Sunday, December 31, 2006

Minotaurs and metaphors

Something occurred to me recently that's probably occurred to millions of people over the last decade and a half, but I'll bore you with it anyway, like someone who's just discovered Tarantino or olives or spanking, and wants to sing their praises in that constricted corridor of opportunity between Zeitgeist and retro.

The Net and the Web both take their names from similar structures (in Dr Johnson's words, a "reticulated, decussated fabric with interstices at intersections"). Fair enough. But the energy-efficient lightbulb that sputtered to life above my scalp heralded another metaphorical connection. Nets and webs are united not just in form, but in function. They trap; they ensnare; they imprison.

What kickstarted this thought process was reading Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror (Canongate), which reworks the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur through the medium of an online conversation. So far, so Web 2.0/dead tree interface, and we've been here several times before, most recently with the Japanese Train Man phenomenon. Oh look, someone's updated the epistolary novel for a new level of technology. Again. But Pelevin adds some neat twists of his own: the 'characters' don't know where they are, or how they came to be there; they just about know who they are, but any attempt to communicate their identities to their fellow prisoners is ruthlessly ****-ed out by invisible censors. They don't even choose their own log-in names. Gradually, as they swap snippets of various half-recalled and revealed myths, they realise that they're in some kind of Labyrinth, described thus:

"Some accounts say it was a beautiful place with lots of corridors and rooms, according to others it was a foul-smelling cave with numerous branches plunged into eternal darkness. Or it could be that different cultures had different impressions of the same place."

Which sounds like the Babelbabble that accompanies any analysis of the Web, the true believers always balanced out by the tabloid scare stories written by people who've watched one AOL commercial too many. The site they're all accessing is based on the design of a certain British newspaper's Web presence, a fact that brings together notions of digital and religious control: "Our Guardian really is unlimited."

The author throws multiple literary references into the bubbling pot, from Pirandello-style metafiction (a character called Romeo is encouraged to "take a pump-action shotgun and go looking for your Shakespeare") to that old sci-fi standby, the virtual reality helmet, which here becomes inextricably linked to the headgear in which Theseus tracks down the Minotaur, and leads to a neat little diversion on the notions (illusions?) of choice and interactivity that underpin Web 2.0:

Well, imagine you decide for yourself who's going to shoot who when you're watching an action movie. If you decide the main hero gets killed in the first shootout, then what happens to the rest of the plot? If you had genuinely free choice, the results could be pretty miserable. But art is supposed to make us happy, not miserable.

That's for sure. And even when it does makes us miserable, we should feel happy in our misery.

That's right! So there never is any genuine interactivity, only the appearance of it. Or rather, it is permitted, but only within a narrow range where no choice you make can change the fundamental situation. The main problem is to eliminate freedom of choice so that the subject is led unerringly to make the decision required, while at the same time maintaining his firm belief that his choice is free."

It's this engagement that makes The Helmet of Horror my book of the year. I thought it might be Douglas Coupland's JPod, which is very funny, but despite its geeky textures, isn't actually about online existence. It's really about dysfunctional families and studied irony, which is to say, it's about Douglas Coupland. The inmates of Pelevin's mazy mind are good with the one-liners, but they don't really have time to conjure up stuff like "Mom, Kam Fong's head of a Chinese people-smuggling syndicate. He doesn't have time to be Dad's secret gay lover." Instead, they unite against the unseen enemy, joining a protective chorus of half-understood Latin and wailing, wordless vocalese, as primal and universal as Joyce's "Introibo ad altare Dei" and Eliot's "Wallala leilala". Post-post-modernism does a backflip and splashes down in the primitive myths that bubbled under the surface of Modernism. Despite the hype, nothing is truly new.

Pelevin's ideas force me to ponder this quasi-reality that we've built up in the last few years. The otaku who inhabit the universe of Train Man stick to online existence because only there do they feel safe; but we know that, shrouded in anonymity, plenty of people delight in making the virtual world an unpleasant or even threatening place. Pelevin creates a universe that out-Sartres Sartre: not only is Hell other people, but you can't see the other people, don't know their names, don't even know if they exist. And this isn't just an online phenomenon. You might be the Person of the Year, but when was the last time that You, for example, managed more than an embarrassed nod of greeting to your next-door neighbour (who is also You)?

