:: Article


By Richard Marshall.


Toby Litt, Life-Like, Seagull Books, 2014.

‘… it is not self-evident that the noble parts of a human being (his dignity, the nobility that characterises his face), instead of allowing only a sublime and measured flow of profound and tumultuous impulses, brusquely cease to set up the least barrier against a sudden, bursting eruption, as provocative and as dissolute as the one that inflates the anal protuberance of an ape…’

(Bataille: The Jesuve.)

Litt might be satirical were he not aware of the parodic nature of the world. So he takes sex as the parody itself, a parody of the crime he might have satirized had he not sensed the delirium of atrocious pleasure and amorous frenzy. He writes about the circuit of movements of attraction across a human field. It is contrasted with a void. If not laughter then a wry smile is an appropriate convulsion in the face of a dark abyss that opens up in his critical playfulness. His characters end up ridiculous, ceaselessly repressed and left screaming against their guilty, spasmodic solitude. It’s an essential performance.

The blurb accurately summarises thus:

‘Emotionally compelling and formally innovative, Life-Like is Toby Litt’s most ambitious collection of short stories to date, bringing to fruition themes begun in his previous books, Adventures in Capitalism, Exhibitionism, and I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay. Life-Like is a book about our globalizing and atomizing world – with stories set in India, Sweden, Australia, and Iran – that also looks at how we meet and fail to meet and what connects us to one another, as well as waste and communication, and, in turn, communication through waste. The twenty-six stories begin with Paddy and Agatha, an English couple last seen in Litt’s Ghost Story. Following the stillbirth of their second child, their marriage has gently begun to collapse. Paddy and Agatha both meet someone else. First, Paddy meets Kavita, and Agatha meets John. Then, each of these four engages with a different new person – and so on, through a doubling and redoubling of intimately interconnected stories. The remaining short stories exemplify Litt’s impressive, unflinching prose.’

His contemporary characters are tracked through interlocking, intricate patterned episodes. This is tough knotted, hard-hearted artifice. Its audacious operation is a newly articulated subordination of erotic laceration. Here ecstatic torments are managed as metrosexual assimilation and sublimation. The ‘novel’ (if it is – it may not be) is a jigsaw that requires a reader to wonder whether multiplication of perspectives fragments and dismantles or accumulates and deepens. The surface narrative is smooth and quick, hardly stirring the air. That’s not where the intensity lies. The wild apollonian tautness is in the architecture, is caught in the style and the structure which butchers the joints of the book’s universe. The surface remains perfectly self-controlled and attentive, a state of pale distraction that Benjamin defined as perfected modernism. Its illegal madness is what the cool walls of his style traps. Litt retains a framework for building new layers of attention by constantly showing the attentiveness of his characters’ absorptions failing to capture anything like what they’d hoped to grasp. What that is lies out of reach, a huge wriggling shape-shifting of dead childhoods – ‘The room was no more exceptional than it had been the day before. But he felt completely lost there—a child among towering adults, trying to grow’ – & threatening futures, the insane powers that are outside of their own, that are actually what everything is dependent on especially when they are not there. Desires of sex and erotic deviance are cast against reason in forms of mythic content. This spectral content crosses a novel written as a glacial night, as virulent phantasms, brilliant and requiring exploitation. The myths carry elevated conceptions of solar madness that are squashed by the intellectual despair that Litt portrays so well, a despair that results in neither dreams nor weakness but a half-hearted violence:

‘And now you’re in.’
‘Am I?’
‘It feels like you’re in.’
‘In what way?’
Agatha looked him through.
‘Like you’re fucking me. Or like you’re fucking around with me.’
‘We can stop,’ said John. ‘If you feel this has become inappropriate.’
‘Coward,’ said Agatha. ‘What do you think, that I’m going to say you’ve been sexually harrassing me?’
John hadn’t liked the word coward; sexually, even in this context, seemed to delight him.
‘So, I’m fucking you,’ he said. ‘Like I’d like to fuck you.’
‘I’d like you to fuck me,’ said Agatha. ‘I’d like you to fuck me now. I’m ready for you to fuck me.’
‘I’m ready, too.’
‘But you’re not going to fuck me,’ said Agatha.
‘Why not?’
John, she could see, was part-preparing himself for rejection. Which was when she decided not to reject him.
‘Because if we fuck, I ’m going to fuck you. Even if you’re inside me, I’m going to be fucking you. That’s what’s going to happen.’

