The cover of Matt Hill’s debut bears a quote by Stephen Fry, which tells us that the work within captures the “smell and essence of Britain”. This isThe cover of Matt Hill’s debut bears a quote by Stephen Fry, which tells us that the work within captures the “smell and essence of Britain”. This is a considerable claim but one that rings entirely true, despite the book’s post-apocalyptic premise. The Folded Man offers a frighteningly plausible rendition of the future, bleak and disturbing. The city is Manchester, the year is 2018. The five year leap forward sees the country in ruins, plunged into social disorder, widespread deprivation, violence, crime and vigilante rule. We learn of this desolate new world through the book’s protagonist Brian Meredith, a drug-addled “cripple” reliant on the state which he fears and despises. It is both through Brian’s internal meditations and external experiences that Hill creates a chilling picture of the outside world – a phantasmagorical panorama which constitutes the backdrop of the story. Both dynamic and very craftily constructed, it compells the reader to fully immerse in the writer’s vision of the future, bereft of the social norms and conventions that govern modern Britain.
The Folded Man crosses several genres and defies exact classification, comprising elements of Sci-Fi, surrealism, traditional storytelling and experimentation. Hill locks a range of themes into a novel literary whole, defined by intricate plot turns, seemingly freeform dialogue and a prolonged sense of suspense. It is Hill’s ability to tap into our collective consciousness that lends the book much of its realism, and his dark imagination that turns a straightforward narrative into a dystopian riddle. But it is the book’s protagonist, Brian, that’s The Folded Man’s real strength. Albeit a highly divisive character, Brian is predominantly a victim. Wheelchair bound by a rare genetic condition called Sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome), he spends his time in his squalid flat watching the world on CCTV and eating his own hair. There are reasons behind Brian’s psychological idiosyncrasies, which Hill weaves into the plot seamlessly. We learn in vivid snapshots of his early life and his upbringing, his fears, desires and worries and discover a very complicated and downtrodden man, who has resigned from life until his mate Noah coaxes him into an outing across the city.
The pair’s excursion leads to a series of events and characters that are at times as bizarre as they are exhilarating. Hill fuses the real with the imaginary, the factual with the fantastic to create a world characterised by an eerie introverted externality. This eeriness also extends to Hill’s literary stylings, which give the book its narrative verve. Written entirely in northern dialect, The Folded Man is full of linguistic quirks, colloquialisms and staccato sentences, sometimes as short as a single adjective. “Brian’s in his chair – the wheelchair in the middle of his world,” writes Hill of his protagonist when he returns home from the outing with Noah, “All the days are the same. All day, every hour – trapped. The fat man in his yawning city. Ageing. Smoking and sleeping between damp walls and under bare bulbs. The fat man who sat through power cuts and water shortages. Listened to new riots and masked radicals on his telly. The same chair at the arse-end of Manchester, old capital of the north. The cold city, the blinking city.” The Folded Man is both a dark tale of humanity and a tribute to Hill’s home city. Manchester is very much at the heart of the novel – a city once great now reduced to an abject quagmire by an “endless war for love between the dead and dying”.
It is difficult to imagine The Folded Man being set anywhere else, just as it is difficult to imagine the protagonist being anyone other than Brian. This is a great achievement on Hill’s part, a writer whose style and subject matter may be considered challenging. But Hill is someone who didn’t set out to write a challenging debut, merely a book that came together almost miraculously inspired by his interest in folklore, urban legends and strange phenomena, his home town and some of the people he’s met there. Brian, for example, Hill told me recently, was partly a result of his experiences with “a close relative who had terrible hip problems from a very young age” and partly a product of his own imagination, fuelled by “one of those crap, slightly exploitative documentaries about a girl born with Sirenomelia”. Brian’s congenital disorder is as integral to the plot as it is to his character. “I wanted Brian’s condition to be as ‘realistic’ a treatment of the mermaid myth as possible,” Hill explains, “So even though the book veers away from reality (far, far away in places), there’s at least a medical grounding.” There certainly is that but there is also more – much more – than that to this intriguing debut which, as Stephen Fry said, has a “direct vividness that keeps one inside its totally realised world”.
