Full disclosure before I start this — I am friendly with the author and the publisher, and I also potentially have a book coming out from this publisher. I don’t think that this has biased my opinions in any way — I became friendly with them because we shared a lot of tastes, so it’s unsurprising that I would then enjoy this book — but it’s only fair to point out up-front.
I’ve been putting off reviewing this one for quite some time, because as I’ve said before I’ve not been thinking very well for the last few months due to ill-health, and this is a book that deserves a more considered, thoughtful response than perhaps I am able to give. However, I’m still not fully well, and don’t know how long I would have to wait otherwise, so this is my best assessment given my limited faculties.
Against Nature is a fascinating, difficult book, that makes no concessions to the reader but is all the better for it. It’s dense, allusive, and expects its reader to think — but it gives plenty to think about. This is Faction Paradox in big, important, thoughtful mode, rather than light adventure mode — think Newtons Sleep or, especially, This Town Will Never Let Us Go rather than Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia. I’ve read it twice, and I still haven’t got all of it, but that’s a good thing — this is a book that absolutely rewards rereading.
I loved it.
I’m mistletoe, Todd thought, I was living on that tree, and now I’m cut off, just moving forward until I sputter out. He wondered if this life might present him with other obvious symbols for his consideration, truths revealed in the everyday details. It felt a little like this whole world was all for his benefit, so maybe.
Against Nature is about sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice, about dying-and-resurrected gods (and ones that die without resurrection), about what it means to be cut off from one’s culture and one’s past. It’s a book that could only have been written by someone profoundly disconnected from his own culture — and it’s no surprise that between writing the early drafts of this, and its final publication, Lawrence emigrated to the US.
The same injustice had befallen Europe a few centuries earlier, barbarians at the gates and so on, swords turning out to be mightier than pens despite the proverb. It was always the stupid idea that caught on, the story that even the village idiot could follow without giving himself a headache. Human history was a ratings war, and people would always choose the flashing lights, special effects, and generic hero pleading you don’t have to do this! over things of value.
One of the ways in which Lawrence creates this effect has been misunderstood by several of the readers, particularly on some Doctor Who forums (Faction Paradox still has a residual connection to what Lawrence refers to as Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time). The book is set in multiple times, in multiple locations, with multiple cultures. Two of those cultures — the Great Houses and the medieval Mexica people (the people we think of, wrongly, as “the Aztecs”) are ones which are very, very different from the likely cultures of any of the readers, not only in behaviour and attitudes, but in language.
Lawrence throws us in at the deep end, cutting rapidly, every two or three pages, between wildly different locations and time periods, with stories that parallel and comment upon each other, but do not link up until near the end. Each of these different cultures is presented to us without comment or explanation, so our first glimpse of the Great Houses’ culture comes with:
The blinkers were fashioned from the clothing of the deceased, specifically a pressure suit once belonging to Herrare, the material cut to form a collar of hide curving around the eyes in the manner of goggles. Emioushameddhoran vel-Xianthellipse adjusted the knotted strips of fabric which kept the blinkers in place and took a moment to inspect herself in the cheval glass
while the Mexica strand of the story starts:
It was the day Ome Ozmatli of the trecena Ce Izcuintli as reckoned by the Tonalpohualli calendar of the Mexica — Two Monkey, presiding Deities being Xochipilli, Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl. This was hardly an auspicious combination by which to embark upon travel, but there being only nine days left before the occasion of the impending New Fire Ceremony, Momacani was left with little choice.
The cultures involved are ones which Lawrence has an expert understanding of — he has been studying the Mexica people for decades, and has been involved in Faction Paradox fandom (for want of a better word) for almost as long. The result is that he can write about these cultures fluently, from the perspective of someone who lives there, because he does, at least internally.
Several readers complained about the fact that they had to keep track of unfamiliar names like Emioushameddhoran and terms like Ce Izcuintli, and there is no question that this does make the book many times more difficult to read than it otherwise would be. But this seems to me to be entirely intentional — the reader experiences a miniature culture shock every two to five pages, and has to assimilate everything with no background. One is as rootless as Todd, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure in this book.
But I’m making this sound like it’s a hard slog, something to read out of a sense of duty, and it’s anything but. It’s a clever, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking book, and will almost certainly prove the best novel I read this year.
