Impulsive Nihilism: Mark Waugh’s Bubble Entendre
By Richard Marshall.
Mark Waugh, Bubble Entendre, Book Works/Semina, 2009
At one point the book announces: ‘This is the story that lost the plot.’ Losing the plot is what the novel’s about. The question is how to do it, how to get past the point of no return. It signals the idea of going mental, of getting out of your head. A divine madness or a drug and sex fuelled debauch. So it’s about losing control and also about slipping out of the control of powers. Of getting free. So it’s about liberation too. This is the third step on the proposed nine step journey of Stewart Home’s editorial Semina project being showcased by the wonderful Book Works and Home’s co-editor Gavin Everall. It’s a process that might suggest an answer to that question of how.
Chet Baker may well be playing Let’s get Lost into the dark cool of the moon-lit night throughout but this is a relentlessly tripping and clubbing mix. Episodically deranged and frequently pre-established drug and sex scenes give the structure a faux formalist rigor that melts into the air under hard scrutiny like witchy Macbeth wimmin. At the same time they also inaugurate a glimpse of the holy in the midst of the profane, like fornication before the Shekinah. Yet these devices maintain the svelte and sophisticated momentum of the prose which is quite a way from anything Home himself has so far produced in his own novels, infused as it is with a delicate and effervescent lyricism, advertised in its very opening line, ‘ The hooded station of St Pancras let trains come and go on glistening rails.’
The fragmentated narrative finds its way about with some vivid painterly effects. The sense of a mind thinking through subversive possibilities are throughout attested to through such images rather than straight discursiveness. It is through the cumulation of these, alongside severed remnants of a story, or several stories, as if we are at times delighting in the horrid yet appealing remains of a severed torso, that the text constructs and then retains its integrity. And yet where with Home we find something flinty and hard in the granular humour of its spent flash and caustic satirical nerve, a kind of verbal Hogarth, in Waugh it’s more a case of fleshy, flirty, oily surface pant rather than sinuous musculature, Rubens, if you like, to Home’s Hogarth.
And so there is also something wild and drunk in the book too, a kind of unaffected immodesty that lingers around its obvious intelligence, a book that constantly subjects its thoughts to an imaginary standard, one that his utopian fellow-workers also have to dream-up if they are to keep up. It invents an imagination that disorientates the plain of the feasible.The invention is therefore the invention of someone attempting to move into the mad frenzy of a future desire, a desire desiring a better world and doing so by using the imagined standards of the unfulfilled time. In so doing it acts to bridge the gap between the here and now and the future, to bring it all back home. And so in turn ‘keeping up’ deepens with a glam-sly nod to a pun including both the drugs and the sex – ‘getting high’ and ‘keeping it up’ – like old porny Silenus himself of the Rubens picture.
I suppose then that this is where Waugh answers the question as to whether what we’re aiming for is the perfection of the future or the perfection of the past. There’s no sense of nostalgia in this. The idea of a Fall, of Grace rejected and ruined, is not part of the story and so this is not a book structured round the Protestant notion of a return to Eden and the first and second Adams. This is a book where the future is free from the past. Nothing’s been lost and everything is to be gained. Throughout each sexual act is an act to break forward and away from the clutches of present and past time, as is each drug fix. Death inevitably is no longer anything but simple, an encrypted erotic cipher that here and there is imagined as a killer gum , ‘… a hallucinogenic 39 Steps, a code perfected to erase undesirables… The user’s innate onanophilia exasperated and streamed into a final exquisite replay of the Orgasm Death Gimmick. The speculation following leaked autopsies was that the brain melted into a primal pulp, a gunk not unlike the cachet of this pharmakon.’ The past is imagined as merely gunk, some primal stimulation or potential of a better life (even though in this case the better life is, paradoxically, death, but maybe only of the content of expression.) and the final invitation of the book is to punningly Come, the title of an earlier novel by Waugh. This exhortation always reaches back to us from the future, someone standing in front of us beckoning us to follow.
