Monday, 12 December 2016

The Soft Machine - William Burroughs


So, what is The Soft Machine by William Burroughs about? What does it mean? And come to that, what is anything about? What does anything mean?
On reading The Soft Machine it's very clear that Burroughs was way ahead of his time and in fact, we're all still trying to catch up. In this post-truth Donald Trump world, of Brexit and HyperNormalisation, infotainment and fake news, Burroughs is the perfect accompaniment.

Martin Amis once said of Burroughs that when reading a book, most people like to have the author up in the control tower guiding the planes not running around on the runway waving their arms about. Or words to that effect.
William Burroughs was a total genius but if anyone came upon this book (or any others by him, actually) would they take it for the rantings of a lunatic? Would they liken it to a man having just stumbled out of a jungle having been lost there for months surviving on a diet of lizards, bark and bugs? The senseless gibberish of a man in the throes of fever? It's very likely. And would they be appalled? I would hope not. Rather, I hope they would recognise that Burroughs was doing something totally unique within the idiom of language; subverting it so as to reveal the hidden layers underneath and subsequently blasting a portal into another dimension of human perception.

"Shoot your way to freedom, kid," writes Burroughs and he doesn't mean with a pistol. Up to Lexington 125, feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive. I'm waiting for my Man.
"Hello, I'm Johnny Yen, a friend of - Well, just about everybody."
'Green lizard boy with slow idiot smile poses on the bank of a stagnant stream under a railroad bridge A sleeping carrion hunger flickers in his eyes one hand rests lightly on his worn leather jock strap.'
"Cut word lines - Cut music lines - Smash the control images - Smash the control machine - Burn the books - Kill the priests - Kill! Kill! Kill!"
It's a scary world we live in when text derived from Burroughs' cut-up and fold-in technique from 1961 makes more sense and is closer to the truth than what is printed in the newspapers these days.
"We don't report the news - We write it."

How do you review a book like The Soft Machine? The answer is 'You don't'. The Soft Machine is beyond such things. You read it and that's all. In doing so, however, you're allowing its parasitical presence to invade your body so as to do battle with all the other parasites you're riddled with (whether you know it or not?). That's my understanding of it, anyway.
And if you're looking for a name to call your band, this is the place to go. Soft Machine has already been taken (Robert Wyatt had that one) as has Dead Fingers Talk, and even the term 'Heavy Metal'. 'Upper Baboonasshole' has a certain ring to it though, don't you think? Grab it quick whilst it's still going I'd advise, or you'll soon be seeing some act appearing on X Factor or Britain's Got Talent calling themselves it before they hit The Charts...
John Serpico

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Dubliners - James Joyce


In musical terms, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners by James Joyce are overtures whilst Ulysses is the full oratorio in excelsis deo. Finnegan's Wake is free jazz. The thing about all these works is that they're all masterpieces in their own distinct ways, with Joyce never putting a foot (or a word) wrong.
What is also interesting is that Joyce wrote all these books (particularly Ulysses) whilst living in desperate poverty, which tells us great art is not borne from material wealth and the comfort of riches but from adversity and (more often than not) a plebeian imagination. Moreover, what is doubly interesting is that the works of James Joyce have nowadays been claimed by academia and a self-proclaimed cultural elite as their own; proclaiming Joyce's books as being far too difficult for the non-University educated to even contemplate reading. It's called cultural appropriation.

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories first published in 1914 though written some years earlier, all being snapshots of life and events in Dublin during that period. Such is the brilliance of Joyce's writing that it's like putting a magnifying glass to these snapshots to show the finer detail, each detail being a universe unto itself.
Each story is distinctly different, the common theme between them being that for the main protagonist in each, it is a significant yet not fully realised event that is being captured. An additional yet more subtle spin at the end of each signifying another realisation that is unspoken yet just as if not more important.

So, in the story The Sisters, for example, a young man's (Joyce?) old vicar friend passes away and whilst hiding his own feelings so as not to betray how important the vicar was to him, records the thoughts and sentiments of those around him regarding the death. More significant is the revelation at the end that the vicar had been found alone one night in the confession-box of the chapel, laughing softly to himself. It was this that suggested to friends and family that there was 'something gone wrong with him'.
In the story The Encounter, two young boys (one of them Joyce?) bunk off from school and during the course of their day encounter a man who in the words of one of the boys is 'a queer old josser'. A pervert, in other words. The importance of the day and the experience of it is conveyed but more significant is when one of the boys (Joyce?) finds himself relieved to see the return of his friend after being left alone for some minutes with the man because in his heart he had always despised his friend a little.
In the story Counterparts, a man bullied by his employer takes a stand and humiliates him in front of others before dining out on the story in the local bars with all his friends. More significantly, he returns home that night and beats one of his children with a stick for letting the fire in the kitchen hearth go out.

Joyce casts no aspersions upon the characters in these stories but by revealing an additional insight into their lives - and significantly their inner lives - he shines a whole new light upon them. What he so beautifully describes in his writing is the life going on in the outer world but then shines his light upon the inner life. The life that might appear smaller and less significant than the outer one but that is actually far more expansive and much more meaningful.

To continue the music analogy, reading Dubliners is like listening to an LP, with each separate story being akin to an individual song. Any good LP can be listened to either as a collection of different tracks or as a complete piece, and with any good LP there is always going to be favourite tracks. So too with Dubliners there are also favourite stories, most people's being the one that brings it to an end, entitled The Dead.

According to the New York Times, The Dead is 'just about the finest short story in the English language'. According to Evan Dando (of 1990s alt-Punk band The Lemonheads) 'For me, it's all about the Dubliners by James Joyce. I love The Dead'. According to Will Self, Dubliners is 'startling'.
Being non-University educated and therefore unable to even contemplate reading Joyce, I hesitate in laying down any such similar grandiose declaration because I feel I've just not read enough short stories in my time to compare (and I've read a few). I would say, however, that The Dead is far better than that other much-lauded short story, The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I would also say that The Dead is a thing of beauty that in the sublime vision it presents, paints a picture of the universe that could be compared to Van Gogh's The Starry Night.
The Dead is the true precursor to Ulysses where Joyce zooms into the detail of the finite then out to the infinite; weaving time, heartache, exaltation and memory into a seamless narrative. If The Dead was a record then it would stand the test of time and be passed on from generation to generation, appreciated by all.
Forever and ever.

John Serpico