In other news, I’ve decided to start putting my book reviews on Goodreads, since Amazon don’t want authors posting book reviews on their site. I’ve had the account a couple of years, but only just started using it. Add me here if you want. Or not.
For the next month or so, most of my writing time will be taken up with copy-edits on the Beach Boys book and on my novel (along with the Doctor Who posts and How To Build Your Own Time Machine). So for the next month most of what’s posted here will be rather light book reviews.
To start with, Shell-Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo And Eddie, Frank Zappa etc. by Howard Kaylan.
For those who don’t know the name Howard Kaylan, he’s probably most famous as the lead singer of the Turtles. He sang lead on all their hits, as well as writing Elenore and a lot of their album tracks, but after they split up in the late sixties, he and Mark Volman (the Turtles’ backing vocalist, tambourine player, and comedian to Kaylan’s straight man) went on to do an immense amount of other interesting work — lead vocalists with the Mothers of Invention for a couple of years, backing vocals with T-Rex, backing vocals on Hungry Heart by Springsteen, and much more, as well as their own albums of hippie comedy-folk-pop under the name Flo And Eddie.
Kaylan’s autobiography is a fascinating, but frustrating read. Kaylan is clearly one of the more intelligent, thoughtful, 60s rock stars, and some of the insights given into the actual working methods of the bands he’s worked with are absolutely fascinating. I hadn’t realised before that Kaylan modelled his vocal style on that of Colin Blunstone (musically he and Volman were definitely Anglophiles, working with Ray Davies and covering the Small Faces at a time when those musicians were nearly unknown in the US), that he and Volman patterned their stage double-act on Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or that the Turtles’ stylistic change from their early folk-rock to the bouncy pop of Happy Together was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but all these things are very obvious once you know.
When he talks about this stuff, the book is at its best — I found the discussions of his writing the great Turtles song Marmendy Hill, or the recording of Lady-O (the last and best Turtles single) riveting, and also loved the insights into Zappa’s working methods, and little details like Springsteen being unable to sing on-key without holding his guitar.
Those portions of the book are, to my mind, easily the most interesting, and I wish there could have been more of them — the recording of the Turtle Soup album, for example (one of the best 60s pop albums of all time) is covered in a little over a page, although this is possibly because it was the Turtles album with least active involvement from Kaylan.
Almost as interesting are the anecdotes about other pop musicians, ranging from the heartbreaking :
When “The Puppy Song” played, Nilsson’s eyes filled with tears. “Dreams are only made of wishes and a wish is just a dream you hope will come true.”
“I was a pretty good singer once, wasn’t I?”
“You’re the best there ever was.” I told him, meaning every word. I was tearing up too.
“He took it from me. He stole my voice and I never got it back!”
The “he” that Harry referred to was John Lennon, who famously produced the Pussy Cats album for Nilsson in 1974. Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John would coerce him into.
“I can scream louder and longer than you!” and John could. But, sweet, gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce, and by the time Lennon returned to London, abandoning May Pang and the lost California years, it was too late; the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair and the new stuff was scratchy and desperate. Harry cried.
“Once I was a king, Howard. Now look at me. I’m just waiting to die
to the… well, to this:
Tom Jones was an education all by himself. Every day, when the tour bus arrived at our venue, there were hundreds of waiting, screaming teenage girls, and Tom taunted them mercilessly from behind the safety of his window. He actually pulled out his legendary-for-good-reason schlong, which he had nicknamed Wendell, and waved it at the befuddled girls, who hooted, hollered, and pushed their friends aside to get a look at the one-eyed monster.
“Ooh, you’d like to meet Wendell, wouldn’t you, ladies? Arrrgh, here he comes, girls.” Tom was very advanced.
The best of the anecdotes reveal a huge amount about the musicians Kaylan has known (which seems to include almost every major figure from the 60s and 70s). The worst are just the usual stories of hedonistic excess that pad out every rock bio. For those, you had to be there, I suspect.