Since I've been indulging in Cultural Snow, I've encountered some of the funniest, wisest people I've ever known. I say 'encountered' and 'known', although I've only met a handful of them in what still remains the real world, and one of my resolutions for 2007 (along with shedding the weight I put on while writing the Radiohead book) has to be to add to that number. Pelevin describes the online experience as being "like Pavlov's bitch gazing into Tarkovsky's mirror". The blogosphere is, indeed, a hall of mirrors, and quite a few of them are broken. It's fun, but it's not the whole story. The cable damage caused by Tuesday's earthquake in Taiwan has reminded a few people round these parts of what the analogue world looks like. I think what I'm really saying is that I should get out more.

So, as James Woods so elegantly put it, "Death to Videodrome! Long live the New Flesh!" I hope that you, and all those close to you, and even the commenter on CiF who accused me of being "slick, smarmy, devious, cowardly", have a fleshy and happy and healthy and peaceful and mostly Minotaur-free new year.

The Chasms of the Earth: Opens Tomorrow

Thursday, December 28, 2006


In an interview in The Observer, the art critic Robert Hughes defines and justifies his elitism thus: "I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness."

Which sounds pretty convincing, until you realise that he's probably never enjoyed that sinus-clearing rush you get from dancing badly to some gloriously stupid punk record. There is a place for creative stupidity in the aesthetic universe. But how do we define it? Are some stupidities (the Ramones?) better than others (Crazy Frog?) and, if so, why?

And while we're on the subject of pop music that Australian art critics in their late 60s probably wouldn't like: shortly before Christmas, at a party thrown by my dear friends Bui and Simon, I met a very smart and articulate young man who'd just that day graduated from USC. We got talking about music (duh) and he confirmed something that I'd suspected for some time.

"I've never heard any Joy Division," he said, "but I hear all these bands that apparently sound like them, so I think I know what they sound like."

If anybody, despite my incessant, tedious harangues, still hasn't got the hang of Baudrillard's notion of the simulacrum, that's a pretty cogent example of it.

Coming Soon: The Chasms of the Earth

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blogging Brown

Many of you will have seen blogs that aim to guide their readers through the less penetrable paths of literature: the Bible; Ulysses; the new Pynchon. These sites vary in their approach, but they are united in a core idea; that these books are in some way important, and worthy of consideration, but they can be pretty tough going. Readers want to read them, but need a fairly intensive level of encouragement. So the blogger takes them through, one page or chapter or section at a time. It's like a micromanaged reading group, I suppose. Or an interactive Coles Notes.

My project for 2007 is slightly different, considerably lazier, but (I hope) interesting in its own way. I want to take my readers by the hand and lead them through a work that is by no means difficult or challenging. On the other hand, it has not only sold shedloads of copies, but has captured the imaginations of thousands of people, forcing them to look anew at religion, history, art, even their holiday plans. At the same time, the conventional critical wisdom is that the book itself is a ludicrous concoction of discredited conspiracy theories, held together with cardboard characters and subliterate prose that makes John Grisham read like Nabokov.

I speak, of course, of The Da Vinci Code. Now, it's already had dozens of books written about it, and plenty of blogs, too. But these tend to focus on the subject matter; whether from the perspective of amateur symbologists and conspiracy nuts who think the book contains some long-repressed truth; or concerned Christians who see it as an equally dangerous lie, and want to pick it all apart.

Of course, I'll deal with some of that. But I'm a writer. I do words. They're my babies. And I want to find out why a book that (by conventional critical standards at least) is so egregiously badly written, is so successful. Does it succeed because of the bad writing, or in spite of it? Indeed, do those standards, maintained in an unspoken pact between Eng Lit departments and broadsheet book reviewers, actually hold water any more?

