PARALELL WOLDS BEYOND GOOD AN EVIL: Thoughts inspired by Ogawa´s The Memory Police
I began writing my blog in the early spring of 2014, working at a school in the southern Swedish town of Växjö. For a while I had left my wife in Rome, though I frequently went back there. The reason why I had ended up in Sweden was that I could not find a steady job in Rome and it had recently been far too long between my consulting assignments. My mother was ninety-three years old, felt alone in her house and had become increasingly frail, though she had a perfectly clear mind and memory that was better than mine.
When we visited Sweden by the end of the summer of 2013, I thought it might be a good idea to work as a teacher for a while. Counting upon an education as high school teacher Swedish it used to be quite easy for me to get a job as such. Even though it had been several years since I worked in a school I had over the years accumulated quite a lot of teaching experience. I applied for a couple of jobs near Hässleholm, where my mother lived, and was offered a teaching position in nearby Kristianstad. However, one week before I was to start work, they called me and unexpectedly announced that they had “got hold of a younger ability that was probably better suited for the job.” I then traveled to Växjö, where I had received an earlier offer that I had declined since Kristianstad was closer. It turned out that they still wanted me as a teacher, which meant that I every morning took the train – an hour's journey that gave me time to prepare lessons and correct written tests.
It was a picturesque school, housed in Växjö's former locomotive sheds. The colleagues were nice and so were the students, which made me feel quite good, at the same time as it was reassuring to accompany my aging mother in the evenings. It was my younger sister, who well aware of my constant urge to write had suggested I ought to write a blog. Since then, I have been stuck with the habit.
At Smålandsgymnasiet, as in every other school I have worked in, the atmosphere differed from class to class. I have often wondered why it is like that. One of the classes was composed of prospective computer technicians. I soon discovered that a couple of them were avid readers of so-called fantasy literature and at the same time highly advanced computer gamers. They knew everything about a world I was barely aware of. I am too old for computer games and cannot imagine myself wasting time on such endeavours. Nevertheless, I wrote down the names of the games my students recommended and described with great enthusiasm. I assumed that knowing something about them must be part of general knowledge – Myst, Portal, The Secret of Monkey Island, Machinarium, Grim Fandango, The Cat Lady, Broken Sword, Bad Mojo, Amnesia.
It was somewhat difficult to understand how my students could find time to play with all that and still not be entirely lost when it came to assimilating the education I tried to provide them with. To my delight, several of them were avid novel readers and could recommend a wealth of literature I had never heard of. When asked who they thought was the best fantasy story writer, they unanimously answered – George R. R. Martin.
Admittedly, HBO Nordic was already broadcasting Game of Thrones, though I was unaware of that and it took me another year or two before I watched the TV series. At the library I borrowed the first part of Martin's massive book series A Song of Ice and Fire, though I found the first part of it – A Game of Thrones to be somewhat too thick and after reading a couple of chapters, I gave up. It felt as if I had read it all before; a sword called Ice, a ridiculous minstrel, a high castle with stairs carved out of the rock. There was too much dialogue for my taste, too many standard expressions, one-dimensional characters, either far too evil, or overly nice, a stupid princess, an aged weakening king, a scheming heir ...
However, after I had begun to watch the TV series I came to wonder if I had not been far too narrow-minded and presumptuous. I should probably have given K. K. Martin a better chance. The TV series was not at all predictable. Several of the characters were undeniably interesting, changing and deepening over the course of the story. It was dynamic, exciting and unexpected.
Despite my preconceived notions, I had already in Växjö read a few things about K. K. Martin, who looked like your typical New Age-cuddly man. In The Guardian I found an interview with the bestseller star, who I as an unknown author and fresh blogger unexpectedly could identify myself with. George R. R. Martin stated:
writers out there, they finish their books and no one cares whether their book is late or ever comes out at all. And then it comes out, two reviews are published and it sells 12 copies.
A fairly adequate description of my writing. Then he gave an excellent account of how I proceed when I write:
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows.
As a "writer", I belong to the gardeners' guild. I do not know how my blogs and novels will develop. Looking back, they are certainly wild-grown, unassuming gardens containing far too much thorns and weeds.
The seeds for the current blog are snow, ice and obsession and their significance for a certain kind of literature that for a long time has fascinated me, something I realized after reading Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police. The reason for me picking up that particular novel book was constant complaints from members of my family pointing out that my memory is becoming worse and worse, though I don´t find it significantly different from what it always has been. Like many other persons, I tend to be absent-minded and forget where I placed a lot of important stuff – keys, glasses, old certificates, receipts and “important documents”, though I am quite convinced that it has always been like that for me.
Nevertheless, what worries me more and more is that when I look back at my ever increasing lifespan I discover that large blocks of events have disappeared and left gaping voids, or even worse – nothing at all. Big chunks of my past has gone away without leaving any trace at all. I am thus reminded of the Italian expression un buco nell´aqua, a hole in the water. Like a drop when it disappears in a body of water, this concerns not only names of friends and acquaintances, even individuals who I have known quite well are lost for ever in the mists of my murky memory. However, this does not hinder that “memory blocks” might unexpectedly come up to the surface of my consciousness.
