In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.
This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.
Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident’(2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.
We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.
Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).
Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.
Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.
What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).
Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
(Derrida 1998: 61)
This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.
The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy
(Haraway 2008: 16).
It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.
In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.
Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”
My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…
Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).
The resonance is a tinny vintage, anachronistic; tinselled with eighties synths and a vocal sample that never quite begins. That baggy voice, normally soft as milk, becomes jagged, inhuman. Creepily crystallised. Your aunty’s favourite easy-listening is stripped of all coherence and synthesis; the tacky detritus of Steve Wright’s Sunday Lovesongs repackaged for an ersatz world of sulphurous sunsets and crumbling metropolises imploding like the plastic dust of an Arizonan dead mall. Back to the dark desert highway, purple-skied and dripped in molten neon. This isn’t what you’d enjoy on a leisurely car trip to the drive through…Or is it?
Listen to : : :
death’s dynamic shroud.wmv // I’m at the point in the level where the road narrows, curves, swirls upside down. Death is imminent. You can see the gloved fingers slipping a compact disc into the slot of a monster, borrowed straight from the architectures of Digimon. I’m thinking: Elizabeth Fraser’s sweetly haunting soprano (imagine being ghosted by the purest aural distillation of beauty); the chilled techno-ambience resurrected from the nineties. There’s heartbreak ahead. If you jump too far—and you will, won’t you—the space around you will glitch. There you’ll be, suspended in the space twinkles. An empty swimming pool. Climb into the cracks. Why is everything so gleaming, so white? I’m obsessed with getting back to matter. The music restores the filth, the glitch. There’s a vast acceleration of beautiful colour. The soprano grows warped, the orb-like contortions are glowing off kilter, off rhythm. The seven lumps of Galaxy chocolate I’ve just eaten melt sticky bits of sugar in my mouth, refuse to dissolve. They’ll coat my teeth like that.
Vapourwave coats your teeth. God knows how or why you should define it. It’s like cheap candy, utterly sugary but filled with mysterious ingredients, mystic chemicals from another dimension. One minute I’m being instructed about the start of a sequence (it’s the eerie echoes of a sci-fi style video game)- – – loading loading loading – – – and then trap style beats come bouncing slowly in, delayed as if strained through some outpouring of weird gravity. There’s a purity to some of it, which feels more like an original composition; the ambient atmosphere of something along the lines of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works…There’s a sense of distortion, disorientation. Hyperreal landscapes lit in luminous pinks and purples. What’s that gleam, is it rain? Tokyo on a postcard, dipped in cross-processing chemicals, in violet acid. Then you’ve got a vague array of p a r a d i s e lighting up the screen. Palms and sand and cerulean sea.
As soon as you get attached to a sample, you’re away. Rarely does the beat resolve. You’re like, totally always stuck on the pre-beat. To the point that human expression becomes a technological fault, a beep, a burp. Sometimes it sounds like waves are being pulsed through your brain, blurred in a malfunction of some tacky machinery cooked up for a pulp movie of the nineties. Do scanners really look like that? Coated in rhinestones, bathed in pink. Some of it’s dreamier. Arpeggios of bell-scented keyboards (what do bells smell like? Not musty old church bells, but the sonorous chimes of noughties computers). Arpeggios climbing and climbing, dissolving, rising. A pop melody shining through. I’m in a rainforest of futurist skyscrapers, cloud-surrounded, everything drenched in pastel-hued pixels. It’s so serene.
Vapourwave. What a joke, an internet meme. Didn’t it die a couple of years ago?
I’m so confused. What is this monstrosity that’s eked itself into my life like a viral code luxuriating in my brain? At once disdainfully ironic, crass, tacky as hell; but also painfully sincere, nostalgic, full of a misplaced longing. The metamodern paradox of postmodern irony and modernist authenticity cooking up an endless loop of misplaced longing. I find myself thirsty for shopping malls from the seventies, for grotesque cups of Diet Pepsi, for the glossy pop of the eighties and the apocalyptic reveries of the nineties. I’m drifting through a city stripped of its glitz and left with patches of bright matte colour, refusing to reflect the glass through which dreams have appeared and got lost. I remember polishing a CD with the back of my sleeve, watching the lines of rainbows beam. Slotting it into a computer that hummed and whirred at my touch. I remember when technology felt somehow homely.
That comforting little Windows XP flourish, how friendly it was compared to the blasé boom of Apple’s triumphant C chord. Glitch, glitch, glitch. I pick the pixels out with my fingertips. The eerie keyed chords of MACINTOSH PLUS’ 地理 fill me with a sinister sense of urgency. It’s an entropic catastrophe of dissonance.
At the heart of vapourwave is a tension between the sweet and disturbing, between satisfyingly vacuous muzak and dissonant, deliberate glitching. This is related to its deterritorialising impulse, by which I mean (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari lingo), the way it extracts and recontextualises some element of a thing, then placing it elsewhere in a different environment. Vapourwave is a sort of bulimic, abject, rhizomatic discourse. It gorges on the symbols of late capitalism (the glossy muzak and soft rock of the eighties, international brands like Nike or Microsoft, the aesthetics of corporate advertising and so on) and then expels them in a gross reinterpretation that seems to purge them of their original, seamless facade. It might be useful here to mention that sociologist/criminologist Jock Young (2007) once described late modernity as a ‘bulimic society’, where we are all (internationally) included in the dreamlike semiotics of the rich through the opulence and availability of global branding, advertising and popular culture, but increasingly we are structurally excluded from the means which would allow us to achieve such dizzying heights ourselves. This social anomie is jarringly rendered in vapourwave’s shameless embrace of corporate culture; at once poking fun at it but also monumentalising it in an ambiguous way. It’s by no means a didactic movement, but as Grafton Tanner tends to argue in his excellent book Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (2016), it’s symptomatic of its times. The very poetics of vapourwave reflect the uneasy experience of being unable to escape the system, the uncanny effects of our perpetual cultural nostalgia—the celebration and denigration of late capitalist modernity and all its forms of post (post (post) post).
Outside of their usual contexts, corporate and commercial visuals (the vapourwave a e s t h e t i c) seem absurd, funny, strange, alienating. It hollows out the imagined ‘core’ of the brand and replaces it with a sort of free-floating lack of functionality, a disembodied eeriness. Chuck a logo in with a pastel-hued painting of palms and corny dolphins lifted from a SNES game and there you have it. Old Apple logos might be hovering over a pixellated ocean, waiting to plunge inexorably. Not only the aesthetics, but also the music itself, creates this sense of fragmented capitalism. Tanner talks briefly about the relevance of Derrida’s idea of hauntology to understanding the politics of vapourwave and this seems to me very astute. It’s the idea that the future is irrevocably haunted by the past; that culture and politics are also spooked with spectres from the past—from communism (Derrida’s book is called Spectres of Marx) to old technologies. It’s the idea that things are always-already obsolete, that there’s a sense of being itself as displaced and never quite fully present. It’s an ontology of difference, deferral, doubling, of objects which become ‘a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint”’ (Derrida 1994). Derrida’s gloss on Marx’s analysis of the commodity-table gives us a sense on the ghostliness of consumer objects:
For example — and here is where the table comes on stage — the wood remains wooden when it is made into a table: it is then “an ordinary, sensuous thing [ein ordindäres, sinnliches Ding]”. It is quite different when it becomes a commodity, when the curtain goes up on the market and the table plays actor and character at the same time, when the commodity-table, says Marx, comes on stage (auftritt), begins to walk around and to put itself forward as a market value. Coup de theatre: the ordinary, sensuous thing is transfigured (verwandelt sich), it becomes someone, it assumes a figure. This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing, a sensuous non-sensuous thing, sensuous but non-sensuous, sensuously supersensible (verwandelt er sich in ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding). The ghostly schema now appears indispensable. The commodity is a “thing” without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and odourless); but this transcendence is not altogether spiritual, it retains that bodiless body which we have recognised as making the difference between spectre and spirit. What surpasses the senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body that it nevertheless lacks or that remains inaccessible to us.
Vapourwave, of course, exploits this ‘ghostly schema’ of consumer objects. ‘Woody and headstrong denseness’, the sheer materiality of the thing is ordinarily supplanted by its mystical, transcendent value as a commodified good or brand. When we think of Nike trainers, rarely do we care for their actual material structure; usually it is the symbolic resonance of the brand that captures us. In Vapourwave, materiality comes back, vicious and strange. Fredric Jameson laments the way that postmodernism presents us with a meaningless concatenation of cultural nostalgia, often without context—BuzzFeed’s noughties nostalgia lists perhaps being a case in point. Vapourwave takes this ‘out of context’ randomness and runs with it. Art objects, textures, corporate iconography and screen-saturated colours combine in a collage of irony and contrasts. The mishmash quality of the vapourwave aesthetic lends it to easy manipulation and re-creation. This is the DIY ethic of the movement, its impulse towards constant theft, the cut and paste fun of sampling, the wilful shredding of distortion which creates a contemporary rendering of William Burroughs’ literary cut-up method or the random-making ‘recipes’ of Dada poetry, as described by Tristan Tzara.
Now, the effects of this mixed-bag of internet treats aren’t just weird and humorous, but weird also in an unsettling way. The samples become points of focus in a manner that strips away the normal cultural values of the original song; the easy soft-rock of the eighties becomes haunted with lo-fi feedback and interruption, compression and echoes. It sounds like it’s being heard through a cave or the underwater atrium of an abandoned mall, after the apocalypse. One of vapourwave’s most prominent releases to this day remains Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011) and on this record the production warps its soul music with a surrealist synth-driven dreamscape, in which R&B beats become slow and trippy and human voices are dehumanised into drawls and robotic calls. Often a sample starts but never resolves its line, constantly stumbling over itself. Tempos are spliced and no song follows conventional structure, but instead runs on repetitions, overlaps, interruptions; completely jarring changes in rhythm and key with no transition. Funk and soul from the eighties are no longer smooth and satisfying radio filler, but are turned inside out, their inherent weirdness exposed. Some of the highlights include ‘It’s Your Move’ by Diana Ross and ‘You Need a Hero’ by Pages. The effect of listening to this album is sort of like pushing a shopping cart round a supermarket and gazing around in wonder at the saturated pastels, the pointless products, the detritus of cluttered consumer madness. Glitches, twinkles, the beats of unsteady feet. Random tannoy announcements like a call from some parallel universe, the underground, the flickers of the internet ether.
Tanner’s Babbling Corpse usefully makes a connection between the dehumanisation of human voices in vapourwave music and contemporary philosophical movements such as speculative realism and object-orientated ontology. Both movements share the fundamental rejection of correlationism (the dominant, anthropocentric idea in Western philosophy that views reality only in relation to and projection from the human perspective). Instead, they turn to the world experience of the nonhuman, the sentient and foreign perspective of matter and objects. They expose the contrived nature of our distinction between self and world, showing how we are world, entangled in a way that is inextricable and disturbing (Timothy Morton, for instance, points to the crustaceans that live in our eyelashes or the bacteria in our gut as examples of how we are the environment, rather than self-complete and separate beings). Vapourwave in some way manages to evoke this weird world of objects, at a level only barely accessible to humans. Its use of glitches and looped samples disrupts the ordering of people and things. As Tanner puts it,
Glitches interrupt our expectations while deceiving and annoying us. They undermine our notion of what the machine is supposed to do for us, not without us. In this way, our electronic machines take on lives of their own and appear capable of functioning perfectly well without humans – a complete transcendence into other-worldly sentience.
We might consider this in relation to Martin Heidegger’s (2008) idea that we only notice a tool as a thing when it stops working. A broken hammer suddenly becomes a strange entity in its own right, rather than just one chain link in the process of a means to an end. Chuck Persons Eccojams Vol. 1, for starters. The very name: Eccojams. It implies the jams are a product of this Other: the ecco, ecology, echo…The title derives from an old Sega Megadrive game called Ecco the Dolphin, an action adventure game which featured dreamy music and a very minimalist gameplay narrative. You made Ecco sing to attract and interact with other objects and cetaceans; you could evoke echolocation in order to unfold a map of your oceanic surroundings; you could call to special crystals (glyphs) which in various ways controlled Ecco’s access to different levels. There is a beautiful otherworldliness to this game, and not just because Ecco ends up at the City of Atlantis. It’s created its own mythology, and the emphasis on song (like The Legend of Zelda’s ocarina melodies, which initiate effects in the game) opens up the possibilities for a nonhuman conscious or logic. Music, perhaps more than language, has effects on nonhuman consciousness. At a certain pitch, it can shatter a glass, or cause buildings to rumble with bass. It opens up its own logic of cause and effect.
Hauntology, in a sense, is about being stuck on the loop of the end of history. Technology constantly dislocates our awareness of time and space, so that linearity is replaced with instancy, repetition and reiteration, the constant recycling of former styles and events. Repetition is uncanny partly because, as Freud argues in ‘The Uncanny’, it’s the structure of the unconscious. When we notice repetition, we notice how our whole psyches are built on the compulsion to repeat even that which is most traumatic to us. It also violates our sense of identity and experience as singular and unique (an idea that liberal democracy and consumer capitalism likes to perpetuate). Identical twins are uncanny for this reason, as is deja vu. We feel that the normal order of time and space has been distorted (this is of course made explicit in films like Donnie Darko, which deal with parallel universe theorems). Repetition is also uncanny because it suggests that things we thought were unique to a moment, imbued with their apparent transience, are actually lingering and potentially eternal. It’s unsettling to have the buried constantly disinterred and broken out into the open present. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) is a novel which explores the logic of repetition in relation to a trauma narrative in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with re-enacting events to the point of absurdity and violent conclusion. It’s that overlap of the real, where dreamlike remembrance meets actual performed repetition, that is the orgasmic satisfaction of the psyche.
Listening to vapourwave enacts this perfectly. We might start to recognise the songs from which these samples were drawn, but our recognition is distorted along with the samples themselves. The past floats uncannily into the future. Eccojams Vol. 1 drops its tinkling beats on a loop and the vocals from eighties ballads are stripped of their velvet and become mournful, minor, distorted. Inhuman, odd. There’s a sense in which our contemporary experience of reality in the face of apocalypse and pathological nostalgia is both dark and sweet. Morton’s branch of object-orientated ontology, dark ecology, perfectly captures this experience (in fact, in Dark Ecology (2016) he describes the process of dealing with this ‘grief’ as sharing the structure of a ‘dark ecological chocolate’). Vapourwave is at times incredibly saccharine, mapping itself through the cheerfully smooth loops of Muzak; but it is also jarring, dissonant, deeply unsettling. It takes dirty club techno, the complex tempos of intelligent dance music, and puts them through the cheap production of the GarageBand blender. Vocals echo like a broken tannoy machine. Vapourwave, as both visual and musical aesthetic, fundamentally opens an aural space in which past, present and future become a haunting echo chamber of one another. No longer is this the mere surface play of postmodern collage, but instead it’s the material manifestation of a specific cultural hauntology. As Tanner puts it, hauntology ‘is unlike Jameson’s pastiche in that it complicates the past (specifically, the past’s image of the future) in order to call attention to capitalism’s destructive nature as a subjugating force that only fools others into thinking it came to eradicate “history”’ (2016: 35-36). Capitalism is hollowed out, its signature brands become lost echoes in a vaguely recognisable, a hypnotically attractive yet alarming vision of our near-present future; blended with the figures of mall culture, the colours of early aughts internet webspaces and the abyssal possibilities of a Tumblr scroll.
