WoolfBot Episode II: The Bot Wars; or, On Rhizomes, Markov Chains, and Twitterbots

Oops, I did it again. By which I mean spawned another robot child. This one’s a little different from its elder sibling, though. First off, it tweets about The Waves, not Mrs Dalloway. But more importantly, it doesn’t just spew out whatever I tell it to. Rather, the bot writes its own material. Kinda.

That’s only a half-truth. Rather, I wrote a program in Python (with a great deal of help from this tutorial by Robin Camille Davis and Mark Eaton for CUNY’s Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy) using a package called Markovify to spit out Markov chain-generated remixes of The Waves.

A Markov chain is a type of mathematical model that passes from one state to another. These states can be anything – weather patterns, football scores, or the words in a novel – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the data pass from state to state. A Markov chain models each possible transition in a set of data, based on what the last data point was. Or, more simply put, if you had a set of data that was a single sentence, ‘the cat sat on the hat, the bug sat on the rug’ then a diagram of that Markov chain would look like this:

created using AGL: see the code at https://rise4fun.com/Agl/BZVm

If you were to run Markovify on this teeny-tiny sample dataset, you might well get remixes that look like these:

the cat sat on the bug

or

the rug

Or, even

the mat the mat the mat the mat the mat the mat the mat

(That last one continues ad infinitum, but you’ll have to imagine it.)

But what happens when you run Markovify on a dataset that starts ‘The sun had not yet risen,’ and ends ‘The waves broke on the shore,’ and which has 77,462 words between these two sentences? You get a bot that tweets stuff like this:

All the right words, but not necessarily in the right order. And one of those words is ‘pimple.’ Who knew?

So, why The Waves, he asks rhetorically? Well, The Waves is unlike anything else Woolf wrote, and quite possibly unlike anything anyone else wrote. Woolf didn’t call The Waves, set of interwoven monologues from six speakers, punctuated with nine italicised interludes where no one seems to narrate, a novel. Instead, she called it ‘a new kind of play [. . .] prose yet poetry; a novel & a play.’

The Waves is linguistically interesting as well. While it has its fair share of striking, sui generis phrases – Jinny’s ‘fulvous dress’ springs to mind – it also repeats itself a fair bit. Certain phrases, like Bernard’s ‘butterfly powder,’ and Louis’ father, who is ‘a banker at Brisbane’ crop up again and again like leitmotifs, while each monologue is marked by the formula ‘X said’: ‘Bernard said,’ ‘Jinny said,’ ‘Susan said’ and so on. Take another look at the diagram: the repeated words ‘sat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘the’ each appear only once, but they have multiple arrows coming off of them: they act like nodes connecting all the other words. The Waves’ repeated formulas and motifs act in much the same way, becoming richly generative points in a reconfigured landscape.

Which brings me on to a broader point about using Markov chains as a way of reconfiguring texts. As human readers with human eyes and human brains, it’s hard for us to look at a text in the same way as a Markov chain does. We read sequentially, from left to right (in English, anyway), page after page. But my Markov chain bot reads The Waves like a network, one where any word can connect to any other word, no matter where it is in the text.

Rather than reading like a human, my bot reads rhizomically. For someone who’s read more Deleuze and Guattari than can be considered healthy (so, any Deleuze and Guattari…), that’s a terribly exciting prospect. Deleuze and Guattari open A Thousand Plateaus by loudly announcing the inadequacy of the book, which engenders a logic which they call ‘arborescent’ – tree-like. It’s a logic which is rigid, governed by temporality and cause and effect. It only moves in one direction, and that direction is predetermined, governed by the author of the book.

They contrast this with the rhizome, which is more akin to the roots of a plant, or a mycelium, the underground part of a fungus. This is a network which moves horizontally, along many lines at once, without privileging any set path or teleology.

Now, something has always bugged me about this. First off, trees don’t work like that: Deleuze and Guattari weren’t very good botanists. Second, they write about the inadequacy of arborescent thought in a book, printed on dead tree matter. While they encourage their readers to skip around from one chapter to another, you’re still reading a book written in characters that go from left to right, one page after the other.

