Orient, Christopher Bollen – A Review.

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.

Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.

Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – ­ family.

Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.

Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.

Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.

For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,

One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).

Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End  and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.

If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.

This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.

Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy

What’s Left?

It has been four and a half years since the coalition was formed. Doesn’t it seem a life time since the Liberal Democrats were actually remotely popular. And it would be easy, and slightly cynical to say that nothing has changed, but the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Most will say that this is a reason for less hope (remember that from a hopeful American in 2008, now there’s a life time away), whilst others may claim that this is reason for more hope, right and left.

In 1819, Percy Shelley invoked the state of England in his Sonnet,

An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king,
Princes,the dregs of their dull race, who flow –
Through public scorn, – mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field…

This is far from Matthew Arnold’s description of him as “a beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain,” but although the power does not necessarily reside in the Monarchy the same way as it once did, Shelley’s words angry words, remind us of the dying social fabric of the society we’re living in right now; the rulers who do not see, or feel, or know what it’s like. One can feel the crippling, leech-like austerity, that sucks the wealth away to those at the top, thanks to the complicity of the rulers.

The past four years have seen the rise of Nigel Farage. Not only has it been a good half a decade for Farage but has been for UKIP, as several defections have led to a number of by-election victories. UKIP’s apparently hardening, but what looks more like populist shape-shifting, policies on immigration have gained those too scared to admit their xenophobia. But now they can, as his popularity soars.

I don’t want to really talk about Farage and UKIP though, at least not directly. Because that is precisely what everybody else is doing, and most intensely doing so, mainly those on the left. This encompasses the problem; the problem with society and politics is not with those on the right at the moment, they know their position and unashamedly so. Nigel Farage doesn’t necessarily understand the principles of a solid, nuanced policy, but then again he is a politician, but at least knows his position. And, okay, he might not be willing to accept that if he really was to leave the European Union to reduce/stop immigration that the economy would shrink and crash, but he is seemingly willing to sacrifice that at the expense of assuming power.

Is there some solace in this? There has to be and there always is light somewhere. We are seeing a movement away from the liberal-centre ground, and one can anticipate, or one hopes if they are on a genuine left, not liberal-left, that this will open up that chasm. And who would this benefit? As UKIP’s target audience affects those in the twilight years of their lives, cherishing an white-British, red and white shop awned high streets, a ‘revived’ left would affect those who have never even seen a left – the young. Those who have been truly shafted by this idea of liberalism, have had their tuition fees raised, have had their health service destroyed, and cost of living obliterated.

This is of course what the Greens hope and are beginning to appeal to, or where they need to appeal – that disillusioned youth (admittedly like me). These are the people who aren’t voting, who have grown up in this world of liberalism, where New-Labour was nothing but an incarnation of Thatcherite free-market, individualism. Now the Green’s, through their own will or not, are endorsing themselves to that demographic.

It is hip to be left though, or at least slightly left. Somewhere between socialism and centre-left, perhaps a Green left that preaches equality, conservation, anti-nuclear stances. But it’s not cool to be properly left, a full on Marxist; Socialism seems okay, but Marxism throws up all the synonyms that the free-world tried to eradicate, when they should have been eradicating things like racism. Trotsky, Lenin, Communism: it is uncool, to be one of these. The reason that nobody is properly left is more down to the fact that nobody knows what it means – the whole problem with the right is, is down to the problem of the left.

To explain, after the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, Slavoj Žižek– everybody’s favourite Communist – was typically given column space. I’m sceptical, criticial of Žižek, which I think is understandable of anybody dubbed the ‘Elvis of Philosophy’, but I have cited him and used him in both my academic and non-academic work. For all his repetiveness (in the mainstream media), his pop-culture references, his general chaos, he always provides an incite, a confounding of the popular opinion.