I’m interested in how vapourwave re-enacts a different form of consciousness and how this might be ecological, even though the movement’s only obvious engagement with Nature as Such is through the proliferation of palms and potted plants that drift incongruously as consumer goods through some of its artwork. To get at its ecological sweetness, it’s like cracking open a crystal to see its lattice parameters (what a beautiful phrase), the places where the material cleaves (its lines of weakness), its cubic structure. The interplay between structure and embedded weakness is what motivates vapourwave; it contains its own failure, the undeveloped samples, the way a tiny snatch of a song is unfolded into a tranquil sequence of soporific, nonsensical sound. This is not music with a coherent logic. You look for lines and trends and vague traces of structure, but a song will become something more fluid and fragmented. Vapourwave’s material metaphors cannot be coherent; it’s at once free-floating, vaporous, seeping, gelatinous, oozing, splitting, cracking, choking, pulsing, dissolving. Hard matter, soft matter, chemical, vapour, waves and glitches and tiny explosions.
Sometimes, the structure is completely frustrating. On Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, for example, the slowed-down, reverb-heavy sample from Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ repeats endlessly and never resolves itself into the next line: ‘another year and then we’ll be happy / just one more year and then we’ll be happy’. The twinkle signifies the glimpse of a transition and there’s a blip of the ‘b’ which should resolve into ‘but you’re crying, you’re crying now’ and yet here never does. Instead the song becomes an endless loop of implied futurity, the future conditional, ‘we’ll be happy’ that doesn’t get to complete itself but instead hangs. We’re taken out of time and left in this limbo. Here, the repetition isn’t soothing, it’s unsettling—mesmerising in a disturbing way. We question our longing for the song to resolve and before we have a chance it’s skipped to the next track. So we go back, search out the original version. Is it satisfying? Listening to Raferty’s original now feels weird in a way it didn’t before. It’s like this lost artefact from the past, spliced across the future ether rendered by Person’s eerie and hypnagogic album. While ‘Baker Street’ implies a specific place, now it’s thoroughly displaced, an effect of the internet’s rhizomatic possibilities.
As Morton puts it, ‘in order to have environmental awareness, one must be aware of space as more than just a vacuum. One must start taking note of, taking care of, one’s world’ (2002: 54). Ambient poetics disturb our assumed distinction between inside/outside, self/other; they show how we are entangled in a shared space of coexistence (Morton 2002: 54). Ambient music, in its sensuousness, its borrowing from the world—for example, by using samples of music concrète and field recordings from both nature and urban spaces—embeds us inside an environment in a way that is at once comforting and disturbing. It literally surrounds our senses. Brian Eno famously sets out a manifesto for ambient music by describing ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint’, and ‘whereas conventional background music [i.e. Muzak] is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty […] from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. […] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think’. As Morton puts it, ambient music as figured by Eno deconstructs the ‘opposition between foreground and background, or more precisely, between figure and ground’. In this sense, ‘ambience could be shown to resist the reification of space in capitalism’, ‘at once fill[ing] and overspill[ing] the ideological frame intended for it by the social structure in which it emerged’ (Morton 2001).
Think of it this way: could you get away with playing vapourwave in a mall or a supermarket or diner? Sure, it would ‘fill’ the space in one sense, but also exceed it, rendering all our cultural and material associations with this space uncanny and distorted. It would become a sci-fi space, a space displaced into the future. We would be inhabiting a doubled world, a doubled temporality. I tried playing Floral Shoppe in the restaurant where I work once (obviously when there were no customers) and the effect was actually very comforting. I felt like I wasn’t trapped in the familiar twenty-something existential limbo and instead inhabiting a plane of dreamlike contemplation, like the Rainbow Road level on MarioKart: Double Dash. I close my eyes and the scratched wooden floor spills out into a highway of colour; the tables I’m bumping against are bright yellow stars and fragments of unknown matter. I’m back in the supermarket, trolleys wheeling away from me and products falling off the shelf. I open my eyes and there’s the mirror and a reflection of someone that might be me, wearing a uniform, the chairs and tables flashing around me like holograms. I’m not exactly sure where that association sprung from (it’s been a long time since I’ve turned on the old GameCube), but I guess that’s the free associative impact of the music itself.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), vapourwave is about an experience of travel and movement without necessarily describing that movement itself. Crucially, the emphasis is on slowing down, on dwelling in a moment; a moment which is looped, repeated, pondered over, exhausted, reflected on. ‘I undertook to subject my life to a severe examination that would order it for the rest of my days in such a way as I wished to find it at the time of my death’ (Rousseau 2011: 24). Vapourwave subjects the e v e r y t h i n g of capitalist late modernity to such self-reflexive inner scrutiny. This scrutiny enacts a slowing down of perception, a sense of looking around and absorbing one’s place in the environment. Through an uncanny distortion, doubling back and becoming the environment. Vapourwave allows us to adopt both a blasé and a highly perceptive attitude to the ad-saturated world in which we exist; the metropolis of the internet becoming some great labyrinth in which we linger at every turn, mesmerised by the neon palms swaying in time to the untimely music, to cans of diet coke and the universal resonance of that bold tick logo. Everything surrounds and coagulates, connects.
This aesthetic dwelling is crucial for ecology because it forces a recognition of the world which we are and in which we live, a recognition that notices patterns of interconnectedness and coexistence. For Gregory Bateson (2016), aesthetics means ‘responsiveness to the pattern which connects. The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern’; both cities and their parts form part of this pattern, of the patterned aesthetic of vapourwave. The metropolis, the mall, the fountain plaza, the computer screen, the window of a building, the burnished, pixellated sunset. All are the environs of sound and vision, the movement between figure and ground, the deconstruction of synecdoche. The part and the whole are constantly supplementing each other (the song, the sample; the symbolism, the surface aesthetic). It’s a bewildering, shape-shifting experience. It forces us to take notice of our world. There’s something about vapourwave which always suggests to me a sort of endless highway, where the vehicles move as if through some viscous substance that drags the experience of time and space. Our perception becomes blurred and starry, with blips of unconsciousness and moments of epiphanic reverie. Things around us fade or glow. The radio rumbles in the darkest cavity of our chest. Am I even breathing? I don’t feel human. Is this freedom?
Alongside this dwelling is a certain playfulness of a way unique to vapourwave. James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) might be the classic here. It blends together the inane and cornily flourishing samples from Muzak with automated audio speech stolen from corporate contexts and sound effects from everyday tech life—the message-send swoop, a mouse click, laptop crashing sounds and start-up tunes. The result is something that might reflect Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as ‘eclecticism’, the ‘degree zero of contemporary general culture [where] one listens to reggae, watches Westerns, eats MacDonald’s for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothing in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games’ (2004: 76). This eclecticism is made playfully manifest in Ferraro’s lively, atmospheric and at times downright trippy record, where twinkles of commercially-drenched, techy synths give way to stuttering keyboards, ringtone effects and twirls of familiar message noises which become maddeningly synced with finger clicks and conversations between robotic voices. A CONUNDRUM article argues that ‘since vapourwave functions namely as commentary, it loops, pitch-shifts and “screws” the utopia of the virtual plaza, creating a harsh, grating sound in away that brings each muzak sample’s faults to the forefront of the track’. This is certainly true of Ferraro, but I’d also suggest that vapourwave is more than mere commentary; Ferraro especially revels in the silliness of corporate culture (check out ‘Pixarnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell’, with its drink slurping sound effects and jingly, kids tv-worthy melody), at the same time as revealing its peculiar utopian unreality, a world of shimmering sound and holograms. There’s a self-consciously affective and pleasurable aspect to the music. Sometimes it sounds like the demonstration music on an art channel, to the point where I’m expecting some beautiful, sellotaped creation to materialise with every musical flourish.
On the other hand, there’s the total weirdness of ‘Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi’, which takes us through a scintillatingly bizarre encounter with a ‘touchscreen waiter’ who explains the ordering process at a sushi restaurant—apparently in Times Square, with Gordon Ramsay as chef—to the backdrop of exuberant synths and glitchy effects which sound like a Windows 95 laptop gone haywire, or merely said customer making her selections from the menu software. The result is to render a future where restaurants and coffeehouses are devoid of human interaction, becoming impersonal encounters with creepily enthusiastic machine waiters (creepy not just because they’d put me out of a job). The contrast between this manic happiness, this constant focus on choice, with the maddening music is to create a deep sense of unease, to reveal the artifice of such utopian tech constructions. Do we really have a choice? Is life being boiled down to a series of computer menus? Is the future bound to the unsettling intonations of such robotic encounters? I can’t help but escape into the absurdity of the music and try to forget this hauntological disaster is always-already constantly happening…
The comparatively meditative ‘Bags’ weaves its entrancing ambience from an early Windows startup theme, dipping into sonorous caverns of sparkling synths and lifting for air bubbles and irregular, incongruous finger clicks. I am reminded here of a beautiful essay by Steven Connor on the magic of objects, specifically here bags: ‘because they are in essence such fleshly or bodily things, bags enact as nothing else does our sense of the relation between inside and outside. We are creatures who find it easy and pleasurable to imagine living on the inside of another body’. There’s an amniotic vibe to Ferarro’s ‘Bags’; the swaying, dreamy pace that makes us feel as though we are inside those palms, or encased within a glossy plastic number, bouncing away against some glamorous knee. Just as humans have a sort of supplementary, life-giving association with bags, we also have this relationship with the plazas of capitalism and the affective world they render. Ferarro has said that he conceived of Far Side Virtual as a series of ringtones, a musical form which inherently suggests consumer transience, tackiness, kitsch, the whims of passing fashions (not least because the polyphonic presets change with each phone upgrade). He’s also said that he loves the idea of the album being ‘performed b a Philharmonic Orchestra […] Imagining an orchestra given X-Box controllers instead of mallets, iPhones instead of violins, ring tones instead of Tubular bells, Starbucks cups instead of cymbals. All streamed online, viewable on a megascreen in Times Square’. That’s what’s special about vapourwave: its commitment to the endurance of art and the a e s t h e t i c alongside an ambiguous relationship with the ephemerality of corporate kitsch. The artistic rearrangement of these samples, alongside their visual presentation and marketing as alt music through sites like Bandcamp, completely reterritorialises their original framework of meaning.
There’s a sense in which this music—with its self-conscious materiality, the recognisably tacky mattering of its samples, its embrace of the ambient disruption of foreground and background—is inherently committed to some kind of hauntological ecological project, the kind advocated by Tim Morton’s dark ecological poetics. As Ferarro himself says of his album, it’s a ‘rubbery plastic symphony for global warming, dedicated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Vapourwave recycles culture, proliferates both beauty and trash, endlessly parodies itself and its references. It renders explicitly what Marc Augé calls the ‘non-places’ of supermodernity: the anonymous malls, airports, offices and stations where cultures blend and collide and become foreign places of blank existence, of non-place, of disembodied temporality and physical and social experience. Places emptied out of cultural specificity. Places where one might eat Japanese sushi in a New York airport restaurant, concocted by a holographic rendition of a grumpy English chef and served by a robot developed and programmed by a Chinese tech company. Vapourwave is melancholy and strangely displaced. The frequent use of anonymity by many of its prominent artists (Xavier, for example, is responsible for more than just Macintosh Plus), alongside the Eastern characters for song titles, creates again a dehumanised, uncanny and culturally displaced understanding of identity. It weaves an almost Orientalist mystery through its art, so that we can’t quite geographically place the origins and players of this musical movement. It’s all about dissemination, reappropriation, the instancy of recycled production; but it’s also about slowing down to notice the flaws inherent in our everyday, consumer lives. The heavily sampled, rhizomatic nature of vapourwave forces you to become a more active consumer of both music and other forms of material pleasure, from picking your morning coffee to choosing your desktop screensaver. Perhaps it’s this recognition that gives vapourwave the vague trace of disruptive impulse; the way it strips away the uneasy pleasures and pink mist of the late capitalist plaza and replaces it with a mystique that haunts us back from the future. Objects and humans withdraw from our grasp and we are left with the surface detritus of crushed coke cans, defunct MacBooks, coffee cups and robot voices stuck on repeat, cleaning the floor of the mall to a vicious gleam that threatens to bounce back like a screen and remind us that we haven’t left the room at all – we’re still on the internet, chasing our dreams.
Augé, Marc, 2009. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso).
Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty
The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.
In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?
Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’. LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.
For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.
For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…
With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.
Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.
Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that
attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].
Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.
One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:
In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.
(Peters 2015: 1357)
Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism). The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.
The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.
Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,
[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?
And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.
This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.
Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?
Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks):
Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.
“I guess it’s like, for the past seven months, I’ve felt like I don’t exist.”
A friend and I are standing down by the River Kelvin, watching the dark sloshy water unravel itself below us, the purplish October twilight settling around in the shadows and leaves. Part of our friendship has always been this: trying to fill in meaning and substance amongst the ghost-worlds of our lives. The drifting, disappearing act of routine. We agree that we are lone wolves; we pick apart the significance of things, every social occasion an attempt at just living. It isn’t easy. We write letters to each other with little drawings and pictures, sometimes forgetting to dot our i’s and cross the t’s. It doesn’t matter. The point is to communicate things, to write about the weather and the changing colour of the leaves and the way we are feeling. Relationships crumbling, people leaving. What stays the same is the insistence on memory. Remember this time. The walk we took out to Glasgow Green, sitting for hours in the glasshouse with the ripe spring sun so clear and gold on our skin, our talk of the future striving towards something tangibly positive. That night when the boy was sick and when the music was so loud it crashed in our ears for days afterwards; that night you dropped a pill and waited for the high to come, waited so long that you were outside of time, you were in a bubble with the world around you nebulous, distant, the high never coming and only that sense of being washed ashore, exhausted, after a long journey. I always sensed an ending and left the party early.
