Review: Begat – Felix Culpepper

Richard Major, writing under the pseudonym Felix Culpepper, presents us with Begat: an entertainment for the Trump epoch. It is a moderately updated version of an oddly prescient short story written by Major in the autumn of 2015, when it still appeared Donald Trump would be no more than a vulgar footnote in the election of the first female president of the United States. In a matter of days, Major produced his own Frankenstein, modernised to focus on our obsession with ‘unreality’ (what Baudrillard would have called ‘hyperreality’), and our willingness to let our lives be guided by sensationalism rather than truth.

 

‘Begat’ chronicles the creation of a university mascot so monstrously vacuous, he soon comes to embody the most degraded aspects of British culture. First the students, and then the whole country, fill the non-entity that is Armilus Lightborne with the parts of themselves too vile to express personally. Their sordid projections turn him into an invincible national antihero, and within the space of a few months he has conquered social media, risen to a prominent Cabinet position, and declared nuclear war.

 

The birthplace of this awful phantasm is the University of the Mid-Pennines. Located as it is in a concrete-grey post-industrial British town, it provides a brilliantly dismal backdrop to this grim tale. It is a tradition of Gothic literature that the setting foreshadow the gruesome events to come, although in most examples there is some romantic tempestuousness – not so here. Culpepper’s apocalypse is borne of apathy and sloth, therefore the epicentre and its occupants are bereft of soul; their vices dull, their imaginations vanishingly tiny, beyond the pleasure they take in the lousy university tradition of creating their mascot.

 

“Moreover, they’d had the ill-fortune to be born at the fag-end of that lull between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers. For twelve years, from 1989 to 2001, history passed through a Sabbath. Their parents had seen the age of tyranny fade into euphoria; they themselves had grown up with euphoria fading into surreality.”

 

 

The greatest evil in this short tale is apathy; an ailment most often ascribed to the millennial generation, but in truth a scourge on humanity since the dawn of civilisation. As Edward Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In this case, our story-teller is neither a man, nor good in any discernible way. She is the university registrar, and takes rather a childish delight in unnerving people with her cold indifference. Ursula’s level-headed analysis of the chaos that surrounds her makes her a good narrator; while at times the prose can feel clunky, and some of the youthful vernacular is somewhat inorganic, for the most part Begat is smoothly written and drily witty, with certain passages that are downright haunting. Unexpectedly visceral depictions of gore counter-balance artfully the almost metaphysical explanations of Armilus’s power and influence.

 

“In Lightborne’s bosom people felt the absolute peace of stupidity, greatest of all man-made forces. Stupidity laid its hand across their eyes until their restless neurons ceased to bound and painfully twitch, until a stillness came upon their brains and they sighed, snuggling around themselves, like a duvet, the tepid Abysm.”

 

At once a send-up of the era of post-irony we find ourselves in and a polemic against the culture of vapidity and benign celebrity which helped transport us here, Begat is an enjoyable and timely read. It is an entertaining blend of Gothic and modern literature, dragging Frankenstein into the Age of Trump while staying true to its macabre roots –at least as horrifying as reality, and twice as much fun!

 

Begat is available to buy now at http://www.indiebooks.co.uk

Review: Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Flights is billed as “a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy”. ‘Novel’ is the right word, although perhaps in another sense; this book is structured in a way I have never encountered before, almost like a collection of short stories (a medium in which Tokarczuk has some pedigree).

We leap from modern Croatia to eighteenth century Austria, from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean to Chopin’s funeral, from the streets of Moscow to a Dutch laboratory. As we flit from one time and place to another, interspersed with notes on travel psychology and brief accounts of airport bars and hotel lobbies, we are drawn into the mindset of the traveller. “Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” Tokarczuk tells us. So it is with her stories; we collide with these characters, see into their lives and minds with dazzling clarity, but for an indeterminate length of time, as they are whisked away again to be replaced by a wholly different scene.

Although travel and anatomy may at first sound like disparate topics, there are red threads that course through the narrative like arteries, and Tokarczuk guides us with such elegance that we soon realise the two things are a mirror of each other – an outward journey, and an inward. It’s a popular trope that people travel to ‘find themselves’; the anatomists and the taxidermists of Flights map the body searching for the locality of the ‘self’, and seek to perfect the preservation of the human form after death. We bear witness to wonderful phenomena – phantom limbs, strange disappearances, which make us question the simple assertion that we are fixed, rational individuals. Tokarczuk’s characters are often displaced, geographically or mentally, their sense of self disrupted by paranoia or loss. Through the gaps in their psyches, as in the diagrams of a skilful dissection, we are able to explore the nature of what constitutes a human being, the fabric of our reality, and the cages from which we experience it.

Much of this may sound unsettling, even chilling, as Flights can be at times, when Tokarczuk strips away the comforting illusions of stability and endurance, leaving us with not even the protection of our own bodies or identities and reminding us that we are essentially free-falling through time, migrants in hostile lands. She does this readily, turning her “eviscerating knife” on the human condition, and of course it is unsettling – how could it not be? To read of your own fears and frailties, laid down with such startling ease of language. And yet, there is much delight to be taken too, in rediscovered loves, in Tokarczuk’s often gothic humour, and in the endless hopes and opportunities of life’s journeys. I believe the true spirit of Flights lies in a passage near its end:

“…whatever your destination might be, you are always heading in that direction. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Where I Am,’ it makes no difference. I’m here.”

 

This is not what I would call an easy book to read, and it is harder still to describe. What I would say is this: if you are a pilgrim, of mind or road or page, here is your guidebook.

“Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”

Happy travels.

The Nature of Writing

“A spider draws a strand between my forearms; she has created a nerve and creeps along it as an impulse – a new synapse connecting me to the world.”

   These words came to me unbidden as I sat in the garden reading Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It’s a remarkable book, structured unlike any novel I’ve read before, and even in its translated form the writing seeps into my mind like cool air, clearing out the dusty corners and inflating the whole. Thoughts float freely, collide, convalesce, dancing to a tune that I can’t hear but experience second-hand, evident only in its effect.

   This isn’t how I work. I’m a methodical writer, the ‘sit down and slog it out’ kind of writer, constantly wrangling with sentence structure, picking each word apart and scrutinising every inch of it to make sure it belongs on the page, that it isn’t an imposter. I can write a thousand words to gain fifty worth keeping.

   So when I feel the slight tickle of the spider’s movement, through the ends of the line it has surreptitiously cast between my two raised arms, and this phrase is turned right behind my eyes, a fully-formed metaphor materialising with no conscious effort, it takes me by surprise.

   Now this isn’t to say the phrase is beautiful, or even well-worded. I’m no poet – some may find it clumsy, or obvious. It’s not the idea’s appearance that so struck me but the manner of its appearance: it came through inspiration, rather than diligence. Some cocktail of conditions was mixed and inadvertently served up as an original thought. Tokarczuk’s exceptional example no doubt played its part, but what else? The sun. The breeze. The spider. Nature.

   Nature inarguably plays a large role in the work of the novelist. There is no surer way to transport a reader than through a skilful description of the environment in which the story takes place.

 

There was a wide treeless space before them, running in a great circle and bending away on either hand. Beyond it was a deep fosse lost in soft shadow, but the grass upon its brink was green, as if it glowed still in memory of the sun that had gone.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

 

  This can be especially effective in the fantasy genre; as we know, nature has its own magic, and so what better way to tempt the reader to suspend belief, to accept an entirely alien world with its own rules of reality, than through the very components on which the world is built?

 

“His mind searched for something tall in that landscape. But there was no persuading tallness out of heat-addled air and that horizon – no bloom or gently shaken thing to mark the passage of a breeze… only dunes and that distant cliff beneath a sky of burnished silver-blue.”

Frank Herbert, Dune

 

When we view a character’s surroundings through their eyes, we can be made to feel nature’s resonance in their senses. Some aspects of the setting may go beyond the physical; a bleak landscape can foreshadow despair. A clever author can imbue the wind with portents of love and war.

 

“The ground became soft and damp, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation was thicker and thicker, and the cries of the birds and the uproar of the monkeys became more and more remote, and the world became eternally sad.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

“A burst of yellow and black first alarms and then amazes him. It soars skyward, lands on a flat-headed tree, where it spreads out its wings and, like a butterfly, flitters: a supernal bird. Then, at night, the stars. A discovery: here, the moon was the other way round. He had lost his north.”

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust

 

But the natural world isn’t just a selection of backdrops, or a conduit for literary devices. It is a bottomless pool of spiritual and physical resources. The writer’s relationship with nature is fundamental – on what did I set down these words (before typing them up, of course)? Although more and more publishing houses are moving to recycled materials, and the practice of binding books with leather and rabbit-skin glue is all but obsolete, the earth is owed a great debt for the forests that adorn our shelves.

It is vital to remember that we are nature, an easy fact to forget when we shut ourselves away for days at a time. The setting of a story matters, because the natural world speaks to an innate part of our beings, and to tap into this channel of communication it is essential that we connect with the world. In our offices, at our desks, there is no breeze to stir the soul, no dappled sunlight to engage our eye. No spiders alight to remind us.

 

“The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.”

Philip Larkin, The Trees

Review: Happy – Derren Brown

In Happy, Derren Brown employs centuries of philosophy to tackle the problems – both real and imagined – of modern life. He does it with much humour and compassion, as well as scepticism for the easy answers of charlatans and gurus.

Happy begins by outlining the shortcomings of current self-help dogma, in a style sure to have fellow sceptics cheering their justified frustration. It is hard not to grin with relief and approval as Brown demolishes the twin pillars of goal-orientation and tyrannical positivity.

He then takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of philosophical history, picking out the most pertinent points regarding the question of how to live well. The process seems a little subjective, but this isn’t a textbook, and the reference list is there for a more comprehensive overview. Besides, as the author tells us, he wants to keep the focus on practical application, and on what can we rely for this but personal experience?

When Brown zeroes in on key ideas, he picks them apart and applies his not inconsiderable logic to explore the benefits and realities within. This is most effective in the section on death and coping with loss, which gives some surprisingly bold and resounding conclusions.

The highlights of Happy lie in Brown’s anecdotal storytelling; he can have you laughing helplessly at paragraphs concerning his partner and his parrot, and a few pages later move you to tears over the journey of a terminally ill friend. A couple of times, beautifully emotive observational passages rise from nowhere and offer raw glimpses of a truly remarkable mind and richly cultivated soul. It is these moments, rather than Brown’s earlier logical cut-and-thrust, that attest to the simple power of the Stoic ideas he espouses; the power to achieve clarity through consideration, and to find happiness in the smallest of details.

This feels like a book I will return to often; for guidance, for suggestions for further reading, and for the simple joy of it as a piece of work.

I guarantee this book will make you happy. Even if the ideas and advice never make it off the page and into your everyday life, just to read it is a genuine pleasure.

I just wish I could pick it up without the Pharrell song popping into my head…