To me, novels quite often constitute such “memory blocks”. I take out a book from one of my bookshelves and suddenly remember when I bought and read it. After reading Ogawa's Memory Police, I came to recall Brian Aldiss´s Frankenstein Unbound, namely because is deals with something that might be called “time blocks”, though in the novel they are called timeslips, a phenomenon meaning that the past, or the future, may invade our current existence.
I first read Aldiss´s novel sometime in the mid-seventies and as often is the case I had become attracted by its cover, perhaps in a similar fashion a sI may chose a bottle of wine because the label appeals to me. I assumed that the title alluded to a rather illegible play by Percy Bysshe Shellley, Prometheus Unbound, which had surfaced during my literature studies. I now think it could have been in connection with a lecture dealing with the Swedish author August Strindberg, who revolted against almost everything and everyone and like Shelley occasionally compared himself, both politically and personally, to the mythological titan Prometheus. This ancient archetype for rebellion had opposed the dictatorship of the almighty Olympian gods and had accordingly been punished in a bestial manner. He was chained to a cliff in the Caucasus where a vulture constantly hacked and devoured his liver, which, however, repeatedly grew back. In his autobiography The Maid's Son, Strindberg wrote:
It is quite physiologically correct that the ancient poet made Prometheus´s liver to be gnawed by the vulture. Prometheus was a rebel who tried to enlighten the people […] he was gravely affected by experiencing the world as a madhouse where idiots are running around declaring that sane persons constitute a life-threatening danger. Diseases can change a person's views and everyone knows how dark all thoughts become when you are harassed by fever.
In Frankensten Unbound, written in 1974, Aldiss described how the scientist Joe Bodenland sometime in 2020 with his car drives straight into a timeslip, a concept that probably is in need of some explanation. A World War had created catastrophic conditions. Warring superpowers realized that engaging in nuclear warfare on Earth would have fatal consequences for all combatants, instead specific Space Forces had been developed and armed power struggle were relocated to the space between the moon and earth, where spaceships battled each other with nuclear arms.
When peace finally had been re-established, incurable damage had been made not to planet Earth, which remained a habitable, though an unpredictable, place. Development had continued unabated and created a high-tech culture with a maintained biosphere. However, the distant nuclear wars had shaken up and altered the time-space continuum. This meant that some of the earth's individuals, who at a random time found themselves in certain places unexpected could be thrown into another time dimension. Such a condition could last for longer or shorter time periods, until time scales had corrected themselves and the affected individual was brought back to the time and place where s/he had been engulfed by a timeslip.
With his car Joe Bodenland is tossed through space-time and ends up in early 19th-century Switzerland. There he meets Doctor Victor Frankenstein. It turns out that his monster actually exists and so does Mary Shelley, the author who wrote the story about Frankenstein and his monster.
When Joe Bodenland met Mary Shelley in 1816, she was still named Mary Godwin and had neither written her famous novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, nor married Percy Bysshe Shelley who in 1820, two years after Frankenstein was published, had written his Prometheus Unbound. When Bodenland meets them, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin live together with Lord Byron in a villa by Lake Geneva.
Joe Bodenland realizes that the creation of Frankenstein's monster is the beginning of a catastrophic development that will eventually will lead to manipulation of the human genome and thus have as devastating consequences as those that followed the invention of the atomic bomb. Aldiss uninhibitedly mixed literature and science and his quite mad novel actually asks important questions about the responsibility of scientists and the role of our creative imagination when it comes to making people aware of the meaning their own existence and responsibility for the course of development. Something that might be difficult to notice beneath the surface of a thrilling adventure story based on Mary Shelley's novel, as well as all sorts of science fiction stories and action movies, such as the James Bond movies.
For example, Aldiss's monster has more features in common with Mary Shelley's original creation than with William Wyler's famous screen version of it. This is does not mean that Aldiss was not inspired by Boris Karloff's monster rendition. Aldiss´s portrayal of the monster coincides with both the novel's and the film's description of a creature which does not know what to do after its awakening as a monster. Accordingly, it behaves as children often do; it thoughtlessly strikes out at things it does not understand and disapproves of, asking awkward questions and making unreasonable demands. Nevertheless, like in Shelley's novel, Aldiss´s monster is also a sensitive being, which main aspiration is to be able to share its life with a creature who thinks and feels like it. However, the monster is feared and rejected and when confronted with its mirror image it understands why others feel disgust at its mere complexion.
In the novel, the monster is both eloquent and erudite, within eleven months of its creation it had learned to speak both German and French. However, when it in its desperation and disappointment about its wretched nature realizes what its creator, Dr. Frankenstein, has done while driven by his recklessness and megalomania, the monster swears to crush and destroy his own creator.
The inspiration from Bond films is in Aldiss's novel especially evident through Joe Bodenland's car, which follows him to the shores of Lake Geneva and impresses both the young Mary Godwin and the scientist Victor Frankenstein. His vehicle does not use fossil fuels, is equipped with GPS, a screen monitor, mobile phone and an omniscient function not entirely different from, though certainly more sophisticated, than today's Siri. Like a Bond car, Bodenland´s streamlined, Italian manufactured limousine, Aztec, is furthermore equipped with sophisticated weaponry. Such details makes that Aldiss's novel actually worka as credible work of science fiction. Joe Bodenland's car is rather astonishing considering that in 2020 it does not actually appear as outdated, like so much other science fiction written in anno dazumal.
