:: Article

The Cross, the Crosshatch and the Swoopy Lines

By Joseph Darlington.

Andrew Hodgson, Mnemic Symbols (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019)

So what is a mnemic symbol? It’s the trace of a trauma. A kind of parasitic image or word or memory that lingers in the mind. A minor hallucination presented to the ego by itself, to give it something to focus on, hiding the horrors of the id. It’s a recurring symptom. It’s Andrew Hodgson’s latest novel.

Published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Mnemic Symbols dances the same fine line that many of the new publishing house’s best works do in being both unashamedly experimental and rooted in a recognisable, swearing and smoking reality. The action of the novel is fragmentary, a series of mnemic symbols strung together by association, with memories emerging that range from the cringing to the tragic. Just as our reveries are liable to return to our father’s funeral one moment and a terribly awkward encounter with a faraway barmaid the next, so does Hodgson’s narrator reel from moment to moment, sometimes heroic and sometimes confused — sometimes both.

The novel begins and ends with a hiccup. The first of a whole patchwork of intertextual winks and nods; Hodgson invites us to draw comparisons with Proust’s madeleine. Only, where Proust’s reverie is particularly French and particularly sweet, Hodgson’s traumatic spiel is kicked off by a bodily function that is universally embarrassing. In an interview, he has spoken about the hiccup as a legacy of mankind’s aquatic ancestry — a memory buried in the genes, perhaps — but it is also undoubtedly overcoded with a whole range of social presumptions. We think of nerves, of drunkenness, of our own bodies rising against us. Hiccups disrupt language. They are always inappropriate. There is never a good time for them.

The same can be said of many of the narrator’s memories. They emerge in a fractured state, in language that is stuttering, its tone conversational but its content verging on the poetic:

I’ll drive you

Cross the background-contexting shots on a hundred-thousand television sets. No-go. No-go. Get in, in the front drive up through the pedestrianised motorways along the rive-droite. Out west, past Ikea, through Saint-Germain-en-Laye and, you got change for the toll? (82)

Sometimes, as in the above passage, the fragmentation is conveyed in sentence fragments, short little punctures of languages that scatter across paragraphs, showing us a scene in snatches. The language is there to be rushed through at these points, and evokes the restless hurry of crosstown public transport. The metro is a recurrent image, as is the forever-delayed RER.

At other times the language opens up, becoming verbose or, at times, baroque. Thoughts of death bring out the philosopher in our narrator. Death, we are told, is “to writing, an unopened centre. A generative of words and turning of the page, but at odds with the very definition of the document itself, the death remains a hard-iron core” (16). Perhaps death is the great white space upon which these words are printed? Perhaps it is the unconscious trauma that these mnemic symbols desperately shelter, like quivering fig leaves? The writing is sufficiently polysyllabic during these reflections to suggest a barrier. Yet a captivating sunset opens up the narrator’s language too. Spurred on by nature, his descriptions are no longer Foucauldian in their elaboration, but Flaubertian:

It hadn’t been long, not all that long, since I left the harbour when the foghorn shook the counterweights of the windowpanes and all along the street a dull rumble accompanied my steps. In the ascendance, up through the darkened terraces and tenfoots, the sodium-yellow of the streetlamps flickered on, to off, a moment, and on as I passed by. I pictured the freight ships that lay just off, that I had just watched sink into the smudge and blackness (15).

The narrator’s words move through the shifting registers of a memory constructed from a wide variety of experience. Northern English dialect mixes with academic English, evoking the working-class lad made (if only intellectually) good. Meanwhile the rhythms of second-language French, the patter of the ex-pat, is stirred into the mixture too. Under it all, sodium-yellow, lies a Romantic soul.

The mnemic symbols, the memories, that Hodgson strings together, are varied enough to keep us always in transition. A funny moment in which our narrator, presumably drunk, leaps onto a stage announcing “this might not be a bad time to crack out a bit of poetry!” (27), suddenly transitions into a cringeworthy memory: the crowd looking on in barely concealed contempt as the narrator repeats the funny line over and over, sure that the next time he says it must be the one to get a laugh. A search for George Perec’s favourite cafes similarly results in dismissal, our speaker stared down by the current resident, “like I was one in a long line strange people stumbling into his living room asking if he was a café, if he knew someone called George. ‘You know, George Perrick?’” (66). But our narrator is never dissuaded for long, and continues to present to us his moments of failure, his thwarted attempts at connection, and the everyday moments that haunt us just as much as the genuine horrors. The novel, after all, features a terrorist attack, although its telling is such that I leave the reader to discover these pages for themselves.

My favourite moments of the book are the flights of fancy that break through the troubled exterior of our writer-narrator’s mnemic flow. These can be small moments of ludic language, such as the description of pétanque balls: “the cross, the crosshatch or the swoopy lines — which are you?” (79). Or else extended fantasy sequences, like that inspired by the L&L building of the Université de Paris-Bidonville, which, we are told, was designed by an architect while watching a “fucked-out” pile of bodies, post-orgy, back in the 1960s. The modernist monstrosity, we are told, houses the skeleton of its first director who, climbing into a glass office suspended above the building, was subsequently stuck up there; his panopticon becoming his mausoleum. Such fantasies humanise our narrator. They transform the stuttering, self-abasing flow of memories into something closer to a barroom anecdote, if only for the duration of their telling. They make the speaking endearing, despite his flaws and failings.

Hodgson’s influences are worn on his sleeves. Perec, whose old haunts the narrator seeks out, is the most obvious, with the allusion to Proust following behind. The mingling of humour with humiliation perhaps owes a debt to Roland Topor as well; a novel of whom’s, Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne, was recently translated into English for the first time by Hodgson. Other voices, British ones, B.S. Johnson and Ann Quin in particular, are present here as well. If any of these writers are of interest to you as a reader, I would warmly recommend Hodgson’s latest work. He offers an original voice, both innovative and grounded in an innovative tradition. It is a novel that quietly moves the novel, as a notion, forwards.

Joseph Darlington is a writer and academic based in Manchester, UK. His own novel, Spare the Glass Picnic (No-Name Press, 2018) is available here, and his monograph British Terrorist Novels of the 1970s is out now with Palgrave. He has reviewed widely with regular columns at Cambridge Quarterly, New Formations and the Manchester Review of Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 25th, 2019.