Monthly Archives: October 2009

Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

An improvisation:

In a certain low-lying town, where the sky is tall enough to accommodate stacked libraries of cloud, a young man reads of Invisible Cities. Dawn breaks, caramel and pearl, as it does in old stories.

The town is built on a hill upon which it is only possible to think downwards.

At the top of the hill there is a church and a watchtower. All roads lead away, down the hill. The faithful direct their prayers down, like rolling coins in a gutter. The old watchtower now offers free entry: visitors like to see the sky reflected darkly in the still pool at the bottom of the hill, but they never look up.

By the pool is a cinema. Filmgoers, who find the town mysteriously altered at the end of the evening, as if it has exhaled, as if something solid in it has been swallowed, are always surprised to find the hill is still there.

Map-makers dislike the hill for its shock of contours, consider it an obvious spillage in an otherwise perfectly clean cream sea. Architects conceive of the hill hollowed out, dim catacombs wreathing towards high vaulted caverns.

The young man dreams of erosion, rivers breaking their banks, new tributaries carving through old rock, a black weight of water running down a hill.

Read my review >>

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‘Ballardian’ – Super Cannes

Mike Thompson has designed a lamp that is powered by human blood.

The sequence unrolls like a snuff movie: she sits at the table like a priestess at the altar, smashes a glass, cuts herself on it, drains her blood into the liquid in it, and is suffused in an electric blue light. There’s something deeply strange about a premeditated act of violence being conducted in silence.

Thompson, an English designer based in the Netherlands, designed the lamp having discovered how the chemical luminol is used in forensic science to mark traces of blood left at crime scenes.

“It kind of triggered this thought in my mind, that if energy somehow came at a cost to us, then maybe it would make us think differently about the way we use it,” Thompson told LiveScience. The lamp is intended to “challenge people’s preconceived notions about where our energy comes from,” he said, and it forces the user “to rethink how wasteful they are with energy, and how precious it is.”

Having just finished reading Super-Cannes, it’s hard not to find the invention of a blood lamp deeply Ballardian. There’s an obvious sado-maschistic edge to the sensibilities behind the concept, and an undercurrent of vampiric eroticism to the video, that resonate with the sort of ideas Ballard frames in his writing.

Firstly, the novel: set into the hills above Cannes, in the bleaching light, Eden-Olympia is an executive-class, ‘intelligent’ business park, which has been touched by madness. An apparently sane doctor has killed ten people in a storm of violence that cannot be explained. Paul Sinclair, husband of the doctor’s eventual replacement, feels compelled to investigate and gradually uncovers a subculture of crime and engineered psychopathy that threatens to spill outside the mirrored walls of the park.

In Eden-Olympia, we discover, the executives are restless. They have slipped moorings, are adrift in an environment in which work is the only familiar landmark. In an enclosed, disconnected world, they have become inured to whatever normal society expects of us; the market sets its own morality. Dr Wilder Penrose is employed to manage volatile minds: “our amiable Prospero, the psychopomp who steered our darkest dreams towards the daylight”. Without wishing to give the game away, we soon learn that he has prescribed a particularly depraved brand of catharsis.

Essentially, Super-Cannes is a stylised thriller, a tightly twisted coil of  narrative  which flashes the disquieting, prescient ideas for which Ballard (who died this year) became renowned. In fact, the Collins English Dictionary now carries a definition for ‘ballardian’:

adj. resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”

The novel’s chief weakness is that at times it feels too much a set piece, the writing merely facilitating the enaction of the author’s ideas. Ballard sometimes over-tells in a clunky, hammy way: the narrator, Paul, introduces his wife as “spunky but insecure”, and she never really provides anything other than a rather wooden cameo.