Madness is undeniably present in Aldiss's novel, but are snow and ice, which I mentioned above as seeds for this blog entry, also present? Certainly, both Shelley's and Aldiss's novels finish with a hunt for the monster over deserted snowy expanses. With Shelley, it takes place in unexplored polar regions, by Aldiss within a timeslip in a distant future where Joe Bodenland's surroundings seem to fall apart in a devastated world, created by his own actions in a distant past. This makes Aldiss´s time travels in his Frankenstein Unbound akin to Stephen King's strange and impressive time travel novel 11/22/63, in which a man travels back in time and manages to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald´s murder of John F. Kennedy, only to find that his heroic act in the future will have disastrous consequences, something he could not have expected in 1963.
It is doubtful whether Anna Kavan's Ice might be labeled as a science fiction novel. It takes place in a parallel reality that may possibly be located in the future, but this is uncertain. Nor does it seem to depict a bygone, distant time. The novel assumes the existence of cars, trains, planes and gramophones, though the reader may suddenly find her/himself in the midst of a bloody looting of a city, where sword-wielding and armored riders massacre the inhabitants. Or within a Nordic ruined city where a virgin is sacrificed to a dragon living at the bottom of a fjord. I bought the novel at the same time as Frankenstein Unbound and as I now read it again I find to my surprise that Aldiss had written a preface in which he described Anna Kavan as a writer who trhotugh Kafka had found a key how to portray a reality, which she perceived as being extremely threatening.
Kavan's novel appears to take place during the uncertain peace after a devastating war between superpowers. Cities are in ruins while heavily armed soldiers are checking citizens, asking for documents and controlling that curfews are being complied with. We seem to find ourselves in a country, or even a world, ruled by a totalitarian regime. By the beginning of the novel, the narrator, an obviously wealthy writer, visits an acquaintance who is an artist and married to a fragile, ethereal and extremely sensitive woman, who might previously have been engaged to the author. Her husband, the artist, treats his elusive wife badly and she disappears. The husband's indifference and demonic personality make the author suspect that he has murdered his wife. However, the author´s investigations trace her leads him to a remote coastal town in a country reminiscent of Norway. There the women is held captive by The Warden, a warlord who surrounded by a well-equipped private army lives in a luxurious palace. The town´s inhabitants are suspicious and brutal and their standard of living seem to be at a medieval, reminding me of The Game of Thrones, not the east considering that there is a huge wall outside the city and the country, perhaps even the rest of the world, is threatened by relentlessly approaching, enormous ice sheet.
In The Game of Thrones, Westeros' southern lands are protected by a huge wall that rises against northern vast expanses of snow from which ice phantoms are approaching in an intent to subjugate Westeros and wipe out its warring clans. The threat is expressed in the motto of the House of Stark, Westeros' northern wall keepers: Winter is Coming. I do not assume that K.K. Martin was inspired by Anna Kavan's Ice, though he was for sure aware of the Fimbul Winter of Norse mythology, the winter that will prevail uninterruptedly for three years before Ragnarök takes place – the final Armageddon.
The well-traveled Anna Kavan had certainly Nordic countries in mind when she wrote Ice, but she was probably mainly inspired by the two years she spent in New Zealand during World War II, worried about the war events in the north and a strong awareness of the proximity to Antarctic ice masses in the south. Despite descriptions of a threatening, strange landscape, it is an inner emotional state that Kavan portrays and projects onto the characters' surroundings. Perspectives are constantly shifting – from the intimate to the vast. The narrator gradually seems to merge with the brutal Warden, while the pale woman is constantly portrayed as an elusive, but tormented victim. Anna Kavan has to many of her readers become a “feminist icon” and her novel has been interpreted as a demonstration of how global political violence and a threatening environmental degradation might be linked to a frightening “erotic objectification” of women, turning them into victims of a self-destructive and emotionally cold collective.
I am not sure if Anna Kavan had read the Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaa's novel The Ice Palace which was written in 1963 and in 1966 was published in an English translation, i.e. the year before Kavan´s Ice came out. It is not impossible that she had read it since Vesaas's novel was published by Peter Owen, Kavan´s friend and publisher. Like Kavan´s Ice Vesaas's novel dealt with alienation and coldness from a female perspective. However, despite its symbolic undercurrents it appears to be a strictly realistic tale.
In an isolated Norwegian village, the lively, eleven-year-old Siss (Sissela) becomes good friends with the withdrawn and somewhat odd and awkward Unn. When the girls during the first day of their acquaintance play alone together, they find themselves strangely attracted to each other. The outward-looking, self-assured Siss discovers something of herself in the serious and tormented loner Unn, and vice versa.
Unn is enchanted by the open-minded, laughing Siss and manages to persuade her that they should undress. As they stand naked in front of each other, Unn wonders if Siss can see any difference between them. When Siss answers that she cannot discern anything out of the normal, Unn explains that she knows that something is wrong with her. She is afraid of not being allowed into heaven after her death. She accuses herself of being the reason for her mother´s death six months earlier and she does not know who her father is.