Anyway, that's the plan. I'm looking to kick off at The Chasms of the Earth on January 1, and proceed at a pace of roughly one chapter a day, which shouldn't be too taxing for anyone. If you'd like to join me for this journey into mediocrity, all you need is a copy of The Da Vinci Code (available at all good charity shops) and the passion for a decent literary scrap. I'm especially looking for people who enjoyed the book, and are willing to defend it. Remember, the end purpose of this isn't to decide whether or not Jesus was married to his mother, or Leonardo was a lesbian Scientologist, or even that the Pope shits in the woods. It's to crack the biggest mystery of them all - why this book was so successful. See you at The Chasms of the Earth, and if anyone's got Audrey Tautou's mobile number...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Absolute Tosh

Patroclus, the society hostess of Web 2.0, has introduced me to, one of those sites that balances precariously on that narrow rail between "Zeitgeist-defining" and "stupid". The deal is that users simply key what they are doing righthererightnow into a box, and then see what everyone else is doing at the same time. It's like that October 17 mass diary experiment writ large. Or maybe blogging for people with exceedingly short attention sp

Old joke. Sorry.

The effect - sorry, the "user experience" - seemed oddly familiar, but it took a while before I could place it. It's like that episode of Torchwood when Toshiko has a pendant that lets her know what everyone around her is thinking; she puts it on while she's in a pub, and gets thrown back against the wall by the sheer force of people's deep, dark musings, all spilling out like a white noise of frustration, lust and banality.

Except that, after using twitter, you don't automatically get to have a frenzied bout of lesbian rudeness with someone who used to be in EastEnders.

Well, I didn't.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Goose-stepping through Swan Lake

More CiF nonsense, this time about right-wing ballerinas; and the BBC uncovers the flipside to the Lost In Translation symptoms that gaijin experience in Tokyo - Paris syndrome.

PS: Sorry, yet more CiF solipsism. Please go here and vote for Dave because a) he got me the CiF gig in the first place, and b) he's trailing quite badly behind someone who once gave me a funny look in a nightclub.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

You 2.0

Time magazine, snapping its fingers to the Web 2.0 beat like your dad at a wedding, has selected You as its Person Of The Year. At CiF yesterday, Jeff Jarvis said hooray; today, I say hmmm. What do you, or rather You, think? Comments here or (if you can cope with the virtual bearpit) make free with them there.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

My new favourite word


Ooh, it feels like a nice glass of Moscatel on the tongue. But don't bother to look up the meaning, it's deeply disappointing. I think there may be a metaphor for life in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what.

Elsewhere: the first sensible piece of journalism I've read about the Diana business since that Private Eye cover nine years ago; our grotesque apology for a Prime Minister gets an almighty chinning, along with his loathesome catamites, from the increasingly glorious Marina Hyde; and on a happier note, the mighty Patroclus is now officially a blue-chip bluestocking and smartypants, and is entitled to patronise Melvyn Bragg in public places.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Remembrance of rodents past

One last memory of Tokyo. Or a memory of a memory, and a pretty faulty one at that. For many years, I've had a vague but persistent recall of a TV cartoon character from my childhood. I thought that he was some sort of rodent, and he was possibly Polish, but that was all that registered. On the basis of this limited information, nobody else had the faintest idea what I was talking about. "Are you sure you're not thinking of Ludwig?" they said, backing away slowly. My life felt like a Polanski movie. Had I simply imagined it?

And then, in the Kiddy Land toy shop in Harajuku, between the Barbapapa pencil cases and the Very Hungry Caterpillar dental floss, I saw a strangely familiar face. It was the Mole, known here as Krtek, and everything came rushing back, the rabbit, the hedgehog, the little spade, and of course he was Czech, not Polish, and moles aren't actually rodents, I don't think, but everything was OK and then I went and ate that dodgy sea urchin sushi and things got less OK, but at least I wasn't suffering some bizarre manifestation of false memory syndrome.

Now, who remembers Boris the Bold?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Just as I did with Manila, I'll try to communicate my impressions of Tokyo with just five things, observations, reactions, thoughts. But, because Tokyo is so much bigger, so much more everything than Manila, the five things are also bigger, and also maybe less precise. Think Zen koan, but less profound. Think haiku, but more verbose.