(Even hypertext doesn’t quite cut it – you can move around in hypertexts far more easily than you can a physical book, but you’re still stuck putting one word after the other…)

But my Markov chain bot doesn’t read like that. It acts more like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomic reader than a human reader can. As readers, we can’t very easily get a handle on how Markovify does this – if you want to take a look at the data model that the bot generates, you can here, but it’s utterly unreadable. I can’t even begin to tell you how it works. But the tweets that it generates give us an insight into what it’s like to read rhizomically.

I’m just about done so I’ll leave you with my bot’s last words on the matter:

A Bot of One’s Own: Thoughts on my terrible robot child, and on Twitter bots more generally

For those of you fortunate enough not to have seen me in the past ten days or so, I’ve some news for you: I’m a parent now. Not of a human child but of a terrible robot child: @WoolfBot3000. If you’ve been cursed with my presence, then I can only apologise for harping on about it. My terrible robot child is a Twitter bot that’s set to tweet out a new opening to Mrs Dalloway every hour. You know the one – Mrs Dalloway said she would get the flowers herself. What an absolute hero.

Before we go any further, here’s some of my personal favourite WoolfBot utterances, partly to give you some idea of what the WoolfBot spits out, and partly just to show off:

My terrible robot child was surprisingly easy to make, even given that I’m the sort of humanities student whose eyes glaze over as soon as someone says ‘Javascript’. @WoolfBot3000 is run from a hosting platform called Cheap Bots Done Quick, created by George Buckenham, which does what it says on the tin. More specifically, it hosts bots like mine, like Thinkpiece Bot, like Infinite Deserts and like Soft Landscapes. All of these bots are created using a Javascript library called Tracery, developed by Kate Compton. Tracery is a tool for creating generative grammars with a minimum of fuss.

In simple terms, Tracery works a bit like Mad Libs: you give it a sentence structure with a set of placeholders, and lists of items to put in the placeholders. These items can get as long and complicated as you like, and you can nest placeholders inside items so a generated piece of text can theoretically stretch out forever. You can also set the code up to remember certain things, so that your text’s characters have a consistent name, or pronouns, for example.

A very stripped-down version of my code with most of the items missing (no spoilers!) looks like this:

{

“origin”: [“#[#setPronouns#]story#”],

“story”: “#title# #name# #verb1# #they# would #verb2# the #noun# #themselves#.”

“setPronouns”: [”[title:Mrs][they:she][themselves:herself]”,”[title:Mr][they:he][themselves:himself]”]

“name”: [“Dalloway”, “Ramsay”]

“verb 1”: [“said”, “pledged”]

“verb 2”: [“get”, “requisition”]

“noun”: [“flowers”, “Lighthouse”]

}

Most of it’s pretty self-explanatory: “origin” is at the root of Tracery’s grammar and governs what the output contains, while “story” is what determines the Tweets that you see. Items marked “name” slot neatly into the placeholder marked #name# and so on. “SetPronouns” determines whether my person is a man or a woman (or indeed non-binary) and governs how the person is referred to throughout the sentence.

So that’s how my robot child generates text. It’s not particularly advanced, but it gives me a chuckle every so often.

There’s definitely room to improve though. Right now, WoolfBot more or less tweets what I tell it to, but that’s it. It’s bound by the limits of my imagination and by what Woolf titbits I can dredge up. Right now, I’m trying to puzzle out some Python to create a new terrible robot child witha measure of artificial intelligence, so that it can write its own Woolfy creations. The details would depend on the flavour of machine learning/artificial intelligence I’d use, but essentially the new bot would teach itself to write by reading Woolf over and over. Which is really a good idea for students, come to think of it.

This brings me on to a broader point about Twitter bots and the digital humanities. Right now, as far as I’m aware, the digital humanities seem to view the ‘digital’ part as anterior to the ‘humanities’ part. Typically, no matter how invested in methodology or the act of analysis by digital means, the digital humanities tend to view its tools and methods as shedding light on an object – a text, images, an archive – that’s already been made.

Which is no bad thing: methodologies such as Franco Moretti’s distant reading wouldn’t be possible without computer-based corpus analysis to power through vast numbers of texts and pull out data, while in my own field, the Modernist Archives Publishing Project is making the Hogarth Press’s archive freely and readily available. But digital humanities scholarship has tended to ignore the generative potential of computing technologies – their ability to create something new.

