksania. Apologies if they seem limited in scope to my personal practice; I can only write with authority about what I’ve experienced. I would welcome comments and reactions.

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Virtually any established narrative or poetic form could work on Twitter, though most would be fragmented (or organised) into several tweets.

Many twitter poets label their tweets #haiku, as if to say, “I know micropoetry isn’t a respected form, so here’s a label that should convince you I’m a real poet.” This diffidence suggests a conservative attitude to form that I find surprising, given the violent upheavals that poetry experienced from the late 19th Century (Whitman, Dickinson, Rimbaud), then through modernism and the avant-garde. A poet should be an adventurer.

One question is, what new forms of literary expression exist or could exist on twitter? In my preface to time lines I suggested that the tweet could be considered a literary form in itself (though obviously it has non-literary uses too). The 140 character limit is conducive to a highly concentrated manner of expression that leaves a lot to the imagination or interpretation of the reader; in other words, a tweet is conducive to poetry.

The ephemerality of the tweet gives it a spectral quality that cannot be achieved by the solidity of black ink on a white page. This is a characteristic that distinguishes a tweet from, say, an imagist poem or any other very brief text.

I have read many tweets that constitute beautiful or arresting poems in themselves. However, single-tweet pieces have their limitations, and can be tedious or unsatisfying for the reader, after a while. Longer forms, comprising series of tweets, are a solution to this problem. For example, I have written numerous 13-part prose poems (which I refer to as 13s), in which images and ideas are varied or developed across the sequence. Each part is a numbered tweet; a reader may suddenly encounter something like this in his timeline:

4. Christ-in-the-Box leaps heavenward, eyes agog.

The number should encourage him to look back for numbers 1 to 3, and maybe anticipate 5 and beyond. Each part may be taken as a self-contained miniature – there is no overarching narrative – and yet it forms part of a larger structure.

A key aspect of twitter is interaction. An author might tweet material and then receive replies from followers: augmentations, questions, suggestions, variations. For example, many of my Bird King tweets prompted replies in a similar style from various people. A reader following me and someone who had replied to me would thus have an enriched reading experience, seeing a dialogue or a tennis-match of ideas going back and forth. This phenomenon is unique to twitter; you could copy and paste such a creative dialogue into a static document, but reading that document world be a very different experience from seeing the tweets appear in real time.

There are twitter accounts with multiple authors, such as @echovirus12, set up by Jeff Noon. Such accounts allow individuals to contribute anonymously to a narrative or, in the case of Jeff’s group, play the twitter equivalent of the exquisite corpse or an OuLiPo game.

Another example of creative interaction is my ONEIROSCOPE project. I invite anyone who happens to be looking at their timelines to request a single-tweet bespoke dream. They can specify up to three words that I have to include. I try to respond as quickly as possible, and include details that I think will resonate with the recipient, based on prior acquaintance or a quick look at his bio and tweets. Whenever I tweet that the ONEIROSCOPE is open for business I get a lot of returning customers. This, on a small scale, exemplifies the buzz of live interaction on twitter.

Quality is an interesting problem. At least 90% of twitterature is crap; solipsism, banality, empty paradoxes, glib philosophy and incompetent writing abound. Should we devise criteria for judging quality? That would be an interesting and difficult exercise.

One last thought – for now. The experience of reading online, and on mobile devices in particular, is radically different from that of reading a book. The reader’s experience is something we should investigate. I suspect it will unlock the real value of twitterature and show why twitter provides something with which conventional publishing (including self-published books like time lines) can never compete.