ever cranked-up stories of ruthless murder
By Richard Marshall.
Jeremy Reed, The Grid, Peter Owen, 2008
Reed ‘s dazzling, exotic writing is an odd tangent, being like his own assessment of Smart’s Jubilate Agno, ‘ the secret union between the eccentric and the neglected…’ such that most others are fit only to preach of the iron-age. And so he is the greatest of our poets, being truly ultra-modern real and equipped with the polished deviance of Joris Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours or the strange deep space/time of Michael Bracewell’s Divine Concepts of Physical Beauty.
His hyper-city is London, his city is like the city of Brian Michael Bendid, Michael Avon Oeming and Pat Garrahy’s Powers. Who Killed Retro Girl? a crunched, hectic, ripped-up sketch of acceleration slowed down to new level altitudinous attitude: read in conjunction with Prynne’s Biting The Air … ‘ get a vaccine on/shipment perish thread your face why yours/if told more, stable on a tilted capital field/suspected more often./ Give out a version amplified with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt/damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption,’ you face up a city with great un-dead secrets and a fat source co-opting a cool skein of doomy puerile malcontent in broken, fragmented, ultimately volatile sentences, legal and the other. It is no coincidence to stream the reading with other poets nor to quote Prynne quoting Ockam’s Summa Logicae, I:24 ‘Every property is the property of something, but is not the property of just anything.’ And London is also Tokyo, obviously.
So which properties have we here? Necromantic books of heaven, holy terrorists with smart bombs, rat gangs with knives, soccer sheik billionaires, sado-necromantic metro-sex and Big Brother, a Faustian world of subtle syllogisms moonlighting to the compendium of placed memory whilst killers roam networks of lanes that are all Hog Lane retros.
Hog Lane, aka Petticoat Lane, the place where knife victim Marlowe was a knife thug before, later, he too was skewered to young death at twenty-nine through an eye, is thus a place of double agency, double face, double dealing, one thing being one thing and then the other and sometimes both. Marlowe is thus both murderer and murderee, and the complexity of historical Marlowe’s brilliant writing, notorious thuggery, double agency, and the double face of the gay cruiser is the template of the double cross of Reed’s narrative. Marlowe’s portrait in Corpus Christi Cambridge is inscribed in the top left hand corner with the Latin motto ‘Quod me nutrit me destruit’ – ‘that which nourishes me also destroys me’ and even if it is not Marlowe in the picture after all but some ‘amorous gent of Milan’…the provenance of such things being a source of disputation, and such disputation is the very crux of this narrative, the motto still rests on Marlowe as both apt and prophetic. In Hog Lane, where the city began and ended, maybe that’s where the deal was done, where Faustus winked a deal with Mephistopheles, Marlowe with Shakespeare, or vice versa, and all hell was let loose.
Reed writes with the radioactive nutrients from these elsewheres and pollinates them into some deadly-fallout x-rayed zap-writing that is more essential, more plausible, more ennobling than the often too rigidly processed, too unbiologically tampered dystopias of others. Reed’s novel is like Milo Manera and Federico Fellini’s Trip To Tullum, where an unrestrained erotic imagination melds itself to a science fiction intent that reaches perversely into a long deranged back-history and flights of redemption. At the heart of the narrative is the great death in a little room in Deptford, the contamination of literature written by an alien curator who is acquiring his own version of the best of it. As Iain Sinclair says of such gatherers, ‘survival is the only justification,’ hence the necessity to emphasise that Reed is, in all, the poet surviving our futures.