My terrible robot child might not be very clever at the moment, but hopefully it’s doing the tiniest bit to tip the scales. Watch this space for more.

Hello, World?

This isn’t a ‘Hello, World’ post, exactly. More of a ‘Long time no see’ post, really. I’ve had this blog for a good long while: I used to review books here. I tried to write a review a week, every week for a year, but it turns out it’s rather hard. Woolf managed to write two a week in her early years: the first few volumes of her Collected Essays are pretty much all review after review after review. She went on to write some other stuff, also. But then, she never had to put up with Will Self: his was my last review. Go figure.

There’s probably a good post to be written about the anatomy of academic blogs’ ‘Hello, World’ posts. I’m not sure where this would fit in because, as I said, this isn’t really a ‘Hello, World’ post. That was probably my review of Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. But it’s definitely an academic blog. Or at least the blog of an academic. I’m at the University of Glasgow, doing a PhD on Virginia Woolf and institutional power, although I’ve been lured somewhat by the siren call of the archives, drawn into a tangled web of unspooled microfilm. I’d like to try to use this blog to try and talk about my work to a wider audience. That’s the plan, anyway. Or I could always go back to badmouthing Will Self.

So, not quite ‘Hello, World,’ but ‘Long time no see.’

A Book A Week #39 | Phone, by Will Self

Phone, by Will Self

Will Self is an author with a peculiar quiddity. Much like Marmite, it’s impossible not to have an opinion on him. I’ll confess to a certain ambivalence here — on the matter of Will Self, not Marmite, which I’d happily eat with a spoon, were it socially acceptable. His columns for the New Statesman, rambles through non-spaces and roadside fast food joints, tinged with a hint of psychogeography, are just swell. Perceptive, cutting, full of juicy little phrases. Self’s Guardian essay on his years of drug addiction and his treatment for polycythaemia vera — a condition where your bone marrow produces red blood cells in overdrive — is that rare thing, a confessional essay which actually feels like a confession, rather than a posture.

But Self’s novels remind us that you can have too much of a good thing. All that wit, all that learning, coalesces and congeals into something quite unappetising. Phone is a sprawling, stream-of-consciousness (or consciousnesses) novel that deals, loosely speaking, with the ravages of dementia, psychiatry, and the depredations of the British army in Iraq.

A phone rings and awakens Zack Busner from some reverie or another. Busner, an ageing shrink and veteran from Self’s last two books, is beginning to show signs of senility. He finds himself, trouserless, being strong-armed to a hotel room caked with his own faeces. Haven’t we all? But all of a sudden, we’re not in a shit-smeared Hilton bathroom in Manchester; we’re listening to a monologue from Jonathan De’Ath’s penis.

phone

Phone, by Will Self

The person attached to the penis is known as The Butcher to all and sundry. To his ever-so-English family — his two brothers are The Baker and The Candlestick Maker. To his friends at university — after a stunt with his college’s vegetarian society and a quantity of frying offal. To his colleagues in MI6 — The Butcher is a spook, a spy, and a budding Mycroft Holmes, with an eidetic memory and a penchant for expensive clothing. But, of course, Mycroft Holmes probably wouldn’t give his member a name of its own. Or date-rape a man.

That man is Colonel Gawain Thomas, who goes on to enjoy a furtive, undercover relationship with the man who drugged and violated him, without giving too much thought to the matter. He also goes on to command an outpost in Iraq, and preside over the murder of prisoners of war, again without giving too much thought to the matter.

Busner has pretty much no relevance to the plot — such as it is — of Phone, but his grandson, a severely autistic boy with shades of Gary McKinnon, threatens to uncover The Butcher’s secrets. This happens in the last stretches of the novel, after pushing six hundred pages of penis-soliloquies and descriptions of luxury lifestyle goods. But by that point, it’s hard to care.

Self’s novels have never worn their learning lightly, but his earlier novels had an eye for the perverse, and a gleeful sense of fun. Reading Phone, though, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Self is trying more to push a style to its conclusion than he is to write a novel. And that style belongs more to James Joyce than it does anyone else. Self tries to emulate Ulysses’ verbal pyrotechnics — Phone is littered with Joycean puns and leaps of dream-logic — but the novel never catches light. Phone is an unabashedly modernist work that forgets that modernism is in the past now. Phone creaks under its own weight: it’s hard enough to follow one of the novel’s narrators, let alone work out whose meandering monologue, peppered with digressions and absolutely littered with gratuitous italics, you’re reading — they all sound exactly alike. Which is to say, they sound like Will Self.