After they have gotten dressed again, Siss becomes anxious, worried and scared. She runs home in the dark and like Unn she spends a sleepless night. The following day, Unn cannot bring herself to come to school and there be confronted with her newfound friend. Instead, she seeks out the “ice palace”, huge ice formations that during harsh Nordic winters are formed by frozen water around large waterfalls. Driven by a child's urge to test and challenge itself, Unn enters the ice halls. Impressed by the mysterious and perishable beauty of the ice caves, she thinks about herself and Siss. Unn finally gets lost in the cold darkness, treads through the ice and drowns.
The villagers believe Siss knows more about Unn's disappearance than she reveals. The weight of guilt and sorrow make Siss to shoulder Unn´s role as an outsider and she eventually becomes a loner both at home and at school. The Ice Palace is a seemingly realistic story, though sparse and lyrical it hides abysmal depths beneath its surface, making me think of masterful Japanese haikus where nature and certain moods within a strictly limited space are enabled to create images of inner emotional states.
Novels like The Ice Palace, and also to some extent Ice, and of course Kafka's work, written as they are in a straightforward, obviously realistic manner lure their readers into a world that is both mad and sensible. Such literary works reflect what J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote about fairy tales ”the keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make.” What Tolkien appears to mean is that fairy tales and fantasy stories, like dreams, require inner logic and clarity. A kind of realism which within its specific framework gradually becomes something completely different – dreams that reveal what our existence really is and maybe even what it means.
I was thinking about this yesterday while watching Jan Švankmajer's film Alice, which my eldest daughter had sent me from Prague. A few years go, we did together visit an exhibition with Švankmajer's eerie, but at the same time humorous “sculptures”. Theyare some kind of collages of stuffed animals and skeletal parts, reminiscent of the curiosity cabinets which during the Baroque era were popular among European princes.
Not least with Rudolph II, the eccentric emperor of the German-Roman Empire who lived in the royal castle Pražský hrad in Prague, where he gathered alchemists, magicians, artists and ingenious scientists. A worsening mental illness prevented him from governing an empire that was collapsing under the pressure of religious strife and he was finally forced to abdicate, handing over the imperial crown to his brother and he eventually died as a mad loner.
Švankmajer´s Alice is actually called Nĕco z Alenky, Something about Alice, and is a free interpretation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, a book I have read several times, amazed at how someone managed to portray a child's dream world. Švankmajer's film is a stop motion animation, populated by a real Alice moving among and inter-acting with his grotesque creations; creepy, malignant dolls and bizarre animals within dilapidated rooms and crumbling tenement houses. A terrifying, imaginative and, like Kafka's stories, strangely humorous universe.
This is how Alice in Wonderland should be interpreted, neither as slavishly as Disney did to a large extent in his per se ingenious interpretation, nor completely made-up and ridiculously simplified as Tim Burton's disastrous version, which is one of my greatest disappointments as addicted movie goer. I had expected something completely different from someone like Burton than a pastel-coloured and extremely silly “struggle to save Wonderland”. Yuk!
Unlike Burton, Švankmajer created a masterpiece – a parallel and inventive version of Caroll's Wonderland, seen through a child's eyes, interpreted with a child's wonder, boldness and worries. A dream beyond good and evil. Distanced from adult, judgmental and moralizing pointers, Švankmajer boldly entered a child's distorted, but at the same time deeply personal and truly imaginary world.
An abnormality that also characterizes the world Anna Kavan depicted in her novel. Kavan´s original name was Helen Emily Woods. She was the only, lonely and largely ignored child in a dysfunctional family. When she was eleven years old, her father took his own life and when she was nineteen-years-old her mother forced her daughter to marry her own estranged lover. He made Anna with children and took her to Burma, where he worked as a railway engineer. They divorced after three years of utter discord.
When Helen Woods changed her name to Anna Kavan, it was one of many breakups within an unsteady existence. During the twenties she lived among race-car drivers at the Riviera and founded a lifelong heroin addiction, far from being alleviated during her later life within various artistic circles. Anna went in and out of various mental institutions and was unable to free herself from an addiction that eventuality became a contributing factor to her death in 1968.
In addition to her writing, Anna Kavan was a talented painter whose art often reflects her fictional worlds, with their poetic beauty and uncanny, suggestive power. Creating such worlds as well as being both a painter and a writer are talents Kavan shared with several women, for example Leonora Carrington, whose strange novel Down Below depicts a distorted reality. Carrington wrote Down Below during a deep crisis, when she, like Kavan often was, had been imprisoned within a mental ward.
Carrington's art makes me associate with the Finno-Swedish author/artist Tove Jansson, who for certain was not crazy at all, but like Kavan and Carrington managed to create a parallel world of lyricism and beauty, as well as threatening mystery and danger.
Tove Jansson's imaginary Moomin Valley is surrounded by dark woods, misty mountains and a sea inhabited by mysterious and occasionally dangerous creature, though nevertheless mellowed by the warmth and intimate security of the good-natured, generous and playfully imaginative Moomin family.
Tove Jansson's cerates a unique world like the landscape of Michael Ende's novel Momo, although in his case the scenery is more than in Jansson's case connected to reality, namely Italy where the German Ende spent the larger part of his life. Like the ladies mentioned above Ende was also a writing artist. In Momo, as in Kavan's Ice, the world is threatened by a soul-killing chill. In Momo it is gray men in the service of an ever-present, menacing commercialism and totalitarianism, which are stealing time to kill imagination and creativity in their life-hostile quest to align human existence from creativity and happiness and thus turn each and every one of us into an ignorant consumer.