The ‘contamination’ of writing is Shakespeare himself, as evidently as anything in plain sight can be, someone who becomes an unnoticed (until too late, and now, latterly with Reed, of late) Armada, a metaphor of deadly oncoming consumption, a weird magical being constructed from the unshrined windows of St Helen’s Church Bishopsgate (which were once caught up in an IRA bombing campaign in the 1990’s) and is now the emblem of whatever writing and literature is made to mean by its national and transnational enforcers. Reed’s novel is the surveillance helicopter that throughout the book hovers over London as it tears itself apart in a dreamscape of violence and corruption that parallels the Bubonic Plague of Marlowe’s original. The landscape is strangely distant as if observed through the wrong end of a telescope or an unfulfilled strange longing but there’s a sense of history in this, and its not technique but what Mark E. Smith in Renegade writes about in his chapter Death Of The Landlords when commenting on working on I Am Curious, Oranj, adapted from the Swedish porno film I Am Curious, Yellow: ‘ … we all share some kind of common knowledge that’s within ourselves; that comes out in all sorts of things. Some people call it a gene pool. It’s as if you already knew subconsciously about historical incidents…’
The presence of Shakespeare is overlaid by the presence of the substituted other, Christopher Marlowe, murdered at Eleanor Bull’s closed house at Deptford Creek on the evening of Wednesday 30th May 1593. The puzzle of who killed Marlowe, and why, has been a labyrinth from as far back as Lord Burghley saying it was so, who pertinently added that the matter was ‘easier to enter into it than to go out.’ When Charles Nichol wrote his book The Reckoning about the killing in 1992 he asked of his investigation: ‘Is this a true story?’ and avoided answering himself straight on by commenting; ‘I have not invented anything.’
Reed’s novel is far more ambitious than such hesitancy and therefore tries nothing so confidently, imagining instead with cautery and the tones and confusion of saline, counter-stairs, the music of stars, fruit soft flesh, feral gang war and a continual dream of burning futures that all feels like the seventies and eighties (touched up with reassembling sixties mostly…) that what he’s telling is a tale of Lowellian ‘unrealism…[that] eats from the abundance of reality.’ As Reed himself puts it when discussing poetry but which seems to me apt here, ‘ The subject…is the true unreal’, by which one means that area of the consciousness in which inner and outer worlds find a congruity, and are heightened by their interdependence.’
As always, Reed fuses his musical pantheon with his own corrupting, beautiful prose-images: On the fade-out of a song a character comments, ‘ It’s as breezy as Morrisey in the eighties, when he had something to sing about. Pure pop.’ His central character Nick muses, ‘ … because he was so much younger..[he] felt liberated by having so little music history. He’d compensated by listening to a retro palette and by doing his own thing. He put it down to being gay that he beamed in on torch music, with its emphasis on personal tragedy in the singer’s life and its own overblown coloratura. Garland and Bassey were in his genes as archetypes, but so, too, were Bolan and Morrisey, Bjork and Radiohead, Tricky and Moby. Pop, he had discovered, was a sound collage in which every strain of music was assembled and reassembled to reflect the studio integration of its various sources.’
(Read the book just for the pop references and his reflections on each and already there’s more here than most music critics working that field offer.) Reed has already written deeply and perceptively about a few of his musical archetypes elsewhere (e.g. Lou Reed, Marc Almond, Scott Walker), but here he sprinkles the narrative with asides that adapt the atmosphere of the novel to a multi-level cognition of the driving theme of inner corruption. What Reed creates is his version of music – the book assembles and reassembles exactly that ‘studio integration of its various sources’ that he discusses and he imagines that, were Shakespeare and Marlowe to be writing today, they would have to be pop stars rather than playwrites and poets were they to ever register influence. The appreciation of what genius is is therefore connected to a specified context and the novel suggests that the bright and commercial power of Marlowe and Shakespeare should be directly compared to that of the contemporary music scene.
This gives the novel a curious edge where the spectacular, daring and camp speculation at its heart is able to reach out to another, different atmosphere that is as dark, convoluted and mashed up as anything written by Iain Sinclair. The Ballardian conceits – deranged pilots flying closer to their targets in civilian London, a kind of post 9/11 nightmare re-imagined as nightclub-fazed plasma-screen mosh-backdrop, knife wielding gangs emerging like fashion-crazed glam-dolls, rubber killers from disturbias’ social vectors, thorax manipulators, gay boys cruising for serial killer thrills, all these as signs of something else, not deeper, but laid out next to the scholarly ferroconcrete blocks of literati detection, bullshit and genius that perhaps move more in circles that in a line, that fit in between the speed next door as cork damns to bottled mayhem. Reed has a speculation running through the novel that performs the detonating siglum to resolve the very act of writing itself. It is the nature of the Faustian pact, the selling out, the corruption of everything, certainly that of innocence, though of a specialised, intelligent innocence -if innocence can ever be like that – that this novel registers.