We write letters and they pile up in a shoebox in my bedroom, tacked together with coloured rubber-bands, as if candy-wrapped, waiting to be opened again after their first moment of preservation. Each one contains the microcosm of a whole moment, month, a jewellery case of feelings that glimmer in the arrangement of words, jotted down so simply but now rich with possibility. I can read this in your handwriting. I wonder if you do it too, if you like to trace the curls of my y’s and m’s. I am obsessed with materiality, as if it was the writing itself that keeps us being—making a record is insurance of existence, the future reassurance that I am alive, I did these things, I existed like this—once. I doubt anyone in the world cares so much about the little things as I do. It’s strange; I suppose it works against my exaggerations.
When you are sad, I say: keep a diary. It’s something I’ve done for years. Part of me truly believes there is no use in telling people certain things. I wonder, is this because I treasure secrets? Yes, I love to hoard. I keep jotters stuffed full of primary school scribblings, drawings of stick-figures falling from buildings. I keep clothes that no longer fit me, broken pencils, lipsticks long since soured but still heady with the smell of wintry, glittery evenings in bars I cannot visit again. There’s a box full of Game Boys, ancient crystals on the windowsill, fantasy novels whose worlds I feel cast out of forever, too old, too cynical.
Keep a diary. Is this my catchall advice for the lost and lonely? What is a diary? Why keep a diary…? Such questions are cast in the meaningless swirl of words; they float to one’s consciousness every time one sits down to write another entry. What is the point in this useless recording of words? Words, words, words. How hypnotic they are, how pointless! In keeping a diary, we make secrets. The secret lies behind every word. It is all decipherable possibilities that lead us back to the realm of the undecipherable. Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, in their playful, lyrical essay, ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’, draw attention to the slippage between secret and secretion. There is something decidably intimate, eremitic, perhaps insect-like, about the human will to autobiography. As a silkworm or a spider spins its gossamer web, as the Lady of Shalott sits in her tower weaving her tapestry of the world, the diarist retreats to her solitary lair and writes of the day—that which has happened, that which is yet to come.
Unlike the fictional novel, the diary is more or less necessarily bound by the clock and calendar, as opposed to narrative time which might follow the personal experience of time, a more Bergsonian sense of duration. For Henri Bergson, our sense of time is not a mishmash of broken moments, memories to be recalled at will as if accessed from some inner harddrive, but rather that of duration: the accumulation of the past in the present, a ceaseless flow of unbroken moments. ‘The truth is we change without ceasing,’ and duration itself is ‘the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’ (Bergson 2013: 69-70). There is a sense of our personal time as being in flux, more fluid than the linear progression of calendar time would suggest. The diary form negotiates between this structuring of days and months and the impressionistic rendering of moments, which flow between past, present and future. We experience the present through the memories which populate our past and colour our senses. I walk through these streets, which are palimpsests of years gone by, a split screen of seasons, the autumn leaves and Christmas frost, the corner where we stopped…the desk by the window on level four of the library where I first cracked the notion of différance, the place by the pond where the bluebells grow, the shop which used to sell ribbons and now lies empty, gathering lumps of broken plaster and dust. This place has a bittersweetness, a depth of shadows, which it did not have the first time. A diary grows fatter by the year; as time goes by and I read back old entries, the words have acquired a weight they lacked when first written in all instancy and innocence.
The Britannica Encyclopaedia Online defines the diary as a
form of autobiographical writing, a regularly kept record of the diarist’s activities and reflections. Written primarily for the writer’s use alone, the diary has a frankness that is unlike writing done for publication. Its ancient lineage is indicated by the existence of the term in Latin, diarium, itself derived from dies (“day”).
This foregrounds the essential relation between the diary and dailyness. We write to contain the day, to compare our days, to express the day, to make sense of the day, to merely record the day. Not everyone writes on a daily basis; nor are all diaries structured in a daily sense. Sometimes, vague and impressionistic renderings of a summer, a month or week, might be jotted down as an amalgamation of sensations and feelings. The summer a loved one died, when it rained for weeks on end, when the news was full of insufferable political travesties. A patch of time defined less by rigid temporal boundaries and more by a general mood, which like watercolour paint bleeds into its edges.
Writers use various metaphoric images to make sense of time. In a diary entry from 22nd July 1926, Virginia Woolf writes, ‘[t]he summer hourglass is running out rapidly and rather sandily’, an image which coalesces the objective measure of time with the abstraction of a summer and its accompanying texture—sandily—giving some experiential hint as to the abrasive ‘feel’ of that particular passage of time, ‘[h]ere nothing but odds and ends’ (Woolf 2008: 216). In a single entry we might note a month of great personal achievement, rapturous words on the fulfilment of a new job or relationship or project. For me, this style of diary-writing falls more into the remit of a journal. A diary, for me, probably has to be associated somehow with the daily. This is what makes it interesting, since in recording the day, the writer has little chance to reflect with all the hindsight of distance upon the events of the day. They are more raw, honest; they contain the energies of the present moment as it is borne upon by the immediate, pressing past.
Maurice Blanchot usefully if not obtusely describes the everyday as that which escapes: it is ‘the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse’; however, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived – in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity’ (Blanchot 1987: 13). There is then a sense that it might be impossible to represent the everyday as the everyday. In our experience of dailyness, we are so blinded by habit, routine, ritual, that we cannot step back to discern what actually happens. There is a strangeness to the everyday, its mediation of spontaneity and routine, which seems to elude attempts at representing the exact experience of encountering it. All reports of the everyday, whether fictional or in the form of a diary or ethnographic report, seem to fall prey to retrospective narrative organisation of some form or another. The truth is that in our daily lives we experience a particular texture to the passing of time, the passing through space and place. It depends on our job, our friends and family, our use of leisure time, our responsibilities. Time is experiential as well as ‘objective’. The diary, to some extent, captures this, with its vague sense of immediacy (something Samuel Richardson cashes in especially in his novel Pamela (1740), where Pamela is literally writing ‘to the moment’, as he puts it). The gush of sitting down to write before bed: here, I must capture it all before it fades into memory. The diary is a willingness to preserve the past, a form of archive fever, a possibility of dumping or offloading memories to be dealt with later. It is often prescribed to those undergoing psychological difficulty for that very cathartic reason: the possibility of sorting out the chaos of one’s thoughts and experiences by simply writing them down, thinking them through.
Diaries abound in literature. I will never have time to talk of them all.
There is a queer slippage between presence and absence in the diary. Think of Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which Harry finds himself writing onto, into, watching ink dissolve and then materialise on the page after his own scrawled print, as if he were having some primitive MSN conversation with the realm of the dead. Riddle speaks through the diary, but it is a specific fragment of his character, the Riddle of the days when the diary was written. The diary is a puzzle to be solved; it is full of secrets (as the name Riddle suggests). We read a diary and we are confronted with a problem: it is chockfull of names, places, references that are never explained, since the person writing is writing not for an understanding readership but for herself alone. As readers we have to decipher the shorthand, the elliptical allusions to things that have happened, people who appear briefly but are then never mentioned again, though their unexplained presence haunts the diary like a ghost. You don’t have to justify your inclusion of certain characters when you’re accounting for a day. It’s just what happened. She did this, he had a go at me, the man that sits beside me at work, my favourite cafe, Mr. S and Mrs. C etc etc. We redact, unconsciously, as we write our lives (for reasons of repression perhaps but also brevity). The reader has to scour through page after page, trying to decode all the references. For what purpose, however? It’s not like in a novel, where you might be searching towards some argument, some overall notion of what the text is about. Doesn’t the diary elude this, in its very fragmentary nature, its resistance to the definition of closed art, its status as a kind of found object documenting a life (maybe even still living and thus not even closed off by death!), never intended to be published, let alone poured over by a curious reader or critic?
Perhaps, then, the diary is the perfect method through which to represent the unknowability of the everyday.
Think of the tape ‘diaries’ of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Every year, on his birthday, Krapp indulges in the ritual of making a tape recording in which he accounts for the events of the year, his general impressions of life, hopes for the future and so on. Every year, on his birthday, Krapp also listens back to previous tapes. Some of the tapes thus constitute a dialogue between tapes, as the Krapp of the present or past tries to make sense of the Krapp of a more distant past. Much of this dialogue, this ‘reading’ of the tapes and their various temporal selves, is an encounter with moments of aporia, with references that don’t make sense anymore. Krapp scours his personal memory, but often the cognitive dissonance persists. The uncanniness of the diary is that it reminds us that we are always strangers to ourselves; there are things in our memory, buried subconsciously, that we cannot access or understand, and yet they are part of us. They are the other within us. As such, writing, as one form of what Derrida calls ‘originary technicity’, is a key technological mode which humans have used for thousands of years to generate and make sense of their being (there can be no outside text). Early humans recorded their memories and made sense of the world through cave paintings; later came language as such, the gramophone, the typewriter, the tape recorder (so far, so Friedrich Kittler). Memory and being, therefore, have always already been technical. The prevalence of the diary as discursive form throughout history attests to this.
The diary can be intimate and confessional, but also performative. Not performative in the sense of a memoir, which has the luxury of retrospective maturity to aid its arrangement and sculpturing of events (a diary has the rawness and disarray of immediate record), but performative in the sense that in language all attempts to express the self are inevitably cast into the play of difference and deferral. Let us make no mistake about the representative problems of writing. In writing, the self dissolves. This is the basic Lacanian assumption that when I identify myself in language, I also split myself as Other (‘I’ am no longer the ‘I’ of writing), just as when in the Mirror Stage, the child recognises their mirror image for the first time and sees herself as a coherent object—the initiation of the decentering of the human. It is perfectly possible to refer to ourselves in the third or second person, creating an even greater distancing effect (think back to our most emo of teenage diary entries: you’re so selfish, fat, useless, you might as well give up now and so on). So in writing, the self splits. It is referring back to itself from the position of another self. Blanchot attests writing as a kind of space of death:
The truth of the journal lies not in the interesting, literary remarks to be found there, but in the insignificant details which attach it to daily reality. The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed
All year I’ve felt like I don’t exist. There is a sense in which writing a diary is a desperate attempt to pin down the self, to attest to your existence—here, look, see all the things I’ve done so far!—but in doing so, the self stays fluid, under the signifying movement of language. You can’t pin it down and then mount it like a butterfly. The writer’s self undergoes this ‘dangerous metamorphosis’ in the play of words, a transformation and dissolution that she indeed ‘suspect[s]’ even as she writes. A diary indeed, is partly a performance, even if you never intend another soul to read it. You can’t quite get the right words to come out. You’re striving towards an ideal expression of an experience or feeling or even just the sense of your own personality. Perhaps that’s why diaries are full of repetition. Dates, names, phrases. I’m always talking about how sound a person is, how lovely the leaves are at this time of year, how nice to sit in bed like this at three in the afternoon, listening to Arthur Russell albums. Sometimes the music changes, but the habit doesn’t, the phrases might modulate but they’re mostly the same.
Flicking back, painfully, through some diary entries from 2012-2014, I’m struck by how much I just write about the weather. Lyrical descriptions of rain, the promise of summer, the ephemeral beauty of daffodils. Maybe there’s a way in which diary writing is also a kind of phatic speech act, in Roman Jakobsen’s sense of a deliberate establishment of communication for communication’s sake. Communication to whom? The self of the future? Some entries seem to me reluctant; angry somehow, pissed that I’m even having to write this stupid thing at all. The phrase ‘But I will keep writing for the sake of writing’ comes up a lot…Why then do I keep writing? It’s like I’m trying to work through things. I spend sentence after sentence rambling on about the books I’m reading, formulating half-baked ideas which in retrospect often seem deliciously twee and naive. I exert grand claims for my continued writing: ‘I need to find purpose and order in things again, instead of being content with chaos’; claims that are ironically followed with the rambling chaos of self-deprecation and a rather banal outlining of my day, as if I had never made such grandiose assertions of existential realisation a few lines before. I think the diary attests to existence itself and memory more than it does to subjectivity and self-awareness. This is partly why reading one’s diary is always going to incur cognitive dissonance. Yes it’s good to write things down, to work them out, but often the world gets even more confusing in the process of writing.
It’s not a problem of empathy, it’s a problem related to the nature of subjectivity itself. Read back through old entries and yes the memory is stirred, you get a vague impressionistic matrix of sensations that to some extent recall the moment. But can you really remember what it was like to live it at that moment, with that particular naive frame of mind, untainted by everything that has happened since? I don’t think you can really. You get this sharp sense of empathy with the version of you in the diary, but in a way it isn’t really you. It’s quite sad actually. It forces us to deal with our own mortality, the irrevocable passage of time, that melancholy sense of the person we once were, the innocence we have lost. The diary is a record of traces of existence. They’re not necessarily mine. Maybe they’re filtered through dreams or literary narratives or imagined versions of what really happened. They’re attempts to make sense of the everyday, doomed always to fall back on the concrete detail which is its own story of surfaces over depth. As Jacques Lacan put it, the signified always slides under the signifier. The event always shifts under its representation in language. To make sense of one thing, you refer to another and so on, ad infinitum. There is an impossibility to the diary: is it bound to the self’s mortality? And yet it lives on, haunted with its revenants. The diary is always also a writing towards the future, a writing against death, a resistance to the ephemeral that extinguishes at the very level of the ephemeral. For in capturing a moment, perhaps you erase its elusive presentness…
In literature, the diary form is frequently used to make sense of the duality of personal time and clock time (which is itself historically, culturally and technologically relative). The metafictional chaos of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759) is a constant spillage of clock time, leaps between temporalities, anachronisms, the time of writing, the spanning of a lifetime, of a narrative. Its self-referentiality gives its time-space a maddening, recursive quality. One of the most famous encounters with the literary journal, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), is partly a rendering of the need to record time and daily rituals in order to maintain order and stability in a world outside of society. On his desert island, Crusoe marks the days in notches on a makeshift cross of wood but also notes with Puritan precision the days and dates and changing seasons. A significant chunk of the narrative is constituted by Crusoe’s journal, as he relates:
And now it was that I began to keep a journal of every day’s employment; for, indeed, at first I was in too much hurry, and not only hurry as to labour, but in too much discomposure of mind; and my journal would have been full of many dull things; for example, I must have said thus: “30th.—After I had got to shore, and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of salt water which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
Some days after this, and after I had been on board the ship, and got all that I could out of her, yet I could not forbear getting up to the top of a little mountain and looking out to sea, in hopes of seeing a ship; then fancy at a vast distance I spied a sail, please myself with the hopes of it, and then after looking steadily, till I was almost blind, lose it quite, and sit down and weep like a child, and thus increase my misery by my folly.
But having gotten over these things in some measure, and having settled my household staff and habitation, made me a table and a chair, and all as handsome about me as I could, I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.