Two of my other favorite novels have also been written by painters – Alfred Kubin's The Other Side and Giorgio de Chrico´s Hebdomeros. Kubin's novel is a dark fable about a city slowly decaying in step with a despot's physical deterioration and moral ruin. The modernity of Kubin´s nightmarish city, combined as it is with ancient, dilapidated quarters and underground tunnels, mad me think of Prague. The general disintegration under an increasingly insane ruler might have been inspired by Rudolph the Second´s crumbling empire, or its equivalent in a doomed Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the novel was written in 1908. Kubin knew Kafka and was a frequent visitor to Prague and his dark and threatening world is not entirely different from Ana Kavan's ice world, although his story takes place within a more tropical climate.
Despite its richness of images and cinematic scenes, The Other Side has a more or less stable narrative structure. de Chirico's Hebdomeros, on the other hand, is more similar to Kavan's Ice in the sense that the Italian artist's novel appears as a kind of picture collage, without any clear sequence of events. Hebdomeros has even more sharp and abrupt transitions between pictures and episodes than Kavan´s Ice, though it is also, in my opinion, more lyrical and painterly. Hebdomeros was written in 1929, but was then published in a limited edition and remained virtually unknown until 1964, when it was recognized as perhaps the foremost “surrealist” novel ever written. This despite the fact that Chirico did not consider himself to be a surrealist and did furthermore in his later years disregard his only novel, which he wrote in French, an impressive achievement considering that Chirico with another mother tongue than French nevertheless was able to express himself in such a lyrical and quaint manner.
Hebdomeros captures the moods of Chirico's paintings, occasionally illuminated by the warmth and light of the Mediterranean, though also endowed with its darker undertones. In spite of its modernity Hebdomeros provides an impression of being firmly rooted in a millennial old tradition of art and aesthetics. A landscape that with its classic allusions nevertheless integrates modern elements such as trains and factory chimneys.
The novels mentioned above may be grouped under the heading of Slipstream, a literary term introduced in 1989 by the American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, in an attempt to categorize literary works that brings unrealistic elements – such as fairy tales, science fiction, dreams, fantasy and surrealism – into depictions/stories that appear to be quite realistic and usually take place in a contemporary environment.
Slipstream is an aerodynamic concept, used in motor – and cycling sports. If a vehicle travels at high speed, a negative pressure is created behind it, which in turn gives rise to lower air resistance. A vehicle that is just behind another vehicle traveling at high speed might then take advantage of the air suction behind it, gain more speed and eventually overtake it.
Sterling, who in his writing often uses rather peculiar associations and invented words, stated that a narrative stream, such as a realistic approach, creates a kind of slipstream that a different approach to story telling, like fantasy or science fiction, may use to discretely slide in behind, hook up to and eventually pass by, thus creating something completely different, and generally even better. Sterling described the feeling that arises when you read a slipstream story:
this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.
High technology has changed our society at breakneck speed – mobile phones and computers now connect people, but at the same time it appears as if more and more of us are losing touch with reality. As the physical closeness to other people has decreased, consequences of our actions have also become increasingly diffuse.
We can now kill our fellow human beings with a drone. If we have questions and complaints, we are referred to websites and digital voices. Technology has even entered our most intimate spheres. A possible consequence of intercourse is no longer the birth of a child. Such beings can now be bought for a price and provided through sperm banks and/or surrogate mothers. Sexual intercourse does not necessary imply an act of deep and intimate connection between two persons who truly love each other and thereby are willing to take joint responsibility for the consequences of their actions. In these modern times, sexuality has for several of us been transformed into yet another commodity; a performance, a mechanical act focusing solely on physical satisfaction. Of course you might argue that this has always been the case – prostitution has always existed within human societies.
Sure, but now technology has changed those circumstances as well. As technology reduces risks and consequences, people now seek out surrogates for things that previously engaged, frightened and upset us. Everything that Edmund Burke in the middle of the eighteenth century called the subtle, that is, something that is the opposite of intimacy and security, something that calms our nerves. The subtle, on the other hand, tenses the nerves, frightens and excites us, but in return makes life more unpredictable and exciting.
Slipstream literature has often proved top be able to indicate the discrepancy between the real and the imagined by indicating how commercialism disguises itself as if it represented real life, when it in reality it only mimics dreams and hopes and puts a price on its charades to make a profit.
The slipstream concept suggests movement and can thus be linked to modernism in the sense that it constitutes a kind of comment to a complicated reality; a current “now” that we all are surrounded by. A slipstream author and the world s/he creates arises because s/he actually is a stranger in our time and thus views our existence from her/his perspective of exclusion. Creations of such writers might take the appearance of parallel worlds; magic mirrors that both distort and reveal who we actually are. Like when Frankenstein's monster by looking at his mirror image was struck by the painful realization that he actually was a freak, an abomination.
In our modern world, we exist within a state of constant change and thus literature created by slipstream writers becomes “fluid” as well, adaptable and changeable. Like myths and dreams, it is constantly opening up itself to new interpretations.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who devoted a number of books to the stranger and alienation, occasionally related art to liquidity. According to him, liquidity is largely the same as volatility, a state of being that has become dominant within in our current existence.
