Book Review: Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore

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Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other is about the modern human being and her relationship to nature.

When the poet is “walking with the ocean below” she is walking with the ocean. She asks the ocean questions, to which “the ocean blinked” in response.

This is what you get when you anthropomorphise nature: the shock of an alien response, when nature turns out to be only itself, and not your dream of it.

Say you took that step, or say you fell,

wouldn’t she move you miles in herself?

The ocean has her own purposes. Or none at all. If you let her, she will pull you into her until you can no longer breathe, until finally, lifeless, you are washed up on the shore.

The human individual is something opposed to nature. But that leaves us alone, to find our own answers. And what is a human being taken alone, in herself?

Even among human beings there is otherness.

I turn your words although

the line you spoke was simple

Language is something strange because it belongs not just to me but to all of us, and intention is often hidden behind use. And yet we must struggle with questions of meaning in order to make sense not just of others, but of ourselves.

The human individual is nothing without what is strange and other.

“I am most like myself when likened.” Because really there is no other way to be yourself. “They say it’s because I’m afraid to be alone.” But those who believe they are alone and free of others are only fooling themselves.

Galleymore is telling us throughout this book: you really only learn the deepest truths about yourself from the study of what is other than you.

Every one of these poems has some natural element in it – the ocean, a starfish, a bee – and in every poem nature has something to tell us about ourselves. The poet observes and reflects upon nature, and invites her readers to reflect upon it too.

And when we reflect, we discover the strangeness of nature. Things aren’t so simple as they first appeared, and nature is strange underneath the simple attributes humanity has bestowed upon it:

Accordingly, schoolchildren were instructed

to rip up their books, releasing

alligators from their anger,

bees from their busyness,

cats from their curiosity …

Galleymore is inviting us to see things fresh, rather than through the same old clichés. It’s important to see the real connections between things, rather than just lazily imposing attributes derived from familiar human experience.

… [T]he bridge that links

this part of earth with the next

are the final words of the final poem in Galleymore’s collection. And so fitting for a book all about the connections between things, and how the awareness of these connections can give us a deeper knowledge of ourselves.

One poem has words taken from Isabelle Stengers, philosopher of science and writer about chaos:

Each identity:

an allusion to the other

and

The reciprocal capture

between bee and flower

are lines that speak of difference, and the fact that there is no knowledge of anything in itself without knowledge of what is other than it. That goes for ourselves, as much as for anything else.

We live in a world now where everyone is connected, and it can seem sometimes that the quiet reflection required for self-knowledge has become impossible, or only possible if some radical action is taken – technology detox and mindfulness are preached in a desperate bid to save us from ourselves. We’re all acutely aware of the implications of chaos theory, so that the tiniest minutiae have now the greatest meaning, and the continual flitting from one object to the next is as essential and compelling as it is maddening.

Galleymore offers us a subtle investigation of the dialectic of identity and difference. On the one hand: the natural world is thoroughly other than us, and it is foolishness to anthropomorphise it. On the other hand: how can we get on (as writers, but especially as human beings) if we don’t liken ourselves to the things around us? That Galleymore never gives us a solution to the paradox is fitting: firstly, because there is none. Secondly, because it is the back and forth between one position and another that truly makes us human.

(The lines I’ve quoted are from the poems “Ocean,” “The Ash,” “Say Heart,” “No Inclination,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Nectaries.” The poems are all to be found in Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, which was published by Carcanet this year.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Truth and Literature

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Henry Miller is obsessed with truth. And yet he wants to write literature! Literature is something other than truth. “Then to hell with literature!”

Writing his novel, Henry is all the while obsessed with the idea of the real book he will one day write. It won’t be a novel. It will be utterly unlike anything he has written so far.

Up to now, the real book has been written in the mind only, in an ink which is “invisible” as well as “indelible”. So far he has only lived this book, since he cannot yet write it, except in the mind.

He has this notion of “writing in the mind only”: an idea so crazy, an insane kind of talk born of desperation. Henry is desperate to be a writer, though he has written nothing of note. So he tells himself he is writing all the time, in the mind only. And so he is a writer after all.

Whether or not Henry really is a writer yet, he is certainly a reader. He is inspired by Arthur Machen, who writes that what is important in literature is the inexpressible which, nevertheless, is somehow expressed. “A troublesome though inseparable accident … the indefinable, inexpressible images which all fine literature summons to the mind.”