Will Self, Phone, Viking (London: 2017)

Viking kindly furnished me with a review copy of Phone.

A Book A Week #38 | Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Leda is dead. She was killed by a swan — well, what else? She leaves in her wake a widower, floundering in grief. Sorting through Leda’s things, Seb finds a box of letters in Latvian, to someone named Olaf, a cousin he never knew she had: letters to a relative Leda had never talked about, about a childhood they’d never discussed, in a language Seb has never been able to speak. Unmoored by grief, Seb travels to Latvia to piece together her story. But with every day that passes in the hallucinatory wilds outside of Riga, with every curious apparition he meets from Leda’s old life, Seb comes to realise that he knows less and less about his wife.

Strange Heart Beating, by Eli Goldstone

Strange Heart Beating could easily turn into an existentialist dirge about how one person can never know another, but Seb’s narrative voice makes it more than that. Eli Goldstone has crafted a masterwork of minute bathos in Seb. A somewhat effete art historian, he is extravagantly sorrowful as only a self-confessed “slavish aesthete” could be — he carries a lock of Leda’s hair and wallows in baroque pity. He is also uniquely ill-suited to the dark corner of Latvia where Leda comes from, and where he rocks up, hapless and unwitting. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hampstead anymore. The endless sandy beaches lose their allure when the mosquitos come out at dusk and those tangled, dark woods look less romantic when Seb is dragged along hunting wolves by cousin Olaf and his sidekick, the ambiguously sane Georgs. And all the while, the ‘real’ Leda slips further and further from Seb’s grasp.

Interspersed between Seb’s travails are snapshots of the life he came to Latvia to uncover, in the form of diary entries written by Leda herself over the course of a lifetime — snapshots that Seb never gets to see — ranging from the scribblings of a child who only dimly realises that she is having what might be termed a traumatic childhood, to the cynical posture of a young woman who realises she has to get out of Latvia, to leave the country and her own past behind.

Moving, tender, and poignant, but also richly peopled and crackling with a savage wit, Strange Heart Beating is not just a deliciously strange and oneiric attempt at answering a philosophical question — can we ever really know another person — but also a sympathetic sketch of human grief.

Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating, Granta (London: 2017)

Granta kindly provided me with a review copy of Strange Heart Beating.

A Book A Week #37 | Keshiki Chapbooks, by various authors

Keshiki Chapbooks, by Strangers Press

The Keshiki Chapbooks are a series of eight short story pamphlets by Japanese authors, published by Strangers Press, who are part of the University of East Anglia’s publishing project. As well as being fascinating stories by some of Japan’s most exciting young authors, illuminating the work of writers whose work, somewhat shamefully, hasn’t made it over to the West, these pamphlets are beautiful objects in their own right. The diminutive pamphlets have bold Pop Art covers — shades, perhaps of Milton Glaser and of Eduardo Paolozzi — as well as French flaps and gorgeous typesetting. The Keshiki Chapbooks are Strangers Press’ first project, and hopefully the first of many.

Time Differences — Yoko Tawada, trans. Jeffery Angles

Three men uprooted and spread over three corners of the world — Mamoru awakens in Berlin, missing his boyfriend Manfred, adrift in New York who, in the middle of the night, awakens from a terrifying dream. In Tokyo, it’s the dead of night, and Michael is lost in thought — he remembers a passionate tryst with a Japanese man in Berlin. Yoko Tawada’s brief, heartfelt tale is one that navigates the perilous shores of relationships in a world where vast distances can be crossed in a matter of moments, but never entirely bridged. The trio try to arrange synchronicities — they work out together, going to the gym at the same time, in vastly different places; they drink together, shotting soju and sake at the same time, on the other side of the world from each other. Tawada’s prose is a ghostly one, but one rooted in the mundanities of long-distance relationships: Skype calls and solitude. ‘Time Difference’ is a romance story for the Easyjet era.