In the New Statesman piece, Žižek cites Walter Benjamin’s “every rise of Facism bears witness to a failed revolution”; the rise of Facism is a failure of the left, but there was at some point proof that a revolution was possible. The rise of Liberalism, according to Žižek, has led to the rise of this Islamo-Facism. He states that liberalism will eventually undermine itself, and the only way to defeat fundamentalism is by the help of a renewed, radical left.
Žižek concludes invoking Max Horkheimer;

“those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”

And the core of the question returns, what on Earth is left? Who are our key proponents of the left? Just look at those who in the mainstream media who have been calling for revolutions, who have been denouncing Farage, battling him; Russell Brand and Al Murray. Actors, which some might argue is all a politician is in this media saturated world. No wonder nobody believes in a left any more. The properly angry ones right now are the ones on the right, who Farage has successfully riled up with his nationalist rhetoric. These are the people who are going to be voting. And who’s fault is that? Farage’s? No – it is those on the left, those without a cause and without an idea – the liberals. It is a critical failure of the left in the U.K that Farage has been allowed to present himself as the hallowed ‘Everyman’, the pint drinker (Al Murray’s Landlord alter ego is planning to stand against Farage).

It is too easy to lambast Farage; we know, he probably knows, that he is racist, that his economic policy would destroy the nations’ economy, but we will carry on doing so as long as he remains in the limelight. Those who do not want to talk critically about the left in Britain, should also keep quiet about the right In Britain. Facebook, and Twitter posts that awash sites when Farage is given coverage seem almost projections of this weakness in people’s own views – by exposing their weakness we can cover up and deflect from our own.

Politics is glossy and no matter what your standing is, David Cameron is a very believable person. He is uniform, polished and enviable. Ed Milliband isn’t. People want an alternative but they don’t believe in Ed to deliver it, the man who looks like an Aardman creation.  I went with this as well, what seemed to be a regular walking disaster. No matter the photoshoot, no matter how well it’s set-up, he always manages to confound it, just by his look, his stance, his general poise, wondering why anybody would want this man as their Prime Minister. Then as I watched Channel 4’s hyperbolic, Americanised, ‘The Battle for Number 10’, I almost had a revelation. Regardless of how Ed Milliband conveys himself, or how natural he tries to look, he will always look too rehearsed, unnatural. He cannot do it, he cannot look natural. A joke is a serious thing said Freud, and perhaps this joker poses a serious point; a man who confounds the glitz (and the glitz is what we all proclaim to be tired of) is denounced for not being believable is perhaps a man to believe in. The man who looks naturally unnatural in a unnaturally made up setting. Yet polls still show us believing in the man who has undergone so much polishing he resembles something from Madame Tussauds. It’s a choice between the comedic clay model, or the waxwork.

Shelley’s sonnet goes, characteristically ending optimistically.

Religion Christless, Godless – a book sealed;
A Senate, – Time’s worst statute unrepealed,-
Are graves, from which a glorious phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

There are other instances of hope – Greece for instance. Realistically though, Ed was critical of New Labour, and although he is so diluted, and un-radical, he has shown policies that are retractions and reductions, but are, yes, believable. Farage was once a joke and now he isn’t, he is in some way a threat, so maybe Ed should take some lessons from him. A renewed, revived left might be too much for the U.K voters now, just a left in itself would be a reprieve. The glorious phantom may present itself, rather than as a person, but as an idea, movement, or as a punchline.

Slavoj Žižek’s article can be found here: http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity

Modern Day Marvels

If you have not seen American Beauty or Fight Club and do not wish to have the endings spoiled, then it would be advisable to watch them before reading this.

Midlife crisis: an easily applied term to any middle aged male of thinning hair who spontaneously buys a bright red sports car. That is probably what made Kevin Spacey the perfect (or unperfect person) to play Lester Burnham, a man seemingly going through the motions above. His droll, drab voice-over introduces you to his droll, drab existence as an advertising executive in middle class suburban America. Crisis itself is though seems to be the key word of our times.

