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3am ESSAY: LITERATURE


JO CUNT’S PRISON-ART: MICHAEL BRACEWELL’S PERFECT TENSE



“Bracewell has developed a counter-cultural exercise that looks like its opposite; a sex and death pulp novel that has no sex, no death, and is written in the exquisite prose of a polished master out of the House of Toff, an insane attic sister of Anita Brookner.”
by Richard Marshall

COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


‘This town needs an enema.’ This outrageous quip has a terrorist appeal. Applied to ‘Novel Town’ or ‘High Culture Town’ or ‘Art Town’, self-styled art extremists and politico/cultural incendiaries embrace this approach. Mike Bracewell’s new novel Perfect Tense (1) works through the extreme sensibility that something is extremely wrong, where ‘Work is a blessing… because… work, ultimately is the one thing that keeps the rest in place.’ (2)

In a jointly authored essay Bracewell suggests what that wrongness is about. His Everyman is Jo Cunt, ‘…British, a bigot, a complainer and a bully…who’ … cannot bear too much unreality. In the space of 50 years Joe Cunt -- and you will have guessed by now that we are all Joe Cunt -- has carved his initials on the bark of three generations. Do we want to save him from going onto the fourth? If we do, the solution on the face of it couldn't be easier. Groucho Marx, once lost drifting with his brothers towards a watery grave, said: ' Pull for the horizon, its better than nothing.' The only trouble is that the horizon once delineated by class is no longer recognised by our supposedly classless society, which champions the foreshortened perspective of attitude instead. Attitude confirms a person's individuality, it empowers and endorses individual desires. Yet individuality, as enshrined in Baroness Thatcher's dictum that 'there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women', and in the political strategy of her latest protégé Tony Blair which substitutes a change of management for an alternative ideology, is an inadequate moral principle. Attitude -- the amalgam of posture and emotion which translates into an approach close to soft Stalinism and a culture in which the twin icons of new art and new sport brook no criticism, is against all debate, against any polemic that isn't belted from the baseline, against any review of what we may or may not believe in. Is this a social condition in which one generation of worshipped youthfulness is simply replaced by another generation of worshipped youthfulness? The next generation is being born into an extreme world of manipulated consumer lifestyle, without guidance, with no sense of the benefits and duties of belonging. All the rest is planned obsolescence.’ (3)

It is against this politicised ‘obsolescence’ that Bracewell writes his fiction. His novel is itself an act of art terrorism, yet one that never underestimates the intelligence of its readership and never assumes some sort of elitist stance in discriminating the ‘wrongness’ it seeks to attack. In this sense this ultra-refined, cool writer is working a utopian political cultural agenda similar to that of Stewart Home or even (but whisper it so Steven Wells doesn’t hear!) the Attack! Books outfit, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing it at a first glance.

Stewart Home quotes Toby Mott, best known as a member of the now defunct Grey Organisation whose best stunt was to paint the windows of all the art galleries in London’s Cork Street grey: ‘I wouldn’t do what we did in the eighties again. Everything has changed since then, it would be pointless. These days you’ve got to take Brit Art into account because it has changed the rules of the art world. A lot of people today, like those responsible for messing up Tracy Emin’s bed at the Tate, are just wanting in on the art world. That isn’t interesting. But I’m all for bringing down bourgeois idols….Destroying art works misses the point , it just provides work for someone making a replacement or a replica…’ (4). The point here is that effective assaults on culture need to wise up and box clever if they are to remain relevant and effective.

Michael Bracewell’s latest book, Perfect Tense is sussed about all this. He has always been alert to the scene and knows that for him to ‘bring down the bourgeois idols’ he’s going to have to stay jumpy to the field of influence he has already mapped out within his own genre and within his own reputation. So, for Bracewell to suddenly knock out some sort of terrorist chic, guerrilla-writing a la Pierre Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden -- ‘… a free text; free of all subjects, of all objects, of all symbols, written in the space (the abyss or blindspot) where the traditional constituents of discourse (the one who speaks, the events recounted, the way they are expressed) would be superfluous… [where] language must be “entered”, not by believing it, becoming party to an illusion, participating in a fantasy, but by writing the language with him in his place, signing it along with him…a sort of eruption, a historical shock’ (Roland Barthes Preface to Eden Eden Eden) it would have to contain within in the fossil traces of his past achievements, weighed with the drag of reputation and so forth (5).