What’s rather sad here is that Kaylan’s personal life seems to have been a mess. I lost track of the number of wives he had (I *think* I counted five or six) because each marriage seems to be described in pretty much identical terms — Kaylan meets a woman and marries her. He is convinced that she is The One and he will never need another woman, she promises she’s going to get off the booze and drugs Real Soon Now. Cut to a year or so later, and he’s sleeping with every woman in the continental United States while she’s permanently off her head. Rinse and repeat. (Thankfully, his current wife seems to have been with him about twenty years, so maybe things are better for him now).
Frankly, the book is too short for what it’s trying to do, which is to be both a straight autobiography and a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences about other people. There’s almost nothing, for example, about Kaylan’s working relationship with Mark Volman — despite the fact that the two have been colleagues for fifty years now, I came out of the book knowing next to nothing about him.
But what *is* there, particularly in the first half, is essential reading for anyone who’s interested in the LA music scene of the 60s.
Penn Jilette’s foreword, as well, is fascinating, and makes me think rather better of him than I did previously:
Years later, brilliant voice actor Billy West would say, “There’s one show business.” I didn’t have those words for it then, but Frank Zappa, Howard Kaylan, and Mark Volman taught me that there was only one showbiz that night in Boston. These lightweights were onstage with the heavyweights and they were doing the best show I would ever see. Their voices were beautiful. The music was hard, and they were still having fun. Some of the jokes were very serious and over my head (what the fuck was going on singing in German about a sofa?). Some of the jokes were just stupid jock cock jokes that I would sneer at in my school. It was all mixed together. It was a show that was smart and stupid, heavy and light, beautiful and more beautiful.
They were doing a show with cheesy jokes, and it was also art. How could that be? It wasn’t stuffy—it was funny, entertaining, showbiz, vaudeville, and fun, and it still had content. Those turtlefucking Mothers with those motherfucking Turtles.
They did “Happy Together” in this Mothers show, and it was a really good song. And the music was more sophisticated than I had ever thought. Those perfect AM voices doing art. I loved hearing something I knew from the radio in a smarty-pants show. Were they making fun of it? Yes. Were they also playing it for real? Yes. Were they playing it because it was fun? Yes. My view of showbiz and art came together. It was that moment, during that show in Boston, that the line between showbiz and art was erased for me. If Turtles could be Mothers, maybe a hick juggler could speak his heart in a magic show.
I drove back to Greenfield and now did my best to look as much like the Phlorescent Leech as I could. When people said, “You look like that guy,” I said, “Yeah, the guy in the Turtles, he’s also in the Mothers now.” I was proud of being in showbiz and I was proud of how I looked, and I knew what I wanted to do in life. That’s a lot to learn from a couple of Turtles.
Or what does this have to do with Promethea anyway?
Crossposted at Mindlessones.com, for reasons that will become apparent.
On March 7, 2007, I was at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre, which has been the scene of some of the most profound artistic experiences of my life — seeing Brian Wilson play his first two UK shows, seeing him premiere That Lucky Old Sun there and seeing Van Dyke Parks (and Wilson and Parks will both show up in these essays again, assuming we go the whole way with them) perform most of Orange Crate Art. It’s also the prison where the Doctor and Jo Grant were held in the 1973 Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, but that’s probably not so important.
But on that day I was there for something rather different. The writer Robert Anton Wilson had been one of the biggest influences in my life, the writer whose works finally showed me how to actually think, as opposed to glibly performing string manipulations and priding myself on my intelligence. I was sat there next to the woman I’d married a year earlier (and who is co-author of this series of essays), someone I would never have met without Wilson’s writing.
Wilson had died the previous January, and in his last months had, thanks to the American health-care system, become literally penniless. We were fairly close to penniless ourselves, but we’d still felt the need to Paypal him $23, a token amount, to help. Enough other people had done the same that he was able to die in his own home with money to spare.
The show in 2007 was a tribute to him, and to his work, and it was mostly for that reason that Holly and I had travelled down to see it. But it wasn’t just for that reason. There were three speakers there, all of whom I wanted to see. One was Ken Campbell, the great actor, writer and director, and one of my great heroes. The second was Alan Moore, of whom much, much more later. And the third was Bill Drummond.
Drummond was the one I was least interested in, because I was least familiar with his work. Oh, of course I loved Doctorin’ The TARDIS, had enjoyed 45, and The Manual is still one of my favourite books, but beyond that I knew nothing of his work.