Everything seems to be in crisis. In this material world everything about Burnham’s existence is grey, beige, lifeless – material; his house that he shares with his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a dull mixture of creams and greys, and indeed she remarks in her job as a realtor trying to shift a house that is anything but what she says it palatially isn’t “a simple cream could lighten things up”, stood in a cream suit that does not lighten anything up.

The film’s narrative and Lester’s crisis is driven by the arrival of his daughter, Jane’s (Thora Birch) friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), as he watches a cheerleading sequence (in Chaplin-esque hats), that begins several fantasies of Lester’s involving Angela, and the film’s key motif – vibrant, red petals. Many allusions have been made to Nabokov’s Lolita and Dolores Haze, and whilst she represents the prohibited, repressed fantasy of a middle aged man, she is also perhaps a hark back to the age this film’s characters are trying to live. The age when advertising was an exciting, and believable venture; when white middle class American’s were the government’s people to lead the country forward, and not the varied, and diverse ethnicities and orientations that Carolyn shows round her house; when Coca Cola was becoming the worlds most prevalent and ubiqitous company, but a benevolent, representative one; the age when America and American’s, and even Britain had a true belief in their country and their principles.

Angela Hayes is not the only object of desire as Lester’s daughter Jane is continually filmed by her new neighbour, Ricky (Wes Bently) on his cam recorder. Ricky lives with his passive mother Barbara (Allison Jarney) and Bigoted ex-marine Col.Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who displays his attitude to all when he meets a gay couple who live on the street (“we’re partners” they say to Frank on the door who replys with “so what’s your business?”).

And so the Burnham’s comfortable suburban life they’ve forged for themselves begins to implode as Carolyn catches Lester masturbating in bed, off one of his many fantasies about Angela. American Beauty echoes the films of its time in this respect, particularly Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), as middle aged, middle class men questioning their existence bluntly tell their bosses they no longer want their jobs, using blackmailing powers to secure a good pay-off. Lester takes a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Rather than it being life changing decisions that affect the Burnham’s that some have noted (if anything they just become more immersed in the world they live in; Lester joining Mr Smiley’s, a stand in for McDonald’s if anything, but he is just lower in the chain) they submit to their prohibited fantasies. It is difficult to determine how cynical Mendes is being of fantasies on Freudianism, like Nabokov in Lolita was. Jane, who now seems so far removed from the nuclear family that American Beauty seems so intensely investigative of, finally begins a romantic affair with Ricky, about the time his relationship with Lester is developing. Ricky, who is obssessed with home footage (as if a precedent for the imminent, internet, youtube age) and filming Jane, shows Jane one of his videos, what he believes is the most beautiful piece of camcorder footage he has filmed – a paper bag floating in the wind. It is here that Jane submits to Ricky, and realises him for what he is. Not the weirdo, or asshole voyeur, but a man obssesed with finding beauty in his own way, tired of the grand movie projects he has undoubtedly seen in the media saturated age (Ricky’s room is like a black and white negative, filled with video tapes, and it’s the film with the plastic bag, that is one of the few pieces of colour that the characters watch, the utter banality of it rendered in colour. Television features a lot in American Beauty, but most of them are black and white images).Jane’s fantasy, like most other teenagers is to be beautiful, and the television and films, are the modes that are seen as beautifying, but here she has found a man and a medium that makes her beautiful for what she is, as the film is concerned with the typical archetype of beauty in Angela – a young, submissive blond nymph.

It is not just the Burnham’s who are submitting to their fantasies and projections. Col. Fitts is becoming concerned with his son, Ricky’s, behaviour. Going through his possessions (an inversion of what Ricky does to his possessions when finds the Nazi plate), he finds footage of Lester working out in his garage, a chance happening after he had been filming Jane. From this Col. Fitts deduces that his son is gay. As he waits for him in his bedroom, after Ricky has returned from Lester’s, and again, where Fitts mistakenly assumed that his son was performing an act of fellatio on Lester. Fitt’s hits his son, when Ricky baits him with a fake confession, and can embark on his on voyage of freedom with Jane to New York. Angela denounces this and in doing so Ricky uncovers her own primordial fear – the she is ‘ordinary’. She is no beauty, she uses friends like Jane to boost her  image. The next shot is of Angela, sat on the stairs viewed through the banister, evoking the recurrent image of imprisonment in the film. She is now trapped and condemned to this idea of beauty that she thinks she has forged, but rather what has been cultivated by those around her. She really is Low on the dotted line.