But in a sense these blips are no more than perculiarities of the genre, Chandleresque affectations, and even serve to heighten the strangeness of the narrative. I found Super-Cannes an overwhelmingly intruiging, unsettling novel to read. It is filled with an oppressive brightness; the glare of white buildings, the fusing heat of a exposed rooftop, the vulgar shimmer of neon in alleys. Ballard shoots off images like rogue fireworks:

“Cannes lay beneath us, a furnace of light where the Croisette touched the sea, as if an immense lava flow was moving down the hills and igniting at the water’s edge.”

His writing is charged throughout with a forensic energy and all the blank hostility of an operating theatre – turning the page sometimes feels like making the first cut at an autopsy. Super Cannes reveals itself in the white light that a dentist uses to direct the drill; the light of the blood lamp.

The Man Who Lost the Sea

Sea_Twilight

“Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you’re too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn’t a toy, it’s a model. You tell him look here, here’s something most people don’t know about helicopters…”

The Man Who Lost the Sea‘, by Theodore Sturgeon; via

‘Wolf Hall’ – some thoughts

Portrait of Cromwell, by Hans Holbein 1532-33

I watched ‘Raging Bull’ the other night, though it was more like a test of endurance than a simple pleasure: it is such a claustrophobic, clenched-fist of a film, there is such an air of masochism about it, and it is so dominated by De Niro. The fights are astonishingly filmed, camera tight to his gloves, wheeling about, never leaving the ring, orbiting him, a helplessly drawn satelite.

Thomas Cromwell exerts the same planetary pull over Hilary Mantel’s 650 page Wolf Hall, set in the crucial decades which saw Henry VIII marry Anne Boleyn and declare himself head of the Church of England. The son of a blacksmith, he forces his way into the Tudor Court by a combination of machination, opportunism and sheer determination, eventually finding the favour of the king and becoming one of the most powerful men in England. He is a smooth-tongued political genius with a quick and capacious mind – ruthless and affectionate, calculating and loyal: a man who looks like a murderer.

It is fair to say that Cromwell encompasses the novel: it moves where he moves – indeed its length is in many ways a testament to his stubborn vitality.  Stylistically, the writing is restrained, sometimes curt, though Mantel is an expert wielder of a dry aphoristic wit and there are occasional flashes of lyricism. Aptly for a novel about politics, dialogue dominates, though Mantel hardly ever mentions the protagonist by name. Instead, the third person ‘he’ becomes a sort of epithet for Cromwell in the same way it signifies divinity in the Bible – one feels after a while that it ought to be capitalised. It’s a clever – if precarious – device, because consequently the reader is made to feel at one step removed from the character over which the novel obsesses. It could easily become a frustrating or confusing authorial tick but doesn’t, because it embodies Cromwell’s impenetrability and omnipresence in the novel so succintly.

Yet reading Wolf Hall is a strangely illusory experience for such a doorstop of a book. To the author’s credit, it never becomes stodgy or ponderous. This, at least in part, is because it is a historical novel concerned with such familiar events which only describes a fraction of the whole story – Mantel is apparently already writing a sequel. It ends abruptly, almost arbitrarily, four of Henry’s wives yet to have their misfortunes visited upon them, Cromwell having not changed substantially throughout, future events bearing down on the reader but remaining unwritten. Despite its bravura and boldness of imagination, the novel has an inherent flimsiness, an allusiveness: it is an odd thing, after all, to be reading such an immersive fiction of the real life of someone whose name is first learnt in primary school. Wolf Hall is a monument to that man, casting a long shadow, for in a very real sense this history is changed by our reading of it.

*still reading Heart Songs

On the Futility of Blogging

I remember filling a time capsule in primary school. Our teachers were getting superstitious about the approaching new millenium so of course we set about collecting artifacts to preserve – tatty football stickers, broken tamagotchis, old conkers – and wrote explanatory notes addressed in hope to any rogue aliens: “Manchester United won the league but nobody likes them. I hope the future has flying skateboards in it”.

We buried them in the far corner of the playing field under the tree with the old condom hanging on it.