Drummond’s first line was:
I’m a total fraud even being here. I don’t actually know much about Robert Anton Wilson, and I couldn’t be arsed to help him when he was dying.
So, you know, fair enough.
(And when I watch that video, I realise that I’m completely misremembering that, and probably remembering from this blog post rather than the event. Oh well. But it’s how I remember it.)
The reason I’m telling that story is so I can tell you this. A couple of months ago, the writer J.M.R. Higgs sent me a comp ebook copy of his new book, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, because he’d liked my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. I said I’d review it, but I ran into a problem when actually writing the review, because I am precisely the wrong person to review this book.
You see, Higgs’ book takes as its starting point the day when Drummond and his artistic partner Jimmy Cauty (known variously as The KLF, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The K Foundation) set fire to a million pounds, and tries to figure out exactly why they did this — something they admit themselves they are completely unsure of.
Starting from this, and in pursuit of an answer of sorts, Higgs explores a whole web of ideas and associations. He writes about Robert Anton Wilson, and sampling culture, describes the 1990s in a way eerily similar to the Ghost Point from the Faction Paradox books, discusses Doctor Who and the alchemical ideas that David Whitaker planted in it, the legitimacy of copyright, the Kennedy assassination, the work of Ken Campbell, Discordianism, the immorality of lending money at interest, Situationism, the Pookah and the wicker man in modern pop culture, Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, and questions whether the K Foundation’s burning a million pounds was a magical rite which eventually led to the economic problems we’re seeing today.
My kind of thing, in other words.
Except that the book’s climax is when Higgs talks about the Festival Hall event I discussed above. He talks about how the event actually inspired Drummond to read the whole of Illuminatus! for the first time, and how Drummond (who had used tons of ideas and images from the first 138 pages of the book, which is all he’d previously read, in his work) was shocked to find that most of his life seemed to be in there in some way. Higgs then goes on to say:
I had written 90% of this book before I finally got round to reading Illuminatus! myself, despite having a copy on my shelf for twenty years. Upon reading it, I was startled to discover that it contained a number of subjects which I had already been writing about, unaware of their inclusion in Illuminatus! and unsure if I could justify their inclusion in this book. I had written about usury unaware that the founding reason for The JAMs was to destroy usury, and I had written about Lucifer unaware that a Satanic mass was the initiation into The JAMs. I had noted the surprising number of paedophiles in this story whilst unaware of the character of Padre Pederastia. Such is the way with this particular novel. Reading it almost seems superfluous; it is possible to be swept along just by the idea of it. It is a novel that is perfectly content to sit on a shelf for decades waiting for you to be ready for it.
And this is the thing about the book. Its conclusion is, to me, the stuff that I’ve been thinking about and discussing and writing about for my whole adult life (I read Illuminatus! when I was 18, and have more than a passing interest in most of the subjects mentioned in the book). It’s a book that goes from a premise that I know little about to a conclusion that is familiar, solid ground to me. And the parts that I found most interesting were the parts where Higgs talks about the KLF themselves, precisely because that was the least familiar part of the net of ideas he was talking about. Higgs is mapping out an area in IdeaSpace, but it’s a map that takes this reader from Fairyland to his own front room.
I doubt it would have that effect, though, on anyone without my own precise set of obsessions. Unless you’ve basically read the exact same books and comics I read between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 26, and you’re also a big fan of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who work, the parts that seemed familiar to me will seem unfamiliar to you, while if you pay any attention to pop culture at all the parts that seemed unfamiliar to me will be old news to you.
So…I can recommend Higgs’ book unreservedly to anyone reading this, but I can’t say you’ll be reading the same book I am.
But what does this have to do with Promethea, again?
Well, Higgs’ book is basically a map of a mental landscape, but a rather odd one — he’s trying to give an impression of why Bill Drummond thinks the way he does, by writing enough about Higgs’ own obsessions. It is, if you like, a map of the border between Higgs’ area of Ideaspace and Drummond’s.