It is the revelatory, and maybe slightly cheap, fantasy of Fitts that brings the biggest shock. As Lester is doing pull-ups in his garage (mimicking the self-satisfying, and gratifying masturbatory action we see of Lester at the beginning of the film, Lester has found just another way to gratify himself rather than enliven himself), unaware of what is going on in the house around him, Fitts is seen approaching his garage. He opens the door to the torrential, biblical rain outside, perhaps reminiscent of another film of it’s time – Magnolia­ (1999, P.T.Anderson) – that also features flowers as its central motif, symbolic deaths and approaching deaths, to Fitts in a white t-shirt. Contrary to the violence we expect of Fitts, he kisses Lester, whom calmly turns him away. Fitts turns around, and walks away.

When we return to Lester’s death at the end with the denouement in mind, he is looking back on the rest of his life, philosophising on simple yet poignant metaphysics, that a reasonably educated, middle-class man might try to get at in wistful later life. But Lester’s mid-life crisis wasn’t in mid-life, Lester was at the end of his life; in fact going from his narration, orbiting the suburbs (god-like, ethereal, no?) he is already dead. Like the films of that era it focuses on these symbolic deaths, but unlike Fight Club, the gun is a very real embodiment that kills the character, and not his alter ego. Lester actually lives his alter ego, in an inversion of The Usual Suspects (also starring Spacey) where the narrator or creator of the illusion (also Spacey) has to create the creation of his other characters for his survival. Tyler Durden has to realise his creation, is subconscious (a film also heavy with homoerotic references) to finally exist as a person. Lester however must die for his creation, because he is the one who ultimately lives it.

So, unlike those films about men who don’t really exist, and about men who really don’t want to exist, who cannot exist in their manifestation, we are left wanting, and striving for Lester to exist, which brings the sadness in the denouement of the film. We’re not left wondering about the mystery of his existence because of his death, just what he could have finally made of it, and what we can make of our own mysterious plenitude, not in some grand, pseudo-revolutionary escapist style like Fight Club, just how and what makes our lives matter to others, in the small immaterial, and ultimately beautiful aspects of life.

Now as we move forward 15 years later, the subject, rather than the setting of the middle-class American home is a prominent one. In this post-financial-crisis globalised society, the problems seem to have become internalised in the home, using Gone Girl and the game-playing, killing instinct is within. I’m using Fincher’s, 2014, film version as an example; it’s as if the set from American Beauty is being used, dull, grey, life-less, but all the problems lie within the marriage. This has also transcended literature, as in front of me I have a review copy of a book by Christopher Bollen called Orient (released in April 2015, review coming up in the next few weeks). It Is distinctly set in the real-world middle class lives of Americans on the outskirts of New York. It is a sprawling work, touching 600 pages, that calls into the old cliché of the great American novel (or the great global novel it should now be called). To borrow a Thomas Kuhn term, the American novel seems to undergo paradigms, and right now we seem to be in the Jonathan Franzen paradigm, who seems to either be the most marketable, or the most suitable chronicler of the times.

American Beauty, as I suggest above, goes against the trend, because it is about a man who ultimately wants to exist but cannot, as if this is not the way the world works anymore (the black and white photos, the homoeroticism). It is preceding the idea that this comfortable world is coming under threat? The fantasies of the other maybe; terrorism, gays, immigrants, feminists, artists, orphans, absolute anything (Orient overtly touches on this), anything that threatens to destroy the sanctity of it. But it is as if the family is the last domesticity of the real. As we come out of postmodernity, artists now return to the family as a way of returning to the real. Franzen’s Freedom (2010) certainly did this after The Corrections (2000). What is being done is, is rather than the mechanics being broken down, the illusion is being created again, only to be dismantled in the way the realists an early moderns constructed and revealed the secrets lying beneath. But it’s as if now the family can not just go on as it is; it not just about the father’s who can just go out to work because there are all these other presences and antagonisms, and the fact that there are also no jobs to go to.