I interpret Bauman's arguments as indicating that we are looking for insights that ultimately turn out to be nothing more than acts of constant creation, i.e. movement and change which do not lead to an ultimate goal. Basically, we are not striving for a goal at all. Our longing, our actions and desires, are being limited by desire/lust. The purpose, goal and meaning of our existence have disappeared. Our worst fear has become the possibility of actually achieving complete satisfaction – Salvation.
True art might possibly help to transform what is short-term into something permanent, something supernatural, even divine. Strangely enough, within our uniform, global existence, individualism and self-righteousness are celebrated at the expense of established, moral values, for example in the form of a general cooperation respecting human rights and trying to preserve the earth's natural resources. We do not provide ourselves with neither time nor space to realize something that might benefit us all. Instead we rush around in our highly personal, narcissistic treadmills. Slipstream literature, however, places itself on the sidelines and through its alienating and alternative viewpoints it indicate how absurd our current existence actually is.
Modern life means that high tech has reduced risks and consequences. People are now inclined to find surrogates for experiences that previously were able to engage or/and upset us. Compensations for previously strong emotions are not only limited to digital experiences, technologically sustained adrenaline stimulating real-life risk-taking are also offered – like bungee jumping, parachuting, rock climbing and the like. The main technological surrogate and an easy manner for obtaining life-affirming adrenaline rushes and endorphine kicks might still be car driving, preferably in luxury vehicles and at a high speed. A pleasure that for commercial reasons often has become associated with sex. A luxury vehicle attracts sexual partners and enhances our prestige:
A comfortable, beautiful car can may envelop us in soothing comfort and impart a sense of well-being and confidence, as in Bruce Springsteen's Pink Cadillac:
I love you for your pink Cadillac.
Crushed velvet seats.
Riding in the back,
Oozing down the street.
Waving to the girls,
Feeling out of sight.
Spending all my money
On a Saturday night.
Quite a number of American songs pay homage to the freedom of Open Higways, rides into the wilderness and freedom of the unknown. However, this does not prevent such rides from also being journeys mixed up with anxiety, and perhaps even fear. Springsteen again – Stolen car:
And I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night.
And I’m telling myself I’m gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I will disappear
Watch the sequence from Hitchcock's Psycho where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), after stealing USD 40,000 from her employer, to the accompaniment of Bernard Herrman's evocative music, travels through a darkening night on her way a rendezvous with death at the Bates Motel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSlo44VO-lE&ab_channel=scaringeachother
Someone sitting behind a wheel is, by the way, among American movies´ most common screen shots. In the US, the a car often appears to be an integral part of most citizens' lives. A friend of mine living in the USA once told me that he was going to invest his hard-earned money in a new, luxurious car, even if he actually could not afford one. When I asked why he made such a stupid investment, he replied: “I have to be able to look my children straight into their eyes. I do not want them to be ashamed of having a loser as a dad. A bastard who cannot even afford a proper car.”
Oh, Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
So, oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.
I remember how when I visited one of my sisters-in-law in Miami and found there were no sidewalks in her neighbourhood and how I during my morning strolls felt how her neighbours suspiciously watched me, brooding behind their curtains or while mowing their implacable lawns. A pedestrian! It must be a shady character, even if he is white and reasonably well-dressed.
No wonder if a car there may be considered part of your personality. Stephen King is undeniably a slipstream writer able to transform The American Way to something quite sinister, creating horror from all sorts of gadgets surrounding the nations´s inhabitants; mobile phones, lawn mowers, croquet clubs, food processors, ovens and of course – cars.
In King's parallel universe, cars are occasionally killing machines possessing their owners, like a Plymouth Fury in Christine, a Buick Roadmaster in From a Buick 8, or a Mercedes Benz in Mr. Mercedes, not to mention the trucks gone mad in King's self-directed flophouse movie Maximum Overdrive.
Perhaps it is this mixture of freedom, sex, cars and death that has given rise to a sub-genre of action photography – car accident pictures. With masters like Arthur Fellig (Weegee):
And the Mexican Enrique Metinides:
Andy Warhol, who with his great interest in commercialism, emotional coldness, sex and death can possibly be considered as the archetype of Zygmunt Bauman's outsider artist, devoted a number of his works to car accidents.
Warhol was also fascinated by celebrity and its importance for glamour and commercialism, something that has also coloured the cult of cars and car accidents, with victims like James Dean – “live hard and die young.”
Or Jackson Pollock, who maybe was a Slipstream Artist:
It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique. [...] The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words ... expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.
Once technology has made its entry into the human sphere; from fire and wheels, to printing presses, trains, radio, aircraft, TV, the Intranet, sophisticated weaponry and … cars, everyone's lives has changed to an extent that it is difficult to fathom. Cars were invented as an effective and comfortable means of transport, but as we have seen above they soon became so much more, including incarnations of more or less hidden desires. If we had been better intellectually equipped, more morally oriented, we might have been able to use our sophisticated technology for better purposes. Now it seems to threaten us instead, as though we were stuck in a car while traveling at high speed towards a final accident, a crash. A dangerous, but incomprehensible world:
But deep inside my heart
I know I can't escape.
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
to be stuck inside of Mobile
with the Memphis blues again?
The fault does not lie in our tools, it is part our own constitution.