Always the moments of vital insight shred and change when they aren’t there anymore. It’s a special feature of these consciousnesses that what isn’t there can effect change. In conscious deliria ‘nothing’ has causal efficacy. How many bodies are on the autopsy bench? Does that body count match the number of persons we have? Throughout we the readers are continuously being prepared for what is coming, are being made aware of the way the characters are morphed and switched by their own desire to exist as someone they haven’t yet become, or by personal histories that lift themselves off as just fantasies or bad memories or straight illusions and delusions: ‘John thought he had fucked Agatha and Agatha thought she had fucked John. They were both happy.’

Litt’s is a precise decay where the standard procedures and patterns that define routes and the drill are concentrated, economic and compacted into a fornicating desolation. Each section is spare and terse, suited to the spatial constraints of print and character named rather than described, summarized in a short demonstration of intense inner drama and abandonment. This retrieves primitive powers of expression from a sedimentation of novelisation that thickens, overlays and spoils. Litt resists discursiveness and decorousness and writes particulars in a subjective pointillism. He writes out a new profound level of existence that refracts like shattered glass. He arranges intricate connections and energies persisting across the breaks, but each break takes us to a new perspective that might well be a new subjectivity altogether, one where just the name persists. Like a porn fuck or Bataille’s eye, the sensibilities trace existence across what one character considers as ‘…the contextless fuck. It had taken him almost twenty-five years to realize but this was what the page-three girl-type offered. Imagine if you were fucking me now—imagine if you could step through the page, or the TV screen, and just stick it in!’ The contrast is with an ‘embodied intimacy.’ Identities or names. This is one of the options shredding and cutting them up. All the people are so bored they can’t even tell if they’re real or whether real means anything more than gratitude – owed or earned , taken or given. Their boredom is a form of our familiar terror.

The book reads like primitive magic. There’s the simple mechanism that turns everyone into an impression. Of what? Of someone who is elsewhere. Everyone is a result of comparison with what isn’t there, isn’t true, isn’t really them. Characters are misjudged, the characters can’t get even themselves right:

‘Joseph was glad to find Emmanuel talkative. Either he had grown two inches or Joseph had misjudged him on the hilltop.
‘Do you mind if I—’
‘You are a good impression of an Englishman,’ said Emmanuel. ‘Better than me. Put it where you want.’

Each chapter works like a totem, splitting members of the group away from others, creating a new species. The splits can be the metrosexual cosmopolitan kind typical of a certain easy brand lit but the book shakes off stereotypes save those that get stranger as you’re asked to concentrate.

‘‘I wanted to know where I was—and to go places people wouldn’t expect me to go. It’s like a white man being at a Ghanaian wedding.’
‘You are not married?’
Emmanuel coughed for a while, then asked, ‘You are really homosexual?’
‘No,’ said Joseph. ‘I’m bisexual.’
‘But more often the men or the women?’
‘More often the men. But more of the time with the women.’
‘Until they find out about the men,’ said Emmanuel.
That made Joseph laugh.
‘You sure you’re not a rabbi?’
‘I’m a comedian.’
Joseph couldn’t tell whether this was a true statement or not.
‘I don’t understand it with the men,’ said Emmanuel. ‘Surely there is too much competition over the biggest—mine or yours?’
‘It’s only an issue if you make it one.’
‘Such a very modern answer. But the whites, they like the experience of a black boy?’
Already Joseph was thinking about whether he really had to tran- scribe every word of this interview.
‘We have a certain reputation.’

The value is already existing, perhaps the wine or the music or the original fuck did it, but the value is already there. If the characters formed from this know anything it is the sense that what is not controlled by them is outside of everything, existing under the dominion of the separated space and time created by the totems. These are ancient deviations from moments they aren’t even aware of. Terrestrial and temporal spaces have a topography on the right hand side of anticipation and reputation. That’s childhood. The adults here have a blocked view of that. Either it is now, a child to come, or lost selves, like when a voice says:
‘I just wanted to check how much of my remembering her had been my inventing her.
This was a cover-up—this is a family I may have screwed, killed.’

