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3:AM Top 5: Graham Rae

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3:AM Magazine has kindly allowed me this cyberspace to wax lyrical about my Top 5 literary inspirations to coincide with the publication of my decade-in-the-making new novel Soundproof Future Scotland, which is available now as an e-book from Creation Books from Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic, and on the Nook in the USA too. It’s about the last lost weekend of two 22nd-century-dwelling cyberdrunks before they start worthless work on Moanday morning, and it completely reconfigures the contemporary UK blandscape for an anarchaotic laugh. The work-representative 5 feverbrain headspinfluences I present here help explain somewhat the contours of the book’s textstyle. So without further ado, in no particular order except for the first, I present to you the 5 killer Bs…

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1) J.G. Ballard
Yes, the (sadly) late great Seer of Shepperton. I hadn’t even heard of him before 1996, when David Cronenberg‘s controversial-in-the-UK movie of JGB‘s 1975 literary hand grenade Crash came out. Reading a quote from the author at the time about the supposed eroticism of the car crash, I remember walking up Vicar Street in Falkirk (in Scotland, where I am originally from; I now live in Chicago) thinking he can’t be serious about that…can he? Looking for an answer to this question put me on one of the greatest artistic discovery paths of my life, where the more I read about this genius and his unique darkshade worldview the more I wanted to know. When I got net access around 1999 I gorged myself on every new interview of his I could find (a prime source of these now being at Rick McGrath’s excellent www.jgballard.ca) to know more about his fascinating futuristic extrapolations on the human race and its demented headlong tailspin trajectory. I even exchanged a few letters with him, including one for Scottish writer Laura Hird‘s excellent now-unfortunately-defunct website where he told me a story about his first meeting with William S. Burroughs, where the junkie genius stayed away from the windows because he thought CIA and Time magazine were watching him from a converted laundry van across the road! This letter is now permanently resident in the Ballard archives at the British Library, as I recently found out; it doesn’t get much better than that. The death of a man who was so genial and kind to admirers hit me hard; I cried when I first read about it online. James Graham Ballard helped me understand a lot of things, and literally rearrange my worldview; I will always miss him. And as a parting shot, the new, poorly-reviewed JGB biography by John Baxter, The Inner Man: The Life of JG Ballard, has been revealed to be a parcel of vicious mendacity, half-facts and jealous character assassination. Don’t buy it. I know I won’t.

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2) Lester Bangs
I first read the classic rock-crit-hit blitzkrieg-bop shitkicker collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung when I was 19, and it blew my mind. It was introduced to me by a woman from Glasgow I used to know, and I got an instant obsession-constructing kick out of it. I loved the raw speedfreak energy of Bangs’ interminably-long-line reviews and fantasies, his gleeful irreverence towards the bloated rock stars of the 60s and 70s he was ostensibly meant to be profiling, and his musings on the early culture-shocking crashing soundwaves of punk, a musical style I loved when I was younger. I was in a couple of punk bands (though nothing ever happened for me in them) in my late teens/early 20s, and it was only years later that I would realize that my love of music and words put together was a big part of the reason I flipped out over Psychotic Reaction. Its hyper-energetic, musically-obsessive perfect bastard fusion of medium and message bent my head for a long time, and its conspiratorial guiding pogostorm influence can still be faintly heard whispering seditiously in the music-drenched pages of Soundproof Future Scotland. I have learned as much about writing from popular lyricists as I have from traditional bookworm muse-sculpting methodologies. Who gives a fuck about the obsolete English literary canon? Piss on its dead-meaning grave. Writing lines in the book, I would think of how they would look as a lyric in some song; if it sounded good in my head, it went in. Whilst Lester’s under-the-skinfluence on me may not have been entirely positive (it probably made some of my writings on other websites way longer than they necessarily needed to be, but I still get a kick out of just getting into the Word-O-Zone and letting rip at length, something I can totally identify with in/attribute to Psychotic Reactions), his crazy and beautiful and intelligent writings will always have a special place in my heated heart and head. Getting a cover quote for SFS from noted Chicago music journalist Jim DeRogatis (who wrote Let it Blurt, a fine biography of Lester) that said, in part, “Lester Bangs would be proud,” really meant a lot.