So, he would not be working towards a total repudiation of all he has ever done before but rather developing a new corrosive power from out of those past achievements. This is indeed what Bracewell has done. Bracewell has developed a counter-cultural exercise that looks like its opposite; a sex and death pulp novel that has no sex, no death, and is written in the exquisite prose of a polished master out of the House of Toff, an insane attic sister of Anita Brookner. Its only equal in recently produced novels is Dennis Cooper’s Period (6) set in the fucked up world of Californian teenage gross-outs which, alongside Bracewell’s, is the other short but brilliant manifesto for radical publishers everywhere.

To get this you have to understand that Michael Bracewell’s reputation is mistakenly filtered through a critical prism that charges his work with upper class elitism and profound conservative values. It is this misreading that is addressed in Perfect Tense where he develops an enigmatic anti-entertainment to make plain his nouveau roman cred. This short compact work, a stark methodical design which realigns tone as the forgrounded incarnation of whatever is left after the detailed, relentless scrutiny of ‘status, image and appearance’ (7) is done, constitutes the required auto-sodomitical enema that overturns the provincial readings that have throughout hampered a full understanding of his work. It’s an extreme exercise, and one which strips out the narrative drive of his earlier novels, a narrative pull and finely tuned zeitgeisty heartbreaking emotiveness that served to mask his mnemonic concerns to preserve whatever is denied in ideological style, language and personality.

Firstly, then, it is a writing that connects with what Tom Paulin measures out as an ‘anti-political tradition’ where ‘…to possess no illusions is to understand a spiritual reality which is religious in its negativity. Beckett’s characters occupy that bare drained landscape, as do many Russian and East European poets…the art of a prison-camp society… produced in a closed world without hope but with an obstinate integrity which simultaneously negates as it creates.’ (8)

Here, the prison-camp is both the novel and the novel’s subject matter. So, inside Bracewell’s new book the prison-symbol is the trap-like routine of the London office work. Outside, for Bracewell the novelist, it’s the novel form itself that lends itself to minimal changes that might adjust the ruling, controlling consciousness of his society. And it is this quality, this buried alive, theological quality that suggests affinities with San Fransisco’s Dennis Cooper whose last book, Period was described in the San Francisco Examiner as ‘A religious book…[which]… tackles the Big Subjects -- God and the Devil, Meaning, Life and Death, Love and Loss, Light and Dark -- and makes them live again.’

Bracewell confronts a sealed and utterly fixed reality, recounting the routine of office life through the voice of an anonymous, middle-aged narrator. As such, Bracewell embraces a project that denies entertainment. There are no love stories, no tensions, no twists -- there are not even sustained characters to distract the reader from Bracewell’s rigorous, advanced critique that resolves itself in a form of resistance to the usually evaded acknowledgment of the present right wing capitalist ideological regime. And so, in a twisty irony, the anti-political act becomes an advanced political act. In Paulin’s words, ‘It proffers a basic ration of the Word, like a piece of bread and chocolate in wartime.’ (9)

Bracewell is thus no right wing middle aged fogy. Instead he is to be found on the same front line as Dennis Cooper, Stewart Home, Dennis Coupland and Lynne Tillman, in his case deconstructing the boredom of alienation through a perfection of tone. It is in fact this tone that serves to bewitch the reader and keeps her reading. This, then, is the point of the opening quotation, serving as a threat to those who would dismiss Bracewell but also drawing attention to the fact that the book deconstructs itself from within.

Here’s a comparison. Bracewell is like Batman. ‘This town needs an enema,’ announces Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s glam/goth pulp film masterpiece Batman (10) of 1989. The film signalled a clean-out of the Batman story itself and was part of the realignment of the comic book away from kiddie camp and into the adult orientated world of avant-pulp trash. Indeed there were some -- there still are -- who wanted to call this new writing ‘Literature’ as if somehow this phenomenon marked a total break from its origins rather than a development from within its settled comic-book genre! (And as if ‘Literature’ was the acme of all writing rather than a bourgeois snob category marking out the sheep from the goats!)

Frank Miller’s Batman story ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (11) and Alan Moore’s superhero-deconstruction ‘Watchmen’ (12) story were the two graphic novels of the early eighties that are considered the landmark beginnings of this shift. It was the Miller book which Burton drew upon to conjure up his deeply edgy and ruined cityscape of Gotham and the new, noirish, adult orientated Batman character as well. For those expecting Adam West’s brilliantly surreal camp hero of the sixties TV show or DC comics’ clean-cut hero, this was all a big shock. Bracewell is beginning a similar account, shifting from Cyril Connolly social-autopsy to Dennis Cooper whig-out, Connolly playing Adam West’s Batman, Cooper Miller’s!

