The Top Ten Greatest Literary Moments in Eighties Pop Part two: Plus Lentement, Kevin, S’il vous plait

This one’s a game.

There’s a ~90k mp3 at this link; it contains a very short extract from ‘There There, My Dear’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Open it how you will, and listen to it.

What do you think Kevin Rowland is singing?

Here’s a clue, if you’re stuck: it starts with ‘keep quoting…’

You may listen to the mp3 as many times as you like.

You can also listen to the whole song. You will find it on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, or most Dexy’s greatest hits compilations.

You may also listen to the song as many times as you like.

Write down your answer.

Well? Did you get the right answer?

(I love Dexy’s. Love them. I almost literally can’t speak or write about this, because they’ve been a source of joy and a support at the grimmest of late times. I think I’ll just leave you with this. It’s the dialogue that makes up the third verse of ‘Kevin Rowland’s 13th Time’, the opening track on the remastered Don’t Stand Me Down:

Kevin Rowland: Yeah… Well I thought a little joke might be a good idea, Just to sort of, I d’know, kick off the proceedings, as it were, y’know.

Billy Adams: Oh yeah!

K: What d’you think?

B: Yeah, go on!

K: Good idea?

Helen O’Hara: Does anybody know one?

K: Yeah… You ever hear the one about the em, y’know the middle class idiots who, who sort of spend all their time analysing their own emotions and writing bullshit poetry, y’know, that we’re supposed to read…

[Some snorts of laughter]

As if we’re fucking interested…

[more laughter]

B: That’s a good one!

K: You like that one, yeh?

B: Where’d you hear that one?

K: errrm…

B: Did you make it up yourself?

K: No, no, it’s a true story, that one.

[Shouts of disbelief]

K: Honestly it’s true! I didn’t make it up!

[Laughter]

)

There must a word for them. Uncultureys? Bad-stuff-likers?

coffin lid

Philistine Coffin lid, British Museum.

The lid’s label tells us that there is an inscription on the coffin to which it belonged. However, “the pseudo-hieroglyphic inscription is unreadable, having been written by a person with no real understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, or their usage.”

The Top Ten Greatest Literary Moments in Eighties Pop Part one: Wylie and Vaneigem

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.

Raoul Vaneigem , The Revolution of Everyday Life

So listen, when the smile, the condescending pat-on-the-back comes and says: ‘we’re sorry, but you’re nothing, you’ve got nothing for us and we’ve got nothing for you’, you say: ‘No’, and say it loud: “NO!”, and remember, people who talk about revolution and a class-struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love, and what is positive in the refusal of constraint…such people have a corpse in their mouth…”

Wah!, ‘The Story of the Blues part II’

This is a roundabout way of pointing to the new Scarecrow, which has Vaneigem as its cover star.

It’s also the launch of a feature I’ve wanted to run in the past. Here’s the theme: I sit around and point out literary allusions and borrowings in 80s pop. ‘Pop’ is broadly defined. So is ‘literary’. I’m planning to be pretty strict about ’80s’.

First up is the end of Pete Wylie’s motivational speech to the job-seekers of Thatcher’s Britain from the end of “The Story of the Blues Part 2”. Fabulous.

Broader question: why do the independent spirits of North-west England like Situationism so much? Wylie, Factory, The Hacienda, ‘Bye Bye Badman’, ‘Corpses in their Mouths’, The Return of the Durutti Column…

Is it because the Situationists represent the intervention of the imagination in urban life? The transformation of work’s world – Manchester and environs, of course, are arguably the landscape of classical capitalism – through a transformation of vision? Or is it because the SI offer art school rebellion? You can claim you’re changing the world without having to read Capital, or commit to a workers’ movement, or burden yourself with a limiting ideology. There’s revolution and violence, too, the frisson and glamour of Latin Quarter Barricades.

I honestly don’t know. The SI have been the cool revolutionaries for the last twenty-five years at least; does cool automatically neuter revolution?

You figure it out. I’m off to listen to ‘Story of the Blues’ again.

what fun I have had at these places!

Multiple Nabokov interviews; incidental invention of the emoticon.