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3) Charles Bukowski
Doing a bit of retrospectating, let’s go back to the time when I was unemployed for a long time back in Falkirk to teach myself how to write, living in subsistence-level poverty in Department of Social Security-paid flats, getting 50-odd quid a week, in a thankfully-gone part of my life that is a neverending faded jaded mosaic of giros and powercards and reading magazines in John Menzies I couldn’t afford and loneliness and cheap ASDA meals and reading and barhopping and hoping for a better literary tomorrow. A leading literary light for me back then was the notorious Los Angeles lowlife alcoholic poet Charles Bukowski, whom I first heard about in 1987 or so in an American magazine I used to write for, Film Threat. I could identify to a degree with his utter-gutter-mutter-stutter writings/psychescreams about poverty and cheap rooms and pain and the general stupidity of the human race, could laugh at the drunken madness, could appreciate some of the finer things he came away with like the insightful and devastating poem ‘The Genius of the Crowd’, one of the greatest things I have ever read. Bukowski can be repetitive at times, looping dipsomaniac stories from book to book, and a lot of his mongrel doggerel just seems to have been pumped out by his publisher Black Sparrow Press to cash in on his swagger-stagger-step rep, but works like Post Office, Ham on Rye, Hollywood, and Screams From the Balcony will live on for many years to come. The newly-released collection More Notes of a Dirty Old Man is pretty damned good too. It’s refreshing to read of a man who had no time for television, the main thought-killer brainwashing medium when he was alive other than popular general consensus, and of a time before the internet and fact-overload-overkill down-drag racing on the disinformation superhighway. It’s sobering (maybe not the right word in this drink-drowned loser loner context) to think of a scared acne-scarred irritable-vowel-syndrome man sitting alone in a shabby primordial booze room with his sadness and madness and schizoid badness, rattleclatterbattering out typewritten letters and poems and stories and novels to the world as bar-rattling screams from his barfly cage, happily unhappily fighting a bitter bottom-of-the-barrel-and-bottle battle, never knowing if he won or lost forever. Cheers Chuck. Hope there’s cheap wine and women and song and words wherever you are now.


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4) William S. Burrroughs
I got into WSB because J.G. Ballard went on about him in glowing terms. I can’t even remember the first time I read Naked Lunch, which is very odd indeed given the black-hole-sucking-in effect it would grow to have on me in later years. The first time I read it (that I recall) I had no idea what the hell I was reading half the time, and this fascinated me. I needed to know what the notorious work was all about and started obsessively rereading it, thinking intently about the words and images and ideas being presented (thinking about some more than others – parts of the work are pretty horrible and obscene and I don’t like reading them much, especially stuff like the ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’ chapter) and worked it out for myself. I loved to sit in bars in Falkirk and read it with a beer or two just running the weird words through my head like surreal mercurial disturbing Braille, trying to decode what messy messages were being presented to me. The book is my all-time favourite work, for its beauty and taboo-trashing horror and genius and hilarious-as-fuckness, and it probably always will be. Its no-real-shape (anti) template was in my head when writing my own book and freed me up a lot. Fate took me a few years ago to RealityStudio, the world’s top WSB site, and after some argumentative nights on their forum I started writing for them about El Hombre Invisible-based films. This led to two things I am still very proud of: I wrote a piece about Burroughs’ time spent in Chicago in 2009 for Naked Lunch.org, the official site of the novel’s 50th birthday celebration, which was edited by Oliver Harris, the world’s top WSB scholar. And on September 11th, 2009 in New York, I had the honour of being invited to do a lecture on WSB and General Semantics (a discipline that had a profound effect on the young writer) at the 57th Annual Alfred Korzybski (the inventor of General Semantics) Memorial Dinner. Who says obsession doesn’t pay off artistically?