Marlowe’s version of Dr Faustus is fittingly double-ended and indecisively concluded. It’s weirdly completed aura is aptly turned by Reed to illuminate both a Shakespeare and the industry that proclaims him now as the greatest ever writer, a heritage freak, who becomes also the alien messenger of our own hyper-city psycho-culture. Side by side, the novel also locates a mythic emblem to carry the symbolic weight of the deal with the devil that compromises us. Faustus, and everything that Faustus means is imagined as the strange, ruined uber-pop star Michael Jackson, who haunts the novel as a ghost-like figure supervening on all our fantasies and denials. As in a trance-like hallucinatory state, we are given glimpses of this mutating, extra-terrestrial pop icon, the Faustus figure himself. It is a brilliant conceit, fixing the terrain with all the devious complexity of our riddled, riddling network of popular culture. Into Michael Jackson has been poured all our modern fevers: fame, glamour, pigmentation, greed, beauty, riches, perversion, madness, death and horror. Jackson is a projection of all our collective fantasies, all our guilt. And for the reader it is his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor that also holds a further fascination as one recalls the necromantic auto-erotic fantasy of Ballard’s central character in Crash whose perversity is a fixation with the famous film star involving a fatal car crash and sex. Michael Jackson is the dark star that riddles us all, the Dr Faustus for our times.
So Reed is ambitious. This is not something that is unusual in itself – so many writers have big ideas, big hopes, big visions but so few of them are true enough to pull them through to the end. But Reed is. He attends to the specifics of the dreamscape and knows where the essentials begin and end. He is the artist who bleeds into the work from a brain that is cut into the execution of words, creating a document of ‘…its own apocalypse, its core infected by the power mad tsars and their entourage of druggy, discredited celebrities who hijacked its privileges.’ His imagination is that of the Japanese Englishman, the book if it were a film would be best shot by the Takashi Miike of MPO-Psycho tales Drifting Petals, Memories of Sin, How to Create a World, Life is a Constant Double Helix, How to Create a World, Coronation of a Cursed King, Ascension of Spirits and Bonds of Mankind, each being surreal, violent, beautiful and touching films capturing a pure and perfectly futuristic imaginative zest without losing the dirt and grit of the urban junkyard backdrop that makes them necessary.
And side by side with this is our own familiar London, the London that has seen (as I write) eighteen teenagers stabbed to death since January, a city where people cannot sleep because everything rises up in the night to remind them that when time is finished, when everything is bought then there is the horror of nothing. Dylan’s ‘When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose’ is a refrain that glides like a child’s voice through our nighttimes, and there’s a sense in which knives are sharpening in these hideous voids. I work in North London and one of the recent murders was of a young boy who had just finished his GCSE examinations in one of the schools I work with. He wrote a narrative where he imagined himself being stabbed to death. Knife crime is no mere literary conceit nor just a rememberance of Elizabethan times past, but who knows what to make of the dead boy’s own imagination, his attempt to ask a literary forgiveness of the killers even before he was literally struck down.
Suddenly Kit Marlowe is transmuted into the pantheon of these dead youths, these roaring boys, and new ways of processing the horrors are blasted into the imagination through the prism of Marlowe’s Faustus. The frantic, hysterical screams from the press boys and gals, the necro-politics of the new Mayor whose own deputy has had to resign accused of corruption including – damningly – cruelty to children, the panic is something that crosses the Thames, both to the North and to the South and it all connects with the thuggery of Skeres, Poley, Thomas Walsingham and plots against the monarch, and with Faustus and his notorious pact with the devil, forcing us to ask, perhaps in a scared whisper, ‘What price all this?’