The Folded Man is an absorbing and original work that falls into a somewhat nebulous field of literary production. Hill has a keen eye for topical peculiarity similar to the writers in the prophetic tradition, distinguished by their ability to penetrate surface-reality and delve into the deepest recesses of the human psyche. In line with this tradition Hill tells the story from an outsider’s perspective, which gives The Folded Man its disturbing immediacy. It also prompts the reader to question – or at the very least ponder – the validity of the moral, cultural and socio-economic structures that frame our society and the potential consequences of their abolition. J.G Ballard once wrote that “civilised life” is based “on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly” and the trouble is that we sometimes forget “that that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us”. Hill’s book serves as a stark reminder of this, urging us to look at the uncomfortable and unsightly possibilities behind those seemingly orderly and burnished optical trickeries....more
Nicholas Royle’s First Novel is a bit of a misnomer because in fact it is his seventh. The title, however, is integral to the book whose protagonist PNicholas Royle’s First Novel is a bit of a misnomer because in fact it is his seventh. The title, however, is integral to the book whose protagonist Paul Kinder is obsessed with literary debuts. This is something he shares with Royle who says he’s also “very interested in first novels”. And that’s not the only similarity between the two men. Royle like Kinder is a novelist and a lecturer, albeit a more successful one than his fictional counterpart. He has several novellas and six other novels to his name, while Kinder is a one book wonder, striving to complete his second undertaking in between teaching, dogging, housebreaking, petty pilfering and uncovering a connection between his former wife Veronica, his neighbour Lewis and a man called Trevor. In truth, Kinder’s literary aspirations are secondary to the plot unlike his fascination with first novels, especially those that “have been lost or supressed or never followed up”. Kinder’s pathological interest in the subject is a projection of his own predicament, of his own failure to follow up his debut and his subsequent exploration of the psychologies of singular authors. “Why do we hear no more from these very talented writers,” he says to one of his students, “while others, far less talented, continue to write book after book after book?” It is a question that is never really answered, except to say “that first novels are important because it’s the first thing an author says about the world”. This notion is fundamental to the plot, which twists toward a startling and wholly unexpected revelation divulged by way of someone else’s first book.
The Friday Gospels is a book about a Mormon family awaiting the return of their son, Gary, from a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, where he’s been studyiThe Friday Gospels is a book about a Mormon family awaiting the return of their son, Gary, from a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, where he’s been studying as a missionary for two years. Although Mormonism is very much the cynosure of the story, The Friday Gospels is a book about family in a very universal sense. It is a carefully crafted work that deals with lost innocence, the burden of experience and the trials and tribulations that can sever and fortify familial bonds. The saga unfolds on the day of Gary’s return with every member of the Leeke household – including the prodigal son – telling their own story, which gradually builds into a very resonantly ticking time bomb. Several chapters in and one is struck by how skillfully – convincingly – Jenn Ashworth formulates each character, giving them a distinctly unique personality and voice. Jeannie, the teenage daughter, for example, is shy, a little withdrawn but all heart. Gary is callow and very earnest and has a number of covert aspirations that have nothing to do with missionary work. Martin, the man of the house, is on the surface an uxorious husband but underneath feels downtrodden by the realities of family life. Pauline, the long suffering wife and mother, fits her role perfectly veering between an obdurate matriarch and a perpetual nurturer. And then there’s Julian, the tearaway eldest son, angry and unpredictable – a grave concern to the rest of the Leeke clan.
Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is a book about “the mysteries of childhood” and one which could not have been written by a more appropriate contJean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is a book about “the mysteries of childhood” and one which could not have been written by a more appropriate contender as the phrase, in the singular, has frequently been used to describe Cocteau himself. Born on 5th July 1889 in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a small village a few miles outside Paris, into a wealthy and politically influential family, Cocteau left home at the age of 15. His father, a lawyer and an amateur painter, shot himself in his bed when Cocteau was nine – a tragedy which is thought to have kindled Cocteau’s perfervid fascination with death. Speaking about it at the end of his own life, Cocteau said that his father had killed himself “for reasons that are no longer relevant” even though they continued to plague him. At the age of 19, Cocteau published his first collection of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp. Three years later, another anthology, The Frivolous Prince, followed. Cocteau quickly became a mastodon of the corpuscular literary scene of 1920s Paris, mingling with the likes of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Maurice Barrès and Jean Hugo. He wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime, but Les Enfants Terribles remains at the pinnacle of his oeuvre. Penned in just 17 days, the book captures the “legend of eternal youth” and its inevitable tragedies which, as Cocteau says, “bare no relation to one’s preconceived ideas,” because “one is always bewildered by their simplicity”.