What you get in the book is a constant playing around with the curators of the possible, where name-checked philosophies and art of the utopian project are played out from drug scene to sex scene and back, again and again, a fluid and mysteriously sordid fleshing out of anti-prudence and anti-modesty which yet retain, or rather, re-imagine the entire unity and coincidence of all the parts. The world is not just one thing in this, and nor does it remain the same throughout. Every feature is in motion every moment and so the reader hops from finely done paragraph to the next and is able to countenance the changes, the incompatibilities which are mouthed, like Mandelstam’s image of the poet connecting up a poem’s parts being like a logger leaping from separate log to log as they flow down a single river.
It’s a medley of successive, teasing, not so much contradictory as discontinuous moments and yet there is without a moral or aesthetic comprehension of unity, and this unravels the confusion not to deny the experience of a labyrinth but rather to confirm that the unity was indeed a maze. Thus, amazement becomes a core sensation for the reader as one part runs away and threatens to leave you in the lurch only for careful attention of another part runs you back as a kind of abridgement of the past experience. As such, the reader cannot but refuse any mechanical interpretation of the event of reading, and any reduction of sense and meaning to some mechanical process whereby the idea of a realistic facsimile being resurrected is bluntly denied.
For example, Waugh writes out the short paragraph: ‘Everywhere humans were engaged in a primal scene of violence, pulling a trigger or running from a blade. A body is raped with its own severed limbs. The wailing is intolerable. Tears spun into melody, a stick to hold off madness.’ Here we have the fluidity, the oily surface that smears events, objects, times into one gorgeous garnish where the common-sense limit of everything is exposed as just another superstition. And here too we have the lyrical as a foil to the limits of his imagination, where he un-pretends a ruthless destiny. By which I mean that the future he holds necessary is a place of marvels equal to the limits of the imagination; as such, he knows he must stretch and reach as far as he can. With this driving him, his prose explodes into the brain of the reader – brain not mind, mind you – like a nova of sympathy and beauty and a new kind of aesthetic is created for however long we can hold it. It has to jump past the mind to make a direct hit in the brain so as to avoid the corruption of thinking.
Waugh plays with beauty – a most unfashionable initiation – and straps together a sequence of these bright, single-glanced yet multi-bombing paragraphs that burn away a single narrative thread and set in train something else. Recall the acid painting of the legendary Gustav Metzger who had by the end of the fifties, by his own lights, ‘…reached a strong dissatisfaction with the materials of painting. I needed something tougher to work against than board… Looking back at my development , I see that I had exhausted the medium of paint on canvas as far as the expression of a fast, intense vision was concerned.’ Similarly it seems Waugh is blasting away at the limits of the prose lyric narrative and substituting a corrosive self-destructive form in its place, laced with indeterminate and blinding gorgeousness. This goes beyond mere prettiness which, as Beckett has it, ‘digests our gratification;’ rather, beauty pitches us on the peak of some sheer crag. That is the very pain of beauty.
Metzger dreamed of a future art form whereby the very artifact destroyed itself over a period of time. Waugh constructs a prose text whereby the process of reading removes limits of a straight line and replaces it with a fore-grounded energy revolving around the sheer beauty and speed and wit of each section. Paragraphs work as blocks of what can be swallowed in one gulp. There is little sense in requiring such chunks to be digested in the same order as they are taken down. Deconstruction happens like a corrosive. Bits fall away whilst other bits and pieces stick around for longer.
What is the story that falls away into pieces like old paint flaking off a dead window-frame? It really isn’t important. The act of auto-destruction built into the prose convenes a kind of vegetation writing where, as Hazlitt had it of Poussin, ‘… nature played her fancies wild; when all was sweetness and freshness, and the heavens dropped fatness.’ What happens is that the narratives rot into the reader like a compost out of which new ideas grow. This makes up a force-field of Utopia, where the erotica and extreme stimulata are mirrored in a seductive come-on that acts as a screen for the dreaming mind.