Reed gives us the intricate map of these connections, strikes us with this alternative grid of London souls and asks – what are these pacts we’ve made? It’s Jack Nicholson’s Joker – ‘Did you ever dance with the devil in a clear dark night?’ and there’s a horrible pitch feeling spreading all over; someone, somewhere, has made the wrong deal. Certain, you can’t walk the streets of London without the thought of young blood splashing across your neural pathways, and blades in the babby hands of les cocus du vieil art moderne, London’s free newspapers circulating ever-spiralling, ever cranked-up stories of ruthless murder next to the thousand upon thousand drained out pics of Amy Winehouse and the Beckhams. Reed’s English is the bilingual edition of this nasty, relentless, monotonous junk, the pearl that comes out of shite.
Throughout his book the mythic Michael Jackson glides in a black limo and as the book begins to reach its impressively fantastical climax Reed offers one of the many juxtaposed images that resonate with the damned currency of the present: one image; ‘… a psychic diagram, its molecular building blocks patterned into imagery. In his vision he could see Michael Jackson, arms open wide, dancing on the roof of a Canary Wharf skyscraper as a Boeing, piloted by a naked psychopath, narrowed in on a collision course with the thirty-second floor…’ set next to a second one of ‘Fortnum’s lapsang.’ The crushingly weird combo of an apocalypse tea-time is the kind of perfectly rendered snapshot that captures our super-modern, hyper-city, urban culture, a kind of global etiquette of genocidal tendencies that our Faustian pact has engendered and that Michael Jackson symbolises.
In The American Weekly of 24th February 1935 Salvador Dali was described as a super-realist rather than a surrealist. His approach to responding to the crimes of New York was to draw a man’s decomposing head, seemingly lying on his back, with ants crawling out of his nose and hidden mouth. The comment from the pedestrian journalist covering this and other drawings suggested that what Dali was trying to do was ‘…lead art away from old conventional lines.’ Reed’s novel is similarly ‘super-realist’ and by working his way through speculations regarding Shakespeare and Marlowe he unrelentingly forces himself upon a very fixed source of conventional line and daringly suggests a new trajectory. It’s hard to think against the normal, against the given.
The teenage knife deaths of London are beginning to circle all the inner heads of Londoners in sad and sleep-interrupting dreams. Roads and trees and shops and bars and bus-stops and schools and houses and shoes and shirts and skirts and signs and stations and parks and tv programmes and films and airports and beaches are become strangely mythic. They pick up and transmute to the poetic ‘mental refuge’, as Reed calls it in a brilliant essay In A Dark Time: Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke, of Roethke’s own poem The Far Field: ‘Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,/Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,-/ One learned of the eternal…’
What we have now is the ordinary rubbish of damned, revolving life revealing eternity, and it terrifies us. We read the novel as we have to now, in a time where ‘Man … can be turned inside out… one lack’s the protection of one’s skin, the walls of one’s skull leave one’s mind visible as the bubble in a spirit-level.’ (In A Dark Time…) Young men, disattuned to their environment, or too attuned to the rhythm of the sold-out violent nerve wires, get murdered under the over-reaching arc of the banal and the clichéd mind, and for as long as such an arc looms over them their deaths shan’t be understood. There has never been a more intense need to record what is what than now. London is the world. We are at war and we drink lapsang. We walk along a road and a child is hacked to pieces.
Reed has forced us to encounter the odd inside flame of the darkness of London, a psychotic preoccupation with money and power, sex and violence, that taps into the hollow of the mind rather than its juice, like a screen across sensibilities of something, anything. He writes about a combined awareness, the drained out fag-end of beauty and its ulterior interior which brings relief from corruption. It’s the dream of redemption, Shakespeare asking for Marlowe to love him again whilst knowing that the knife that took away his life first time around was a deal in collusion with bought-off talent (mere talent). This book redeems Shakespeare. So it’s not his fault. Condemns him. But it’s still not his fault (perhaps…) because ‘They were one body, the first and the last poets, and he intended to keep it that way.’
But the Faustian pact is ours. Michael Jackson is driven silently in slow motion , as if underwater, through London’s blooded streets and a million pictures of him insist that he is our secret privacy, as stars always do so insist. Reed’s novel is the fast poetry of the damned winding out like a drowning, ‘the hurtling velocity of flesh breaking itself against water.’ (The Black Screen)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall (centre) is former editor of 3:AM and his essay on Stewart Home appeared in its fifth anniversary anthology The Edgier Waters (2006). He lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 25th, 2008.