Friendship for Grown-Ups — Nao-Cola Yamazaki, trans. Polly Barton

Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s short story collection begins with a creation story without a creator. In the beginning, there was light, but there’s nobody around to say that it was good. Rather, the light hits a rock, which kickstarts a process of evolution beginning with amino acids and ending in ennui, the inorganic and the organic flowing into one another, the simple becoming complex, and the complex remembering a time when everything was simple, all without any animus or direction. Yamazaki’s other stories engage with a similar sense of duality — the story ‘The Invisible Apartment’ shows a pair of exes, a once-couple walking around the building site where the apartment they shared once stood: it’s not just a journey to a building site, but that most cliched of journeys — one to the past. But it’s one that Nao-Cola Yamazaki pulls off without cliche or sentiment; one that is filled with pregnant longing and simultaneity. The final story of the collection, ‘Lose your Private Life’ deals with an author, Terumi, and her relationship with Matsumoto, a musicologist,, one that veers between Terumi’s desperate longing for intimacy, for closeness — she yearns to him to call her Teru-chan and text her emojis — and studied need: Terumi wants to write a novel about music, while Matsumoto wants to be able to say that he dates a writer. ‘Friendship for Grownups’ is a difficult thing to navigate, as indeed is friendship for grownups, and Yamazaki’s writing demonstrates the curious tensions that exist in relationships teetering on the edge of intimacy. Nao-Cola Yamazaki is big in Japan, but not over in the Anglophone world: let’s hope that ‘Friendship for Grownups’ changes that.

Spring Sleepers — Kyoko Yoshida

Yuki is ill. He has a disease known as “genuine insomnia” — as opposed to all that fake insomnia going around — and he has not slept in two months. It’s a condition that has spread through Tokyo’s great and good, who boast to one another in pricey bars of how much extra work they are getting done. The downside: Yuki’s mind is deteriorating. As ‘Spring Sleepers’ goes on, Kyoko Yoshida’s story becomes more and more oneiric, more and more absurd — the farther away Yuki gets from sleep, the closer he comes to a curious dream-world where narrative logic is forsaken in favour of the impossible disjunctions and curious flux of the dreamer’s experience. The further Yuki goes, the further we step away from narrative, into a strange world where uncanny flashes of semblance are mingled with impossible happenings, like a Haruki Murakami novel compressed, concentrated, and distilled into a potent shot.

Mariko/Mariquita — Natsuki Ikezawa, trans. Alfred Birnbaum

‘Mariko/Mariquita’ is a tale of a curious duality. Kyojiro is a cultural anthropologist visiting studying a tribe on Guam, when he meets Mariko, who goes by Maria, or Mariquita, a Japanese woman who lives on the island, selling jet-ski rides to tourists. ‘Mariko/Mariquita’ could easily be read as a love story, but it is as much a story of anthropology, of what makes a person Japanese or Chamorro. The slash in the title is as much a piece of punctuation as it is a piece of semiology. It is at once a reference to an ineluctable duality, the sense in which Mariko exists as much as Mariko as Mariquita, as a hybrid identity bearing a hybrid name, as much as it is to a disjunction — that Mariko/Mariquita exists as one or the other, as either/or, but not both. Natsuki Ikezawa has created a haunting tale of dislocation and hybridity, of identities set adrift amid the Pacific ocean. Mariko or Mariquita. Japan or Guam. Either or. Take your pick.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married — Aoko Matsuda, trans. Angus Turvill

The girl who is getting married is getting married. The girl who is getting married lives on the top floor of her building. An unnamed narrator is on her way to visit the girl who is getting married — she has known the girl who is getting married since before she was the girl who is getting married. They first met at school. They first met at a part-time job in a soba shop. They first met in a train carriage, when the narrator fled to escape the wide-spread legs of a man. And so on. Aoko Matsuda’s modus operandi in ‘The Girl Who Is Getting Married’ is to unsettle, to put forward so many competing versions of the truth that they flicker and fizz in and out of view, like the bubbles in a flute of champagne — it becomes all but impossible to tell which one of these competing stories, if any, are true, and in any case, it’s besides the point. You don’t try to count the bubbles: you just delight in them popping on your tongue.