Besides what the writer is consciously doing to create sensations in the reader, something else occurs, something deeper. It seems to just happen, and yet of course it is born of the writer’s genius. The presence of genius means that the words are bound to conjure up something deeper even than what is intended. It’s the presence of this extra depth that makes a written work great and timeless.

This idea must have given hope to Henry, who himself was struggling to express the inexpressible. And people tell him again and again that he has genius, and he seems to believe it. He knows he is not a writer yet, but he has something, and so Machen’s words are another ray of hope for him.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Broken Life (Notes on Henry Miller’s Nexus)

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Henry Miller is especially enjoying this conversation with Mona, who has just returned from Europe. It’s not just because he’s missed her so much; what he likes is that they are having his favourite kind of conversation: the “broken” and “kaleidoscopic” kind, as he calls it. He writes:

“Often, in the pauses between remarks, I would make mental answers wholly at variance with the words on my lips. An additional spice, of course, was contributed by the atmosphere of the room, the books lying about, the droning of a fly, the position of her body, the comfortable feel of the couch.”

The kaleidoscopic nature of conversation: what you say, what you think, what happens around you. It’s not just about the words spoken: “There was nothing to be established, posited or maintained. If a wall crumbled it crumbled” and the conversation would continue regardless of the sense.

You might call it getting lost in the moment: we’ve all enjoyed times like these, talking nonsense with our friends. Nothing achieved, nothing gained, just sheer enjoyment. Just living, you might say.

Mona says to Henry: “You do have a strong spiritual make-up, but there’s also more of the animal in you than most men. You want to live … live at any cost … whether as a man, a beast, an insect, or a germ …”

To a beast or an insect, conversation isn’t everything – or isn’t anything at all. Henry is like a dog pricking up his ears and wagging his tail at his master’s voice. It’s the buzz of life that’s important, the fact that something is going on. And the love in his heart for the one speaking.

(“Woof, woof, woof!” – the final words of Sexus, the first volume in this trilogy.)

And like any spirited animal, Henry is always looking for trouble. Because suffering is life too. He’s learned from Socrates the importance of “gadflies”: they can be a nuisance but they can also wake an animal from its stupor. He is happy to meet the gadflies of the world – or to be the gadfly himself.

Even when he’s not out making or getting into trouble, Henry is caught in the buzz of life. He’s distracted even while “writing”, and that’s why he can’t write. “Sometimes I would sit at the machine for hours without writing a line,” he writes. “Fired by an idea, often an irrelevant one, my thoughts would come too fast to be transcribed. I would be dragged along at a gallop, like a stricken warrior tied to his chariot.”

These ideas coming too thick and fast for him to write them down: this is the world intruding even while he’s locked away in his study. His nose darts back and forth and he wags his tail and he can’t type with his paws.

His favoured writing process is like his favourite kind of conversation: broken and kaleidoscopic. Less about the words themselves, and more about the many associations they bring up, and the sensation of this strange flow, and his enjoyment of it.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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The Gospel of Work

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When Henry Miller writes that “the gospel of work” is “the doctrine of inertia” he really speaks to me. I often think about what politicians are trying to convince us of when they talk about “work” and “jobs.” It’s spoken as if it’s a piece of common sense – “people need jobs” – but there’s more to this than meets the ear. Miller is right to call it “the gospel of work”: our leaders are delivering their own spiritual message when they praise hard work, telling us how to be good and to avoid the sin of laziness.

And the work is always “hard”: “hard working people”. As if its hardness, in and of itself, is what makes the work good and virtuous. So that when you return home, worn-out from trying to please a boss you hate, you can say to yourself: At least I’m a good person.

In the modern society in which I live it can sometimes seem that work is praised above all else. The good that work does is implied but hardly ever discussed. The good is in the work itself. The effect of the work is irrelevant.

There’s a reason we can’t talk about the good that work does: not all work is good. When we’re told to work for work’s sake we’re being asked not to think about whether we’re actually doing any good in the world. Just keep yourself busy.

“The gospel of work” is “the doctrine of inertia” because: to work and to love work is to accept the conditions of life as you find them in modern society. It means you’ll never change anything about the world because you are content where you are.

Passion is something to be admired. But what about a passion for work? In many cases, this means throwing yourself wholeheartedly into the world as you find it. Is this admirable?