This is the opposite of nakedness, a cover-up or the ‘…dawning realization of the cover-up …: It was the child I wanted to see, more than Agatha—though I did want to see her. Naked.’

This from a character who can’t recognize Agatha immediately as Agatha but rather sees her as ‘…another Agatha—a twin of some sort.’

Litt writes to endlessly essential things. Why did they leave their childhood? The answer is outside of culture’s remit of course. Birth and death always come in from outside. These are young adults facing the inevitable banality of growing older. What is never erased but recalled includes shame, cemeteries, friends, how the days were unconscious and then precipitate. All this is carried in the artifice of each character. They occasionally even know they’re entering the realm of the uncanny where they move according to their stories rather than vice versa, but they reverse it when formulating the experience for themselves, eg:
‘They walk. They don’t get into a car.
I want her to hold his hand—for that to be the cue for me to cry.
I like working from life.’

Litt’s is the exquisite imagination that is first about the infamy of forgetting and then its corroding detachment. Rather than a clear perspective there is a role for replacing what any memory of childhood might have held. Like removing God, what is left is an absence from elsewhere. There’s still an empty space where you become aware of what death means, our fragility and inconsistent haze. That absence is not excluded. It marks the indifference of their indifference, which is another way of saying they seek consolation for the awareness of mortality:
‘What do I want here? I want to kickstart Agatha into fiction.
The fantasy is, she reads herself in my book, recognizes herself, contacts me. (Perhaps furiously.)’

We are given sensations of the absence they can’t even point to. The lives break down in stunned trauma’s that can’t ever speak of what happened, nor of what there was before it. The sophistication of urban international episodes contain suburban and metrosexual breakages of lives in squared-out episodes , a form of existence that escapes ordinary responsibilities like a missing stitch or a seizure in the brain. Perceptions hold the illusion that personal identities survive. Each episode ends as a kind of desertion: ‘Her arse looks soggy as she walks away.’

An episode lapses and we leap away from a point of view, or towards a new one. An enormous escape from one to the next character carrying the same name, defying the ruse of rigid designation. Each time it happens it’s like the only one who knew something died too young. We are given a litany of ‘from-the-attic resurrections’, a streaming time of semi-conscious insomnia and a nervous torment, where each time the end of the episode is finally just the end of a sentence before a bigger than usual blank abyss. This abyss works like a death – just an empty period of the page – revealing something else, someone else, along the way in its perfect emptiness. Each character is a new adventure or the same adventure with interruptions suppressing unconscious lucidity, like a heroic forgetfulness making illusion possible. A conflict with feeling human, an insane dignity, the pride of catastrophe where destiny is that of the others you become, consciousness is represented as a fatality where interrogation ends it.

Throughout we see vigilant instincts where forgetfulness is morbid and consciousness an excess of itself, but fatally so. These are instincts that reach towards the values that come from outside their playgrounds, but where their materialist values cut them short and smother their yearning. Material values are misunderstood as pure, despite the yearning for transcendence. These characters are individuals out to maximize themselves through the choices they make. They absorb the false news that reduced the nature of the economy to individualized economizing, to zombie economics. The economy experienced like that seems like it is determined by choices. It seems that everything is for sale or at least for rent. The whole world is at your disposition and the economy consists of economizing. Choices dominate the society rather than the reverse. This is the contradiction they cannot escape. They seek an escape route, seek a perfection or transformation or transcendence but do so in terms that condition their misery. They live as if they can choose death and life, as if it is for sale or at least for rent like modern Fausts. But death and birth lie outside of any market.

Incentives of hunger, greed and gain, scarcity, these determine choices. But hunger, greed and gain have no absolute definition. They are relativised to whichever culture you’re in. The economy is not embedded as if everything else wasn’t economic. No economic factors determine the material life of society. The utility values people have expressed in material choices are differential cultural values. These are the meaningful values that lie behind economic choices . Utility is determined by cultural understanding not vice versa. We understand this in profile. This is the anthropologists’ ‘habitus’ whereby we know at least that long hair is to swinger as short hair is to straight . Even if we don’t have a full set of this knowledge the values are there and we know enough. The objects that make them exist and determine the choices people make are profound, active and crucifying. The market realises social and cultural values. As Marshall Sahlins said years ago: the market is just an expression of the cultural order, not a determinant of it.