At the Edge of the Wood — Masatsugu Ono, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter

There’s a sense of creeping horror in Masatsugu Ono’s collection of linked short stories, ‘At the Edge of the Wood’. In these bizarre and Kafka-tinged fables, a father lives in a wooden house at the edge of an unnamed wood, waiting with his son for his wife’s return — she is pregnant and feels it would be safer to give birth at her parents’ house. Their lives flicker between the mundane, between trips to the supermarket, and the fairytale, dwarves who are refugees fleeing some unknown conflict and an old woman streaming water whom the boy adopts as a grandmother. Ono’s prose, deceptively complex in its elegant simplicity, walks a fine line. One side is the simple delight of a child running through an autumnal wood; the other side lie nightmares whose names cannot be spoken.

Mikumari — Misumi Kubo, trans. Polly Barton

‘Mikumari’ is a sex story that is also a falling-out-of-love story. A senior in high school gets picked up by a woman in a Tokyo comic market. She’s attracted by his apparent resemblance to an anime character — not that Misumi Kubo’s narrator ever quite works out who. He knows her only as Anzu. Almost immediately, they begin to have sex: ludicrously scripted, costumed affairs that allow Anzu to live out her anime dreams. At the same time, Kubo’s narrator falls in love — actual storybook love — with a girl from his school. Over time, he becomes increasingly conflicted and increasingly wary of Anzu but is unable to tear himself away from her. Kubo’s narrator has an exceptional voice — he shoots for cynical and streetwise, but winds up at hapless and unknowingly self-pitying: imagine someone trying to be Holden Caulfield but failing — it’s this voice, hilarious and poignant, that separates ‘Mikumari’ from any number of love stories.

The Transparent Labyrinth — Keiichirō Hirano, trans. Kerim Yasar

‘The Transparent Labyrinth’ is a potent shot, heady with aromas of Wilde and Poe and de Sade — decadence, decay and depravity. Okada is meeting clients in Budapest when he meets Misa, and Federica — Misa has been travelling around Europe for some months and is in a mysterious debt to the possessive Federica, whose behaviour alarms Okada. Concerned with Federica’s behaviour, and for Misa, he accompanies them to a party which becomes increasingly depraved, increasingly horrifying. The next day, Okada returns to Japan alone, but the spectres of Misa and Federica follow him. Okada simply cannot disengage from that night in Budapest — it haunts him, traps him in a hazy world of doubles and deeply-repressed trauma that can’t help but bubble to the surface.

Strangers Press kindly sent me review copies of the Keshiki Chapbooks.

A Book A Week #36 | The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

It’s pretty much an immutable law of the universe that any activity that takes place in an office will be labelled ‘Kafkaesque,’ usually by some smart-Aleck who doesn’t have to work in one. That said, it would be difficult not to read Helen Phillips’ new novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat without picking up on the strange blend of paranoia and mindless, hemmed-in, tedium that characterises Kafka. To call The Beautiful Bureaucrat a Kafkaesque tale of offices and paper-pushing would be to miss half the point, though — there’s more than a hint of Borges or Calvino in Phillips’ story as it shifts gear from squalid office comedy to metaphysical mystery, but more than that, hidden amid the cubicles and acres of filing cabinets is something wholly original and utterly preposterous and entirely compelling.

Josephine and her husband, Joseph, have moved from the hinterland to the city in search of work, which she finds quickly enough. She is offered a job by a man who is wholly forgettable, apart from his impossibly bad breath. The job is in a vast office complex, the size of a small town — Josephine is assigned to a small, windowless cubicle whose walls are scarred with gouge marks from its previous occupants.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

Every day, she types a hundred or so first lines from a hundred or so forms into the Database, before going home and waking up to do the same thing over again. Bouncing from squalid bedsit to squalid bedsit, the Database begins to consume her life and her health — Josephine’s eyes are bloodshot, her nails chewed and frayed, her forehead bubbling with zits. And as Joseph starts disappearing more and more, the Database looms larger and larger.

Telling someone not to do something is far and away the easiest way of ensuring that they do just that, and The Person with Bad Breath tells Josephine that there is “no need to be curious” about the strings of ineffable code that she inputs, day in, day out. So, naturally, Josephine tries to puzzle it out: she’s not got anything better to do, after all. And in doing so, she stumbles across an ontological mystery hidden in the heart of the Database’s spreadsheets and filing cabinets, a mystery that manages to play out at once like a Borgesian parable on the infinite and on a level closer to home, one that is stiflingly claustrophobic and crushingly intimate.

Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, Pushkin Press (London: 2017)

Pushkin Press kindly sent me a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat.

A Book A Week #35 | The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

All The Gang’s Here: The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

The author is dead. A specific author, that is. Specifically, the author who did the most to kill the author — the notion of the author as some sort of a textual god, whose diktat is law. More specifically still, that author is Roland Barthes. His 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ declared that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” and that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

“Author” with a capital ‘A,’ that is. Barthes wasn’t in the business of bumping off writers. Rather, he intended to strike a blow against a literary culture “tyrannically centred on the author” as an implacable source of authority. The Author must be knocked off his (for the Author is always going to be a He) pedestal and replaced with the reader, as an implacable source of authority. Geddit?

Barthes was killed on the morning of the 26th of March 1980, knocked down by a laundry truck. Laurent Binet’s novel, The 7th Function of Language imagines that the author’s death was no accident but an assassination; part of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy that implicates the upper echelons of French academe. Inspector Bayard, squat, proud Giscard voter and entirely uneasy with academia, is called to investigate Barthes’ death. On the way, he picks up a sidekick, the Holmes to his Watson, the rake-thin, timid semiotician Simon Herzog, to help him navigate the echoing corridors of the university.

Their investigations will take them from Paris to Bologna to Cornell, via steamy bathhouses where Foucault cavorts with gigolos, the office of the president, and a debating society where more than words are at stake. The whole gang’s here: the book’s dramatis personae reads like a who’s who of literary theory at its height: Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Kristeva, Sollers and Cixous, Derrida, Searle and Roman Jakobson. Oh, and don’t forget Umberto Eco, who pops up throughout the book as a sort of guide for the perplexed.

In fact, The 7th Function of Language owes rather a lot to Umberto Eco — if the book sounds somewhat like an Ecosian fantasia, that’s because it very probably is. There’s more than a hefty slug of Dan Brown in Binet’s work, but that might be because Brown is, in fact a character in one of Eco’s novels. As Eco once said, “The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” A delicious quote, and one that finds echoes in The Seventh Function of Language. Wheels within wheels within wheels.

The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet

It would be easy to rhapsodise about Binet’s writing all night — the ludicrous erudition, the way that dry academic debates are weighted with the same import as a firefight, the puns (oh, the puns). Even the Deleuzian sex scene — especially the Deleuzian sex scene (“the two desiring machines collide in an atomic explosion, and become, finally, that body without organs”). But, stepping out of my own shoes and into those of Barthes’ impersonal reader, without history or biology (or, perhaps into those of a better critic), does the novel actually work? How might The 7th Function of Language read to someone without a literature degree or two, saturated in what’s become known as Theory-with-a-capital-’T’?

To return to that Umberto Eco quote about the hermetic secret, everything might be connected, but what does that matter if you don’t have the foggiest what the Rosicrucians are, or the Masons, or the Jesuits? A reader less clued in to all this is perhaps unlikely to get much joy from Binet’s conspiracy — which is the way all conspiracies work, after all. Pizzagate, to draw a particularly ridiculous example, only works if you’re aware of the DNC’s hacked emails, and John Podesta’s penchant for pizza, as well as the Alt-Right’s tendency to happen upon conspiracies around every corner, most of which implicate the targets of that day’s ire. On the other hand, 7th Function might well play better with a Francophone reading public than an Anglophone one — France still has what might be called public intellectuals, whereas we’re all tired of experts now.

Stepping back into my own habitus now (there’s no escaping Bourdieu; not now, not ever), this overly-educated, Theory-saturated curate-cretin-crritic, the sort of person who can laugh out loud at a good Derrida pun, finds a lot to love. Any book where Derrida is killed off in 1980, leaving him to write his 1993 book on hauntology from beyond the grave, tickles my fancy. Any book where Umberto Eco plays a starring role is a good’un, in my ever-so ‘umble opinion.