The story of Les Enfants Terribles – inspired by a real life tale of a “family closed from societal life” – revolves around a brother and sister who inhabit a world of their own, a fantasy world with its own rules, created to alleviate the monotonous languor of everyday realities. Elisabeth and Paul’s psychological pulsations, partly responsible, for their alienation from the world at large are established early. A mother crippled by some paralytic illness, a woman who “only four months ago had been young and vigorous” but now at the mere age of 35 “longed for death,” a woman who “had been bewitched, spoiled and finally deserted by her husband.” Cocteau illustrates the situation further: “For three years he [the father] had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred. His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better. He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated. An impulse of rebellion now turned this woman into a mother who neglected her children, took to night clubs, got herself up like a tart, sacked her maid once a week, begged, borrowed indiscriminately,” and finally died.
Right from the outset Les Enfants Terribles emanates an “atmosphere of perpetually impending storm” when Paul gets struck by a “marble-fisted blow” of a snowball, hurled in play by Dargelos, the subject of Paul’s infatuation, which leaves him incapacitated and revelling in the “sweet delights of sickness and perpetual holiday” under his sister’s care. Elisabeth, the “ministering angel” hastily reveals herself to be an enclave of jealousy, malevolence and lust looming over the household like a “Byzantine Empress”. One very quickly realises that the relationship between the siblings is not as straightforward or orthodox as social mores prescribe, and tentatively reels on the verge of incest, their incongruous love never consummated but paramount. Elisabeth is a domineering soubrette, a hurricane to Paul’s harmony, manipulating and conniving in her efforts to keep him all to herself and to comminute anyone who gets in her way. Paul’s quixotic nature paints him as a biddable naïf determinedly under his sister’s spell. The two together, live in “The Room” perpetually playing “The Game” according to unwritten, recherché rules known only to them. The siblings, the “twin seraphs”, curiously united by a familial intimacy verging on romantic love, do not know the meaning of “embarrassment in the presence of each other” and their shared space is “a masterpiece of their own being” in which they live, dress, wash together as if “twin halves of a single body.” Left largely to their own devices, after the death of their mother whom they had treated “with scant consideration, but nevertheless they loved” Elisabeth and Paul entice outside spectators into “The Game”. Gerard and Agathe get whirl-winded into the snare and the love-hate sibling relationship kept under a strict “seal of secrecy”. “The Room”, their room, becomes like a “gypsy camp” and the brother and sister who once “adored” and “devoured each other” begin to drift apart, except Elisabeth refuses to let go until the two of them can meet elsewhere “where flesh dissolves, where soul dissolves, where incest lurks no more.”
Cocteau’s ability to capture the reader’s attention and direct it to the idiosyncrasies and psychological antecedents behind the events in Les Enfants Terribles underlines the book’s intrigue and the writer’s brilliance. But, in his early years, as the epitome of moderne amid 1920s bohemian circles, Cocteau experienced an unexpected but rapid fall from grace and was dismissed as a social chameleon, a crude dilettante and an uncommitted aesthete. He was deemed frivolous for diversifying into poesy, painting and cinema . Andre Breton regarded him with particular animosity and along with his Surrealist companions attempted to sabotage Cocteau’s artistic endeavours. Cocteau himself did some collateral damage too by spreading himself too thinly. It wasn’t merely his poor health, aggravated by decades of opium abuse and subsequent detoxification, it was also the fact that he continuously put himself on the line, at once consumed by the world and consuming others to gain greater acclaim and clout as an artist. Thus, he lived in an eternal state of identity crisis and by his own admission continued to experience anguish and turmoil, from as early as his father’s suicide up to the tragic and premature deaths of his closest male paramours.