Johnny Walker and Samuel Beckett (ft. Samuel Johnson).

Here’s Sam’s favourite American novel.

“Her thumbs are — lamentable.”

LRB, you may have knocked me back, but keep giving the good stuff and I won’t firebomb you.

Let’s not forget this Gloomy Gus at the NYRB.

(via Language Log, Golden Rule Jones. God I hope no-one firebombs the LRB. I’ll get the blame. “Look officer, there are people I hate far more; far more. And anyway, shit in a box is more my style.” On that first link, by the way, I ought to have said scroll down for the English interviews: they’re the most fun.)

Remainder

Time to join the rest of the crowd, I guess. There’s a review of Remainder up at Splinters; here’s Short Term Whatsit‘s view of it: here it is at Ready Steady Book (and an interview). 3am‘s book of the year, of course. And let’s not forget the other bandwagon-jumpers over at The Independent.

I’m a bit worried about this. I want to pay Remainder some serious compliments, but I’m going to start negatively; I don’t want to seem grudging or pernickety (we’ll save that for Zadie in the next post), but I think it’ll get me to what I want to say. Also, I think it’s worth thinking about critically: it can take the hits, and it’ll get me closer to what I mean.

It’s such an odd book. In some ways that matter a lot to me, it didn’t appear especially good: the prose is mostly a bit too flat. It does kick off from time to time, particularly when floating off into image-reveries, but I wasn’t sure about the texture of it to start with. I can hear that he’s doing a particular voice, but it felt a little too plain to me. The early dialogue was tinny too.

It grew on me though: there’s a near-devotional plainness to most of it; it sporadically reminds me of dissenting spiritual autobiography – Bunyan about to try a miracle on the puddles – and though that’s a genre or a mode I’ve always disliked it is affecting. The clarity, plainness and pace is hypnotic.

It’s also packed with stuff that I’m not that interested in: ‘authenticity’ isn’t a particularly troublesome or significant idea to me. Interesting enough, I s’pose, but I don’t really have time for art that (‘hem) ‘explores the concept of a.’; literature that gets hung up on / makes a fuss about forms of authenticity usually isn’t for me (summary of rational objections would be that abstract & hermeneutic reflections on or investigations into meaning and authenticity usually overlook rhetoric, craft, anthropology and biology in relation to human language, relationships and communities. Put more briefly, I’m just not much of a one for ideas.)

But again, this held me. I don’t know why. Maybe it is that basic device MacCarthy uses, of having a narrator who doesn’t know to namedrop the relevant canonical philosophers through the text. That balances the fact that you sometimes feel you’re being spoonfed a novel of ideas; that some situations are a little too neat. Maybe it helps too that the novel is willing give the desire for transcendence its head: that the argument between the attempt on the ideal & platonic & eternal, and the continuous remainder of base matter and earthly error that frustrates that attempt feels real; the fight isn’t fixed, the dialectic is alive.

It’s one of the few contemporary novels I’ve read that’s worth talking about: ice in its veins, good eyes, imagination, confidence and control.

Some questions that don’t really matter are nagging at me. Is this the start of something new? It’s not polite British literary fiction; it’s not particularly like London art-school transgressive fiction; nor fictions that mistake London for the world; it’s not writerly in a USA MFA way.

It’s the first thing from this country, too, that feels like it’s actually had the wind of the web in its sails (or rather the wind of the British book sites and blogs; I may be wrong about that). I’d be interested to know how it’s done, and whether the enthusiasts of the opening para helped.

Summary: Hussah for Tom MacCarthy!

I’ve got more to say, but it’s general, and not specific to Remainder. New post!

Infiltrated. Not Joined

This is following up the Remainder post above, though it’s not about Remainder; instead it’s about me, contemporary fiction, and the books I usually don’t mention having read which provided a metric for the oddness of McCarthy.

I don’t really like contemporary fiction. I don’t find it that interesting. It just looks like a waste of time. There are all the books in the world: why would I read one by Hilary Mantel?

However, last year I infiltrated a book group. I had a number of motives: my old boss invited me and I like her; I thought I could pick up some work; I’d railed against them enough, and reckoned it might be time to see what one was like; it was an extra chance to get drunk and pick fights in the middle of the week.