Look around at the world and decide for yourself: is it admirable to accept things as they are? Perhaps you think so.

For someone like Henry Miller, passion is really valuable when combined with courage and imagination, and he saw precious little of that in the America of his day. A transformative kind of passion is what you might see in an artist: someone who rejects the world as it is and must make something new. But the young Miller was far from finding this passion, either in himself or in those around him.

“Work” and “jobs” are sickening words, particularly when they come out of the mouths of politicians, because they are used to refer not to meaningful human activity, but to sweat and toil for the purpose only of earning a crust. “Work” and “jobs”, spoken with such matter-of-factness, are the murmur and rumble of the machine. The machine goes on and on and offers no alternative. Why should it? It is just a machine.

New machines can be built. The conditions can be changed. But that would require human action.

Life is short, and acceptance is wisdom. There’s something philosophical about just getting on with what’s in front of you. Why cry and complain instead of making the best of what you have?

For the answer to that, look around you! When Miller did this, what he saw was “the greatest misery of the greatest number,” a machine so committed to productivity that the human soul is forgotten. And so human compassion is forgotten, and poverty is everywhere, and they drop a bomb where food and shelter was required. How could there be any wisdom in accepting this?

There’s a lot of talk about how happy and wealthy we are, in Europe and the USA. But this is “statistical wealth, statistical happiness.” What is true wealth? True happiness? Those questions are not asked enough.

It’s easy to get on with your work and remind yourself of how lucky you are. You have enough to eat, access to healthcare (perhaps) … Isn’t it sinful to complain when you have so much?

The problem with statistical happiness is that it is partial, and not absolute. Statistical happiness means: well a lot of us are OK, so it’s going well enough. This “a lot of us” is partial: what about the others? This “OK” is partial: I’m happy in a sense, but isn’t there more to life?

It’s not just the suffering of those that we neglect, but what our neglect tells us about ourselves. Is it a lack of compassion that allows me to put my own needs above others? Is it despair at the seeming impossibility of being able to change anything? Whatever the answer, we might learn something of the condition of the modern human soul by examining its ability to tolerate the suffering of others.

Keep yourself busy. I’m a good person.

And so, Miller isn’t talking just about material wealth and happiness, but about something spiritual: the treasures that we might store up in the human heart.

The “happiness” that is talked about today often comes down to something material: I am happy because I have this or that … Henry Miller claims his one “joy” at this time was knowing that he was miserable, while everyone else kidded themselves that they were happy, or that success was just around the corner. This was a spiritual joy, not just because it was a kind of one-upmanship (at least I know I’m not happy and so I know more than them), but because it came from self-knowledge, which ought to be the prized above material comforts.

It may not seem much just to know something, especially if what you know is: I am unhappy. But perhaps it is the first essential step towards changing things, changing the conditions.

Miller’s story is one of transformation. As a young man he is “evil”: aside from his contemptuous feelings for his fellow human beings, he’s also lazy and mean-spirited. There’s nothing he wishes to do, he allows himself to get dragged through life by others, and he has a secret murderous hatred of his own society.

People don’t see this side of him. They think of him as kind and compassionate but they’re wrong: he’s just too lazy to say “no” to people. He does have a sense of compassion, but it amounts to a paralysing pity: his sense of pity at others’ misfortune leads him not to go out of his way to help them (unless they ask, in which case he is powerless to refuse), but to say to himself: what’s the point? In misery he sees the general condition for humankind, a vision of the hopelessness of mortal existence.

Miller’s work is an extreme antidote to the ideology of the American dream. Under certain conditions it is impossible to succeed. Bootstraps won’t do it. All around him, the young Miller sees the evidence for this.

People stuck in jobs that drain them of the energy they would require to do the necessary work to give meaning to their lives. People without jobs, equally drained of energy by the day to day struggle to meet their basic material needs.

And even if you were lucky enough to succeed, what about the others? Leave them to their misery?

The conditions have to change, but how? This is the real dream, but it seems just a dream. How to create a new world? Miller will find the answer to this in art, a decade or so later. Somewhere in the “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy, he says to someone: I can’t get a job, I have too much work to do. By this time he has found meaningful work, in his writing, even if he is far from making a “success” of it – meaning: getting paid. The pressure to get a “job” still remains, and will remain as long as he must beg and borrow and even steal to survive, but he at least has his own sense of purpose now, a reason to resist the machine.