I love this passage. You get the actual tangibility and physical limitations of the journal (he runs out of ink – another indication of writing’s material and temporal basis). Defoe provocatively renders Crusoe’s sense of real terror—‘fear of being devoured’—alongside his grand exaltations and little self-congratulations. There is a touch of pathos in his solitary situation, but also a self-aware sense of humour. Crusoe sometimes interrupts his journal to give over the ‘present’ narrative to philosophical and religious musings which connect the reflective mode of his present self with the self of the journal, encountering trials and tribulations of solitary island life firsthand. This interplay is what gives us a sense of Robinson Crusoe’s Protestant work ethic, a work ethic which Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) defines as that of being thrifty, ordered, productive, rational, self-controlled.Crusoe is not only deeply religious and ascetic but also a rather zealous capitalist, a merchant tradesman who dabbles with various colonial trades, and the novel negotiates the ideological balancing of these two positions through its shift between journal and narrative reflection. As Thomas Kemple argues, ‘in spite of the boundlessness of nature, Crusoe budgets his time, rations his resources, and keeps a strict account of the tools he has been able to save from the shipwreck in a way that does not exemplify but only prefigures the logic of investment and savings which will later drive the expansion of capitalism’ (1995: 249). Part of this budgeting and rationing is conducted through the journal.
There is a sense in which keeping a diary or journal is a means of keeping the self in check. Disciplining the self in the Foucauldian manner of applying internalised beliefs and discourses of control to the self, which becomes an external product to be in a sense ‘worked upon’. Listing one’s eating habits, exercise, love interests and so on is a way of tying them to the day, making them concrete. There can be some things that are embarrassing to write about, and the diary forces us to moralise ourselves, to justify our actions in writing. This isn’t always pleasant and there is a sense in which keeping a diary reinforces our panopticon-like internalisation of morality, our self-surveillance on a daily basis. It is true that the wilder our lives get, the less we write in our diaries, and perhaps this isn’t just a practical issue of lacking the time, but a more evasive, psychoanalytic phenomenon. Crusoe is deeply reflective about his ‘journal self’ and by putting our own lives in writing, we are subjecting ourselves to a similar internal discipline. Think of how much Jane Eyre loves Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. Think of Pamela, in Richardson’s eponymous eighteenth-century novel, where the young servant protagonist writes both letters and a diary as an assertion of her virtue, a way of sorting out her emotions and assuring herself that she is not in the least tempted by the licentious advances of her master. Yet she must hide her papers delicately in her underwear, always on her person, raising the question as to whether we carry our secrets, our personal burdens, with us always. Even if our diaries are hidden under a mattress, at the back of a drawer or in some old box, they still speak of their very existence. Perhaps that’s why so many people burn them.
The diary then, has a deep connection to inner morality, to self-justification, to the secret. One diary that is seductively rich with secrets is The Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, co-creator of the early 1990s tv series Twin Peaks, from which Laura Palmer is drawn. Without delving into too many Twin Peaks spoilers, we can say that The Diary of Laura Palmer is compelling partly because it gives voice to a character whose absence defines much of the television show, far more than her presence. Laura’s death in the first episode overshadows the action of the Twin Peaks’ narrative; she is an object of memory and memorial far more than a subject in her own right: she’s the Homecoming Queen portrait; the beautifully still and glittering corpse, iconically wrapped in plastic; the name on everyone’s lips (I always think of that Bat for Lashes song, ‘Laura’, and the implications of the trace in the metonymic lyrics which attempt to grasp her presence as absence: ‘You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark, oh, Laura / You’re more than a superstar / You’ll be famous for longer than them / Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin’). In Lynch’s diary, we get access to Laura’s voice, which is a strange experience after knowing her only through the stories told by other characters. She gives detail and flesh to the entity known as ‘BOB’ and the psychological breakdown associated with her encounters with this torturing spirit. If you weren’t familiar with the tv series, you could probably read the diary as a standalone account of someone who suffered possibly schizophrenic tendencies, but with the weight of the show behind your reading, BOB is loaded with more sinister metaphysical and narrative implications and is certainly not just a psychological projection of Laura’s mind. Laura gets involved in all sort of sordid activities: lurid jaunts in the wood with a number of men, involvement with the local porno business (the creatively named Fleshworld magazine) and taking cocaine like it was cotton candy. What is haunting about Laura’s diary is that it troubles our easy narrative of corruption from small town innocence to debasement; the diary reveals that desire and its darkness were in Laura even as a child, as we see in her first entry:
Dear Diary, July 22, 1984
My name is Laura Palmer, and as of just three short minutes ago, I officially turned twelve years old! It is July 22, 1984, and I have had such a good day! You were the last gift I opened and I could hardly wait to come upstairs and start to tell you all about myself and my family. You shall be the one I confide in the most. I promise to tell you everything that happens, everything I feel, everything I desire. And, every single thing I think. There are some things I can’t tell anyone. I promise to tell these things to you.
(Lynch 2012: 1)
Lynch lets us into the taboo world of preteen sexuality which grows even more visceral as the diary progresses. Stylistically, we have the enthusiasm of someone very young, the peppered exclamation marks, the excitement, the promise. Towards the end of the diary, an entry from four years later, Laura remarks: ‘The girl who received this diary on her twelfth birthday has been dead for years, and I who took her place have done nothing but make a mockery of the dreams she once had’ (Lynch 2012: 167). This self-conscious sense of a fundamental splitting of self is not merely a moralising narrative about the loss of innocence, but is characteristic of our human condition as decentred subjects. With the archive fever of the diary (distinct from other forms of archivisation such as the blog or the social media profile by its privacy, its overt association with the intimate, ‘authentic’ self), we are forced to realise more vividly what we have gained and lost in the years, the sense of alienation that occurs when confronting the thoughts of our younger selves.
The secret is always a communication, even as it is concealed as such. You cannot have a secret without a hint of communication, otherwise it hardly exists. The promise of Laura’s diary entry is its seduction: ‘I promise to tell these things to you’. We are led to believe we are reading something intimate, never designed for public consumption. Yet as the diary progresses, we find that Laura is increasingly insistent on her narrative as narrative; she wants to write the diary to tell her story. When she realises she is in grave danger, she gives the diary to her friend Harold ‘for safekeeping’ (Lynch 2012: 184). She wants people to know how she ended up in such a twisted, seedy situation. Although Laura sometimes goes into detail about her trips into the woods with various shady characters, her dalliances in the Double R diner and hangouts with best pal Donna, the diary is often elliptical—especially elliptical in relation to Laura’s erotic fantasies: ‘ I went into a deep, drugged, happy, thoughtful, nasty, and still-innocent fantasy. I’ll have to tell more later…I feel so dreamy right now…’ (Lynch 2012: 120). The chain of adjectives is as bewildering as it is suggestive, the oxymoronic play between nasty/still-innocent disturbing our easy sense of the binary between good-girl and bad-girl. There is a sense of playful performance not unlike the deliberately seductive tone of someone selling phone sex, the elliptical gaps indicating that breathy space of erotic silence. Laura’s refusal, or inability, to disclose the details of her strange and alluring fantasy, seduce us with the promise of a secret. At some points in the diary, she lapses into poetry and what resembles a kind of displaced dramatic script, furthering the sense of the deferral of meaning, the weight of the secret and the struggle to articulate it which is the masochistic scene of both pain and play.
Indeed, some of the pages of the diary are noted by the editor as torn out, and often Laura alludes to something but never explains it fully. In a sense, this enables to maintain power over her secrets. As Jean Baudrillard says of the secret:
Everything that can be revealed lies outside the secret. For the latter is not a hidden signified, nor the key to something, but circulates through and transverses everything that can be said, just as seduction flows beneath the obscenity of speech. It is the opposite of communication, and yet it can be shared. The secret maintains its power only at the price of remaining unspoken, just as seduction operates only because never spoken nor intended.
(Baudrillard 1990: 79)
How unseductive it is to be explicitly seduced! Some cretinous man in a nightclub approaching you with his sloppily explicit sonnet of adoration. It is in the price of a glimpse, a smile or a chance, enigmatic word, that we are seduced. Seduction unravels in the realm of the clipped, the elusive and cryptic. Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), is written as a diary and its beautiful language is not the only thing that seduces the reader: its disturbing seduction is the uncertainty as to how much of the narrative is truth, how much the projection of Humbert Humbert’s zealous, harlequin imagination. Think also of Amy Dunne’s diary in Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl (2012), which provides a reflective counter narrative to her husband Nick’s present control of the story. Later, we learn that her diary entries were fabricated in order to incriminate Nick in her disappearance. The diary here becomes a tool of seduction, the private sphere designed to cause events in the public. Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel disguised as a diary, satirising the cultural representation of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype by having her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, cannily trick men into various racketing schemes (including buying her diamonds), at the same time as negotiating a trickstery language which shamelessly embraces its spelling errors and grammatical faults, and as such pokes fun at both the Patriarchal Laws of Discourse and the whimsical gendering and power performance of Lorelei Lee herself.
The diary, as I have already said, is actually a form of communication, whether we like it or not. As a text, there is the implicit potentiality of its exposure to the world; a frisson between public and private that worms its way into the diary and infects the way we read and write, encouraging us to hold back or expose more, constantly engaged in the game of the secret, its slippage between presence and absence, silence and revelation. Perhaps no clearer is this visible in Laura Palmer’s diary than in her final entry, which is noted (presumably by the ‘editor’) as one of the torn pages:
Dear Diary, Undated
I know who he is. I know exactly who and what BOB is, and I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe.
Someone has torn the pages out of my diary, pages that help me realise maybe…pages with my poems, pages of writing, private pages.
I’m so afraid of death.
I’m so afraid that no one will believe me until after I have taken the seat that I fear has been saved for me in the darkness. Please don’t hate me. I never meant to see the small hills and the fire. I never meant to see him or let him in.
Please, Diary, help me explain to everyone that I did not want what I have become. I did not want to have certain memories and realisations of him. I only did what any of us can do, in any situation…
My very best.
(Lynch 2012: 184).
The fact that Laura does not reveal the true identity of BOB is compelling, because why should she? If this is a diary merely for herself, then there would be no need to recount the agony of his name in writing. She does not disclose the truth, but rather marks the pain of a burial. ‘I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe’: and yet we know she will never get to tell the secret, since, as the editor tells us, after this final entry Laura is found dead days later. This drive for knowledge which seduces us as readers, sends us scattering back over the text, searching for clues and codes as to the true nature of the entity that has tormented Laura for most of the entries. It is probably for this reason that the creators of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch, were so reluctant to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer halfway through season two, as their network pressured them to. What keeps us watching and reading is partly the seductive possibility of the secret; we don’t really even want to know, we just want the pleasure of trying to find out…
Still, while Laura’s diary was evidently written as an exploration into trauma and the problematic pleasure of voyeurism and secrecy, a similar teenage drug diary from the early 1970s raises questions about the ethics and polemic uses of the diary as a writerly form. Published by ‘Anonymous’ as Go Ask Alice (1971), but later discovered to be written by Beatrice Sparks; while initially marketed as nonfiction, it is now widely sold as fiction. There is some controversy over whether Sparks based the diary on the real diary of one of her patients, and the persistence of this controversy attests to our obsession with the slippery division between fiction and reality, a line that the diary form negotiates with only the most tender of distinctions. Like Laura Palmer, Alice is a young teenager who soon finds herself embroiled in a darkly muddled world of drugs (coke for Laura, LSD and heroin for Alice) and prostitution, made darker still by the hints of physical and sexual abuse incurred by both characters/diarists. There are striking similarities between the two diaries, but the crucial difference, to me, is that while Lynch wrote Laura’s diary to extend the thematic explorations of Twin Peaks, to give Laura a voice and deepen our knowledge of her character, Sparks wrote her diary novel with the didactic purpose of teaching an anti-drugs message to its avid teenage readers.
When I first devoured Go Ask Alice, a whole six years ago now, I found myself sucked into the sinister allure of Alice’s adventures, which were at once so far away and yet perilously close to my life in a rural Ayrshire community where many of us were bumming out on toxic legal highs purloined from the local sex shop. I found myself rather terrified of my edition of the book; after reading it I shoved it to the back of the shelf, behind my equally harrowing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, and tried to forget about it. The cover has a picture of a skinny girl, face turned away from the camera, buried in her hand. It is all shadows; the title has ALICE and ANONYMOUS printed in harrowing block capitals. It reminds me of similar covers from the anorexic and depressive memoirs of Wasted (Marya Hornbacher) and Prozac Nation (Elizabeth Wurtzel). It cut a bit too close to the bone; I was worried that I’d get lost in the text somehow, the way I used to find myself lost in things that horrified yet seduced me.
Maybe part of this devouring was like Crusoe’s fear of being devoured: what scares him is the thought of being eaten alive by some unknown beast (think also of the Beast that haunts the boys in Lord of the Flies…). The fact that the corrupted fable of a contemporary Alice was meant to be anonymous probably made it scarier for me, because she was the everygirl, the possibility that anyone might be seduced by a life of self-destruction. Alice is the horror of the other within; the self-hating, monstrous self.
Reading it back now, however, with my vaguely improved and university approved capacities at close reading, I can see the slippages where the text reveals its true author, the moralising American therapist who wanted to push her opinions on sexuality and drug abuse. Maybe as a teenager I was too close to the subject matter to think about the tone and style, the actual form of the diary. Some of it is pretty accurate: the in-depth reflections on diet and weight and self-image which prompt Alice’s first trip down the rabbit hole of self-harm and addiction. However, it’s obvious to me that it couldn’t be the authentic discourse of someone Alice’s age. There are so many points where you have to stop and think, would a teenage girl really say that? Like when she reflects on her mother’s youth and whether her mother got so hung up on boys as she did: ‘I wonder if boys were as oversexed in those days as they are now?’ (Sparks 1994: 9). ‘Oversexed’ reads like the kind of word that would crop up on Mumsnet if it was around in the 1970s. There’s a general tone to the novel, a kind of failed attempt to script the logic of a teenage mind through an emphasis on ‘cool’, that reminds me of those 1970s and 1980s sex ed documentaries they used to wheel out the telly for in Personal Social Education at school. You’d be so distracted by the bad haircuts and the terribly stunted dialogue that you forgot about what the documentary was supposed to be teaching you, even as the narrative hammered it home so overtly that you’d have to be asleep to miss it. The ‘editors’ of Go Ask Alice claim the book to be ‘based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user’; ‘It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions’. Nevertheless, the definitive statement that you can extract from Go Ask Alice is clearly: don’t do drugs. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t runaway from home. Alice does all these things and it only ends badly from her and occasionally, Robinson Crusoe-style, she chides herself with an almost religious morality for falling into such vices and immoral behaviours. Sometimes, Alice’s anxiety is rendered with such clunkiness it’s surprising the reading public didn’t pick up on the diary’s inauthenticity sooner:
I hadn’t thought about being pregnant before. Can it happen the first time? Will Bill marry me if I am or will he just think I’m an easy little dum-dum who makes it with everyone? Of course he won’t marry me, he’s only fifteen years old. I guess I’ll just have to have an abortion or something. I certainly couldn’t stand it if I had to leave school like_______did last year. The kids talked about absolutely nothing else for weeks. Oh God, please, please make me not pregnant!