1. At the Senso-ji shrine, there is a big basin filled with burning sticks of incense. People lean into the smoke, wafting it onto their faces and bodies, hoping to bring themselves luck. I see a woman doing this while still wearing an anti-pollution facemask (but not, sadly, the type adorned with the ubiquitous image of Hello Kitty), and I wonder if she gets more of the good-luck smoke (because her lungs are purer?) or less.

2. Many Japanese restaurants put plastic food in their front windows, to tempt passing customers. Kappabashi has several shops that sell nothing but plastic food, from sushi to cheesecake, from beer to bacon. Which raises the question: what do they put in their windows? Back to bloody Baudrillard again, I'm afraid. The purest simulacrum is the copy that exists in the absence of the original. Isn't it? Doesn't it?

3. Japanese companies throw parties for their employees every December. They're called bonenkai, literally "forget-the-year", which strikes me as a far more honest and useful stance than the forced jollity of the Western Christmas bash. Get with it, UK, plc! And let's have compulsory group callisthenics first thing in the morning as well.

4. Harajuku station is the base of operations for schoolgirls who dress in increasingly wild extrapolations of Goth and fetish fashions, as well as older women who dress as schoolgirls and schoolgirls who dress as older women who dress as schoolgirls. As you follow their trail down Omote-sando, you enter a sort of parallel Camden, with shops selling vintage Vivienne Westwood and mod gear from Merc. An alternative alternative? Northwestoneworld? The attention to detail extends even to smells: the odours of tired noodles and musty denim are positively Proustian. And it's here, not in glitzy, Bladerunnery-y Shinjuku, that I suddenly realise what hyperrreality is. I think.

5. Otoro, the fattiest, most prized and revered cut of tuna sashimi, sliced fresh from the belly of the beast and eaten at 8 o'clock on a winter morning in Tsujiki Fish Market, tastes of very little at all, actually.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Perfecting that Bill Murray face

Woo. Made the front of the Holiday section of today's Bangkok Post. This is how I write when I switch off my sarcasm generator.

And, on that travel-related note, we're off to Tokyo. Will attempt to post from the Meiji shrine, or a pachinko parlour or bullet train, or a place that serves cod sperm, or even a love hotel. Or maybe I'll just suffer a terminal postmodern ironic overload and disappear in a powerpuff of hyperreality.

Mata aimasho!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Santa claustrophobia

I've written before (here and here, for example) about how difficult it is, in a universe of cultural relativism, to pitch a piece of writing. What assumptions can you make about the knowledge base of your readership, or the allusions they might pick up? Each sentence is a precarious balancing act between going over their heads and insulting their intelligence.

Increasingly, it seems that content producers are more worried about the former sin than the latter. But is this wise? Last night I sat down to watch a documentary about some travellers who got into trouble in the Amazon rain forest. I lasted about three minutes, switching off when the narrator boomed "Bolivia, South America". It's straightforward enough; if something's pitched at people who don't know what continent Bolivia's in, I'm probably not going to enjoy it.

And from La Paz to Pacem in Terris (did you see what I did there?), here's the closest you'll get to a Christmas card from me this year. Although, I'll be honest, it's not as good as Llewtrah's festive quiz. But what is?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

This is not an extra

Is it me, or is it getting kinda metafictional in here? First of all, This Life is to return, reuniting the famous five by deploying the device of Egg writing a roman à clef about his former flatmates; essentially, a fictional fiction that disguises a fictional reality that was successful because it was so 'real'. Fortunately, writer Amy Jenkins has resisted the urge to slap on another few layers of unreality by scripting the whole thing as a mockumentary, or the whole self-referential edifice would surely come crashing down, like an overambitious Black Forest gateau from Heston Blumenthal. Or England's second innings.