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5) Anthony Burgess
A quick confession to make: I have only ever read A Clockwork Orange by wee Tony. But even if he had written only that, it would have been more than enough of a legacy to leave behind for his scribe-time on this crazy planet. William S. Burroughs said of the book, “I do not know of any other writer who has done as much with language as Mr. Burgess has done here,” and that’s high praise (a junkie’s praise is always high!) indeed. You can understand his point, though. Reading A Clockwork Orange is taking an amazing tour through the all-cylinders-functioning, future-slanguage-creating mind of a literary genius who is obviously at the absolute top of his word-game (random example from only page one: how can you top describing an evening as “a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry”?), having great meaning-and-sentence-stretching fun just creating a destructive warped future teenrager milieu and having great fun riffing on the stuff youngstars might say (I love the fact he even part-mocks this new vocabulary by supplanting it by an even newer version spoken by even younger droogs in the book. Talk about self-deprecating and self-referential and self-aware! Brilliant!). When you initially start reading it, it seems almost incomprehensible, but careful thought and reading and text-context analysis reveal layer upon layer of word-reveling art to get totally absorbed in. There is not a bad Nadsat (the name of the language the book is written in) sentence or word in the book; it’s one of those wordworks where anybody who loves languishing in language gauges what they’re lounging in and tips a metaphorical hat to the authoritative-style author. It just flows and bounces and purrs and slaps and tickles, and its complex mix of “odd bits of old rhyming slang; a bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav propaganda. Subliminal penetration” (to quote the book) just blows the mind with the outrageous intricacy of its self-contained-universe construction. I think the American publisher was right to remove the last chapter, where Alex grows up, from their initial printing. This wordslab is an ineffective effective repudiation of the whole previous text, having Alex ‘grow up’ at the ridiculously young age of 18 to stop fighting and fucking and freeloading, and Kubrick was right to leave it out of his controversial 1971 film version too. It’s just a cheap copout and as such deserves to be excised; the author being self-consciously high-minded and literary-moral after wallowing in rape and murder and booze and madness, reducing his beautyfuel work to some sort of defanged safety madvert about the dangers of unchecked youth and government. When I finished writing Soundproof Future Scotland and snapped out of my book-length-long wordplayboy writing-trance and took a look at it slightly more objectively, I realised that the average reader would have a slippery time with it; I was constantly inventing new words as I went along, and, proud as I am of words like ‘speaktivated’ and ‘scieroglyphs’ (scientific hieroglyphs) and ‘slabkranka’ (stereo) and pun names like ‘Colin ACAB’ (think about it…) and whatnot…it’s never going to make me rich. And no, I’m not comparing myself to Burgess and his stunning achievement, I would never dare as I’m not anywhere near that good; I was just searching for a precursor to give as an example of the slanguage textstyle you might hope to occasionally find in my book. If you’ve got the yarbles to try it that is, O my brothers…

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PS: The astute reader will have noticed that I have not included any Scottish influences on my writing style or thought processes. This is genuinely because I do not feel I have any, being much more American in my textstyle (all the spellings in Soundproof Future Scotland are American, because I think that using American software will eventually program much of the rest of the world this way; and I also wanted to write the first-ever Scottish book with all-American spellings), but for the sake of argument let me just add two brief honorable mentions to the list. Neil Cocker gets a nod for the criminally-as-yet-unpublished Distillery Boys, a fine, raucous, poetic trawl through whiskey-inflected stag night Amsterdamage. And Alan Warner gets a salute too, with latest novel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, easily being his best yet. I lost a few dazed hours to it, being sad when it finished. Which pretty much wraps things up, I think.

First posted: Tuesday, November 1st, 2011.

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