All entries for February 2008
February 20, 2008
So, I probably shouldn't post this, but - an e-mail conversation that shouldn't have happened got forwarded to me. A student (I'll erase their name) wrote to the head of English complaining about George Ttoouli. George got the e-mail by mistake, and this is his response. It's pretty... yeah, you can see. So, here they are.
I had hoped that the study of English Literature at Warwick University would be an example of high academic and moral standing. I am thoroughly disappointed in the teaching methods of George Ttouli who seems to disregard both of these important virtues by engaging the class with an exercise in writing offensive literature aimed at other seminar members. I would have expected such behaviour at Hertfordshire university, but never here, I expect an apology from the department.
(And here's George's response)
To the concerned but nameless student.
I'm sorry that you interpreted that particular exercise as an attempt to bring seminar members into conflict with one another. That was not my aim at all, although reviewing the lesson plan I can understand where you got the idea that it might have been by intention. I now regret including "The Butter Game" and "Onomatopeaic pistol whipping" in the first seminar of term - however, "Sexually aggressive pass the parcel" and "The three minute birch whip" will remain. If you want to progress in your writing, you're going to have to press your own boundaries. Try Olaf Grunison's great work "Svy svyortig von skronlinson" in the Harper-Collins translation ("Aggressive-herring-sales and their effect on my work"), or perhaps "The folded lily garden is a vagina" by Jasmin Al Fayed for examples of how interpersonal conflict can lead to great art.
I think I'm justified in saying me-yow! These cats have claws.
February 16, 2008
Writing about web page /ttooulig/entry/world-building_revisited_a/
Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view
George Ttoouli writes that "the approach to world-building in fiction generally needs to avoid an abundance of detail, unless the characters demand it." What this shows is a character-centric approach to narrative. That assumes that character (or more generously, story) is the point - and frankly it doesn't have to be.
Which isn't to say that the extremes of world building are forgiven. Why build technical specs for the Death Star? As an objet d'art they're potentially diverting. As the final rebuttal in a first-death-star second-death-star argument they may be essential. But for the purposes of the second trilogy they're extraneous.
But why should character be the point of a story? Asimov writes about worlds and governent almost exclusively, and it's interesting, it's insightful. It can't give us insight into the human condition. But who cares? I've had enough of the human condition. I'm living the human condition. I want to learn about the political condition, the socio-political condition, the ecological condition.
Asimov is a revearsal of the rule that a world should be just detailed enough to run the narrative through to the end, borne mostly on the shoulders of the characters. Rather, his worlds are the heavyweights of the story, and the characters are mere backdrop. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Foundation Trilogy, a story which changes characters by chapter, takes very little trouble to individuate them, and yet is compelling, interesting, and genuinely capable of making you gasp, entirely at the wonders of one system of philosophical economics. (Having studied rational choice theory lately a whole extra layer was added for me).
George treats characters as if they exist on an ontological plane above worlds; as if characters are real, and worlds are linguistic trappings they must wade through to bear the story to the end. Obviously he doesn't believe this. But if they're on the same ontological plane, then why distinguish? It's a question of asking which is important for the story.
For Tolkein, the world was every bit as important as his Catholic sermonising. And it can genuinely interest, in and of itself; not just as the forebear of modern genre fantasy, but also for the beautiful complexity of the world. If you can finish all 1,000 pages of LOTR it's not because you're seriously interested in Frodo or Gandalf. And the paucity of battles is not going to seriously entertain the modern hack-and-slash fantasy afficionado. The world itself is a worthwhile subject.
I could actually extend the ontological distinction to include narrative itself. If the characters and worlds of a story don't exist, then how much less must narrative? I think this is somewhere on the road that leads to anti-narrative - divorcing the actual story of a piece of prose from the apparant story in the text - although I'm not sure if it reaches it or overshoots. Humour me.
Narrative is the ultimate fiction; the idea that a series of events constitute a story. There is a human tendency to collate certain events into a sequence, thus forming a story, but no such thing exists in the world. It is a psychological artefact.
The interesting thing, once one divorces narrative from a piece of prose, is that it then becomes far closer to (some types of) poetry, and even fine art. Without narrative, we have metaphor, image, sensation, emotional response, character, world, philosophy, politic and so on - and all of these can be found in fine art. The difference is medium.
What I'm angling at is that a narrative-free piece of fiction could be enjoyed as fine art. And this frees us of a lot of constraints. One is allowed to sit in front of a Bacon and enjoy the colours, the brush-strokes, the juxtaposition of images, the suggestions of emotions, the metaphoric content; but you're not scolded for also enjoying the many fine details of the world in a Constable landscape.