One of the key precedent’s set for this was Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997); Roth’s superb work about a successful man Swede Levov, inheritor of his father’s glove company who sees his daughter, Merry become political fanatic. As the blurb states ‘overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk’, and that is what seems to have happened – the west’s safe capitalist pastoral has now been interrupted, maybe even shattered and what we’re witnessing is the wake of this. I think to quote at length the ending of American Pastoral would be sufficient (not necessarily a spoiler as such, but if you don’t want the ending spoiled don’t read this next bit)

“Marcia sank into Jessie’s empty chair, in front of the brimming glass of milk, and with her face in her hands, she began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was rapidly going under – to laugh and to relish as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Yes the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened, it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everything and everyone that does not like their life.”

There is obviously a great irony in all this. All these writers and directors are male, it’s as if their sanctity is under threat at the same time, and underscores the hypocrisy of the world they’re dismantling, but are still limited in their effect of. That passage precedes it all, and although Roth’s setting was 1968, it speaks a truth of now, written in 1997. Those final few paragraphs for me, set up what has followed in the past 15 years, and poses the questions that now novelists and artists try to answer. Will they recover? Is this why the world seems to have been Marvellised, why there are so many superheroes on our screen now, as we look for new heroes, new fantasies to save us, or at least save our minds, because like the picture above, maybe people are tired of the responsibility of being role models. Our fathers are not our heroes any more (look at the existential paternal anxiety of Don Draper in Mad Men). To paraphrase Franzen in The Corrections, who does this leave to be ordinary, in the grey, beige world of crisis.

A review of Christopher Bollen’s Orient is coming up in the next few weeks.

The Living Anonymous

Advice for a young, unpublished writer is not to have a picture of your literary hero on your desk because, chances are, they committed suicide. It is almost cliché to link the creation of art and madness. A common parlance by writers and artists is to describe at some point in their artistic life, the process of creation as torturing. Art is infuriating; at some point you have to realise that whatever you create will never be a perfection. You may create your masterpiece that may define a movement at some point in time, but that Is what it is – a fixture in time only to be succeeded by the next defining monument of a period.

Perhaps this is slightly cynical but the link between mental illness and creativity, no matter what the cliché is, has a very sombre truth to it; that even the most successful artists are sometimes tortured minds who sometimes cannot bare the thought of living. Groucho Marx’s funny, yet horribly pertinent quip that “all geniuses die young” asks whether to be a genius you have to be of a certain tragic age. Let’s look at some famous examples in the writing world; Melville, Woolf, Plath, Foster-Wallace. All can arguably defined as movement definer’s, initiating movements, and retrospectively being heralded as such (i’m not wanting to discuss the contentions of this, you may argue they’re under/overrated but that’s not the point). Moby Dick, Mrs Dalloway, The Bell Jar, Infinite Jest; all key texts in key movements. I include the Bell Jar mainly for it’s head on tackling of the mental state Plath was in, not necessarily as a defining movement, but seems to have been adopted by the feminist cause, amongst many others. Melville didn’t commit suicide but is famous for dealing with depression.

Artistic creation is torturing though. You’re battling yourself, your own capacity to create, and the intense cerebral nature of it does question the existence of genius; if you can immerse yourself in your own world and other people’s created worlds for so long, and then want to create your own world whether it be on canvas or page, and can accept that what you create will still be nowhere near as good as the masters you emulate, that you can only strive and work hard, and look at more of the masters, just some day you may get there, stand remotely near, be for once considered in the same sentence as them. You have to accept this. “If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius” apparently said Michaelangelo, an undisputed genius.