Cocteau’s literary undertakings were inexorably influence by his mercurial disposition and unremitting fatalism. They also exhibited his profound leanings toward death, morbidity and violence, engendering many paternal phantoms and references to suicide. This is particularly true of Les Enfants Terribles which also reflects his idealism and captivation with the cult of youth, his need of fantasy at once unnerving and enthralling like the escapist machinations of Paul and Elisabeth. The element of melodrama in Les Enfants Terribles is handled with considerable acuity, and the alluring horror which pervades the ingenuous self-destruction of the siblings is led gloriously to a ripe climax. The book entails copious cross references form William Shakespeare to Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud, all of which coalesce masterfully to make a very poignant point, namely that love is wayward, cruel, uncompromising and in the extreme: fatal....more
Russell Mardell makes me laugh. Firstly, as someone who is very funny. But, secondly, and more importantly, as a writer. This is significant, becauseRussell Mardell makes me laugh. Firstly, as someone who is very funny. But, secondly, and more importantly, as a writer. This is significant, because funny people aren’t always funny on paper. Mardell is. He says his “shit social skills” is why he “became a writer.” He’s being modest. He also says he imagines I swear a lot. He’s right. In fact, I lost count of the number of times I animatedly exclaimed “f***” while reading his work. Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass is Mardell’s first book, a loosely assembled collection of reticulated sketches involving a dragoon of crackpot characters; cullions, lurchers, drifters, human blunders, women who keep men in their bathtubs and other vermicular personalities. The setting, a town of undisclosed purlieus called Mewlish Lull, indirectly connects the characters together as their individual weird and peculiar tales fall into context through linkage to a place that belongs on a “government target board” rather than “a postcard” and supposedly “Kills Its Kids”. Occasionally, perhaps, that could be justified but generally it’s not right, is it. Thus when in the opening story, Notes from Mewlish Lull – Rain, a nameless narrator arrives to be greeted by the infanticide-denoting epitaph one gets the distinct impression that things are a little awry. This notion is further fortified by his encounters with the locals; a dapper mendicant living in the underpass, a pusillanimous shopkeeper and a “suspiciously clingy” woman called Jennifer with a gimp in her bathtub.
All of the above is enough to give you a head-spin, while also leaving you wondering about the man in the tub and why the anonymous narrator, who resurfaces throughout, is so keen to jilt his old life. These ruminations are quickly dispelled by the opening pages of Armand Gull Drinks Whiskey. As I told Mardell immediately after reading the story, it made me snigger so much on my morning commute the bus almost toppled over. It opens with the following: “Edward James Lynton Tatchford (Tatch, to his friends, of which he counted five, and Teddy, to his mother) had been in the shack on the beach, battling against the side effects of winter for five days and was starved of company. The fevered and slightly bizarre tramp he had met on the third day had run away and left a shoe in one corner. It was the sort of shoe that looked like it had fallen from a cartoon and he was frightened it would start talking to him.” And it gets more absurd with every page, but also more perspicacious as a pragmatic explanation of a man being driven to extremes by the dross of a nine-to-five life. Mardell’s writing has a visual quality, possibly due to his background in film and theatre, and shows a penchant for post-modern aesthetic. Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass contains a valorisation of individual subjective experiences relayed through tracing of each character’s consciousness and all its contingent manifestations. It is quietly epistemological, and inquires into the practicalities of perception over objective universal truths. But it has a few of those too.
The collection of stories has no steadfast linear narrative apart from the intermittent commentary of the unnamed protagonist who embarks on a new life in this rather peculiar town, because as he says: “Someone I might have loved had told me to grow up. So here I was growing up.” The weird exordium into town is followed by employment with “Stan the white van man” who dispenses supererogatory clichés, chats “casual horrors” and bleats about the “bleedin’ southern liberals”. The situation is further complicated by Jennifer’s unplanned pregnancy and her reluctant involvement with the pestilential gimp. The narrator, who unwittingly becomes part of the scene, is a fellow jaded by the doggedly mundane modern world, yet his cynical transcendence of sentiment is a defence mechanism, a fear of being human, since being human is a painful business. This is reflected through his own recollections of past and lost loves, disappointments, endless shifting from town to town, and a sort of entropy defined by taking everything, even the biggest of life’s surprised, with a “non-committal, suits-all occasions” smile. Yet it feels as if he has embarked on a search for something, in both a metaphysical and spiritual sense, for something that remains elusive. The protagonist is trapped within himself, by his past and yet estranged from it, a sort of middle class paradigm, which propels him at one point to conclude that maybe he “really is pointless.” Not an uncommon thought. I’ve had a few of those myself.