Of course narrative free fiction would be peculiar. Something like Borge's hypothetical Encyclopedia of Tlön (although perhaps "The Red Tower" comes close). And I don't believe this constitutes a reprise for the vast tracts of dross which attempt to save themselves by virtue of having an immaculately detailed world (or more regularly, an immaculately detailed series of wars). But the discovery of a world in fiction can be an interesting, engaging and worthwhile experience.
Pending the last of China Mieville's Weird Fiction workshops for the year, I sat down (probably on a bus) and read "The Red Tower" by Thomas Ligotti in one sitting. It's good. Definitely the best of the samples we were given. If you want to find a copy of it, you're going to have a tough job - the "Nightmare Factory" collection it comes from is out of print and costs about £50 on Amazon or Alibris. Photocopies might still be circulating in the Capital Centre writing room - and otherwise I'm afraid you're out of luck.
Don't read on if you ever intend to read The Red Tower - major, major spoilers up ahead. Which is to say that I'm going to summarise the story right now.
The story - if such it can be called - centres on the titular Red Tower, a decaying former factory situated in the centre of an infinite expanse of wasteland. The Tower was created out of the wasteland, and the wilderness, realising it's mistake, has been attempting to correct it since. As a result all of the machinery which produced the factories peculiar "novelty items" - rocks with organic eyes, disturbingly accurate models of diseased internal organs - have evaporated and the structure above ground now lies in ruin.
In response the factory has burrowed deeper into the surface of the wilderness, forming a second basement below the first - the first being used to transport the novelty goods of the Tower to all points on the earth. This second basement - in turn shut down by the pressure of the wilderness - contains a graveyard of birthing graves, producing monstrous and malfunctional organic creatures. Finally, there may or may not exist a third basement, but what that might produce is a mystery.
SPOILER END, PONCY MEANDERINGS BEGIN!
So, its a peculiar tale. It's got a lot of typical Ligotti features (Hah! I sound as if I know stuff about him. I've read four of his shorts. Does that qualify? I'll level with you - most of this is borrowed from China, but it's interesting, and I don't want to withhold interesting things from you) - his overpowering nihilism and death-drive, his morbid fascination with change and decay, the interplay between decay and vitality, and commercial fabrication.
The wilderness is an overpowering force of nihil - it tends absolutely towards entropy. What is odd is that it chooses to throw up the Red Tower at all - even if it chooses to rescind on that decision, nevertheless it has the latent capacity, if not at least the general inclination, to create. It reminds me of one particular theory about the fundamental nature of the universe - God knows what the name was, but it said that quantum randomness meant that eventually, anything could pop into being. It seems somehow to fit - the universe tends always towards entropy, but occasionally, we have a moment of random creation.
And then there's the fact that the Red Tower fights back. It keeps on producing. It keeps on being. Compare with "The Tsalal" - in that, the arrival of nihil is stalled, not stopped. In "The Prodigy of Dreams" the arrival is welcomed, indeed summoned. In "I Have a Special Plan for this World" the main character is the force of annihilation (although arguably not nihil). But existence doesn't fail. I like to think that the final (perhaps mythical) sub-basement of the Tower does indeed exist; something about the tone of the piece tells me that it would be wrong for it not to.
And what does that sub-basement produce? As the Red Tower's operations are pushed underground, it's output changes from "novelty items" to, for want of a better term, "novelty organics". There's an increase in complexity, even if the new products are every bit as malformed, ugly, malfunctional, disturbing and (yet) horifically compelling as their forebears.
The answer is in the text - or rather, the answer is the text. It has all of the relevant characteristics. It doesn't follow the normal form of even a weird fiction short story. There's nothing beautiful about it. It doesn't seem to work like a normal story - you don't hear a little tale, or learn about a character, or gain a deep and meaningful insight into modern life. It is definitely disturbing. And yet I read it one sitting. Something about the ungainliness, the imaginitive oddness of it, as well as the pleasure of its grotesquery, force you to read.
So. Buy that lot if you will.
What does that mean? That the Red Tower is now writing Weird Fiction. Or, that "The Red Tower" was produced by the Red Tower. That Thomas Ligotti (and perhaps Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen et al, for Ligotti likes to include them all in the same fraternity) are manufacturing devices within an alien manufacturing plant.
That's about all I have to say. If anyone knows more about Ligotti's take on manufacture (mechanical reproduction) in relation to absolutely anything, please say, I'd be eagre to see what spin they think that puts on my reading.
February 15, 2008
And another belated update - this time the exercise was to take the events from one genre and the style from another and mash them up. Events from Weird Fiction, style from Crime Fiction. Oh, and the key events in weird fiction? Making contact with the Other is the only real condition. But following Lovecraft I've also included an occulted researcher meeting a grizzly fate, and a powerful entity reaching into dreams.