These are the dreams of a future that confounds and baffles the self-love of the political classes, of the dreary pinch-nose minds who face this stuff and realise with terror and horror that ‘…there is something in the mind of humankind which they can neither give nor take away.’ The perversity of the text allows the dream to reimagine the rotting away of the human too, so that we can begin to imagine a new kind of time, a new set of symbolic forms that transforms us into this newness.
So it’s a utopian project. Home has written about the currents of this project at length and has put himself about to increase the influx of radical ideas that challenge the repulsive life in which we live for the last twenty odd years. Thus this Semina project is itself not an isolated outbreak of an obscure culture war, just as Waugh’s novel is not a stand-alone eruption into the literary field. Mr Trippy is a leading player in a largely unpublicised yet exceedingly important undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Given the nature of the relationship between Waugh and Home as writer and editor it’s worth dwelling on how far this is Waugh’s work and how far Home has influenced it.
Home is the greatest living ventriloquist performer of novels. How far is his editorship another act of ventriloquency? The nature of ventriloquency is a kind of magic out to create an illusion for others. There is a vast literature about this. Some key films too. There is also the possibility of the mystical creation of another, making up a daemon at the end of the arm. An alternative mouth and an alternative voice. We may well ask if, therefore, ventriloquency is an act of corollary force or rather, as the Quarterly Review was to Edinburgh in the age of Hazlitt, one of contradiction? What happens when the voice goes free of the shut gob to make its noise in another hole? Does it really go free? Is this magic? Not wanting to sound rude but you have to wonder: is Waugh Home’s puppet here? In some sense there is the recognition that the act of collaboration is not always of equals, and the project overall has wires that go beyond the immediate circuit of this one novel, this one clutch of Semina works, that reach back through the tendrils of the trickster troublemaking surrealist, lettrist, fluxus, neoist thickets to go forward from that history, that tradition.
So if our spirits of the age talk out of the mouths of puppet dogs bought cut-price on the internet and collude with the philosophers and artists and writers who conduct themselves with energy and tenacity against the worst prejudices and fashions of our day, against the indignation and indignities of snail-paced, witless, bed-ridden composures, black-letter readings, envious, stationary, faded and ornamental commodities that require that all submit to the stone-faced requirement of the market-place and the managerial state’s controlled decontrol then best it be in a spirit of collaboration, partnership and mutual support. That’s a way of understanding the process. It’s a social act. Individualism and commodification are being chastened and questioned. A communal inspiration is being called up. In the novel it goes like this: ‘I am telling you a story. I am a ventriloquist. A preacher of addiction. My act goes like this. It’s a memory trick. You have lost the plot!’ Perfect writing.
It is the plot of beautiful social relationships that have been lost in the competition or managerial state that replaced the neo-liberal state that preceded it and the welfare state that preceded that and etc etc. Previous roles, loyalties and subjectivities have been excluded. A discourse of ridicule and a logic of witchcraft and ritual infects the social and policy wonks everywhere, insisting that no symbolic systems at all should oppose the marketable. Consumer globalisation culture replaces democratic internationalism’s social values: whatever you can buy, whatever you can sell, immediately has precedence over other opposing values, values of social relationships that rescind the very possibility of such exchange. We are being asked to resist, so ‘Imagine the unmapped territory…’
Waugh’s novel, set in the near future of 2012 and taking the London Olympics as its central symbol of this state and politics, wittily plays with its lewd and desolate logic. Working on the premise that the Olympic Games represent Blake’s ‘chartered streets’, it imagines a disruption to them equal to his Tyger. Athletes become porn stars, become dead, become terrorists and victims of terrorists, the media and all are wound into the fabric of the funny idea of a media terror thrill at Claridges big enough to supplant the Olympics and ruin it. But the fragmentation allows Waugh to move around his invention, to break in and out of the consciousness of characters and thus resist the pedantry of detail. The philosopher, in order to prove to the sceptic that movement is possible, gets up and walks about.