Mardell polarises the problems of contemporary society by illuminating various stereotypes, occasionally to fetishistic lengths, through irony and absurdist tactics thereby highlighting the inanity of our uber-sophisticated modern world. His work is at once earnest, mocking and insightful, but as Mardell himself says he likes “readers to make their own conclusions, superimpose their own emotions and logic” and take from his “slightly skewed reality” whatever is “pertinent to them”. And yet his skewed reality seems to make perfect sense, as for example when the narrator speaks to a stranger in the park watching a kid fly a kite and the stranger says: “Simple pleasures…It is the continual search for more and more diverse gratifications that stunts us as humans. The technological age with all its undoubted wonders has also always made us look for more. Always look for better. The next big thing,” when in truth it is the small and infinitesimal things, such as flying a kite, that make all the difference. The chapter, Notes from Mewlish Lull – Smiler Desmond is Dead, charting the interaction between the two men, reveals a different, more open and self-reflective side to the narrator who has “spent years cultivating strong defences.” The stranger, a once famous but now washed-up comedian, at one point says: “I look at so many of my peers now, pompous people who would drone on and on about ‘their art’, about ‘their craft’, now whoring themselves out to ridicule just so they can cling on to the fake life that has hidden them from the real world so long ago. Prostituting for a pay packet that keep their pneumatically-titted wife in handbags and spray tan. I dry hump a tuba, but somehow I think I have more dignity.” A germane point about modern day culture and its histrionic preoccupation with the superficial? I think so.
The stories are thematically alike in that they aim to reveal something about human nature, like the one called Farrington about a boy making his second voyage to London “and the first without the safety net of being a school trip”. His mother’s words ring in his ears as he gets into town and remembers: “Nothing but freaks and deviants, gangsters and whores, terrorist and bankers!” To set him up for his sojourn to see his girlfriend his mother enrols him in a preparatory obstacle course with the words,“You go to London, you go prepared,” where he is subjected to the dithyrambs of one Corporal Max Billings, a man with a “questionable military background”. Mardell exaggerates the concept of moral panic to the nth degree to reflect and decry the typical small-town mentality which is surprisingly prevalent to this day. An overview of human nature is also the subject of the title story which captures a day in the life of a misanthropic OCD-ridden fellow who sits on a park bench smoking one of his 10 daily cigarettes waiting for something interesting to happen. But when it finally does, he feels isolated and ignored by the people with “dull metal objects adorning their heads” gathering together in the park, and retreats to the safe-haven of his flat, concluding dejectedly: “Years of itching away from people and living alone on fun wealth and bleary-eyed despondency that had finally cracked its solitary goal. They had left me to it.” By and large Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass depends on the reader to construct a larger narrative from a number of subtle hints, incidental details and scattered chronology while it blends fact, scene and portraiture into a compendium of misanthropy and bizarre eventualities. Interestingly, London provided much of the inspiration for the setting of Mewlish Lull. The rest Mardell attributes to the art of fiction although he does concede that there are “certain nods and hints” which are true to life.
Born in Cambridge in 1975, a place where back in those days all the “mammas went to unleash their children to the world”, Mardell grew up in Salisbury and thereafter “bummed around various places” including Bristol where he settled for a while in “an attic flat” and began writing and “living through the night on coffee and cigarettes”. He has had a variegated career from working in a video shop to working as a writer and director in independent film as well as penning five plays, some of which he directed and produced. He is currently writing a new book when taking time off from being cajoled into reminiscing about a poetry prize he won as a youngster for a poem about a hippo that died in transit due to ineffectual humans. I thought it a rather intriguing premise, as is the one behind Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass. Personally, however, I think I would have liked it to have revolved exclusively around the down-and-out narrator but perhaps there’s a reason why it does not. Perhaps that was the writer’s intention but, whatever it is, I think Mardell is right when he says “the only thing that matters is what the reader gets” from one’s work , the emotion it solicits, the reaction it evokes “be it good or bad.”...more
I was once told by a friend that if Dorothy Parker was still alive she would buy me a big martini. I don’t know whether or not that’s true but I knowI was once told by a friend that if Dorothy Parker was still alive she would buy me a big martini. I don’t know whether or not that’s true but I know that if I had the opportunity I’d buy her several. I discovered Parker very early on in my life and have returned to her writing time and again. A couple of months ago, I purchased her selected works in an Oxfam on High Street Kensington and have been meaning to flick through them since. Trying to review someone I admire as much as I do Parker is always somewhat daunting, but to hell with it I might as well impart my very own “Pig's-Eye View”. Born in West End, New Jersey, on August 22nd, 1893, Parker began her career at Vogue writing by-lines and captions, such as: “This little pink dress will win you a beau”. Irremeably bored with the corseted muliebrity of the editorial collective, she moved to Vanity Fair and took over from P. G. Wodehouse as a theatre critic before being sacked for panning a couple of plays. Later, speaking about the precarious start to her career she said: “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions. So I was fired.”