(Sparks 1994: 30-31)
You could take those first few sentences as the cover quotes on leaflets from a vintage NHS ad on pregnancy and birth control advice. It’s so obviously contrived. There are other parts of the text where the slippage between teenage imagination and cringe-worthy adult representation is a bit more ambiguous; for example her description of sex with her drug dealer boyfriend, Richie, as ‘like lighting and rainbows and springtime’ (Sparks 1994: 43), which is naively refreshing at the same time as being a little too absurd for someone who is supposed to premise her existence on being a hyper-cool teenage dropout.
While Laura’s last diary entry is genuinely pretty harrowing, Alice’s is laced with a queasy sense of self-awareness that seems filtered through textbook rhetoric on adolescent mental health, as if the wiser voice of Sparks (therapist and Mormon youth counsellor) were speaking through her:
I used to think I would get another diary after you are filled, or even that I would keep a diary or journal through my whole life. But now I don’t really think I will. Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times. But I think when a person gets older she should be able to discuss her problems and thoughts with other people, instead of just another part of herself as you have been to me. Don’t you agree? I hope so, for you are my dearest friend and I shall thank you always for sharing my tears and heartaches and my struggles and strifes, and my joys and happinesses. It’s all been good in its own special way, I guess.
(Sparks 1994: 151-152)
Would a teenage girl really use the word ‘strifes’? Would she really, in the midst of a drug-addled breakdown, sound as lucid and lofty as to say ‘I think when a person gets older’? There is though some genuine pathos in the simple, casual ‘See ya’ followed by the overtly political and moralising register of the epilogue:
The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.
Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.
Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of approximately 50,000 drug deaths in the United States that year.
(Sparks 1994: 153)
This overtly cold and clinical passage is obviously rendered as a contrast to the preceding philosophising from Alice herself, who is here transformed into the impersonal ‘subject’, whose identity is subsumed into a broader narrative about drug problems in the U.S. However, the canny reader should be suspicious of the way that Sparks clearly set up Alice’s ‘epiphany’ as the ironic precursor to her death, which was obviously meant to emphasise the tragedy of her wasted life, the cause of which is explicitly rooted in drug abuse. There’s that famous phrase of second wave feminists, the personal is political: it resonates throughout Go Ask Alice in the sense that Sparks is making a political statement on sexual morality through the denigrating circumstances that Alice finds herself in as a result of reckless, premarital sex—which in the diary’s narrative is almost always tied to drug abuse, to being irresponsibly stoned out your head. The familiar narrative of suburban girl gone bad appears as a microcosm for a wider point about the ‘50,000 drug deaths’ across the rest of the U.S that year. Thus the diary in literary fiction serves to blur the line between fiction and reality, the personal and political.
This blurring of the personal and political is also evident in the actual diaries of various authors. I take as my example Virginia Woolf, who wrote on the brink of World War II a vision of a perfect pastoral afternoon in the English countryside as a counterpoint to the ominous coming of war:
I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what? On this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all? – our lives, oh yes, and everything for the next fifty years? Everyone’s writing I suppose about this last day. I walked on the downs; lay under a cornstack and looked at the empty land and the pinkish clouds in a perfect blue summer afternoon sky. Not a sound. Workmen discussing war on the road – one for it, one against. For us its [sic] like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But there’s a vast calm cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting a doctor’s verdict. And the young – young men smashed up. But the point is one is too numbed to think. Old Clive sitting on the terrace, says “I don’t want to live through it.” Explains that his life recedes. Has had the best. We privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls. No feeling of patriotism. How to go on, through war? – that’s the question. Yes, its [sic] a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room
(Woolf 2008: 459).
There is something rather uncanny about reading this passage, blessed and cursed as we are with retrospective knowledge of what was to come in the war, its atrocities, its rupturing of this simple, innocent life forever. Woolf is clearly already aware of what is to come; she has learned from the first war: ‘young men smashed up’, a ‘vast calm cold gloom’ – images which seem incongruous against the ‘perfect blue afternoon sky’. Woolf effectively evokes that awful limbo feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen. The diary form is especially suited to capturing such moments, the in-betweenness of present and future, the ‘strain’ of this waiting, writing as if to pass time. Woolf notes the futility of writing at such a time: ‘I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what?’, the dash emphasising that aporetic sense of meaninglessness in the face of the unknowable war to come. It is the granular details of everyday life that remain concrete, that seem to ground her, as they ground the reader against the shadowy abyss of war that hangs over our reading of this piece: ‘cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls’. The strange interruptions that mark a routine day: ‘A swallow came into the sitting room’. That Woolf flits indecisively between describing the beautiful pastoral scene and thinking ahead to the war suggests the struggle to capture the everyday, the struggle to pin down in language that elusive sense of momentary calm which is swept up in the grander historical events. I wonder, if I had kept a diary as far back as 9/11, would I have written much about the event itself? One of the few ‘flashbulb memory’ events from my lifetime that I remember vividly is the London 7/7 bombings. I was on a boat on the way to Tobermory and the youth worker who was looking after us got a text about it. I think she had the same Nokia 3220 phone as me. She mentioned the terrorist attack briefly but I have no recollection of how I felt about the event itself, whether I was stricken with grief or worry for London family members. I seem to remember more the fact that someone was playing 2Pac on a crackling ship radio; we were drinking watery Ovaltine and sharing a bar of Cadbury’s Mint Chocolate. I remember feeling very calm and safe, being rocked to sleep in the dark little cabin with the boat moored at some bay, the feel of the water sloshing up against the walls so comforting. Perhaps it’s only the tangible details we can cling to.
Woolf’s diary entry brings us to the question of the cultural function of the diary. The diary gives us a bottom-up, microcosmic insight into a specific experience in a specific time and place. Woolf: the middle-class writer’s view of the interwar years, told from the position of poetic eloquence and reflective precision. Then there’s perhaps the most famous of all ‘historical’ diaries: Anne Frank’s. Arguably, what draws people back to Frank’s account of living as a Jew in that perilous moment in German history is not the overall backdrop of historical and personal trauma but the focus on everyday detail. We want the tangible reality of how someone like Anne lived, survived and loved at a specific, dramatic moment in time. It’s the classic liberal humanist narrative of empathy. The Diary of Alice James (1934), sister of Henry and William James, is an interesting case as a ‘real life’ diary, not only because it was published after her death (and thus raises interesting ethical questions about whether one’s diary is up for grabs after one’s passing), but also because of its representation of illness. Alice’s struggle with physical illness plays out in the diary as a conflict of mind and body, will and impulse, power and impotence. She describes abandoning her body in order to preserve her mental sanity. It is a candid account of illness that shirks away the need for sympathy and never skirts around the difficult issues of assuming the ‘sickness’ identity. It is also rather funny in parts (as in Frank’s), delivering an array of scathing opinions on figures known to the James circle.
The diary form, then, has a clear lineage within ideas of trauma and authenticity, gender and genre. If the diary is associated with dailyness and immediacy, it seems the ideal form to express the experiential ‘reality’ of everyday life, which is at once the most obvious and most elusive aspect of our existence. Most of the texts I have discussed so far have been written by women, about women (including themselves). Dorothy Wordsworth wrote several beautiful journals rich with everyday description and nature writing, imagery which her brother William plucked scrupulously for his poetry.She talks about illness, frustration, the loveliness of her garden. While William’s poetry is hugely famous and taught in school curriculums, Dorothy’s journals remain a niche interest for Romanticists and academics. While William enters literary stardom, even into the twenty-first century (though Carol Ann Duffy seems to have overtaken him in the Higher English poetry stakes…), Dorothy remains cast aside as a kind of fragile, queer and weak Victorian woman.
I could reel off a list of other texts by women writers which use the diary to thematise and dramatise psychological and/or historical trauma: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) being two strong examples. When we think of writing a diary, do we think of teenage Sylvia Plath wannabes (Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You), wearing all black and scribbling furiously, alone in a bedroom adorned with Cure posters and feminist slogans? Do we think of the innocent young woman, maintaining a diary to make sense of transitions in their life—Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949), Marielle Heller’s 2015 film The Diary of a Teenage Girl? Why is the diary form traditionally associated with women? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that women are traditionally associated with the everyday as such. This is because, as Rita Felski (2000) has suggested, women (because of their biological ‘rhythms’ and link to domesticity) are connected with repetition, with tasks that repeat day after day; whereas men are associated with the dramas of the public sphere, the dynamism of war, work, politics and so on.
There is obviously a rich array of texts which fit into this gendering of the diary. When one tries to think of a masculine tradition of diary writing, one realises that diaries by male authors tend to be subsumed into the category of historical artefact, rather than the comparatively ‘feminine’, domesticated diary. Think of Samuel Pepys’ diary for instance, which was certainly focused on details of everyday domestic life as much as it was on the politics and social events of the time, but is largely considered as a loftily important historical document. Think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), which is modelled on the 18th-century fictional convention of presenting itself as a diary, but in fact is generally conceived of as a philosophical novel rather than a diary as such. There are far more texts to be discussed here and critical issues at stake, but clearly there is a lot to be said about the gendering of the diary as ‘genre’ (genre in the sense of form but also content, i.e. philosophy, everyday life, adventure, young adult etc).
…Admittedly some people live more than others. The excitement curve of a telephone operator, white-haired, lumpy as a pallid pudding with knots of blue arthritic veins for raisins, would no doubt be shallow = a slow undulation with a monotonous mechanical basis, heightened by a slight bump for a movie or dinner with the “girls.” But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in colour, rather than black-and-white, or more grey? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully
(Plath 2011: 44).
As Sylvia Plath muses in her diary entry above, everyone has different ways of living, and in a sense, some people ‘live more than others’. Why do we (as the consumers, the reading public — to use a rather gross term) lust after the details of famous people’s lives, while leaving the case of ‘people like us’ to the ethnographers, to the experimental sociology of the Mass Observation project? Perhaps it is because of the magical realisation that such extraordinary people actually led ordinary lives: Virginia Woolf cooking her dinner, Sylvia Plath enjoying a couple of sherries before bed, Beyoncé perhaps clipping her toenails and settling down to an evening with Big Brother (okay, that last one is clearly fantasy – Beyoncé surely wouldn’t clip her own toenails?!). While Plath makes the point that some people have more colourful lives than others, she also usefully foregrounds the role of the diary as a way of rendering one’s life as more exotic, regardless of how famous or exciting one is. Plath refreshingly admits to ‘try[ing] to be more like them […] and try to live most fully’. Maybe there is a sense in which the impulse to record the daily occurrences of your life encourages you to live more fully, to embrace the moment, to linger over the good things and make their significance more concrete in writing, to start weaving a web of associations that will linger on in memory and perhaps provide the treasure of discovery for a future reader…
And even if nobody ever reads your diary, I still think it’s a useful form of self-expression. I’m pretty sure it’s done wonders for my own mental health, and also it means that nobody has to listen to me bang on about my problems for too long, because I’ve already sorted them out in writing, stashed them away at the back of a drawer. Decanted them, like Krapp, if only temporarily (the written has a habit of breaking out into the real, as anyone who has read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart will attest). Anyway, sometimes it’s fun to have a casual flick through old diary entries. While it generally feels self-indulgent, there’s a certain pleasure in being reminded of wee embarrassing and maybe endearing details of your old life that you’d have totally forgotten otherwise. Like celebrating sixth year exam results with ‘Pimms in the West Kirk’ (Ayr’s finest…), like writing a poem called ‘The Sirens of Ibiza’, like having a weird addiction to sweet’n’salt popcorn, star jumps and Downtown Abbey, like ‘feeling nostalgic for Comic Sans’. Like the morsels of venom or wit I must’ve mustered in the flush of the moment, describing the ‘wankery South London yuppies who didn’t tip’ ; the silly wee quirky conversations you had with people: ‘I stopped at the bridge to gaze at the near-full moon and told Douglas it made me feel primal somehow so he told me when he was twelve he used to have a Ghostbusters calendar which told him to go outside and howl at the moon. I just adore Douglas’. It’s an opportunity to revisit your first impressions of people (who later become friends or enemies), albums, poems, novels, political events (the 2015 election and 2014 election gaining a particular amount of page coverage–Brexit being too depressing to even write about), travesties and celebrations. Sometimes, my diary makes absolutely no sense to me, often because I neglect the provision of context— ‘At the Burns party upstairs, I talked to people about brewing magic crystal meth, learning Japanese, and postcolonialism, among other things’—but I think I’m comfortable with the mystery. I like that there’s a part of myself that I might never know again; it’s like the relieving of some burden. Maybe that’s the beauty of the diary in general: its sense of controlling one’s life but also its possibility of escapism, paradoxically, through reality.
A Select Bibliography
Baudrillard, Jean, 1990. On Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer,(Montréal: New World Perspectives).
Bergson, Henri, 2013. ‘From Creative Evolution’, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), pp. 68-72.
Blanchot, Maurice, 1982. The Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press).
Blanchot, Maurice, 1987. ‘Everyday Speech, Yale French Studies, Vol. 73, pp. 12-20.
Cixous, Hélène and Jacques Derrida, Veils, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Suzanne Vega – ‘Marlene on the Wall’, Suzanne Vega (1985)
Partly to blame for my writerly obsession with long, m-beginning girls names (Meredith, Meredana, Marianne), this song was one of the first tracks that brought me to music – brought me to music in the sense of listening to it and discovering something new about the world through it. It’s a story of a dangerous and probably ill-advised love affair, told through an impression of symbols; the singer urges the listener to ‘observe the blood, the rose tattoo and the fingerprints on me from you’. The line between desire and violence blurs here and there’s something about Vega’s cool, whispering voice: an intimacy that is at once conversational but also steadfastly aloof, refusing the self-aestheticising of vibrato and instead fixing itself on the delivery of its sharply observational lyrics. In an age where big, operatic voices dominate the popular music scene (think Adele), Vega’s vocal style seems comparatively and indeed curiously fresh. When she returns, angrily, to the chorus, there’s a real, mesmerising venom to her delivery.
The song was on an acoustic compilation CD I’d nicked from my Mum’s car and I used to play it over and over again, my nine-year-old mind trying to make sense of the song’s darkness; its ‘danger zone’, the urgent guitar strums and insistence on silence – ‘don’t talk about it later’. By successfully striking the experience of ambiguity in desire, twisting pop’s conventional picture of love to one more sinister, Vega draws you in and in again to her characters. Who’s Marlene? What does she mean by the wall? Who are the soldiers, and the ‘things I cannot see’? I still have no idea.