In more than one way, then, it links to what Iain Sinclair is doing in his latest book which locates Hackney as the necropolis HQ covered by the Olympic sigil, a text resisting the inevitable with a secret, invisible sequence of Swedenborgian heavens and hells. Mr Trippy holds hands with both. London has never felt so erotic, so political – same thing here – nor Brighton. The West Pier is what doom looks like and is where everything gets taped. Another teenager dies. ‘New York is fucked. Tokyo is fucked. London is fucked.’ Leonardo’s Mona Lisa becomes obsessed by the mass child killer Gilles de Rais, makes biological experiments using the black death virus for the military, ‘has an oiled texture that masks the stubble of the transvestite posing for tourists.’ It’ll all end up with a book deal about the pervert murderer based on the transcripts of the trial courtesy of Bataille.
Well, I went along to the book launch the other week. It was the eve of the G20 shin-dig in London. I took a bus from Finsbury Park which took an hour to get me there. I then made a daft mistake and set off walking in the wrong direction and ended up half an hour away looking for Commercial Road instead of Commercial Street before I realised my cock-up. I hailed a taxi to find out where I was and the driver said he was going that way for his dinner and he’d take me there. He didn’t take my money when I offered. So I was late and the Toynbee Hall was packed. I stood for the duration at the back and listened in to Waugh and Home, chaired by Jeremy Akerman, discussing the book and the ideas driving its production for over two hours. There was a little too much po mo continental philosophy for my taste. I just don’t buy the philosophy as philosophy although if Derrida is really a prankster assaulting culture, and I think Home suggested that he read him as such, then I’ll go with that for a while. But it’s just not true that everything is a text. And I hate dialectics! But what do I know?.
But it was a brilliant scene however, a great atmosphere where everything fizzed with ideas and contrarianism and humour and these were the thoughts it all provoked. And though Waugh didn’t read from his book – I think he claimed that his eyes weren’t up to it because of the dim lighting in the place – we were treated to Home getting his ugly dog hand puppet bought on the internet for a fiver to recite a chunk from Memphis Underground and then discuss the technical difficulties of doing this whilst having to sit and use the mic on the table. He found it easier when standing and this was a first time he’d done it like that. When I got out of there the roads were full of police vans hurling themselves around flashing their blue lights, howling their sirens and getting ready for the demos the next day. London was in a strange state, seething with a threatened panic, the atmosphere edging towards hysteria. The text inside the Toynbee Hall was finding its correlatives outside just as it was finding its voices within.
These, as always, are the grey hours, staggeringly difficult and frightening, and fragmentation of voice, thought and identities made us all the troop of lunatics whose voices start to mix up, inseminate each others until it’s impossible to know where one begins and another ends. We thin out, in such circumstances, liberate ourselves into an abandoned, dirty, low-church secularism and yet become more like Geulincx, like Malebranche, dreaming that stuff is merely the occasion of our knowledge rather than its object.
Conversations like these are witnessed for the sensation of the commotion, are like missiles without provenance or targets as such. Fiona Banner was there, both in the book and in the Toynbee Hall, she who ‘ had revealed in her subtle canvases of the 1990s, there is a lot of surface detail in porn.’ Me, I don’t buy the argument that everything is conceptual, and if textual is conceptual, then I don’t buy the argument that everything is textual either. And if phenomenalism is conceptual then I don’t buy phenomenology either. And if hermeneutics is conceptual then I don’t buy hermeneutics either. Not if they insist on saying that in principle there is nothing outside of them, that there isn’t more to be said. I think some things in principle can’t be conceptualised. The mind and the world. Shucks, they don’t have to dance together and often they not only don’t, they can’t!
But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that something is happening. Taxi drivers are giving complete strangers free lifts out of the kindness of their hearts. Puppet dogs are drooling over the bubble ass of Jennifer Lopez and Mark Waugh has put out a book with ‘the sensation of the real thing, body and soul on a trajectory of impulsive nihilism.’
Who knows what happens next.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 8th, 2009.