And yet clearly for those of us who recalled the Adam West shows and the DC comics, the new vision inevitably drew upon those earlier manifestations. Indeed, the interplay between the old and the new versions served to deepen and strengthen the impact of the development. The new myth of the dark knight rode on the back of the older, lighter ‘folk memory’. In the Miller version, the sight of an unshaven, ageing and malevolent vigilante, heavy, graceless and dangerously psychotic was given extra force when held up against DC comics’ lithe, morally upright and handsome hero and the weirdly comical TV version from the sixties. Similarly with Bracewell; the Perfect Tense elements were already there, indeed in his previous novel St Rachel (13) it isn’t clear that the counter cultural cred hadn’t already fully resurfaced.

Burton’s film brought to millions the sense of an inner dislocation, where the memory of what a hero was and the lazy assumption that such a stereotype could continue to hold was put to rest, or rather, shown to be broken backed, twisted out of shape and out of innocence. So in the Miller story Batman maims his victims and Superman is shown to be an extreme right wing Reaganite Nazi. And Batman and Superman fight to the death. Such fare was extraordinarily new and endlessly suggestive at the time.

So The Joker’s line about enemas reflected the attitude of the whole film to the genre of comic book heroics. It broadened out inevitably into a comment about America -- given that the film is Hollywood and its subject is New York -- and went all the way to moving into the sort of territory most famously occupied by Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, De Niro’s Taxi Driver/Mean Streets and Bronson’s Death Wish-- the streets where all the psychotic lone males prowl. What the Frank Miller graphic novel did was to directly confront the vigilante hero with the argument that rather than resisting evil and offering a solution to it he was part of the evil, part of the problem And in the Miller story, it is only when Batman returns that the Joker is able to function. The relationship is seen as explicitly causal.

This is what I’m saying about Perfect Tense. In it Bracewell has picked up all the constituents of his previous novels and tortured them into a self-awareness that bleeds off the page and asks questions about the very point of writing -- any writing and, by extension, any cultural activity whatsoever – with a cool, ferocious style that does a job on you, the reader. It’s a remarkable, devastating read that lasts an hour and stays with you for days after.

Just as the new look Batman, a Batman darker, more disturbing and more disturbed than ever before, a character enmeshed in the chaos of the urban nightmare that Gotham represents, a character as insane as the evil he wishes to defeat, just as he was constructed by writer and reader alike (and artist of course) against the earlier, cleaner, less ambiguous versions, so too is Bracewell’s new novel. In the new, critiquing Batman there were secret ironies, knowing glances to an Adam West world. Part of Adam West’s annoyance that he wasn’t asked to play the leading role in the Burton film was based on his understanding of the ironies and layers of extra-dimensional meanings the film would have accrued in that simple decision to place him at the heart of the changed perspective. Of course, the simple decision to employ another actor meant that other delicious ironies and connections were possible.

Nevertheless, Batman, as the human symbolic representative of Gotham City, and ultimately of a version of America, was truly given an enema. The scary, violent, brilliantly insane vision is what we were left with once all the shit had been shifted out, so to speak! Perfect Tense, then, is the ‘Dark Knight’ version of Bracewell’s previous novels.

So in all this there are secret ironies that no amount of contradiction can contain -- take as another example Beckett’s magnificent thought that redeemed the greatness of the painter Jack Yeats from the parochial bog of ‘local accident… the local substance.’ He writes -- ‘he is with the great of our time, Kandinsky and Klee, Ballmer and Bram van Velde, Roualt and Braque, because he brings light, as only the great dare to bring light, to the issueless predicament of existence, reduces the dark where there might have been, mathematically at least, a door. The being in the street, when it happens in the room, the being in the room when it happens in the street, the turning to gaze from land to sea, from sea to land, the backs to one another and the eyes abandoning, the man alone trudging in sand, the man alone thinking (thinking!) in his box -- these are characteristic notations having reference, I imagine, to processes less simple, and less delicious, than those to which the plastic vis is commonly reduced, and a world where Tir-na-nOgue makes no more sense than Bachelor’s Walk, nor Helen than the apple-woman, nor asses than men, nor Abel’s blood than useful’s, nor morning than night, nor inward than the outward search.’ (14)

Beckett in this great essay was changing the terms of the discussion about Yeats -- having identified the root problem of critical acclaim for Yeats as being an over-exaggeration of his Irish nationality he pointed to a new perspective from which to judge Yeats’s achievements and then proceeded, ironically, to have the new perspective begin a dialogue with that old, discarded one. The disjecta still resonated -- ‘the being in the street, when it happens in the room’ etc. -- but having shifted the force of the old view onto the new, the strength of the awareness of great achievement is greater, deeper.