2) Bloc Party – ‘I Still Remember’, A Weekend in the City (2007)
Like a Roald Dahl novel, rife with endearing surrealism, you sink into this story of young love with a queasy mix of confusion and warm familiarity. The guitar riff that kicks in with all its clarity is a comfort, even now, listening back almost ten (!) years later, and the song lilts between the energy and languidness of longing. The relief that comes when Kele Okereke breathily sings that first line, ‘I / I still remember / how you looked that afternoon / it was only you.’ It’s a love that touches on the unspokenness of queer desire, the possibility of falling for your best friend: ‘we left our trousers by the canal / and our fingers, they almost touched’. It’s almost Blakean in its very pure, stripped-back articulation of innocence: ‘you said “it’s just like a full moon” / blood beats faster in our veins’. It’s draped in childhood nostalgia: ‘and on that teachers’ training day / we wrote our names on every train’. With all these images, you can’t help but remember such experiences from your own youth, those simple days and strange feelings.
When the song builds up with the thrashing drums and the insistent refrain, ‘I still remember’, all the campouts and nights out and beach drinking and endless hanging out come flooding back. Okereke’s love exists now only as a metonymic collection of details, sentimental objects and memories: the playgrounds and rooftops, park benches, school ties. There’s a terrible bittersweetness to the song, its sense of regret, of unrealised, forlorn desire: ‘You should have asked me for it / I would have been brave’. Sure, the album came out in January 2007, but in a way it’s a song for autumn: the aftermath of summer holidays, the return to school, the always problematic sense of fresh beginnings, of leaving a certain era behind. The golden haze of nostalgia, and all its futile longing. The dissolution of that final shining chord.
In my head, it’s inextricably tied up not just with my own adolescence but with that even earlier exposure to frustrated love. I think of the ending to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, with Mary’s endless stories, the ‘quantum leap’ that is love’s realisation, her talk of negative capability and the unravelling of Proustian memory, decades deep from a piece of marzipan; then Lyra and Will, after so many adventures across several universes, admitting they love each other, their first kiss like the taste of the ‘little red fruit’ and then the devastating revelation that they love each other and yet can literally never exist in the same world and live. I remember vividly sitting on my bedroom floor on a Sunday night, picking flakes of paint from the floorboards, anxiously devouring the last of book of the fantasy trilogy that had consumed both my summer and winter and feeling this weird immenseness of sadness and relief all at once. I think it’s the expression that counts; the only overcoming of such feelings. That’s why Bloc Party’s song’s so good. It’s cathartic.
3) Belle & Sebastian – ‘Dress Up in You’, The Life Pursuit (2006)
For me, The Life Pursuit is one of Belle & Sebastian’s most obviously ‘chamber pop’ albums, it’s lush and glossy and upbeat, featuring vocal contributions from both male and female members of the band. Its production is shiny and the mood (for once?) is cheerful.
Probably not surprising that the song I picked is one of the album’s most melancholy, however. We can all relate to ‘Dress Up in You’, in a way. It’s a song about jealousy, about our problematic relationship with the friend that always dazzled, the one with a ‘beautiful face’, that was always destined for great things, while you were stuck back home, ‘knitting jumpers’ and ‘working after hours’. There’s a bitterness to the song’s tone but at the same time the relaxing cadence of the piano riff and the upliftingly sweet horn solo keep the sadness in check: ultimately, the song’s message is one of admiration. The ‘singer in the band’ paints a vision of her friend, the one who ‘got lucky’, who forgot about her, as a beautiful idol: ‘if I could have a second skin I’d probably dress up in you.’
We’ve all wanted to be someone else at some point. It’s probably part of the human condition that we’re mostly doomed to be dissatisfied with our own skin, to long for where the grass is greener, where there are airplanes and style and ‘the essence’. What I love about this song is its contradictions: the bitter lyrics and the sweet music, the sense of absolute friendship (deals signed in blood, understandings, love, the sense of missing someone so much they give you stomach pain) and jealousy/resentment, the contrast between stardom and failure. It carries them off perfectly and there’s a satisfying relief in the way the song closes with the rallentando leading into ‘they are hypocrites, forget them / so fuck them too’ and then all those carefree la la la la las, harmonised lovingly with the accompanying brass.
It’s a song that reminds me of sitting up till 5am on friends’ sofas, passing round the laptop and its weighty iTunes library, drinking the dregs from a bottle of gin and feeling a bit miserable for ourselves but also kind of paradoxically content with the feeling of discontent.
Notably, it’s also the song that plays over the credits to Stuart Murdoch’s film, God Help the Girl, and I like that the film’s ending is pretty open, just like the outcome of the song—does the friend become an actress? Is she a success or a failure?
4) Frightened Rabbit – ‘Poke’, The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
2009 and 2010. Two winters so cold the roads and rivers froze over; so cold we wore coats in our classrooms, the heating system of our leaky-roofed Victorian school building packing in in tandem with the collapse in temperatures. These years all a blur of computer screens and studies, of long walks round town and into the hills with friends. I had tickets to see Frightened Rabbit at the Barrowlands in December; I was in school, reading Sylvia Plath for my English dissertation, when from the windows of the computer suite I saw the first flakes of snow, falling from the sky like a promise. They came thick and fast and soon everything was draped in white. Something inside me soared, even with the sad knowledge that the trains were cancelled. I couldn’t go to the gig.
At parties, we would mockingly sing the words to each other: ‘poke at my iris / why can’t I cry about this’. Sometimes we’d mishear the lyrics. We wanted a reaction from each other, perhaps, a way of making sense of that weird desire to be poked in the eye, to be stilted from our drunken reveries. Or maybe it meant something deeper, weirder. Maybe that was our own ‘brand new language’, a semiotics of stupid expressions and warbling voices, the way we’d brush up against each other’s hands as if we wanted to hold them.
‘Poke’. It’s an elegy of sorts; an elegy for the disintegration of a relationship, the frustration of striving for closure, caught between an animalistic need for freedom and that enduring residue of whatever was there before: ‘Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone? / And we can mourn its passing / And then bury it in snow’. It’s that wintery, rural Scottish numbness, the refusal or even inability to admit feeling – ‘Why can’t I cry about this?’. There’s the tender, Burns-like romanticism of this love – ‘it’s got lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon’ – kicked viscerally in the teeth with all that suppressed violence that we bury in the darkest dullness of our relationships: ‘Or should we kick its cunt in / and watch as it dies from bleeding?’. Scott Hutchison’s poetic, sometimes growling croon is softened in this song, even as he refuses to hold back on the emotion, it unravels perfectly in the expression of paradox that governs the end of a relationship: ‘But I hate when I feel like this / And I never hated you’. The sudden severance of that connection that was almost familial, blood-strong in its longing. The interludes where Hutchison sings his Ooooohs with that perfect, withdrawn sorrow are like the movements of the sea over the steady rivulets of the guitar picking. I always wanted to be able to play this song on guitar. It sounded so simple and sad and pure.
5) Wild Nothing – ‘Paradise’, Nocturne (2012)
I used to do double shifts most Saturdays and Sundays and it was a grim affair without the aid of some good music to brighten the restaurant where I found myself pacing endlessly, lifting plates, taking orders, polishing glasses, picking litter and leaves off the floor, scraping candle wax off tables, dusting the gantry, moving zombie-like between tables with the same forced fresh, maybe fragile smile.
My friend Douglas would bring stacks of CDs in and leave them for me on the bar top while he was away working in his section. In the midst of sensory deprivation, I would pore over those CDs like they were exquisite treasures (which, fuck it, they were). For one, it was lovely to find someone else who shared my passion for the actual tangibility of the compact disc. The sleeve and the notes and the design printed on the disc itself. I liked the sheen of plastic, which felt solid in my hands. It was 2013 and Douglas had a music taste that ranged from the up-and-coming heroes of alt-pop (Grimes, Lana Del Rey) to the more left-field and experimental/electronic; looking over those CDs reminded me of the world I had missed while immersing myself in nothing but literary theory podcasts and James Joyce audiobooks for two years solid. Now there was Bjork, Angel Olsen, Poliça, Wild Nothing.
I asked to take a few home to borrow, mostly based on my attraction to the album artwork and the titles of songs. I’ve always been drawn to song titles and artwork, probably because I am literary-minded but also because I love it when artists actually pay attention to building up a particular aesthetic that’s appropriate to, or even spins a whole new meaning on, their music. I love thinking about how the title of a song changes everything. It’s weird because I find it really hard to title my own work, but I guess that’s a common problem…
Anyway, one of those lucky albums was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which is a blissful array of buttery, colourful dream pop songs which mould together as perfect as the lunar cycle. The standout track for me is ‘Paradise’, a five-and-a-half-minute ambient starry-eyed disco epic which, if the album is meant to sort of capture ‘a sleepless state of mind’ (hence the album’s title, Nocturne), is that moment when the endorphins kick in and you reach that precise state of euphoria that occurs when you have not slept for say 40 hours solid. Maybe you’re travelling, airborne to distant lands. Maybe you’ve been boozing through the night and morning. Maybe you’ve just been on your feet all day and are reaching the 11th hour of your shift…
For me, this is sort of The Cure drenched in pastel tones; the meticulous crafting of those dark synths and celestial reverb; Joy Division staring into the refracted galaxies of a crystal ball that would predict a brighter future. Jack Tatum’s voice here acquires a much stronger, more sonorous quality than on most other Wild Nothing tracks, and there are definitely Ian Curtis comparisons to be made here. The mood perfectly balances its bouncy drums, uplifting synths and twinkly 80s guitar riffs with a controlled and almost majestic lyrical delivery which is rather melancholy in theme, the refrain ‘love is paradise’ framing most of the song, as if striving to reach some sublime point where paradise would be reached. If you check out the extended version online, with Michelle Williams doing spoken word in an interlude section, there is a definite sort of Allen Ginsberg/Beat generation vibe to the lines, moving to a sort of transcendent rapture: ‘The past was folded up and in the twinkle of an eye / and everything had been changed / And made beautiful and good’.
The song overall feels like a spiritual and spatial journey; it fades and builds and comes to fade again. It never indulges in elaborate solos but instead maintains its vibrant rhythm that moves between liveliness and a kind of soporific haze of drums and sparkling guitar and synths. Listening to it at work, for those five-and-a-half-minutes I felt weightless, bodiless, up in the air; free from the cutlery and crockery and bells tolling endlessly from the kitchen…
A song that you carry with you somehow, that’s so engrained in your brain as to never leave you, each chord and lyric sedimented with years of memory. It’s a fragile song, sparse as a deciduous tree in winter. It’s a song about wandering, the dislocated sense of not exactly inhabiting the world, but somehow just drifting through. It’s a paean to solitude: ‘when everything is lonely I can be my own best friend / I get a coffee and a paper have my own conversations / with the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection’. It explores the thinness of reality, the sheen of ‘polish’ that in the morning ‘looks like shit’, the false love sold in the evening, which by the morning ‘won’t exist’. It’s a candid admission of human frailty, the mercurial nature of our emotions. It’s a specifically metropolitan song: you have a sense of Conor Oberst’s warbling voice as he wanders the streets, lost protagonist in his solipsistic sadness. Yet the song spreads outwards, as a commentary on the human (or at least a generational) condition, a not-quite nihilistic exhaustion with the world – ‘we might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain’. We flit from one thing to another, our desires will oscillate as sure as the moon’s phases. Everything seems ‘so simple as the moonlight’ but no amount of incantation will render solid this refrain.
Thematically, the song is about addiction, depression, the everyday vacillations of sensation contained in a morning and evening. The random party at ‘some actor’s west side loft’ and the flask shared on the train, the person addressed who looks ‘skinny like a model’ and keeps escaping to the bathroom, ‘always say you’ll be right back’. In body, the people in the song waste away as easily as the time that contains them, surviving off coffee and moonlight and imaginary conversations.
Oberst, lyrically, is a genius at paradoxes and parallels and expresses them in a way that offers them as explanations or gestures of understanding which never quite satisfy but at least leave us pondering: ‘But what was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane’. The opening line, ‘I know that it is freezing but I think we have to walk’ so clearly establishes the tone of the song, the jar of realisation – we’re both forced upon this journey, nobody’s going to give us a ride – that it could be a line from a Wallace Stevens poem. It’s a cold song, whose play of end rhymes only half hit home – ‘walk/loft’ ‘off/gone’ – leaving us always longing for something more. No closure can be reached: the song can only end with the circular repetition of ‘so simple in the moonlight’, a childlike rehearsal of the beauty which cannot kill the complications of adult life, the self-destructive habits which inhabit the song’s lyrics.
In third year of high school, I used to listen to this every lunchtime, lying in the playground by the P.E block, feeling so light and empty, the world dissolving around me in a dull cacophony of kicked footballs, shrieking games and called-out names. It was a mysterious adult world, the one contained in that song, but I almost felt I was already there, dissolving what was left of matter.
[There’s a lovely version Oberst recorded with Gillian Welch for the album Dark Was the Night (2009) which gives it a flavour of melancholy Americana, a greater sense of dislocation, fusing the urban setting and Oberst’s minimalist delivery with Welch’s distinctly lilting, country voice and all its resonance of the prairie].
7) Muse – ‘Citizen Erased’, Origin of Symmetry (2001)
It seems insane to think that this album was released fifteen years ago, but maybe the timing was appropriate. There’s something uncanny about it: the paranoid, political and often surreal lyrics, howling soprano, bloated distortion of electric guitars, as if the music were forcing us to release the visceral eeriness and indeed grotesque weirdness of a reality that tried to cloak itself in the fairytales of gameshow tv and the financial greed offered by a fresh new century…
‘Citizen Erased’ is visceral, beautiful; at once tender and full of fury. It renders the experience of someone living in a fucked-up political state, the striving for freedom and confusion over what it means to be human, to be a person, at all. The thrashing drums give way to a thickly buzzing bass and the yearning swirls of screeching electric guitar solos. The song builds slowly and softly but the choruses are huge and operatic, with Bellamy’s distinctive wail crying out: ‘For one moment / I wish you would hold your stage / with no feelings at all / open minded / I’m sure I used to be, so free’.
The experience of this song is one of purification. You are exposed to music that is violent, lashing, angry, but like any good narrative, there is a turning point, a calming of the waves. The music becomes almost ambient. The key changes and Bellamy’s voice returns to its melodic, delicate expression, accompanied by ripples of piano and the fuzzy, spacey twanging of distorted guitars: ‘Wash me away / clean your body of me / erase all the memories / that will only bring us pain’. I’ve always felt purged somehow after listening to ‘Citizen Erased’. I think it chews you up a bit then leaves you, disembodied, drifting along the final tributaries of its current, back to a place of imaginary origin, more peaceful and pure than the harsh world it renders…
Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful).Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.
For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.
Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.
In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.
For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).
ANYWAY, back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.
Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.
One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.
Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.
He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.
It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?
They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.
Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.
Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.
Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.
You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.
‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’. Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.
A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:
Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt
We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.
Tigermilk, then,isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:
A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.
This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.
Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.
There’s something about Bret Easton Ellis. Whether it’s the alluring cool of a literary ‘Brat Pack’, the frisson implied by a 1980s enfant terrible or the fact that he published his first novel while still in college, aged 21 (the canny bastard), I find myself drawn to his presence both as a cultural persona and simply as a man of interesting writerly craft. I have been listening obsessively to his podcast for a few weeks now, engrossed in his attacks on the millennial ‘cult of likability’, on the pop cultural salivation over a tv ‘golden age’ and on the lack of context which accompanies the bandying around of quotes online (and the accompanying Twitterstorm). Part of it, I guess, is the perspective of a millennial (me) feeling they have something to learn from a Gen-Xer. Part of it is simply that Ellis does have his own particular brand of pop cultural and authorial genius. This article hopes to delve into this genius by looking at Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero, which I recently reread.
Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
even your mother won’t detect it,
no your father won’t know.
They think that I’ve got no respect
but everything means less than zero
(Elvis Costello, ‘Less than Zero’).
See above the chorus from Elvis Costello’s song, ‘Less than Zero’, released in 1977 on the My Aim is True album. Costello has written that the song is about totalitarianism and fascism. What does it mean for Ellis to take this song as the title for his novel? – a novel which doesn’t exactly exude the anarchic spirit of 1970s punk, nor does it make any overt political critique. Nevertheless, Less than Zero is a political text on some level, in so far as it deals with the subject/self under late capitalism. Costello sings about something secret, an inner feeling that you can drown out with the static sound of television. What kind of secret is concealed here? The absolute flatness of existence, the alienating depression that creeps and inhabits your bones? I’ve got no respect. For what – the world? What do your parents matter in this life without boundaries, where morality thins to a flimsy image, where selfhood is nothing but the label on your trainers? This is a world of regression, degeneration, of falling from grace, redefining what the hell grace is. It’s the secret inner disgust for all that surrounds you. The sadness bursting in your brain, the endless lines of cocaine…
So goes the life of Clay, the protagonist from Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero. Published in 1985, it’s often lumped together with the likes of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as an exemplary work of the 1980s literary Brat Pack: writers who encapsulated the alienated experience of Generation X, often influenced by journalism and the movies as much as that elusive category of literature known as the Great American Novel. Less than Zero follows Clay’s return to his family home in Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Yes, it could be considered a Gen X Catcher in the Rye, where the apathetic perception of cultural phoniness plays out against a backdrop of sex, drugs and snuff films. However, while Salinger’s novel exposes the adult world as darkly sham and shallow, Ellis’ turns its attention to the synthetic lives of Clay and his fellow adolescents. Unlike a traditional bildungsroman, it lacks plot and narrative and that most perjured and celebrated of terms: humanist subjectivity. The question of character development in the novel is mostly a non-issue, as Clay ‘grows’ only in the sense of growing more detached from the world around him, more aware of his own indifference.
In a way, Clay is the perfect model of a disillusioned teenager, and Ellis nails the setting. Where better to lose all sense of self and reality than in LA, the city where dreams and visions are spun on film reel and everyone’s an actor, or at least the spawn of one. Clay and his friends live hollow lives, gorging themselves at the playgrounds of consumerism offered by the city: fancy bars and clubs, endless bottles of Perrier and expensive therapy. The novel more or less follows a repetitive structure, the narrative moving in a series of vignettes as Clay moves around, calls a friend from a payphone, drops by people’s houses, goes to a club, takes drugs, gets laid, hangs out by the pool, smokes a joint. Little else happens. It’s all in the accumulation.
I’m not saying this is an avant-garde novel, working through ‘accumulation and repetition’ in the way that Zadie Smith said of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder (2005) in her famous NY Times essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. Ellis is less interested in ripping apart the contemporary consumerist (and humanist) literary establishment than in using this establishment, its obsession with pulp (check out the noirish drug/snuff/pimp plot) and branding to unravel the vacuous experience of being young and glitteringly rich in the 1980s. Part of the novel’s point is questioning whether Clay ever really had a sense of selfhood or reality in the first place – whether such things exist at all. The wastefulness of contemporary culture trickles out of Ellis’ minimalist prose, which is just as effective as Joan Didion’s was in capturing the strange alienation of the mid-twentieth century. We are left longing for something more in the gaps between his sparse paragraphs, his dull and vacuous dialogue. This is all culture. This is all politics. Only, you wouldn’t know it from the novel itself.
No, the world of Less than Zero couldn’t be more insular. Its only connection to the world outside Los Angeles is through the brand names, the song lyrics and movie references which trail through the narrative as often as Clay’s car trails along the LA freeways. Yet if literature is about subjectivity, than the subjectivity explored in Less than Zero is irrevocably damaged, fractured and, if you’re a fan of Deleuze & Guattari, schizophrenic. It’s dispersed along the various signifiers that constitute culture. All of Clay’s perception is whittled down to tiny details: the catalogue of brand names, the repeated references to physical appearance (always tan, always blonde) and the drinks that people are cradling, the glamorous food pushed uselessly round a plate. It’s a highly cinematic narrative, which sometimes resembles a screenplay. Sections of prose often begin with brief indications of time and space, the opening words in bold to quickly situate the reader in a social setting, neglecting any poetic descriptions to set the scene in favour of blunt ‘headlines’: ‘It’s a Saturday night’; ‘At Kim’s new house’ ; ‘It’s Christmas morning’; ‘My house lies on Mulholland’.
Perhaps, indeed, it’s not all that far (stylistically) from Made in Chelsea; except take away the tv show’s sparkling jouissance (its soaring indie pop and glorious Instagram-worthy visual filtering) and replace it with the endless merging of barren surfaces which make up Ellis’ novel. Replace the easily sweet pleasures of Made in Chelsea’s gin bars and contorted gossip and romance plots with sleazy LA mansions, snuff films, heroin and bodily dismemberment…While the lack of affect in Made in Chelsea contributes to a kind of narcotic addictiveness, in Ellis’ novel it creates a sheen of unsettling detachment.
‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’ So goes the opening line of Less than Zero. It was only when I first picked up this book, about three years ago, that I realised the connection to Bloc Party’s ‘Song for Clay (Disappear Here)’. The song, an homage of sorts to Ellis’ novel, repeats several phrases, including ‘complete disdain’, ‘live the dream’ and ‘won’t save you’. It’s a song which builds slow and sparse and then suddenly thunders with a sharp guitar riff and pounding drums. It’s sort of the experience of reading Ellis’ novel: the headache, the endless migraine of details, the food and coke and insomniac joints in the early morning. People are afraid to emerge on freeways. What does it mean? Why does it repeat in the text like some fragment from a litany? I guess you could say it’s about the fear of opening yourself to someone else, of sharing problems, being personal and ‘genuine’. You know, take this interchange between Clay and his on/off girlfriend, Blair:
“Clay?” she whispers loudly.
I stop but don’t turn around. “Yeah?”
What the hell is genuine though? Even in the privacy of his narration, Clay struggles to admit any emotional depth. His focus is always on cool detail:
I’m sitting in the main room at Chasen’s with my parents and sisters and it’s late, nine-thirty or ten, on Christmas Eve. Instead of eating anything, I look down at my plate and move the fork across it, back and forth, and become totally fixated on the fork cutting a path between the peas. My father startles me by pouring some more champagne into my glass. My sisters look bored and tan and talk about anorexic friends and some Calvin Klein model and they look older than I remember them looking, even more so when they hold their glasses up by the stem and drink the champagne slowly; they tell me a couple of jokes that I don’t get and tell my father what they want for Christmas.
It’s the immediate present tense. It’s (in)tensely detailed. The sentences drag with repetition, long and slow, heavy and stoned. Clay replaces what would typically occur in such a scene with the mundane reality, pulling out the grotesque from the shiny film of appearance. Sure, to an outsider, Clay and his family would seem like any good looking LA clan out for a fancy meal. Yet it’s immediately clear that Clay feels very distant: not just from the image but from the family themselves. His fixation on cutting a path between his peas is a bit like the cars which won’t merge on the freeway: another symbol of separation, of dividing lines. The self in its shell, stunted. He splits the peas up into meaningless scattered matter. The novel is full of meaningless scattered matter, the endless push and pull of desire, ‘back and forth’. Anorexia is mentioned several times in the novel (Blair’s friend Muriel is hospitalised for it) and the consumption of food and drink is of course central to much of the action (settings; family lunches, dinners, expensive bars). Anorexia, you could argue, is the simultaneous consumption of culture (absorbing absolutely and indeed making literal the beauty of the image, thinness and surface) but also its rejection (literally refusing to consume, to accept the consuming impulse). It provides another symbol of the contradictory imperatives of postmodern culture.
So we have branding, so we have mental illness, disturbed appetites, boredom and beauty and the annual climax of consumerism: Christmas. So far so adolescent bildungsroman. Yet unlike Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Clay is quite content to sit around in a hullabaloo, watching the world swirl meaninglessly on by around him: ‘No one talks about anything much and no one seems to mind, at least I don’t’. The fact that he has to qualify ‘no one’ to refer mainly to himself indicates how easily the micro reflects the macro, the self reflects the culture. Clay feels like his experience of boredom and alienation is pretty much endemic, therefore uninteresting. Ellis doesn’t exactly depict a special snowflake, a depressive uniquely at odds with his society. Sure, there are times where Clay feels particularly ill at ease with what goes on around him (he sometimes leaves the room when his friends’ sex games and suchlike get too unsavoury), but never makes an effort to stop what’s going on.
One way of looking at this aspect of Clay’s personality is by comparing him to Patrick Bateman, the serial-killer protagonist who narrates Ellis’ later novel, American Psycho. While Bateman is an active assailant, Clay is relatively passive. Stuff happens to him; he drifts through life. He never has much of an opinion, openly admits to not enjoying anything. Why does this make him interesting? Maybe he resonates the dullness of culture in such a way as to provide incisions that cut apart the surface sheen of everyday LA life…
Yet we cannot easily develop a ‘cool’ relation to Clay’s narration in the way that we can in American Psycho. The sheer volume of violence and repetition of brand names and daily routines that make up American Psycho’s narrative perhaps forces us to become desensitised to Bateman’s narrative, even to the point of distrusting its ‘veracity’. Is this an effect of Ellis’ intoxicating cataloguing or a defence mechanism to deal with the acts of extreme violence the narrator describes? Either way, there is a lacing of satire in American Psycho, a cynicism perhaps, which is far less, if at all present in Less than Zero. Indeed, amidst the bored, sparse descriptions of similar social encounters, there are moments of genuine poignancy which peek through the narrative. We get these mostly in the italicised ‘flashbacks’ where Clay relates stories about his childhood, about his holiday with Blair in Palm Springs; where he recalls these things with a flatness of affect, yet the sadness of these scenes sheds a kind of melancholy over the rest of the novel, which would otherwise mostly lack in emotion. About halfway through, Clay recalls a time when he thought he saw a child burning alive in a car crash, and how afterwards he started obsessively collecting newspaper clippings about violent accidents and crimes:
And I remember that at that time I started collecting all these newspaper clippings one about some twelve-year-old kid who accidentally shot his brother in Chino; another about a guy in Indio who nailed his kid to a wall, or a door, I can’t remember, and then shot him, point-blank in the face, and one about a fire at a home for the elderly that killed twenty and one about a housewife who while driving her children home from school flew off this eighty-foot embankment near San Diego, instantly killing herself and the three kids and one about a man who calmly and purposefully ran over his ex-wife somewhere near Reno, paralysing her below the neck. I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.
Clay’s involvement with the violent world of LA youth, then, has a root. It’s cultural, it’s endemic. Violence is rife in the media, spreading through the collective Gen X psyche. They grew up realising that they wouldn’t necessary be better off than their parents; that the economy did not owe them the same opportunities it did previous post-war generations. They grew up into a world of job insecurity, of decentred, fragmented wars. They grew up against the backdrop of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, though perhaps millennials are more affected by the latter. In short, a globalised world of messy, liquid or late modernity (depending on whether you prefer your Bauman or your Giddens).
In the above passage, Ellis’ prose garners an almost incantatory sense of endless, meaningless violence being related through the media. All the place names he describes end in the same vowel sound (‘o’), creating an accumulating effect of repetition that desensitises us to the specificity of crime and instead forges a sense of its ubiquity. There is no emotional reaction which accompanies these stories; Clay merely describes them in a matter-of-fact tone. This emotional sparseness (characteristic of the entire novel) leaves an even more chilling sense of our culture’s paradoxical obsession with and indifference to violence. Ellis sums this up neatly with the tautological final sentence: ‘I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.’ No personal, subjective or cultural explanation is given for Clay’s interest in collecting the clippings; the habit becomes one of recursive, self-justifying meaninglessness. The explanation pans out onto Ellis’ novel as a whole, which also constitutes a kind of collection of clippings: vignettes from Clay’s brief stay back in LA, the cataloguing of brands, names, places; scenes of darkness and violence, the lack of a strong narrative thread to connect them.
Yet the kind of cultural and existential emptiness implied by such passages does not preclude the presence of some poignancy to Clay’s narrative. Sure, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of banality; but there are also moments which almost reach the level of personal reflection. We can compare this to American Psycho’s comparatively cold satire and lack of character ‘depth’ by looking at two very parallel scenes in each book. In these scenes, Clay and Bateman go to visit their mothers, who each ask them what they want for Christmas.
My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her.
Less than Zero:
My mother and I are sitting in a restaurant on Melrose, and she’s drinking white wine and still has her sunglasses on and she keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas. I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head up and look at her.
Aside from a few situational details (Bateman’s mother is in a residential home, Clay’s meets her son in a fancy LA restaurant), these passages are virtually identical. Except, perhaps, for one crucial line. In American Psycho, Bateman is not surprised by ‘how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her [his mother]’, whereas in Less than Zero, Clay is ‘surprised’ by the effort. Thus while Bateman fits some kind of definition of psychopathy, utterly indifferent and lacking empathy for his mother, Clay is surprised at his own indifference, his struggle to display some kind of emotion or human connection. To merge on the familial freeway (to use a horrible phrase!). As readers, we can empathise with Clay far more than with Bateman, who locks us out with his construction of a cold and clinical world (see more about this here – an article I wrote a few years ago). Less than Zero is a novel more obviously filled with human pain, perhaps, than Ellis’ later novel, where the pain is certainly there, only more coded, buried inside violence, surface and image in an even more complex way.