But maybe it was always thus. Kingsley Amis's biographer has uncovered the manuscript of an unpublished novel, The Legacy, in which the resolute foe of all flavours of postmodernist silliness creates a hero called - wait for it - 'Kingsley Amis'. Although this isn't actually Kingsley Amis, of course, any more than his son's 'Martin Amis' was really Martin Amis. The 'real' Kingsley described the character as "a young man like myself only nastier", and if you know half the stories of Amis Sr's misdeeds, that's pretty damn nasty.

Of course, if The Legacy had been published in the early 50s, its impact would have been weakened because hardly anybody knew who Amis was. Or, more specifically, it wouldn't have worked because the public Amis persona wasn't fully developed, to whatever extent that related to the real Kingsley. Walk-on roles for TV celebs work because a critical mass of the viewing public will have an idea of what they're like, or what they're not like. Keith Chegwin as bigot, or Chris Martin as cynical opportunist, are ploys that worked in Extras, because they're so comically out of sync with how these people are usually portrayed. (It would be interesting to see how Ricky Gervais might have used someone with a serious PR problem - Michael Barrymore? OJ Simpson? Jonathan King? Mel Gibson? Michael Richards? - and the extent to which they might have been prepared to play ball.)

Most fiction writers can't pull stunts like this, because their lives and personalities don't tend to be so public. Obviously there are exceptions, such as the celeb fiction peddled by the likes of Pamela Anderson, or the bizarre reality fiction genre that I spotted a few weeks ago (effectively, celebrity fiction by non-celebrities).

But most modern writers of literary fiction lead mundane little lives, well below the radar of the paparazzi, although Salman Rushdie's hasn't been without incident, and he had a bash at fictionalising it in Fury. Usually, though, the knowing winks are restricted to Paul Auster-style writing-about-writing. It takes a special kind of writer to merge Austerian metafiction with the pile-'em-high celeb tradition - not because few writers have the technical ability, but because even fewer of them are allowed behind the velvet rope in the first place. Margaret Atwood's fluctuating weight doesn't make the pages of Heat magazine, and nobody gets excited at the thought of a video of Julian Barnes having sex with a rock drummer.

The closest the two worlds have come in recent years was the advent of the literary Brat Pack in the 1980s: and it seems fitting that it falls to Bret Easton Ellis to create this kind of fictional mash-up, which is effectively what his last novel Lunar Park turned out to be. Like Amis (père et fils) and Auster, he creates a character with his own name. But from this mundane starting point, he begins playing with the reader's expectations and preconceptions from the start. Even before the action starts, the book's dedication commemorates Ellis's father (who has a looming presence in the narrative) and his boyfriend (who doesn't, since in this version of Bretland, the superstar novelist is married, albeit messily, to an actress). So, this clearly isn't 'really' BEE - except that so many of the 'real' reference points are there, including fellow BratPacker Jay McInerney, with whom 'Ellis' shares a nostril or two of 1980s nostalgia. And there are countless acknowledgements of his past oeuvre, including the Elvis Costello poster from Less Than Zero and even a fully-realised character from American Psycho, whose significance is surely spotted by the alert reader many pages before the narrator susses it.

It's these literary nods and winks that the author takes to a deliriously illogical conclusion, when Ellis realises that another crucial character has stepped out of the pages of a novel that was never published. Or was it? The McInerney walk-on and the American Psycho brouhaha can raise a knowing chuckle or two for his devoted fans. But did Ellis - the real one, the gay one - write the unpublished novel he describes? Or has he invented it - has he invented the reality of a fiction? Which raises all sorts of subsidiary questions, chief among them: can a fiction be autobiographical if we, the readers, don't know the real details of the autobiography?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Budem zdorovy!

Russian alcohol producers have called for the introduction of state-subsidised "social vodka" to reduce the death toll (currently about 40,000 a year) from drinking illegal booze.

"He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.

Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Life imitates art

Small Boo's cracked a pre-molar. The dentist offered her an appointment at half past two. (Remember where we live. Think about it, with particular reference to The Bumper Book Of Slightly Racist Jokes For Kids, and similar tomes... Got it? Great.)

Unfortunately, she had a meeting then, and couldn't make it. I think she's more annoyed about that missed opportunity than about the tooth itself.