Inspector Meier shuffled the blanket off the young man's body, delicately. The corpse's face was askew, as if all the flesh had teemed to one side in a rapid, brutal migration. The body was naked, arms pressed against the chest. He had been clutching the blanket when he died.
"Another one?" Asked Gugenheim. His partner lounged in the door frame, picking at his teeth indolently.
"You want me to give you the list?"
"I'll trust you." Gugenheim grinned, but Meier overcut him.
"Because discolouration, check, locked room, check, no fucking witness, check."
"I said I trust you."
Meier just grunted and looked back down. The marks were the same as the other Inkwell murders; dark blue bruising running down the neck and sternum, terminating in a pool of matte black that wallowed in the bowl of the solar plexus.
Another immaculate crime-scene. Inkwell was a near perfect killer. The whole investigation was a rotten house, two breaths from falling over, rancid with air-borne poison - two lead investigators had already quit in disgust. Inkwell took a CSI as a victim. The tabloids were drinking it up like mosquitos.
And that was before the fucking Sanderson Diary came out and the rotten walls of the case finally gave out.
"Well." Gugenheim purred, scratching his stubble. "Well well well."
The pair had been on their way to a domestic when the woman ran screaming from the tenement, out into the road. The breaks were slow on the antique cop car and they halfway hit her, knocking her to the floor and taking the skin off her right shoulder, but she didn't slow down, just scrambled back up like a rat and careened off. They had to run her to ground, Meier pouncing on her and pinning her despite his age, and all the time she was screaming:
"Opals! They were opals!"
Gugenheim had stayed with her long enough for the rest of the precinct to arrive and sedate her, peel her off into an ambulance. When he caught up he found Meier in her apartment, doing a cat-pad round and round the tiny room, glowering at the walls and floor and daring them to give up their secrets.
"Where are your opals, Mrs. Palmer?" Gugenheim murmured absent mindedly, thinking of the screaming woman he'd parcelled into the police meat wagon.
"In her head. In the Sanderson diary. Not here."
"Least it makes them easy to spot. Got in on this one pretty fast. Still warm."
Meier picked at the skin of his cracked lips, angry. "What I'm worried about, Frank, is that Inkwell's gonna get the same idea as Sanderson, and start with the fucking opals."
"I'm just saying, they're easier to spot."
The Sanderson Diary had fallen into the sweaty little hands of Rupert Downey, a minor sultan of the local media circuit. The diary was left by one of Inkwell's later victims, Patricia Sanderson, a small-time artist whose work had gone from abhorred to adored in the month since her death. Inkwell had been haunting her dreams. At first he was a tall, African man, with hair made of rope and eyes of black beetles. He fed her opals, he made advances at her. Before long she was painting him. He permeated her art. Soon she was seeing him in shop windows, the smoky corners of old terraced houses, the ring of rope tying a boat up at it's moorings. And then she died.
You could write it off as media hysteria; bored singleton fantasises about man of mystery murderer and ends up on his list. Downey had gone the other way. He'd set his little gargoyles loose, uncovering every scrap that could tie Inkwell into his victim's dreams and blanket them with opals.
What worried Meier was how easy he'd found it. Normally the papers had to make up about half their "facts" on a big murder case, but Meier had looked it through with the bureau. All legit. Somnambulists, insomniacs, astral projectors, narcoleptics, CFS-victims. Inkwell's victims were weird sleepers to a body. Some of them kept diaries too, though none of them as explicit as Sanderson's. One young poet wrote an "Opal series". A teen boy changed his fantasies from his math teacher to "the dark adonis of dreams". The only hole was the CSI. Nothing unusual about her; she was one of the most straight-forward girls on the force. Then her husband came forwards and revealed she was a "sexsomniac". A sleep fucker.
But it was all drek compared with the real opal Downey had found. Victim number one, Randalf Carter. The police's press release had him pinned as a psychologist, which was almost true. He was a sleep researcher - and more than that, he was also a covert para-psychologist. His expertise - his obsession - was the transcendance of the human rational state through the gateway of dreams. And his birth stone?
"Opals." Said Gugenheim, pressing Meier back into consciousness. He still couldn't decide what was worse; the supernatural media creature Downey had created, or the real Inkwell.