Take, for example, the passages towards the end of the novel where Clay revisits his old school:
I used to pass the school often. Every time I drove my sisters to their school, I would always make sure to drive past and I would watch sight of small children getting onto yellow buses with black trim and teachers laughing to each other in the parking lot before classes. I don’t think that anyone else who went to the school drives by or gets out and looks around, since I’ve never seen anyone I remember. one day I saw a boy I had gone to the school with, maybe first grade, standing by the fence, alone, fingers gripping the steel wire and staring off into the distance and I told myself that the guy but live close by or something and that was why he was standing alone, like me.
We can imagine Clay glancing at this other boy, still trying to justify his presence there by means other than a shared moment of sentimentality. The only reason they have visited, Clay tries to say, is purely down to physical proximity. A meaningless walk. LA, then, is made up of intersections, connections and disconnections. Freeways that nobody merges on. You don’t just wander and end up somewhere significant, you drive places. The two could be friends, could’ve been friends, but Clay can only gaze at him from afar, as the boy too gazes on, seemingly at nothing. At distance. The core of the novel: absence. Always caught between meaning, between human connection, lost in the swamp of cultural signifiers that supersede any ‘deep’ emotion.
Clay’s attention to little fragments of visual memory here give us a sense of his warped nostalgia for childhood. His younger sisters are never described as having the innocence that Clay has lost: they steal his cocaine, idly watch porn and greedily snatch cheques from Daddy on Christmas Day. There’s the sweet yellow school bus, the laughing teachers, the familiarity of routine. Those rose-tinted things. You don’t get that kind of sentiment in American Psycho. It’s emotionally painful to read because this passage is sort of an interlude in the midst of the noir plot elements (Clay trying to get his money back from Julian, who is being brutally pimped; the rape of a pre-pubescent girl, foreshadowed by a horrible porno tape). It’s a burst of curious innocence amongst the ugly detritus of Gen X’s consumer lifestyle. Yet the classroom sweetness of yellow has become something altogether too bright, too painful for Clay to deal with. In an early scene in the novel, Clay describes the walls of a diner, Fatburger, as: ‘painted a very bright, almost painful yellow’. The colour of happy childhood has soured. It’s the colour of the Valium pills by his bedside. There’s the ‘grotesquely yellow’ moon that hangs ominously in the sky as Clay looks out over the business district, woozy from too many gin and tonics. As Clay returns to his former school, it soon becomes the yellowing of age, of moral decay:
I go to another bungalow and the door’s open and I walk in. The day’s homework is written on the blackboard and I read it carefully and then walk to the lockers but can’t find mine. I can’t remember which one it was. I go into the boy’s bathroom and squeeze a soap dispenser. I pick up a yellowed magazine in the auditorium and strike a few notes on a piano. I had played the piano, the same piano, at a Christmas recital in second grade and I strike a few more chords from the song I played and they ring out through the empty auditorium and echo. I panic for some reason and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside. A game I forgot existed. I walk away from the school without looking back and get into my car and drive away.
Clay retraces his childhood steps, literally. He’s like a ghost, haunting the corridors of his youth, idly attempting to recreate the simple universe he once inhabited, squeezing the soap dispenser, reading the day’s homework from the blackboard. However he literally cannot locate/identify his former self, as he fails to find his old locker. Throughout the novel, we are given very little indication of Clay’s interests; he never even talks about what subject he studies out in New Hampshire. Yet here we have a snippet of something he once did: playing piano. There is something slightly uncanny about the older Clay standing at the same piano and striking a few notes, as if he were trying to summon up that younger self, the fragile doppelgänger. He even remembers the same chords. Funny how he remembers the music but not the game of handball. The fact that Clay panics is telling: he is literally allergic to his feelings, unable to deal with the sudden pain that comes from memory, from realising the loss brought on by time. His alienation is complete as he drives away, escaping his feelings as readily as all the times before, where he snorts coke to deal with a problematic or potentially emotional situation. The narrative also trails off, moving to another scene, another jump cut. There is nothing left to say, no coherence, no self-development.
This lack of narrative and self development or ‘growth’ is exemplified in Clay’s personal lack of futurity. Towards the novel’s end, Clay meets Blair for a drink and they skirt around the issue of their relationship. In a way, Blair sums up what we have come to learn of Clay: ‘You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it’. Yet we are left yearning for something more than beautiful surface. Sure, Clay as the narrator has given us many beautiful surfaces, but he has also exposed the rot beneath the surface, the absolute black nothing inside each person. Blair asks him up front: ‘“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”’ and his reply is explicitly telling: ‘“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing. […] I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.”’ This is something we don’t really get in American Psycho. Clay actually admits his feelings, or lack of, and the way it’s expressed doesn’t come across as cold or psychopathic, but human and genuinely sad, a classic case of depression. We get this sort of emotional ‘revelation’ towards the end, after Ellis has carefully laid out the social context of Clay’s psychological and emotional numbness. Unable to think about the future, Clay seems to put off its existence, or anything that might change things as ‘another thing to worry about’. He cannot think positively, cannot be active in his likes or interests.
The question of futurity and passivity is also interesting in American Psycho, as an insight into what Bateman values in his killings. There’s a classically disturbing scene where seemingly at random Bateman fatally injures a young child at a zoo. His reflections follow thus:
Though I am satisfied at first by my actions, I’m suddenly jolted with a mournful despair at how useless, how extraordinarily painless, it is to take a child’s life. This thing before me, small and twisted and bloody, has no real history, no worthwhile past, nothing is really lost. It’s so much worse (and more pleasurable) taking the life of someone who has hit his or her prime, who has the beginnings of a full history, a spouse, a network of friends, a career, whose death will upset far more people whose capacity for grief is limitless than a child’s would, perhaps ruin many more lives than just the meaningless, puny death of this boy.
This view is obviously at odds with the overriding sentimentality and regret publicly voiced in the wake of a child’s death. We put great meaning on the futurity of the child, its association with a new life, with possibilities and an open future, a pure blank slate. Lee Edelman, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, has written on how the child is held up as a glorified symbol of the future, of the onward march of heteronormative culture. We are ideologically forced to take the side of the child and the future because ‘the child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention.’ Edelman asks what it would mean not to be ‘fighting for the children’, and in a way, Ellis’ novel points towards this. Bateman doesn’t care about what the child stands for as a symbol of pure innocence and possibility to come, of what Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’. The queer, Edelman argues, is always pitted against this social conscience of reproductive futurism, as contrastingly selfish, narcissistic, antisocial and backward-looking – in short, the opposite of a collective drive towards development, progress and the future. Bateman, while hardly a queer hero by any means, interrupts the privileged ideology of futurity.
Indeed, he questions the value of the child because he lacks history. Without a record of decisions, mistakes, actions and memories, the child is reduced to pure matter, ‘small and twisted and bloody’ – he is animal, inhuman. This could obviously be taken as a moment of the novel’s token existentialism, the fact that, as Sartre put it, existence precedes essence: there is no inherent self, but only the values and meaning the human has created for herself through actions. It is also, however, a crucial component of the novel’s critique of various ideologies underpinning the yuppie world of consumerism which Bateman inhabits. Suddenly, a life can be described as worthless, ‘puny’. Bateman takes far greater pleasure in ravishing lives whose deaths entail a broader sweep of social impact. It’s as if he takes pleasure in destroying narratives, the networks of associations a person acquires through life. In doing so, he creates meaning: by destroying, Bateman has the pleasure of interrupting the consistency of social worlds, asserting his power. It’s the venture capitalist gone mad, staking his claim in all sorts of places, schemes and, well let’s face it, bodies.
So I guess I’d argue that part of Clay’s central pain is this disconnect with the future, his queer relationship to temporality. The sense that he’s drifting, which is pretty much now a ubiquitous social phenomenon among young adults, both from Gen X and millennials living in a post-recession world. When Clay’s friends ask each other what they’ve been up to, where they’ve been, the answers are always flat and vague: ‘“Not too much”’, ‘“I don’t know”’, ‘“Like hanging around”’, ‘“Shopping”’. Sometimes they simply repeat the question back to the questioner. One of the phrases that repeats a lot throughout the text is ‘Disappear Here’, which Clay reads off a roadside billboard. In a way, the phrase represents the limit point, the blind spot, the aporia into which meaning is deferred, the space of emotion where Clay cannot go. On a sunny Friday after Christmas, Clay hangs around the beach club, waiting for his friends: ‘I sit on a bench and wait for them, staring out at the expanse of sand that meets the water, where the land ends. Disappear here.’ It’s as if the phrase is dragged up in avoidance of interior reflection; its repetition supplements the kind of psychological detail that would appear in a classic realist or bildungsroman novel. The self has dissolved into the sign: the world of surfaces, of signs referring only to signs described by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations, but also literally the billboard sign, the symbol of capitalism’s flattening of the self. Not unlike the billboard advertising Eckleberg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby. Disappear here: you pour your own meaning into the sign; sign after sign constitutes self. What is it that the eyes see?
And indeed there’s something uncanny about this. Clay’s repetition of disappear here throughout the novel only adds to its temporal sense of an unending present, with the run-on sentences and disjointed dialogue creating the impression of not only a stunted self, but also a stunted world. The more you repeat something, the more it becomes meaningless. The characters’ lives stop and start: plots about drugs and sex climax brutally then fizzle to nothing. As the narrative draws to an end, it doesn’t move towards closure, but leaves the reader with an empty feeling of being lost in the world of LA. Ellis really amps up the gothic elements which have been woven in and out of the text so far. Take, for example, Clay’s description of the Ellis Costello poster at the beginning:
It’s the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out the window. The word “Trust” hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes, which are slightly off centre. The eyes don’t look at me, though. They only look at whoever’s standing by the window[…].
The Costello poster substitutes for the spooky portrait which hangs traditionally in a gothic heroine’s bedroom. Presumably, Clay once had an interest in this poster, bought it for a reason – but now it seems eerie. The homely has become unhomely. Clay refers to the hypothetical subject ‘standing by the window’, the ghost who meets the gaze. Clay admits to being too exhausted to even be that subject, to even be the observed – ‘I’m too tired to get up and stand by the window’ – perhaps this is an early hint at his drive (conscious or otherwise) towards disappearing altogether. The elements of gothic which colour some of Clay’s narration give an expressionist tinge to his descriptions, externalising some of the inner fear and turmoil, the hollow sense of fear and emptiness at returning to a place that is no longer home, even when Clay gets his tan and starts to fit in. At a party in Malibu later on in the novel, Clay observes:
There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to wonder if I look exactly like them.
Is fitting in the same as disappearing? The boys appear strangely inhuman, little more than mannequins; uncannily voiced with the same dull monotone. It’s Clay’s sudden identification and self-realisation that startles here. Looking at the boys is like looking in the mirror and seeing many horrible doppelgängers surround you. There’s an opportunity for him to freak out about it, but instead he ‘tr[ies] to forget about it and get[s] a drink’. In short, he dissolves even deeper into the thick glaze of surfaces, spreads himself thinner as an image. When Clay first observes his bedroom poster, he’s feverish and ill, like the heroine in a gothic novel. We may not have the moors of Yorkshire, a la Wuthering Heights, but we do have the desert, the Hollywood hills and the accompanying coyotes.
As the novel starts to close, we get some spooky vignettes. Clay relates how his sister’s kitten disappears, leaving behind only ‘pieces of matted fur and dried blood’. He talks about the coyotes which sometimes come down from the hills:
On some nights when the moon’s full and the sky’s clear, I look outside and I can see shapes moving through the streets, through the canyons. I used to mistake them for large, misshaped dogs. It was only later I realised they were coyotes. On some nights, late, I’ve been driving across Mulholland and have had to swerve and stop suddenly and in the glare of the headlights I’ve seen coyotes running slowly through the fog with red rags in their mouths and it’s only when I come home that I realise that the red rag is a cat. It’s something one must live with if you live in the hills.
That final sentence almost seems un-Claylike in its resonating wisdom. It suggests the tone of a social commentator, reflecting on the environmental conditions of LA and lending a metaphorical weight to his words. The brutally devouring coyotes thrive on instinct; the youths of LA pursue physical gratification out of sheer boredom. How easily for the ‘red rag’ to become a slaughtered domestic pet. There is a surrealist vibe to this transformation of objects. In American Psycho, the transformation of the child into something ‘twisted and bloody’ is more classic horror, whereas there is a perhaps darker, eerier atmosphere to Less than Zero. The sense of emptiness, the canyons at night and the fog. Clay’s description has a slow-motion feel to it, drawing the reader into his stoned-out world. These frequent killings, we are reminded, keep happening against the backdrop of Clay’s friends, endlessly circling the freeways, making calls, popping corks, snorting coke.
Clay himself, as I have already suggested, is a kind of ghost. He recalls the previous Christmas in Palm Springs, sweating in bed and struggling to sleep. The vaporous heat seems to cloy his mind, cloy the narrative. Think of the many references to the palms in Less than Zero: their shadows, their fragmented remains after storms and car crashes, their wildly shaking branches. It’s creepy and atmospheric in the way the swaying pines and Douglas Firs are in Twin Peaks. There’s the omnipresence of MTV, its serial carnival of flashing images, the humming numbness of Valium. Clay describing the ‘strange sounds and lights next door’, ‘visions of driving through town and feeling the hot winds on [his] shoulder and watching the heat rise up out of the desert’. In all the emphasis on Ellis’ interest in sex, drugs and violence, it’s easy to forget the importance of atmosphere. You can tell that the novel is influenced by film, self-consciously soundtracking itself (Squeeze, INXS, U2, the Psychedelic Furs), laying out scenes, drawing us in with its snippets of visual detail. The heat is stifling and everyone is sleepless, wired or stoned. The novel slowly moves towards Clay’s return to New Hampshire, like a fade to black at the end of a film: the final sections each start with some temporal marker in relation to his actual leaving: ‘The last week’, ‘Before I leave’, ‘Blair calls me the night before I leave’, ‘When I left’. In leaving, Clay seems to dissolve. His narrative closes with reference to a song called ‘Los Angeles’. A kind of montage of memories, of visual images stolen from another cultural source. Clay feeds on these images after leaving. The temporality is important. Has he broken into some other dimension, or is this a reference to how memory burns right through you (even memories that aren’t your own, memories from visual media – images and film)? My impression (and I have not yet read the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms), is that Clay is not moving into a new, open future; necessarily he still defines everything in relation to the past, to the dream world of LA, its perpetual, glittering, trashy present:
There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called ‘Los Angeles’ and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.
After I left. After I left. The insistence on the posterior. The sense of grotesque sublimity, the reference point of LA contained in these almost unspeakable images of ‘people being driven mad by living in the city’. They ate their own children. Isn’t this the ultimate violation of linear temporality: literally consuming symbols of the future, one’s own legacy? Hypercapitalism, perhaps, creates its own kind of queerness.