About six months ago, Plok, of the blog A Trout In The Milk, was visiting us and practically ordered Holistic Tendancies to write a book on Promethea, because he wanted to hear what she had to say about it. However, she was unsure about this, because she’s never written anything longer than a couple of thousand words before, and doesn’t believe me when I tell her that if you write the material, it structures itself and practically writes itself. I had to take a break from writing my previous book about comics, An Incomprehensible Condition, because I was seeing patterns relating to the subject everywhere, and had to get back into a more rational frame of mind — that’s the extent to which this kind of subject writes itself. But Holistic Tendancies is unsure, so she’s asked me to help her. She wants to write the book with me, and I’m in charge of structure.
So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to write ten more essays. Some of them will be on my blog, and some will be on Mindless Ones. You can follow either blog and not miss out, because we’re going to do this in a Choose Your Own Adventure style.
We’re going to look at Promethea as a comic, the way Alan Moore writes and the way J.H. Williams and the other artists put pictures on the page. But we’re also going to look at the ideas floating around it in Ideaspace — the Kaballah, Wonder Woman, America’s Best Comics, causality, Aleister Crowley, Platonism, topology and more. A lot of it will overlap with the ideas in Higgs’ book, but we’ll be travelling from different directions.
By making it a Choose Your Own Adventure, and having it run over two different blogs, we’ll let you wander round the parts of it that you find most interesting, and do a bit of sightseeing. But even IdeaSpace needs a map, so here’s the one we’ll be using:
Next stop: Yesod.
And just to reinforce how all this works, literally as I was typing the last sentence I received an email from Plok, who I mentioned before, about another collaborative project, one we’re working on with Illogical Volume and others. The email heading? “topological order”. And the first sentence proper of the email?
Topological order, so I’m told, being what they call a way of classifying substances with identical symmetries — by measuring their interactivity in an entangled system. Thus, the helpful analogy for the layman goes, the topological order of New York City would not describe the buildings and the streets, but would identify the city more finely, uniquely by a catalogue of the phone calls being made inside it.
I was recently sent a review copy of this book by the publishers, Pluto Press, and it has put me in rather a difficult position. I want to review the book here – that’s why I’ve got it, after all – but all I can really say about it is that it makes a lot of sense and that many of the conclusions it comes to are pretty much those that I’d already reached on my own, though the book presents much of the evidence in one place.
The main thesis of the early part of the book is that we need to start looking at environmental problems in social justice terms – that while we’re (for values of ‘we’) campaigning to get third world debt dropped, we’re building up a much greater debt to those in the third world, because they will be disproportionately affected by the environmental problems caused by first-world consumption. Simm presents several examples of third-world countries that are already under threat from rising sea levels and other effects of climate change, and argues, quite rightly, that we have an obligation to these people to at the very least rectify the damage we’re doing to them.
However, half-way through the book, give or take, the focus shifts to our own economies, and what should be done once it is recognised there are real limits to economic growth imposed by the physical world (and even those of you who are climate sceptics must be aware that we are nearing peak oil, which will have as catastrophic an economic effect as climate change is having on the environment), as well as what should be done to ameliorate the effects of environmental damage.
While Simms takes some of his ideas from Cuba (though the ideas do actually sound perfectly reasonable, I tend not to trust anything that comes out of a dictatorship) much of what Simms talks about, especially a focus on mutual societies and co-operatives, should be of interest to liberals. I like his idea of an economics focussed on ‘dynamic equilibrium’ rather than on growth, though I disagree with him somewhat that growth can or should be stopped overall – what we need is a greater focus on ephemeralisation, doing more with fewer resources (which is something Simms mentions, to be fair, but in passing).
Simms is a director of the New Economics Foundation, and many of his ideas are linked to their Green New Deal and 100 Months campaigns (though now unfortunately their 100 months timeline is down to 91 months without significant progress…) and I shall be investigating their ideas more thoroughly over the next few weeks – economics is not my strong point, and I often think odd ideas are plausible until I investigate them in detail – but at first glance he seems to know his stuff.
This isn’t an essential book breaking new ground – if you’ve read the Guardian (or, until its imbecilification, the Independent) over the last few years you’ll probably be able to hum along – but it’s a very good summary of the problems we’ve got, coupled with a less-convincing but worthwhile attempt to work out how to fix the problems, and as such it’s definitely worth a read.
Ecological Debt: Global Warming And The Wealth Of Nations by Andrew Simms is available from Pluto Press. I received my copy as a free review copy, but was under no obligation to write a review, favourable or otherwise.