The possibilities for talking about Yeats are suddenly enhanced by such a process. Yet the contradiction of local vs universal hardly holds the irony of the situation that understands, somehow, that if Yeats has universal achievement it is of course rooted in the local situation out of which he worked. And vice versa. Forever. This irony is perverse, queer, is the dissolution of a permanent, grounded understanding -- it’s more like something haunting you so that understanding becomes a ghost, a mystery, something weird and spooky. So the irony is secret because somehow it works below the level of revealed, public knowledge. It’s a secret because it has to be so long as we try and make all that’s necessary here ‘cultural’.

The ‘local substance’ of Michael Bracewell has long been a certain campy R.P. Peter York-style guru-voice developing in association with Kathy Acker and late seventies, early eighties punk and glam pop culture through to a sort of elegant, depressive, Morrissey/Smiths arcadian public-school English High-Lit fogyism. For example, Steve Beard lumps him in with ‘… the easy temptations of the North London adultery novel and the Anglo-Catholic novel of intimate manners… the elite philosophico-liberal tradition of the oedipal novel, which begins with Henry James and joins EM Forster, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Julian Barnes… in an unbroken continuum of aesthetic good taste.’ (15)

A reading of his work in terms that reiterate these tropes is to over-emphasise the local ground out of which this edgy writer has constructed his oeuvre and is to miss other points of connection that reveal him to be quite a different kettle of fish. Like Beckett’s Jack Yeats, he needs to be reinterpreted so that his achievement can be spooked up differently. And to return, just for a moment, to the Batman analogy, Bracewell needs to be re-interpreted from the inside.

Bracewell needs to be understood outside of the genealogy announced by Beard. And so it is that his new novel Perfect Tense conjures up yet again another deranged and damaged hyper-sensitivity, a voice that fractures into a ‘…threatening immensity…panic and emptiness…[where]… life had reached critical mass, and there was simply no room … for any more lived experience.’ (16) This is the real territory of Bracewell. The novel is a flat-line grapheme of some suburban psychotic, as if David Nobb’s TV character Reggie Perrin had been fused with the dangerous eroticism of a Dennis Cooper character -- a trapped violence running an almost out-of-body inventory without the physical extremity of its expression to bring about closure, completion, understanding. The novel reeks with a sense of terror and hopeless desire, all the more so because unlike the Californian gay youth sub-culture that Cooper’s characters inhabit there are no epiphanies, no moments that draw the perceptions into anything close to a finishing end. More or less nothing happens. Again and again and again.

This is not literature, this is a pulp critique of literature where the triumphs of the middle class imagination are twisted back into themselves and revealed as scary, bland and relentlessly empty. This universe is that of someone intelligent enough to see through the grand horizons announced by The Novel itself, a denial of the possibilities of literature as fulfilling the humanist agenda of filling in for religion.

Throughout there’s the sly feeling that Bracewell is working the comparison of the novel as suburb, ‘a machine for dying’ (17) and his novels all tend to hanker for the life of the metropolis, the city where life lives. Which of course makes the Beard view of Bracewell miss the point, alongside those critics who insist on bracketing him with the High Arcadians and Capital Culturalists. Indeed, Perfect Tense is very much a London sub-current, a book that screams out an affection for the place that is the desperate counter-emotion to the terror of the suburbs ‘What I liked about the brutalism of the old South Bank was its indifference to being liked and loathed; under a winter sky, the colour of a week old bruise, those slab facades of weathered concrete had an air of gravitas: they looked grown up. And the pillared spaces beneath them, like hidden grottoes filed with grey light on spring evenings, or the overground bunkers of the concert halls and gallery, reflecting the mottled sky in their long, high windows -- they seemed to respect the need for mediation and enquiry. Topped by the silently alternating colours of Philip Vaughan’s sculpture in neon, here was a place where ideas were never meant to be replaced by image, an uncomfortable place, even.’ (18)

So what we find is a Bracewell much more aligned with the Blakean necromantic geography of an Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Peter Ackroyd, Chris Petit or Michael Moorcock than his critics ever seem to allow . What Bracewell finds in his novels’ journey into the fabulous heart of the city is the terror of the disintegrated heart, the passionless expanse of the office worker whose unfulfilled need for the transforming shapes of the urban Gods is an absolute. And so, ‘The soul sees nothing that does not distress it on reflection.’ He cites Pascal’s dictum and the voice drifts on in a mercurial prose that is the deadly counterpoint to the bleak vision. The prose is gorgeous.