Parker signed nuptials twice; both of her husbands died. The first, Hartford dandy and Wall Street broker Edwin Pond Parker II, was often the butt of her jousting as a somewhat maladroit character forever falling down manholes and breaking his arm while sharpening pencils. As was her second husband, screenwriter Alan Campbell, of whom she once noted: “Don't worry about Alan. Alan will always land on somebody's feet.” Campbell was found dead in their home from a barbiturates overdose. When Parker was reportedly asked by a friend if there was anything she could do, the poetess replied: "Get me a new husband." Parker’s facetious attitude to death was reflected as much in her personal life – one prematurely dead mother, two deceased husbands and a quartet of failed suicide attempts – as in her work. So much so, that in her early 20s she penned her own epitaph and brandished it with slipshod equanimity. And later, in her senescence, when asked what she was going to do next she told an interviewer: "If I had any decency, I'd be dead. All my friends are."
A consummate overachiever Parker defied society’s mandates by muzzling the misogynistic literati with quips as sharp as a needle-tip and vitriolic spitfire comebacks to rival those of Oscar Wilde. Recollecting her heyday, she once said: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me…” She never quite managed to jilt her public person and her reputation as an Algonquin “smartcracker” preceded her, but unbeknownst to herself Parker was the greatest female wit in America. Her literary canon boasts an array of genres but my favourite has to be her poetry; grandiloquent, flippant, sagacious, nihilistic, hedonistic, unnerving, macabre, silly, and of a nonpareil Herculean capacity to leave the reader in a head-spin. There is nothing like the rhymes inked by this “pampered heir to Hell” with her emerald green eyes, her sable-like hair and a boa in her hat so imposingly baronial that it became a fire hazard around cigarettes. But the real hazard was, of course, Parker herself. She would perennially shock polite society with her caustic repartee, such as "One more drink and I'd have been under the host," or remarking about a strapping but panurgic lover who had ditched her, "His body went to his head," and speaking of another who died of tuberculosis, "I don't see what else he could have done”. But the most infamous of her one liners, however, was directed toward a society lady, Clare Boothe Luce, who Parker encountered in a doorway at literary saloon. Luce suggested Parker go first, saying “Age before beauty,” to which Parker replied, “Pearls before swine.”
Under Prohibition, Parker would frequent bohemian speakeasies for preprandial drinking which would continue well into the night, resulting in missed deadlines and nonchalant excuses such as: “Someone else was using the pencil." In her view, editors were “idiots” and the staff at Vanity Fair consisted of valetudinarian “young men who go to pieces easily. Even when they're in the best of health, you have to stand on their insteps to keep them from flying away". She left the magazine in 1920, and became a household name as one of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, where along with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott and Franklin P. Adams she lunched all day, imbibed martinis and honed her picric tongue. With a poodle under her oxter and a wide brimmed hat, Parker wrote her verses in classical form, but with a caustic, rueful note. Her work, gravid with cynicism, disillusion, and the disappointing quest for love, also features an abiding symbolic and metaphysical preoccupation with death. Like the Romantics, she longed for the ecumenical ever-lasting amour, the true, the real, which she nevertheless attempted to denigrate at every opportunity with open disdain for her own emotions. Themes of failure, abandonment, self-deprecation and death are isolated and interwoven together in Parker’s verse, and always remarked upon in sardonic tones. In “Inventory” for example she says, “Four be the things I’d been better without/Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt”, while in “Pour Prendre Conge” she records her hurt: “I’ll never again like a cub lick/My wounds while I squeal at the hurt/No more I’ll go walking in public/My heart hanging out of my shirt”, and similarly in “Little Words”, “When you are gone, there is no bloom nor leaf/No singing sea at night, nor silver birds/And I can only stare and shape my grief/In little words/There is no mercy in the shifting year/No beauty wraps me tenderly about/I turn to little words – so you, my dear/ Can spell them out”. In “Cherry White” her attention moves to