As I write this, I am reminded that Bruce Sterling is a great admirer of James Graham Ballard and mentioned him as an excellent forerunner of current slipstream writers. A few years ago, I did in accordance with my habits check out the books on a table in FAO's foyer where people leave their used books and found J.G. Ballard's novel Crash. Then I only knew the author as the author of the Kingdom of the Sun, inspiration for Spielberg's film with the same name and I also vaguely recalled that the nasty, yet skillful and fascinating David Cronenberg had made a film with the same name as the novel I held in my hand.
It turned out that my assumption was correct, but I have seldom read such an appaling, yes … disgusting novel as Ballard's Crash. Since I cannot find it anywhere among my books here at home, I fear that I have thrown it away. If this has been the case I now regret it. Even though it now has been several years since I read Crash, it has remained with me and then not as a perverted deviation, but actually as an interesting depiction of our contemporary madness and its mixture of body, psyche, sex, death drive and high technology. That I now began looking for Ballard´s book is because he has increasingly come to be hailed as an outsider artist who early on realized where our society was heading. In one of his novels, Cocaine Nights, Ballard stated:
The consumer society hungers for the deviant and the unexpected What else can drive the bizarre shifts in the entertainment landscape that will keep us buying? […] Only one thing is left which can rouse people … Crime and transgressive behaviour – by which I mean all activities that aren´t necessarily illegal, but provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses deadened by leisure an inaction.
The condition described in Ballard´s Crash actually has a name – symphorophilia, from the Greek symphora, accident, and diagnosticates someone as a victim of a mental disorder which means obtaining sexual arousal from arranging or witnessing a violent tragedy, such as a car accident. The term was actually coined twenty years after Ballard's book had been published. John William Money (1921-2006) identified the disorder as an extreme form of paraphilia, i.e. a morbid desire for sexual stimulation from objects, or beings, which among normal people, in general, do not arouse any perverted cravings, or trigger morally reprehensible acts.
Money, who was professor of pediatrics and clinical psychology at the prestigious John Hopkins University in Baltimore, did himself become a victim of the beguiling impact technology might have on fixed ideas. John Money was a renowned expert on sexual identity and gender roles, with intersexuality, or so-called transgender, as his specialty. Money´s importance for gender research has been epoch-making, among other achievements he introduced terms such as gender identity, gender roles, and sexual orientation.
As a specialist in gender identity, Money occasionally recommended surgery and hormone treatment to bring about radical gender reassignment of children, as well as young men and women. Something that had catastrophic consequences for several of his patients, who when they grew up found that their floating gender identities while being young and inexperienced were just part of a psychological maturation process. This aspect of Money's activities was scrutinized in an upsetting book, As Nature Made Him, written by the investigative journalist John Colapinto and in which he revealed the medical arrogance and often misguided research of Dr. Money.
As a foretaste of the madness exposed in Crash and in the wake of Andy Warhol´s artistic endeavours, Ballard did in 1970 organize an exhibition with pictures of fatal car accidents, they were presented without comment and caused a moral uproar.
Three years later, Ballard's fascination with the morbid subject of lethal car accidents culminated with his novel Crash. When I read it, I was totally unprepared for this orgy of death, violence and sex, written by someone who appeared to be entirely uninhibited when it came to his fixation on what I perceived as an appalling perversion. An obvious psychopath who reveled in ruminations about every conceivable aspect of how human body parts and fluids after a car accident could mingle with the distorted metal, twisted radiator grilles and cascading windshield glass. Page up and page down Ballard elaborately described various sex scenes, always in connection with driving and car accidents. A scenery as confined and grotesquely distorted as in Marquise the Sade´s sterile and monotonous novels. Ballard´s book was just like de Sade´s oeuvre tedious and disgusting, utterly devoid of any form of joy and compassion.
By Ballard, eroticism becomes intimately combined with technology and mechanics, and thus profaned, commercialized and liberated from nature. After a while, the shock effect wears off, leaving behind a wonderment that someone had been able to write something like that. I do not remember if I finished the novel.
The story is told by a person with the same name as the author. Like Ballard, he lives in Shepperton, a suburb of London, close to one of the highways leading to the Heathrow Airport. Although Ballard deliberately obscures the similarities, the reader understands that there is a connection between the protagonist's and the author's fascination with violent car accidents. The novel's narrator is attracted, sexually as well as intellectually, to a former “TV scientist” who has become a “highway nightmare angel” and with a car equipped with police radio tries to seek out every terrible accident that is reported over it. Unreasonably excited, he shows up with his cameras and revel in blood and wreckage.
After being seriously injured in a car accident, Ballard becomes more familiar with the demonic accident aficionado and soon joins a company of alienated lunatics, survivors of excruciating accidents, who slavishly follow the perverted symphorophilia maniac in his pursuit of disasters. Gradually, the grotesque gang contributes to staging traffic accidents, often with fatal consequences for both themselves and their victims. The leader's ultimate wish is to die in a frontal collision with Elizabeth Taylor.
After my distaste for the novel had subsided, I began thinking about Crash and after a while considered it in another light and this was the reason to why I am now searching for it. Maybe it was after all Ballard´s intention to create a distaste for our culture´s sick veneration of awful, adrenaline rousing disasters? Maybe his perverse description of a brutal lack of empathy was a critique of the emotionless mindset that affects so many of us? A condemnation of a technologized culture and the heartlessness, the contempt for real love and compassion, it has created. How it has invaded and poisoned not only our thinking but also our bodies and our subconscious mind.