Camus stated “I don’t want to be a genius – I have enough problems just trying to be a man” which arouses an interesting proposition. Zadie Smith in her essay on David Foster-Wallace remarked that in his deep, exhaustive, postmodern stories that he was “always trying to place relationships between persons as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels” and as Wallace once claimed “banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”; she then asks “what are those…stories but complex re-enactments of platitudes we would otherwise ignore.” Now Camus’ quote comes in to the frame, the way we interpret the world now, the western one, with tricksy postmodernists like Wallace only playing with language rather than giving us wholesome narratives with beginning, middles and endings points to this torture of art; it is a response to the world we live in, and Wallace’s stories are tortured response to this world where meaning has been distorted to the extent that any trace of depicting those banal platitudes will be rendered as sentimental. How do we get to the essence of life now? How is it possible? How do we try and be men, women…humans.

Camus’ absurdist theory uses suicide as a key example of how we live, or not live in this world. The absurd refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning, and the inability to find any. In this Nieztchean world, where god is dead, and now, when art is pushed to the fringes, where monetary value and positivistic science takes precedence, where is the meaning and human value of life? Where are we supposed to look for it if our artists, and potential artists are given little room in this commercial world

Suicide for Camus was the result of this meaningless dissonance – a rejection of freedom. Of course it is damagingly reductionist to attribute suicide to this, but there is some kind of truth in Camus’ quote about being a man, being a person, that our most humane investigators of human experience (artists) ultimately fail to find. There is no moral, universal code in this godless world; a Christian always something to aspire to, a perfect big other, where the artist has not, and perhaps has to live with the fact that he is that other, or desire to be the other.

Let’s also not be caught up in the idea that art fails us, or we fail art. Mental illness is a deeply complex issue, and we’re no nearer to comprehensively treating it than we are to understanding it. As a student of community and critical psychology, approaching the end of my masters, indeed I am nowhere nearer, favouring the political argument perhaps generated by Foucauldian thinking. Because if anything arts saves us, and it’s now time to look at how it does that.

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As a part time reviewer of books, i’ve received a number of publications, mostly from smaller, début artists. Some of these have gone on to big things (Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride for example), some haven’t. I always try and treat books with respect, and appreciate that whatever the book is, at the heart of it is a remarkable intelligence that wants to be some way dissected and understood. This kernel of intelligence/spark/throb/intention, whatever it was, has been so powerful, and overwhelming that the person has thought it appropriate to articulate this over a lot of pages in the form of a narrative, that not a lot of people have the comprehension, or stamina/will to even consider doing. I don’t think it’s a matter of intelligence; if you read enough, you can write enough. Obviously there are more factors than that, but if you have a vision, a belief, you’re getting there.

On my desk I received By The Light of The Silvery Moon: Inside the Schizophrenic Mind (Austin MacAuley publishers). A slim volume with only ‘Anonymous’ accredited as the author. The blurb describes what follows as an account of an ‘ordinary girl’ arriving in the London in the nineties, with ‘unclear aspirations’ but ‘with a determination to enjoy life’. After a bout of using recreational drugs the author developed paranoid schizophrenia.
What follows in the next sixty pages or so is entirely the authors words. The first page, ‘About the Author’ is clearly the wording of Anonymous.

Paranoid Schizophrenia could afflict anyone. Could be anyone. A disease that happened in her late 20’s, due to certain life choices. Recreational drugs. Relationship deaths and self-destruction.