This style links explicitly to the voice’s Petronianism who Bracewell describes as Emperor Nero’s ‘arbiter of elegance’, or style counsellor, whose dandyism concealed the lucidity with which he could anatomise the morals and manners of his times. Denounced to Nero as a traitor by a jealous rival within the Emperor’s inner court of literary minded favourites, Petronius took his own life at his leisure, opening his veins and rebandaging them as the fancy took him, surrounded by friends, fine food and flowers, while making a loss of Nero’s iniquities.’ (19) The mistake would be to read Bracewell’s won vision as being a simple matter of anatomising the minutia of mood and social convention, of reading him as working a minor exercise in social satire or comedy of manners.

Despite the subject matter and the crafty, intelligent and pithy epithets on a range of subjects, from glamour -- ‘…the self-sufficiency of glamour… is denied by… dependence on circumstance…’ (20), and its highest form ‘… glamour makes a person ethereal but still vulnerable to corporeality and the common business of living. Which is why all those film stars and celebrities turn out to have broken toilets and fridges filled with mouldy food -- Bouviers living in a derelict beach house, Capote pissing on the stairs.’ (21) to Style, ‘Style can only be a means to an end; that if Style can articulate perception, then -- what are you going to do with all those perceptions? Where do they go? Or do they just accumulate and reach critical mass?’ (22) to tomorrow -- ‘If tomorrow belongs to anyone, they can keep it.’ (23), despite, as I say, all this beautifully rendered stuff, these are but ‘the local substance’ of Bracewell’s meditation on the act of writing itself. On every page there’s a memorable line, an apercu that flashes and swaggers off the page and disturbs the seemingly moribund morbidity of the voice, but these are lines spoken by a character, a voice that is not Bracewell’s, a voice that shivers with the same malignant beauty of a Dennis Cooper demotic and one that reaches towards the trapped sensibility of a twenty-first century, male, white Madame Bovary.

It’s the clash between the trapped sensibility and its perfect articulation that sets off the alarm bells for the wide-awake reader – this is a novel searching for a nerve that isn’t visible, a nerve that is the writing itself. It’s this presence of some other place, other values, other worlds, that crashes through the image of chic miserabilist that hangs around Bracewell – this is writing alert to itself more than anything else. Bracewell is not endorsing the voice he has invented but laying it out in an expose from the stunned suburban consciousness aching for another place, where something perfectly living is rumoured to begin and end. This, then, is a novel that translates the sensibility of Utopian Currents from the depth consciousness of white, male office workers.

We’ve seen this before in Bracewell’s writing where his drop-dead gorgeous style aims to catwalk itself into the fascinating, deadly beauty of glam/fame only to ruefully wonder what its all about -- not just glam/fame itself (for they are merely the failed stand-ins for the yearned-for Utopian dream that can only be gestured towards in the book’s final moments, somewhere at the end of a train journey from Victoria Station ‘… the blue rim of the atmosphere, and the beginnings of space’) not just that but also what a writer can make of it.

His ‘England Is Mine,’ (24) essay is his most prolonged meditation on this although by foregrounding a preoccupation with an English Arcadian sensibility it was a book some critics found difficult to follow. But throughout the book the perpetual question is of how ‘writing’ might avoid fraudulence, which is the betrayal of the Utopian dream. This is Bracewell’s true target, the possibilities and limits of what it can do, how far it can take you. Change, then, and constraints upon change, is a central occupation. It is not nostalgia. It is anti-nostalgia. And it is anti-snobbery -- one of the most interesting and obvious things to say about ‘England Is Mine’ is the way Bracewell cheerfully ignores categorising cultural products as either being High and Low -- so the Pet Shop Boys mix freely with Oscar Wilde and so on. He therefore avoids cultural snobbery of the most basic kind

In his stylishly worked journalism of the last two decades it is interesting to find many of the artists he writes about are also similarly preoccupied with the limits and possibilities of revolutionary change within their own particular forms. So we find ambient-pop musician Brian Eno, for example, quoted by Bracewell as saying "I'm Director of one of the Pavilions at the Hanover Expo 2000 -- and that's a huge space, expecting up to 153 million visitors, so it will certainly be my biggest audience! I want to commission artists to make the most beautiful pieces you have ever seen also which also double as scientific demonstrations; I would love for them to make beautiful things which are actually about something -- that are not just unmoored phenomena. What I really hope, to tell you the long-term truth, is to invent a new identity for artists. I'd love for this project to be so exciting for the artists who work on it and the others who see it, that they think, 'Hey, we can make art that is about something other than simply other art...” (25) Here we have Bracewell listening in to a statement about going beyond prescription, of reaching out to a place that goes beyond what has been done before -- ‘art that is about something other than simply other art.’ It is the Utopian dream again.

In an interview with Morrissey, iconic pop star and former lead singer with the now defunct Manchester band The Smiths, he writes , ‘Secluded and intimate, with a Roman stone fountain beside the courtyard of the garden, the house and its tranquil surroundings speak of the search by Hollywood's stars of the Golden Era in the Thirties and Forties for a bit of peace and quiet beyond the spotlight. Today, Johnny Depp lives next door. To the original generation of Smiths fans, back in the middle of the Eighties -- ecstatic boys and girls, all mimicking Morrissey's kitchen-sink cinema-style of quiff and National Health glasses as they mobbed the stage at the Dundee Caird Hall or the Liverpool Empire -- the idea of their idol moving to California would have seemed heretical. The whole point about Morrissey, back in those days, was his romantic nostalgia for an archaic notion of Englishness -- as glamorous, in its own way, as this luxurious residential backwater in Los Angeles, but deriving its glamour from the appropriation of unlikely icons as champions of the dispossessed. "The Smiths happened because I had walked home in the rain once too often," Morrissey remarked.

But his wholly ambivalent presentation of Englishness turned sour, and prompted his move to America, when, following a concert at Finsbury Park in 1992 where he wore a Union Jack flag draped over his shoulders, the British music press accused him of nationalism and racism. This, of course, was before the Britpop phenomenon, in which everyone from Noel Gallagher to Geri Halliwell reclaimed the Union Jack as an icon. Morrissey was pilloried by one article in the then influential music press entitled "This Alarming Man" -- playing on the title of The Smiths' single, This Charming Man.’ (26) Bracewell is writing Morrissey almost in the same cadences and terms Fitzgerald invented for his Gatsby. It’s a yearning portrayal of some failed, but immensely beautiful dream.

Bracewell is drawn to the idea of finding the limits of discrimination within a particular form, be it ambient muzak, boy pop or the avant-blank novel. Perfect Tense is placing all its energies into finding out how far it can go before it breaks, before there is nothing left to be tested. He is striving to break free of the novel form itself and invent something else that will be able to do more than just gesture towards its fulfilment and purpose. It’s an extreme piece of fiction where the avant-garde strategies of, say, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Saurraute -- French anti-novelists demonstrating through their fiction that, in a world so impressively full of scientific facts, there is no place for fiction -- collude with the emergent properties of coffee machines, shops, office-lusts and train journeys.

It is close to the novelistic undercurrent of Californian Dennis Cooper. At the end of Cooper’s latest novel, Period we are offered this last looping sentence that describes itself and the novel that contains it -- ‘A little town stuck far away in some obscure hills attached to the rest of the world by a dirt road that swerves dangerously through ugly trees and a fog so dense no one else thinks about making the drive though occasionally strangers will come by mistake and take a brief look around then realise how unimportant its buildings and residents and beliefs seem whereupon they’ll turn back not moved enough to tell anyone they’ll ever know for the rest of their lives that it crossed their circuitous minds once.’ (27)

This describes not only Cooper’s weird creature, his own brilliant oeuvre, but it also could be writing about the alarming ironies of Bracewell’s book. Perfect Tense indeed lays out the perfectly articulated order of an orderly life -- it is a short book stacked high with lists of people’s names, shops, streets, stations, routes -- an inventory that with tenderness presents a world that denies love and meaning, where the voice hankers after something out of reach. It is a voice that knows its unimportance, an inner perambulation ‘strangers will come by mistake and take a brief look around and then realise how unimportant its buildings and people and beliefs seem .... In its last moment the voice imagines ‘… the blue rim of the atmosphere, and the beginnings of space, and how these were the skulls of aliens, to be laid very gently to rest.’ (28)

The Ballardian weirdness of this ending, where science fiction’s easiest signals of the future, aliens, are flipped into a submerged vision out of a past (like a reversal of the scene in Planet Of The Apes where in the imagined future we see the Statue Of Liberty emerge out of the beach) is what elsewhere he describes as ‘the wrong kind of empathy.’ This is one of the destabilising aspects of Bracewell. He seems to be playing the nostalgia card but the emotion and the perceptiveness are dislocated radically, so the emotional impact, the mood of the writing is perfectly tense, as in ‘wound up’. The calm is the calm of someone emotionally disorganised, someone having a nervous breakdown in silence. Indeed, through the detailed anthropological inventory that is the book, we are given an ontological disorganisation that Bracewell’s irony discloses but never announces.