the theme of suicide, “I never see that prettiest thing/A cherry bough gone white with Spring/ But what I think ‘How gay `twould be/To hang me from a flowering tree”, later the theme is more overtly vocalised in “Coda” when the poetess declares: “There's little in taking or giving/ There's little in water or wine/This living, this living, this living/Was never a project of mine.” Parker also dashed of many philippic little verses and limericks such as “Godspeed” (I'll not be left in sorrow/So long as I have yesterday/Go take your damned tomorrow!), “Frustration” (If I had a shiny gun/I could have a world of fun/Speeding bullets through the brains/Of the folk who give me pains), “News Item” (Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses), “Oscar Wilde” (If, with the literate, I am, Impelled to try an epigram/I never seek to take the credit/We all assume that Oscar said it) and “Unfortunate Coincidence” (By the time you swear you're his/ Shivering and sighing/And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying/Lady, make a note of this/One of you is lying). My own favourite Parker poem, however, is “Résumé” which goes thus: “Razors pain you/Rivers are damp/Acids stain you/ And drugs cause cramp/Guns aren't lawful/Nooses give/Gas smells awful/You might as well live.” Indeed.
Speaking to Paris Review in her 70s Parker noted: “My verses are no damn good...terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now.” She was of course right, at least in part, some of her work seems anachronistic, musty, but her ability to dispense with circumlocution and give naked emotion direct and with unparalleled wit is what makes her one of the greatest minds of her generation. A brutal emendator of her own work, she often threw away what others would have laboured over, and once prescribed that in order to write: "There must be courage, there must be no awe. There must be criticism... There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it." She had all the “musts” in abundance, and as Ogden Nash once said Dorothy Parker’s “trick about her writing” was simply that “it wasn’t a trick”. She was just that good.
William S. Burroughs once said that hallucinogens are “absolutely contraindicated for creative work” and while this may be true, they also make for abWilliam S. Burroughs once said that hallucinogens are “absolutely contraindicated for creative work” and while this may be true, they also make for absolutely great creative anamnesis. I say this having just finished reading Peter Weissman’s memoir, “I Think Therefore Who Am I?” which documents a year of his life spent as one of many “stoned disciples of weed” in New York city. Weissman’s literary endeavours began that same year, in 1968, with a “yellow writing pad…a pack of cigarettes…and a tin canister” of marijuana, but veered off course with increased use of drugs which propelled his descent into sedition. It took him almost 30 years to capture the hazy zeitgeist of the era on paper but he has done so beautifully and with a quasi-stoned power of description which is vibrant and opaque, acoustic and allusive all at once.
“I Think Therefore Who Am I?” opens with two young men, Peter and his best friend Mark Greendbaum, shuffling along “gray streets” overflowing with “brick facades and cars lining the curbs, garbage cans and fire escapes” with no particular destination in mind. Their friendship, solidified by years of familiarity and the seeming innocence of the two characters, their mutual shyness and the novelty of big-city life, binds them together in their ideological convictions as well as their shortcomings. Weissman notes: “Mark and I saw ourselves as rebels. We opposed the war and demonstrated against it. We were prepared to convince the draft board we were insane, homosexual, whatever it took, and to go to Canada, if it came to that. We excoriated the government and authority in general. Yet as male adults taken with the notion of women and what it meant to be men, we lacked the rebellious bravado…” This unifying sense of camaraderie quickly bifurcates as Peter becomes swept up in a whirlwind tour shrouded in “blue haze of cigarette smoke… salt-paper and pot”. Weissman, somewhat unwittingly, finds himself “taking epic treks across Manhattan”, toking on numerous joints, taking acid, frequenting iniquitous basement dens and partaking in the sexual politics among the Bohemian utopia of late 60s New York. He chronicles his “drugged memories” and escapades through rooms reminiscent of “crazed bomb shelters,” urban enclaves “throbbed with libidinous energy,” and phantasmagorical scenes of “people tripping out, getting sectioned” with beatnik aplomb and a droll, unassuming manner.