Even this small victory is a way off for the young Miller whose story is told in Tropic of Capricorn. For now he must continue his lesson, drifting through the world seeing first-hand the condition in which the bulk of humankind exists. And learning what this modern life is that he will one day write about.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Book Review: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

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Sometimes you encounter a book and you don’t know quite what to make of it. Sometimes you feel this right from the first page, and from there you plough on with a weird and wonderful feeling that things are slowly beginning to make sense and you’re coming to be at home in your new dimension of existence. This is what happened when I read Lanny by Max Porter.

Other times, as with Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things, the transition into this new world is straightforward: a taxidermy shop in the USA isn’t such a jump for me – a plane and taxi ride could get me somewhere similar – and Arnett’s style is reassuringly clear so you never feel lost wherever she puts you. But by the end of the book you realise you’ve been transported in some subtle way after all.

The weirdness of Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is advertised all over the front and back cover: it is strange and funny and surprising, say the reviews. A lot of the strangeness derives from the fact that this book is about taxidermy, which is to me a topic not just strange but stomach-turning, and I occasionally had to put this book down for a moment or even skip ahead a few paragraphs where there was a particularly graphic depiction of the process of cutting into skin and scooping out insides.

Mostly Dead Things is about a woman who has worked for her father at the family business – the taxidermy shop – since she was a child. And then one day her father kills himself, leaving the daughter to deal with both the business and with her mother’s grief, the latter manifesting itself in bizarre artistic expression – her mother has begun creating sculpture that uses the dead animals from the family shop to depict sexual scenes.

Things take an even darker turn where Arnett describes instances of cruelty to live animals – and the way the main character, Jessa, deals with the fact of these crimes is part if the arc of the story.

Despite the weirdness, it is in some ways a very ordinary story: Jessa is a workaholic who has shut herself off from the possibility of finding love. She’s very selfish, and that’s part of her problem. She lives alone in a messy flat and drinks too much beer. In her current condition, there’s not much to like about her – as she keeps telling herself, but she can’t seem to fix it.

And this is at the heart of what I found so interesting about the book: we’re not given any likeable characters to root for – Jessa herself does some truly horrible things. And we’re not even given any unlikeable yet fascinating characters – Jessa works and Jessa drinks, occasionally she lashes out, and she never has the moral strength to stand up and speak when she sees others do wrong. Her own wrongdoing comes from her weakness, from a despair that leaves her helpless to take any real, positive action. This gives the story a very ordinary quality: we’re just watching people going about their lives, being pushed this way and that, and we watch idly in the way we often do watching reality TV – a morbid interest in people we have no feeling for.

Ironically, perhaps this ordinariness is what is strangest of all about the book. It’s a rare skill to be able to hold the interest of a reader without resorting to obvious fantasy, and my interest was held right to the end. I think it’s the claustrophobia that Arnett conjures up that makes it so compelling: the heaviness of the heat, the walls of the shop, the proximity of Jessa’s family – the girl she was in love with went on to marry Jessa’s brother before finally leaving him, which presents us with an awkward unspoken bond between sister and brother. All of this contributes to the pressured intensity of this little world that compelled me to keep reading.

A word about Arnett’s style: very clear sentences with lots of tactile and visual detail, making the scenes come to life with colour and sensation. So much so that what’s going on around the characters can distract from the progression of the story.  I don’t mean this as a criticism: I like when a writer takes as much care over making the setting come to life as they do with continuing the story. I don’t mind when things slow down to a crawl, so you can feel the heat of the hot sun and the hangovers of the characters as they wrestle over their own and each other’s problems.

And this was the subtle effect of the book on me by the time I reached the final page: that I had gradually been placed in this strange ordinary world, in all its light and colour, gristle and grisliness, and clammy claustrophobia.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Limitations

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“Don’t waste yourself in talk!” says Mona to Henry Miller, as he starts on another of his monologues. He shouldn’t be saying all this to her: it should be going in the book.

Sometimes Henry seems to agree with her on this point. If only he could get all these ideas down on the page! And yet, looking back, Miller sees that Mona’s plea for him to just write it rests on a misconception about the way creation occurs.

Ideas don’t travel directly from the brain to the page, but must find their own way. And there’s something about Henry’s ideas that they never seem to find their way. It’s like they’re the wrong fit for the page and cannot adapt.