The superiority of goods from the outside, those transcendent goods of dreams, hopes, vertiginous light, the absence of mankind, or its consummated alterity in the legendary oceanic fuck, this all relates to human finitude. No people controls life and death. If we did we wouldn’t get sick, we wouldn’t die save from suicide. Conditions of our existence are not within our own power. Life and death come from outside of culture. This causes the fundamental agony of Litt’s characters. What they attempt to buy or rent comes from the outside world, is a reverberating uneasiness in a narrow domain. The lives depicted here are no longer general enough to agitate towards a life without limits; yet they are defined by limits that are ludicrously self-imposed. Each has its own unfulfilling degradation growing like a feeling of nausea, and an increasing sense of loneliness and dread in the night that accompanies an awareness of their irredeemable omission.

Fundamental sex embodies the generative powers taken from outside – those higher and reproductive powers. Sex from outside involves the divine sought-after animate qualities – the life giving animate qualities. Indonesian gold is where life adheres inside the gold and becomes an appropriate good in exchanges. These life forces are involved in reproduction. Riches are thus means of fashioning kinship relations. Gold is connected to procreative power – connected to reproductive systems, to cunts and cocks. This is the way money is fundamental to kinship. Gold is animate – has a life force. Gold doesn’t age – its shine continues through the ages. Red gold links blood, women and life giving. Embodying fundamental life forces brought in from the outside is a fundamental. Alterity, the external, is scarce, and this makes the goods valuable. This reverses the usual way of explaining the link between value and scarcity. Bataille saw this as a basis of all human life: ‘ … a principle of insufficiency…’ and from this ‘… the awareness of the vanity and the emptiness of our fellowmen; an apparently stagnant conversation betrays the blind and impotent flight of all life toward an indefinable summit.’

Even the chance not to be wrong, to not participate, becomes a comedy for others not participating in the comedy of those who echoe strange depths of animated life. Like coming from outside a treaty of evil annunciation, Litt’s small characters testify to our epoch. They reveal the shortcoming of being born in a time of clandestine impudence, the impudence of refusing prohibitions, obligations and the realization of sacred action in the name of those very things. They are aware of orgiastic impulses but won’t oppose the political, juridical and economic institutions that the impulses require. Litt brilliantly dissects their timidity, their failure to be gratuitously impertinent whilst remaining sympathetic.

Even the simplest society may set up difference so that even there there are different species formed from within the very same group. The shadow of existence the world gives up is made from stylized wounds, punishment and revenge. It becomes a mysterious space for the benevolence of the work itself. The absence, the penumbra, hidden in a world’s attic, its curiosity and indiscretion, everything is caught in our implausibly beige contemporary language:

‘‘God exists,’ said the Priest, finally. ‘God truly does exist.’
‘Thank you for your time,’ said May, and pushed aside the curtain. ‘Goodbye.’

The Priest arrived in Starbucks not five minutes after May. The place was busy, and she was still waiting at the service counter for her non-skinny latte.’

The static moderation of this is deliberate: we recall by way of contrast Sade:

‘Verneuil makes someone shit, he eats the turd, and then he demands that someone eat his. The one who eats his shit vomits; he devours her puke.’

Litt’s characters are all caught on the brink of their own disappearance. This type of ego is a negative milieu on the verge of exhaustion. Litt’s brilliant portrayal of its fatigue of language and desperate projections of regrets and nothingness, of organic obsessions of loneliness reveals a spectral void irreconcilable with life. As such, the pathological stories must exploit contemporary identities whilst marking a forgetful discord with all the scattered selves. Narratives form a separation from a certain inaccessibility to fear. They are about the attraction of repulsive objects and conditions investing understanding with contents that remain foreign to their beholders. The affective erotica of human intelligence is speared in the obscene banality of tolerance that appears at the end like a crime:

‘He knew Agatha was remembering their wedding. Agatha heard him singing loudly, badly, and him not minding.

Their wedding had not been in church.’

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 22nd, 2015.