The memoir, therefore, has the enthralling feel of a picaresque and is studded with varied and peculiar characters, domiciled “like lost souls in Dante” around the hub of activity, including some of his closest associates of the time such as Arnie Glick whom Weissman remembers as “the sort of guy who’s conversation didn’t require reflection”, Rose the “domestic peasant in the kitchen”, Don Juan Goldberg “who attempted to live up to his name,” Richie Klein a “speed freak among acid heads”, LA Ray with his “glib self confidence” and Emily with Tom who made one feel like “a boy in a grown-up world”. Along with his best friend Mark who always “lived life in his head” and Patrick with his “cleft chin and rugged square face”, this multifarious group would have “smoke[d] or swallow[d] anything to get high.” Weissman has a deft hand in relaying the “life-size diorama” of the swarming and “disreputable characters lounging in doorways and lingering on corners,” and inducts the reader into the private passel of domestic politics and the counterculture lifestyle underpinned by the belief that nothing really matters except one’s own hedonistic quest for freedom. Often the drug-fuelled gatherings evolve into philosophical contemplations as the interlocutors find themselves “talking politics and bemoaning the world’s condition.” Occasionally the fragmented, time-warped, discussions venture into man’s mortality emphasised by the realisation that “You shop you, you eat, you read, you die”. Weissman unloads his brimming psyche item by item, like any budding writer who had left home to undertake an idyllic, Bohemian quest to pursue a literary adventure. This ethos stands Weissman quite comfortably although in his most familiar environs he remains one of the “neighbourhood idlers who’d been at it too long.”
Reading “I Think Therefore Who Am I?” made me wish I could dispense with my shoes, weave flowers into my hair, don a paisley print smock and drop acid. But above and beyond the drugs and the New York “jumble of skyscrapers” and the panorama of “an ochre smudge of pollution” and human debris the memoir is much more substantive and reveals a brilliant but achingly self-conscious young man and his compelling urge to discover himself and his place under the sun. Yet perhaps the two elements are so indivisibly enmeshed that one cannot be read without the other, as Weissman himself notes: “…there were drugs. Always, there were drugs. No history of that time can be understood without them, an influence and obsession.” In fact, it is difficult to imagine this particular memoir without the drugs or their part in its making, for they have shaped both Weissman’s life and prose style into a syntax brimming with vagaries, memories and apprehensions recollected through a markedly subversive tendency of mind made so by the author’s undertakings. “I Think Therefore Who Am I?” combines polemic, exploit and diablerie making it a unique, intense and candid chef d’oeuvre circumscribing Weissman’s experiences and the epoch of intensely perfervid political activity and free love. And like all good explorations of the self “I Think Therefore Who Am I?” doesn’t hold back, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the funny and the heartbreaking head first as we witness Weissman getting repeatedly stoned (and repeatedly robbed), submerging into philosophy and then astrology, feeling increasingly “like cipher”, losing all his earthly possessions, his friends and his virginity, going to Frisco and returning back to New York only to be “humbled by a dog” and humiliated by his girlfriend and her lover. Whatever else the memoir lacks it has life throbbing through it from cover to cover.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates once mumbled and perhaps the old stoic was right. “I Think Therefore Who Am I?” is a hallucinatory reportage, a sublime recreation of a psychedelic year portrayed with a vivacity which conveys the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life as the elusive, surreal images sometimes harden into uncharacteristic philosophical verities and beyond. Weissman’s idealistic notions of the hippy lifestyle and the social ethos of the late 60s are debunked by his own hand through trial and error of the awkward youthful misfit he once was while looking for himself and a place to belong. It makes for an interesting read as he has a great ability to mix raw sentiment in a provocative and utterly candid manner which both ingratiates him with the reader but also makes him, at times, seem somewhat disagreeable. “I Think Therefore Who Am I?” takes many swerves, abruptly imploring you to skid along through a landscape of sex, drugs and politics, sometimes laughing, other times lachrymose, while Weissman grapples with his own identity and the life ahead of him. Speaking of the year chronicled in his memoir, Peter Weissman described it as a “psychic battering” but also as an experience he’s neither keen to forget nor apologise for, concluding confidently that his life, whatever it was back in those days, was worth examining....more