It’s sort of okay. Everyone’s nice, and I get to drink. I haven’t made anyone cry yet, but give it time.

My only problem is that I have to read these bloody books. Middle class dinner party fiction. On Beauty. Arthur and George. Beyond Black. Snow. Never Let Me Go. The Accidental. I read a few more while I was doing a books column for The London Line. Seems I was correct. Most contemporary fiction isn’t very good. It’s usually at least quite good, just not very good; a bit nothing, a bit meh. Like the man says, “literary fiction is not literature”.

I ended up having read 5 of 6 from the Booker shortlist, which number shocked me. I thought the right book won: Banville‘s the only interesting stylist; plus he keeps writing the same book over and over again, which I respect.

(Incidentally, in that interview, which was one of my favourite things from litblog world while I was effectively away, Mark fails to ask the one question to which I want the answer: “do you deliberately use the word ‘flocculent’ in each of your books?” It always seems to turn up; I wondered if it was some kind of maker’s mark for Banville. Thinking on this the other evening I was struck by the somewhat disturbing idea that Banville is not figuratively writing the same book over and over again; he is in fact doing it literally, and using the exact same words, which he keeps in a box, cut up like fridge magnet poetry, to compose each of his novels. He’d be allowed to change proper nouns, obviously.)

If we’d been judging by covers again – and I’m sorry we weren’t – I think On Beauty would have sneaked it. Same palette as Cloud Atlas last year, but more controlled; pretty and serious at the same time.

Weird book though. Really quite bad and awkward in places. Prose that’s trying desperately hard: like when she describes pin-cushions ‘shaped like fat oriental gentlemen’ as having ‘pulvinate bellies’. I mean that’s an awful, obviously conscious word choice: she’s saying (if you don’t know ‘pulvinate’) that the pin-cushions have a cushion-shaped feature; and she’s using a dictionary word, completely out of keeping with the rest of the prose. Again:

Walking up Redwood Avenue with its tunnel of cernuous willows, Levi found he had lost the will even to nod his head…

This might be elegant variation trouble: does she get cernuous out from storage because she needs ‘nod’ later in the passage? Maybe. She’d still have other options though: drooping, bowing, lolling… Maybe she likes the suggestion of ‘sinuous’? Willows aren’t, though, usually. In any case, those moments of the text look a bit sad, or insecure: it’s like she’s so scared her sentences won’t get taken seriously that she’s scheduling meetings with Monsieur Roget.

Same with imagery: she’s no good at looking at the world, and so trips over awful, over-thought-through similes: ‘his sentimental eyebrows made the shape of two separated sides of a steeple’.

?

No. No idea.

She’s good at London, some social interactions, the minds of insecure adolescents and narrative flow, mostly. She’s writing the Upper Soap Opera, but still I think wants to be Pynchon.

Still, she’s doing well out of it.

I didn’t mean to get so caught up in the faults of a popular novel; I just wanted to make it clear that sanctioned literary fiction doesn’t have too much going for it; that it is predictable, formulaic and flat; awkward, and unable to fulfill its own desires; that Remainder is worth talking about in a different way.

You never see the Ghostbusters novelisations in this sort of list. Shame.

There’s first line talk going around at the moment. I’m not a fan of big first lines myself, so I’ll not offer my own; but I’m irked by this list.

It’s not taste and choice, just a factual error: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane” is not the first line of Pale Fire. This is:

Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines, divided into four cantos, was composed by John Francis Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959) during the last twenty days of his life, at his residence in New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A.

Epigraph doesn’t count, obvs.

The mistake annoyed me: horrible itch in my stomach I needed to get to. If you think the opening of the poem is the opening of the novel, you’ve misunderstood or chronically misremembered the novel, so why pretend to like it?

Just a minute –

I said we’ll put aside the taste and choice arguments, but what the fuck is the following doing on any such list?

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.

By the time we’re at ‘…whose relations…’ I’m investigating my arteries with a butter knife. I feel bullied by boredom here: trapped by Defoe’s dismal, plodding view of creation. Fucking brick counter.