Possibly Crash deals with how people have been affected by a soul destroying numbness after experiencing profound depressions following upon life changing experiences. How they have been alienated from reality and fallen victim to depraved obsessions worsened after they have met people with similar experiences and perverse longings that carefully have been kept out of sight. A life where everything and everyone is exploited within a debauched environment where lack of morals and distorted lives benefit from an anti-human technology that relentlessly drive them towards the ultimate goal, which is the same for all of us – Death.
Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police finds itself far from the frantic madness of Ballard's Crash, though Bruce Sterling would certainly have characterized her novel as a slipstream product as well. It takes place in a port city on an isolated island, which nevertheless seems to be large and self-sufficient. Few things suggest that the development of events does not take place in our current modern times – there are cars, trains, shops, offices, schools and libraries. People, habits and infrastructure provide the impression that this could be almost anywhere, though subtle shifts and details makes The Memory Police a slipstream novel that evoke associations to works like Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. However, according to my opinion, Ogawa´s novel and its lyrical mode is a unique work of art.
Perhaps Ogawa´s storytelling is part of a specific Japanese narrative, which I assume I have discerned in writers like Kobo Abe, and especially in a novel by Taichi Yamada – Strangers. In Yamada's novel a TV screenwriter does after a failed marriage end up in a huge, former apartment building in central Tokyo. Due to insurmountable rents most of the apartments have been abandoned by their previous tenants and converted into offices, which means that the screenwriter at night finds himself to be almost alone in an otherwise empty building. He is tormented by nightmares and memories of his past love and security, has difficulty in sleeping and wanders around in a Tokyo that at night obtains a spooky character. At a bar, he encounters his long-deceased father, or someone who is eerily akin to him. He is later on invited home to something that appears to be his the dead parents' home where he is greated by someone exactly like his mother. It seems as if there in Tokyo exists a parallel universe where the past survives. When the main character late at nights returns to his apartment he is occasionally visited by a beautiful woman who seems to be one of the few remaining tenants in a building where he otherwise only encounters the doorman.
Several Japanese horror films, myths and fairy tales suggest that Japan is populated by ghosts, spirits and demons, perhaps a reflection of an ancient belief in kami, a term that may tentatively be interpreted as “natural gods” or “spirits”. Kami can be enclosed by animal – and human shapes, as well as inhibit various objects, while haunting specific places. Like Yamada's nocturnal Tokyo, Ogawa's island is a place beyond experience.
Unlike the twisted lunatics in Ballard's Crash, the characters of Ogawas Memorial Police are generally kind and caring. All o tfhem are however subject to the tyranny of a mysterious Memory Police, who armed and uniformed drive around in armoured vehicles. There is also an ever-present incomprehensible, but seemingly accommodating bureaucracy, which serves a repressive and invisible regime. For reasons unknown to us, the rulers of the island nations have hermetically sealed off their reign from the outside world and strive to erase all memories from its inhabitants. At regular intervals there come decrees that, for example, all roses have to disappear, and another day it could be birds or books. It seems that both culture and nature slavishly abide to such decrees – rivers and sea shores are one say filled with rose petals that soon disappear, at other instances large flocks of birds leave the island. One morning, the island's inhabitants may wake up to find that they have lost their sense of smell, or that no bird can be found. As if they want the loss to be as total and permanent possibble and thus not plague them with any memory of it, people voluntarily destroy banned plants, books and other things that the Memory Police intend to eradicate.
The Memory Police are not confronted in any manner, their suppression encounters no resistance. They take away people who refuse to follow directives and/or show signs of not being able, or wanting to forget. Abducted persons do not return. It is rumored that they are taken to institutions where research is being carried out to identify and eradicate genes and brain functions that create and support memory functions. Although people are passive and silent, some of them are hiding suspected memory offenders.
Ogawa's novel is lyrical and beautiful, endowed with a quiet and strangely subdued narrator's voice. The story is told by a young author whose parents, an ornithologist and an artist, have been ´taken away by the Memory Police, which also have searched, as well as destroyed specific items in her home. Her best friend and confidant is an old sea captain who lives on a rusting and unused ferry, anchored in the harbor. Together with him, the author has in her home hidden her publisher, who turned out to have an unfailing memory. Secluded in a confined space constructed by the captain, the publisher desperately tries to get the old man and the young author to preserve and cultivate their memories. A hopeless endeavour since they, apart from protecting and caring for the publisher, are obeying the absurd laws imparted by the Memory Police. Over the course of the story, poverty and boredom spread across the island, while the entire nature also seems to give up all resistance – snow falls and winter is not followed by spring. People are beraved of objects, comfort, self-confidence and memories while they all relentlessly move towards an all-encompassing emptiness – a total annihilation.
The Memory Police is neither long, nor difficult to read. A rare gem with subtle shifts and an exquisite surface evoking memories of Japanese woodcuts, Shindo's movies and Kawabata's nature descriptions. Under the surface of its apparent simplicity, the novel hides depths of thought that require reflection and re-reading.
My reading of Ogawa´s novel planted the seed to this blog entry and caused thoughts and associations to sprout. I have now presented some of them, though there is more to find and be inspired by in The Memory Police and I do of course recommend you to read it.
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