There are many famous accounts of mental illness, ‘real-life’ struggles; William Styron is famous for accounting it. This thin book points to a more rounded idea though; the use of art when the person involved is not an artist. The struggle to grapple real life, to depict the real is on the problems with narrative; how real and truthful is this account? With By The Light…, you feel it as truthful as it’s ever going to get.
The choice to remain anonymous is justified by the fact that ‘growing up is hard enough these days without having a paranoid schizophrenic for a mum’. Indeed the stigma of mental health is still so prevalent. No matter how benevolent a title may be of having a mental illness is, it remains a stigma. The prevalent discourse seems to be that physical illnesses you cannot help, or at least anything that you are seen to be helpless with are given a fair ride. Everything in this society is predicated by a choice though; if you ‘choose’ to be obese, to lead that consumptive lifestyle you’re damned with what you get from it. And that, I still believe, is the case with mental health; if you choose to be unhappy, if you choose to take drugs, you deserve what happens. That is our society – the illusion of choice.

By The Light…instead brings into light those ‘other’ things that we should look at, in the environment. For a start there is a Anon’s abusive partners (which ironically she refers to one as ‘Crow’, evocative of Ted Hughes poetry collection after the death of Plath) which our mainstream media, so damning of the single mother, would again, suggest it is down to her choice of partners.

“Crow came to see his son for a week…One visit he brought drugs which I freely smoked and suddenly all the old fears came flooding back, leading to a frightful night when Babe was 9 months old, when I slipped into a psychosis. I was unaware of becoming aware.”

There is one of the true moments when Anon, clearly not a writer, writing this account with purpose of getting a truth out there, slips in those moments of poetry, that we are all capable of – ‘unaware of becoming aware’. It speaks on so many levels, and reaches out to a capability that we all have, to invoke poetry at desperate moments in life.

I’ve just finished reading George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Saunders critically acclaimed stories,of which Foster-Wallace is aSilver Moon p42rguably a precursor, are battling with this idea of coming out of the postmodern age. They have a distinctive style, and like Foster-Wallace was, they’re trying to get to grips, to a truth of an age that does not like dealing with truth. Saunder’s style, no matter how valiantly can only mimic; accounts like By The Light…in their imperfect style, regardless of the amount of clichés they use can be said to be closer to that truth. Cliché here speaks truth. In a novel, a piece of fiction, it speaks of a failing, that people like Martin Amis would not allow us to use. If on a graph, it could be depicted as truth on the x axis, and imitation on the y axis. The more imitation the lesser the truth. It comes down to what our artists are rendering and as Smith said of Wallace’s stories, they are accentuations of banal platitudes that are postmodern age will not allow us to observe, they will not permit us any sentimentalism.

Now it could be perceived that i’m piggy-backing Anon’s account on the back of these big names. Far from it. This is nowhere near them obviously, because it is not even an attempt at that. This isn’t a review of a novel, because it’s not a novel, and it’s something that does not render reviewing, because for the first time I find myself touching on a truth. Instead Anon’s account sheds light on mental illness over art, what can be brutal, horrific and demonising. As you go through it however with the interstitial pictures of art that Anon has produced, one comes near the end, amidst the other messy, complicated acrylics; a set of swirly blues and whites, simple and fresh. And it is here comes the realisation, or the epiphany if we’re talking in novelistic terms; instead of art torturing us, art ultimately saves us, and has saved Anonymous here, and as we hope will save many other Anonymous’ in the process. Art rescues us, and the artist just wants to rescue others.

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Inkwell Arts is perhaps the embodiment of this. Here at Inkwell, positive mental health is promoted through the use of artistic creativity. This is not art therapy. Instead Inkwell offers a place to explore your mental health (and let’s not get carried away with the idea that ‘mental health’ denotes a negative term, it’s an all encompassing one). Inkwell shows how through the arguably individual nature of art, that it allows people to connect through its community. It is a place to explore your mental health and those of others, in a place that devolves any barriers that society would normally have us upholding. Art allows you to connect with yourself and others.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” – Howards End – E.M Forster.

By The Light Of The Silvery Moon – Inside A Schizophrenic Mind (55pp.) is published by Austin MacAuley Publishers and is out now (£6.99)

Inkwell Arts is based in Chapel Allerton, Leeds, and is part of the Charity Leeds Mind. This post was also featured on Inkwell’s website and you can visit their website at http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk