We never really left the museum
By Colin Herd.
Invocation Part 1, Jo L Walton, Critical Documents 2012
Among the more recent publications from the always incendiary Critical Documents is Invocation by Jo L Walton, which is currently spilling out in serial form for Kindle, a hyperreal comic thriller and, I’m pretty sure, one of the most urgent, smart and exciting fictional projects of the moment.
Invocation begins with the Johnny Thunders line “you can’t put your arms around a memory”, which is, if not the premise, definitely the promise of the book, especially if the version of that song we’re talking about is the ‘Live and Wasted’ version, where Johnny goes off into the long monologue beginning “I’ve got a problem with the business world. The business world thinks I’m crazy…” And just like the vocals in that version of the song, and maybe even more so, in its elasticity and expansiveness, there’s also a tragic and calamitous remoteness, a heart-wrenching disaffection and distance, mainly surrounding the character Myfanwy, and what she has or hasn’t seen and what she has or hasn’t done.
The difficulty or the pleasure is in knowing or not knowing exactly what to trust. Somehow, the prose manages to inhabit an incredible air of highwire mayhem and at the same time also satirically command a novelist’s assurance and conceit, and all the props too: characters, settings, dialogue, themes etc etc. It’s Hay-on-Wye gone haywire. Inhabiting the tidal shores of perception and reality, lead character Myfanwy is mysterious, compelling and shape shifting herself. And somewhere within all this is language that is rapturous, precise, smart and energising:
Paddy and Myfanwy stood outside Tate Modern by the strands and bridges and building sites of the Thames. Blue cranes rose into the white sky. A white helicopter moved over the Shard.
At Myfanwy’s feet was a pigeon’s wing, faded and trampled into almost a fresco. It should have been gross but it was gorgeous.
“It’s weird,” Myfanwy said. “After you leave a museum, for a while everything looks like you’re still inside one.”
Paddy nodded. “Yeah. Reverie and Stanchion exhibition especially. Gris-gris and muti, funded by extractive industries. I think the twist will be that we never really left the museum.”
Taking its rhythm from the simultaneously building/ breaking, creating/ disintegrating energy of memory and mind, the prose and its sort of futuristic Norman Foster/ Anthony Caro architecture is built up with other novels, other stories, other songs and other incidents… Even, other poetry. Its setting is not just the famously pendulum Millennium Bridge and its London surroundings but also a wider scape of dreams, parodies, nightmares etc. At the same time, it’s an action packed thriller or at least a mystery, as if the product of that famous line at the beginning of Infinite Jest, when Hal thinks he’s saying “I do things like get in a taxi and say ‘The library. And step on it!'” but can’t be understood.
The whole procedure of Invocation seems to revolve around things shifting, altering and coming into existence. You think it’s only books one and two + three that are out yet. But then you look on Amazon and unexpectedly there seem to be more. But are they published? There’s nothing on the publisher’s website. And then I’ve heard rumours that the book has changed in version even after publication, with a new plot development just writing its way into the plot and into subsequent ebook versions. Though I have no proof of this. But in any case it adds to the dramatic sense of transformation that the novel creates.
Reading Invocation, as with the flights of fancy and caprices of poets like Philip Lamantia, the absurd is beautifully commonplace, so that the whole reading experience is about trust, belief and imagination. I was constantly on edge for something bizarre but explicable to happen, something far out but right in front of me, like:
A little way down, near the north end of the bridge, a statue strode briskly nearer.
And Myfanwy’s blood thawed.
Just an off-duty riverbank performer, still covered with whatever that gunk was they used to make their skin, hair and clothes all gleam like granite. Way too easily spooked these days. A Living Statue – give him 50p, he’ll stretch and smile.
Only, it turns out, the concern, the spook, is well placed and symptomatic, though of what it’s not exactly clear. The “historic snowball fight” that has “broken out in every East London borough”? Whatever the cause of the riotous uncertainty and sense of impending change and transformation, Myfanwy’s summation of how the living statue works and her description of the terms of the transaction are totally thrown apart. Whatever stretching and smiling the statue does while on duty, he’s distinctly more sinister when off duty. And things are about to get pretty weird and pretty scary, though they are probably points of view with which Myfanwy is well acquainted.
With some of the best action sequences I’ve ever read, it often seems like movement or action in Invocation is us in the throes of Merleau-Ponty (whose name is echoed in the art teacher supervisor of their ‘Controlled Composition’ exam), where stuff happens not through the desire to achieve a result but as a way of relieving an unmanageable tension. And the novel is full of tensions and full of multiple experiences, view points and characters, peaking and troughing and hinging and swinging and all that through forests, cafes, cares and caves of attention, engagement and emotion. I mean, I’m just not sure whether Paddy and Kitty are separate from Myfanwy, or whether they ever were and aren’t now.
But even still, I haven’t gotten across at all how fun, mysterious and thrilling this book is, which it undoubtedly is, populated by wise-cracking teenagers and their A-level art projects. The laughter which could also be chittering teeth, on a bench, under the rain, in The Meadows. Beautifully pitched, this book does that thing that David Foster Wallace spoke of of “comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.” In abundance.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 8th, 2013.