So Bracewell is not giving us the series of details in order to confront us with the truth of this world. Rather, he is out to expose the inevitable deadly failure of the hopeless attempt to get to the truth of the world through reading a novel. Like in Cooper’s novels of murderous love, ‘It’s just a tone, isn’t it?’ (29) the detonated style is cluing us into the search for soul, for the little personal things existing in the gaps between things, in the noise such things make that go out, that go beyond. Not even the precise, brilliant inventories of objects, people, voices in both Bracewell and Cooper can snatch it. And they both know it. This is not their failure but is the failure of a language working out of the alienated social context they are attacking.

Hence both are working hard within the novel to break free, and where their books work is in that sampling of tone -- in one a down-beat Californian demotic, in the other the bored ironic pose of R.P. flash. Like Brian Eno, they are both writing to make something new ‘…art that is about something other than simply other art.’

So Bracewell, now domiciled in Manchester, England, can now be seen as an avant garde anti-novelist closer to the European avant-garde experimental tradition of the nouveau roman than any of his critics seem to allow (There are notable exceptions to this critical blindness of course -- Stewart Home being one of them, Lynne Tillman another), a tradition which is now colonised by American West Coast blankers such as the brilliant Cooper.

In a fanciful but suggestive corroboration of this Manchester/California link I come again upon Bracewell reporting Morrissey in the essay cited earlier where the pop star says -- ‘I spend hours just driving around the small rundown Mexican areas of Los Angeles -- that is, the areas where the small, rundown Mexicans live … And I have become quite fascinated by that. And so, yes, you could say I've come from Salford to Lincoln Heights. It's a short walk, really, and there are very familiar types in each place, and they are all interlinked. And, yes, Los Angeles has its own equivalent of The Blind Beggar pub, and, yes, Los Angeles has its own Salford Lads' Club -- which, curiously, is full of Salford Lads. And I know that people who dislike me will dislike me even more for saying this, but I don't have another life. I don't exist as another person, somewhere else doing something else with other people. There is no other me. There is no clocking off."

So Bracewell is attempting to focus attention onto form rather than the subject matter, where anecdote and message become merely the condition for expression rather than the directed end. The idea of tone, as in the work of Cooper, becomes forgrounded, becomes the essential thing. So sure, the dandy tones could be heard as snob faux fogeyism -- just as the recent album ‘Regeneration’ by Neil Hannon’s Divine Comedy sometimes seems to register this lousy conservative stuff (where listening to ‘Dumbing Down’ is like listening to the deeply mediocre right-wing former British Tory Junior Minister George Walden set to music-to-eat-toffees-by!) but as top avant garde writer Stewart Home writes in his latest novel 69 Things to Do With Dead Princess Bracewell is too intelligent to believe in anything like that deeply conservative humbug cry of ‘dumbing down.’

Instead, what Bracewell is ultimately interrogating in Perfect Tense is the Idolatary of the novel. This is an idea explained brilliantly, in Cynthia Ozick’s essay ‘Literature As Idol: Harold Bloom’ (30) which links Bracewell in certain crucial respects as being the anti- Bloom to the Bloom of Ozick’s essay.

In the essay Ozick says that ‘…Bloom …[is]… engaged in the erection of what can fairly be called an artistic anti-Judaism. This does not place him with Pound and Eliot, who are simply anti-Semitic in the commonplace sense, nor yet with the New Critics, whose austere faculty for ‘tradition’ was confined to Christianity…’ (31) She then deliberately misquotes Bloom from a little book called ‘Kabbalah and Criticism’ -- ‘What does a novel create? Alas, a novel has nothing, and creates nothing. Its presence is a promise, part of the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Its unity is in the good will of its worshiper,’ and I have done the same -- rendering her ‘idol’ as ‘novel’ just as she substituted ‘idol’ for ‘poem,’ whilst retaining her ‘worshiper’ for his ‘reader.’

A Jew shuns idols because, according to Ozick’s essay, it dehumanises everything through being indifferent to the world and to humanity. It is in felonious competition with the Creator, is the work of ‘misprision’ which is in Bloom’s world what Satan is to top republican poet of the English revolution John Milton. The failure of Idols in this argument is theological: on the day of judgement the maker of Idols will be asked to breath life into them and will be found wanting. Ozick claims that Bloom has set up Art -- poetry, the novel whatever, as his Idol.