By talking, Henry is creating ideas to be stored away in his mind and saved for later. He sees these ideas as so many gold pieces, he says, each one forged in the moment, then thrown on the pile to be spent later. It’s like he knows that one day he’ll get his great work written, and with all this talk he’s already working on it. They don’t fit yet, but they will.

And yet he’s sick of not spending any of these stored up treasures. When will the moment arrive?

Henry tells Mona he is still struggling with his limitations, and that’s why he can’t stop talking and just write. He talks of being able to write “like a madman” one minute, and the next he can do nothing. It sounds like he is talking about a lack of technical knowledge: he doesn’t know how he does it even when he does. He is not a craftsman yet, and so must leave it all to chance.

We know that eventually Miller would become a successful writer. But did he ever get past these limitations? His novels spiral on and on, around and around, as if he had lost control of them. Perhaps instead of overcoming his limitations, Miller was only ever able to become better and better at working with them, throwing himself into the chaos of his own mysterious creative processes.

(I’ve been reading Nexus by Henry Miller.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Kathy Acker, Peter Greenaway, and Storytelling

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Hollywood films and popular novels are made with certain audience expectations in mind. They have a story to tell, and they are structured so that this story is easy to follow and understand. Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – we can usually tell how much of a film is left to go by what is happening on the screen.

Structure and story tend to fit together neatly in a Hollywood film or popular novel. The structure is designed to fit the story: beginning, middle, and end. Or “orphan”, “wanderer”, “warrior”, “martyr”. The audience know what they came for: a drama in which a hero runs into trouble, learns a lesson, and meets with surprising consequences. (Recently I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, which explains the elements of storytelling really well.)

Sometimes it can all seem quite shallow, especially if it’s not done well. Or if it’s done so neatly that there’s just no surprise, not really. You knew from the beginning that it had to go one way or the other, and – Oh! – it went this way and not that.

Perhaps one day you’re feeling tired of the shallowness of much of popular culture – one “psychodrama” after another – and you decide you’ll try something different. You won’t try to deliver a story like that at all. Instead you’ll play with moments and textures and let a like-minded audience come to you. And perhaps you’ll feel some satisfaction in doing that for a while.

But what if, having done all that, you find you want to tell stories after all? What do you do then?

Structure is essential. But that doesn’t mean you have to revert to the Hollywood-style, story-guided template. There are all kinds of ways you can introduce structure into your work, by putting the requirement for structure before the needs of the story.

“John Cage had made a record in the ‘40s called … Indeterminacy? … for which he collected a hundred tiny narratives, fragmentary fictions. Then he looked for a structure: he would tell each story in exactly one minute. No matter how long the story.”

And that’s just one way to do it, described by Peter Greenaway in an interview with Kathy Acker. The structure is not only external to – meaning, not determined by – the stories, but it’s also utterly arbitrary: why one minute, after all? Acker explains the effect this arbitrary structure had on the storytelling:

“A very short story had to be read so slowly that it became incoherent; a long story so fast, equally incoherent.”

But structure is essential: you need something to get you started.

How can an arbitrary structure be essential? Isn’t this a contradiction? Isn’t “arbitrary” almost the opposite of “essential”?

It’s best not to think too much about it. Accept the paradox. Otherwise you’ll never begin. So he just gets to work.

So Peter Greenaway moved from abstract to “narrational” films while remaining “a lover of abstract systems.” This determined the kind of storyteller he would be. Some people are natural storytellers, while others find the process of making stories up to be a bit silly or trivial, and are ashamed that this is how they want to spend their time.

“Tell stories … without embarrassment.” You’ve done it on your own terms, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. (There was never anything to be ashamed of, of course, but we get in the way of ourselves.)

The main thing is not to lose your own vocabulary in the process of becoming a storyteller. I suppose this is why we often feel that Hollywood films are less valuable then “real” works of art: they are so often created with a ready-made template in mind, so the original voice seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, if it was ever there at all.

What are you interested in? What are you trying to do? Why do you need to tell stories? I feel like I can tell when a writer or director has asked themselves these questions earnestly again and again all the while they’ve been working. A sense of purpose keeps the work real, keeps it from being trivial.

And not compromising. In this case, not compromising means not simplifying. All the depth and texture you wanted to get across remains and it’s not just a story but a story that’s your own and has meaning.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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