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.

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…