Bracewell’s assault on the high cultural form of the novel from within, therefore, can be framed as his own awareness of the failure of the novel form’s ability to deliver on its promises . He knows that the novel will fail and that it can do no more than be an Idol. In this sense Bracewell’s Perfect Tense is a Jewish novel, denying it the possibility of being able to transcend itself and deliver the Utopian dream. But paradoxically he does it by playing the role of the Idol maker, building obsolescence into the Idol and so ensuring its destruction even as he brings it into being. Perfect Tense is therefore Kafka’s English novel!

Bracewell is exploiting the contradictions of his own voice. So a voice associated with High Culture turns itself against the class that bought it to tell a story that has no plot, no action, no thought of beginning, middle, end -- it’s like a London ghost spouting Pascal then Nero, like a secret agent, like a failing urban anthropologist, like a sexed up alien chaser, like the anti-glamour, the anti-cool, with a Christine Kleenex character and advice on how to be a monarch all laid out as glubby objects in a bottom drawer, this is Baudelaire wiring up his pineal gland, an uncategorisable art of visionary anti-politics that burns out the cortex and leaves just the afterglow of something seriously scary and scared in the perfectly rendered language of yearning boredom. In a necessary act of cultural terrorism it cleans out Jo Cunt.


1 Michael Bracewell Perfect Tense Jonathan Cape 2001
2 Michael Bracewell op cit p 1
3 Michael Bracewell and Julien Evans . ‘ Et in Arcadia. Jo Cunt. The Rising Son Of The Classless Society.’
4 Stewart Home ‘Incendiary Device: A Critique Of Terrorist Chic’ in Jean Baudrillard and The Psychogeography Of Nudism: 25 Tall Tales Of Sexual Impropriety With Seventeen Year Old Girls, Decadent Nuns and Bread Dolls Taken Directly From The Pages Of Both Spicy Art Publications And The Most Aromatic sections Of The Style Press Appended With Instructions On How To Hang Old Bread bags From The Back Pockets Of Your Levi’s In Order To Signal Your Carnal Desires To The Gingerbread Men Who Frequent The World’s Most Swinging Bakeries And Hottest 24-Hour Bagel Shops. Sabotage Editions 2001
5 Pierre Guyotat Eden, Eden, Eden Editions Gallimard 1970, English version Creation Books 1995
6 Dennis Cooper Period Serpent’s Tail 2000
7 Michael Bracewell op cit p169
8 Tom Paulin ‘ Political Verse’ reprinted in Writing To The Moment. Selected Critical Essays 1980-1996 Faber and Faber 1996 p 137
9 Tom Paulin op cit p 139
10 Batman Warner Brothers 1989 and DC Comics Inc 1989
11 Frank Miller -- Story, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson -- Art, Lynn Varley -- Colour : The Dark Knight Returns Titan books 1996
12 Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchman DC Comics 1995
13 Michael Bracewell St Rachel Vintage 1996
14 Samuel Beckett: ‘MacGreevy on Yeats’ in Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment John Calder 1983 p97
15 Steve Beard ‘’Sage Of Empires’ in The Idler Summer 2000’ p 64
16 Bracewell op cit p113
17 Bracewell op cit p 34
18 Bracewell op cit p 38
19 Bracewell op cit p 64-65
20 Bracewell op cit p 117
21 Bracewell op cit p119
22 Bracewell op cit p 119
23 Bracewell op cit p 57
24 Michael Bracewell England Is Mine: Pop Life In Albion From Wilde To Goldie HarperCollins
25 Michael Bracewell ‘Eno’s No Bounds.’ from The Guardian Friday May 8th 1998
26 Michael Bracewell The Times Magazine, November 6, 1999
27 Dennis Cooper op cit p 119
28 Bracewell Perfect Tense p 168
29 Cooper op cit p 87
30 Cynthia Ozik ‘The Novel As Idol: Harold Bloom’ in Portrait Of The Artist As A bad Character Pimlico 1996
31 Ozik op cit p 146



Richard Marshall has written poetry and short stories for CQ. He writes plays as Frank Beat. His latest play, Hedgehogs, was performed at The Man in the Moon (London) last year. His nom de plume as a novelist is Dick Marsh. GM Mutant Baby Plague, Go Fanny Go, 8 Billion Vinnie Jones’s and Dirty Manga Bastards should all be published by Attack! Books (). Richard edits an education magazine called English In Education which he has managed to keep “spinning towards the dissenting point of view.” His ambition is “to keep making scummy noises that one day will bite.”



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