"What?" Asked Meier, but Gugenheim just pointed down at the body, and said:
The black inkpool in the victim's torso was pulsing, moving up and down as if some bulging thing was seeking egress through the skin. There was a moment of resistance, and then a breach. Showing through the split was the round head of pearlescent, shining stone; and then it receeded, the flesh seeming to repel the object with elastic force. The throbbing of the flesh continued, and this time the strange dance was joined by another bulge, mid-way along the sternum. For three seconds the flesh rippled with the pressure, and then the bodies breached again, two gem spheres peering through the veil of flesh like the eyes of some demon statue. This time they probed further, almost half an orb pushing through before being repelled back under by the resistance of the flesh. Meier had the horrible sensation that somehow, wherever the globes were being pushed back to, it was not inside the body.
"I think we should go." He said to Gugenheim, but the man had already gone. Meier split from the room as quickly as he could, seeing Gugenheim's retreating back as he vanished down the stairs, and as he rushed to join him, he could hear from the room the noise of a heavy clink clink whirr, a sound of opals dropping and rolling across the floor.
Belatedly, here's the exercise from two weeks ago. The task was to write a cliched character, without using cliches. My choice? French Philosopher.
The cafes are all gone.
The stairs fall under my creaking approach, and this is the thought I am summoned to – the cafes which were once, are now not. My lifetime was spent rationalising just such impossibilities, and yet again and again this fact stumps me – the cafes are all gone.
But I’ve spent too long dwelling where things are not, and before me now is a door, a door which swings open to reveal the type of bar the new generation meets in – or rather, the type of pub. I’m in England after all. “Pub” – a contraction of “public house” – a peculiar linguistic artefact hanging on long after it has lost any ability to capture the meaning of a place like this. I take pride in my knowledge of their foreign etymology; a little skill that is dwarfed next to my other achievements, but still indelibly a part of the big hazy “me”. I’m here to share my Philosophy with the lucky tyrones.
I believe that the cafes went to the Arabs. Arabic money backing French developers and (perhaps) an Italian architect, turning the south-bank café district into, what? Trendy residentials, desirable workplaces, “lasting commercial investment”. The warehouses and the granaries went too, and the docklands also, where my father and grandfather and some deep polluted stream of my forebears made things with their hands and tools.
What relationship do I stand in to this crowd of people? Each one a question mark. I’m unannounced and unknown. At the caf we were more than people. Jacques the poet, expounding his latest commercial disaster - Maudeline, whipping me with silence and the furtive promise of ash-tasting sex. Hazy glorious times which may never have been. Here we have the present, the indubitable present, and all I hold are unsatisfied existential statements; there exists some contact, who relates to me thus – we are to meet today, in order to discuss my paper for the colloquium tomorrow. Damn him.
I’m an oddity, a fact acknowledged by all but admitted hardly. One of the idiot Vienna circle stood where I am now, in this relation – intruding, enquiring, stupid and dumb, in a world which was not his own. Jacques lashed him, Paul promised him sex with bitter little whispers and of course did not deliver. I watched the bastard and loathed him, but now I miss those games of youth.
There’s a bar, a barman, a small gaggle of infants peeking at this methusela. I look, I believe, like some drawn out alcoholic. In a certain sense that is what I am, but not the important one. The glory of Philosophy is that midday absynthe binges can be written off as a working expense. I had a friend who knew a man who kept a shaggy dog that claimed back the tax on his alcohol problem. Or so he said; but he was an alcoholic too, and we’re hardly to be trusted.
Peculiarly close to Socrates, that’s how we stand. Corrupters of the youth. This gaggle seem so very child-like. Adult enough to wallow in their first existential crises, perhaps, but not wise enough yet to drink them away. This whole place has the aspect of a creche; the soft leather couches, blocky little tables, the pretend bar counter. My father would have suppressed a smirk at that sort of plastic joinery.
I find that I am increasingly reminding myself of the banal, to prevent myself from forgetting it. For example – what is required, on various levels, for me to purchase a drink, is;
I place myself in a physical relation of conversation with the man standing behind the bar
I enter into the conversation game of asking for a drink
I engage in the social practise of purchasing said drink
But you could probably collapse steps ii) and iii) together. And why these little lists? Because I am losing touch with it. One thousand fucks. Is it alcohol destroying my mind, or is it age? As a young man I would have put a bet down on it, lost, and refused to pay up. I am not acquainted with the answer; but this answer of all preys most heavily on my mind, and if I am denied it, what value is there in any other?
There was a time, a long time ago, when I could say “I am so close”. “I am so fucking close”. But I have been spinning away from that point for ever now. Here I stand, an infinite distance from the bar, asking a simulacra of a human for a lukewarm liquid, watching as my hand makes motions which could be interpreted as presenting him with money from behind the cataract veil of perception and hoping that when it lands on the counter, my body will not have dissolved into gas and I can clutch it, hold the tall smooth glass in my outstretched interaction and move it to my lips and drink.
The glass lands, and the beer is warm and flat.