Pacy, ludicrously witty, and clever to a fault, The 7th Function of Language is a literary thriller in the most radical sense — a madcap, screwball, twisting, turning thrill-ride of a book with impeccable literary credentials. The Author is dead. Long live the Author.

Laurent Binet trans. Sam Taylor, The 7th Function of Language, Harvill Secker (London: 2017)

Harvill Secker kindly furnished me with a copy of The 7th Function of Language.

A Book A Week #34 | House of Names by Colm Tóibín

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín

If someone invites you to a party at the House of Atreus, don’t go. Nothing good can come of it. Their nibbles are substandard, the drinks warm, and you are likely to end up in the dungeons. And that’s the best case scenario. House of Names, Colm Tóibín’s new novel acts as nothing less than a catalogue of the woes that could befall an ancient Greek family back in the day, from human sacrifice to kidnap to murder. Tóibín’s new novel is a loose adaptation of Aeschylus’ Orestia, or at least two-thirds of it — oddly and perhaps sadly, a courtroom drama adjudicated by none less than Athena herself seemed not to have appealed to the author — beginning with Iphigenia’s sacrifice by Agamemnon to change the winds and speed his fleet towards Troy, and ending with the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes, Iphigenia’s brother and Clytemnestra’s son.

(Can you really spoil a story that’s about two-and-a-half thousand years old? Especially when it’s a tragedy — a genre that only ever ends one way?)

Interpolated between the well-worn stories written by Aeschylus are new vignettes — what made Clytemnestra so enraged that she waited ten years to kill her husband? Where was Orestes where his father was killed? What is Electra’s part in all of this? The most effective of these is the one that kicks off the book: Agamemnon’s deception and Iphigenia’s sacrifice. The snapshot begins from the perspective of a mother beaming with pride — Clytemnestra believes herself to be sailing off to marry her daughter to Achilles, the most famed warrior in all Greece. But her pride fast turns to grief as she learns from none other than the husband-to-be that Iphigenia is not to be married, but to be killed, to guarantee a strong headwind for Agamemnon’s fleet. Grief turns to murderous rage as she is forced to watch her daughter’s throat cut, bound and gagged and helpless on an altar. It’s a startling and ferocious ten pages or so of high-flung virtuoso emotion, of the sparks that fly when something as close to universal as a mother’s love and pride and grief is cast against something as alien and inscrutable as the whims of the gods.

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín

Tóibín’s major achievement with House of Names is in humanising the Orestia — a play cycle first performed over two thousand years ago in front of an audience of ancient Athenians in a ritualised drama competition devoted to Dionysius — without losing the crystal-sharp, hard-edged harshness of the original, set in a universe where justice is swift, and meted out with knives and relish. What Tóbín does is removes the gods from Aeschylus’ universe, makes justice something that humans are beginning to do to one another, rather than something which is meted out from above. As Electra says, “We live in a strange time … A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.”

Or, as someone else would very nearly put it, two millennia later, heaven is empty and all the devils are here.

Colm Tóibín, House of Names, Viking (London: 2017)

Viking kindly furnished me with a review copy of House of Names.

A Book A Week #33 | White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

At the heart of American music is the blues. And at the heart of the blues is an unspeakable cruelty. That’s what Hari Kunzru’s new novel reminds us. White Tears is the story of two white kids in love with a past that isn’t theirs. Carter is a trustafarian, complete with blonde dreads and an unfathomable source of dirty money, who takes the socially inept Seth under his wing. The two are united by a love of the blues. For Carter, this love is more of an obsession — he spends his life hunting out impossibly rare ‘78s, the cracklier the better. But when Seth records a panhandler singing under his breath, singing a song that Carter has never heard, this obsession turns into something far stranger, far darker, far more primal.

The pair of them record this song and “drown it in hiss,” make it sound like it’s been “sitting under someone’s porch for fifty years”. They invent a label for the record; invent a singer — Charlie Shaw. But Charlie Shaw is real, according to a record collector who refuses to believe Seth concocted ‘Graveyard Blues’ in a Brooklyn walk-up. The revelation sets Carter and Seth teetering, and it transforms White Tears.

What starts as a spirited skewering of a faintly unpleasant white dude-bro culture is pushed into the maw of a Hieronymous Bosch hellscape of twisted figures that flits back and forth between the Jim Crow-era Deep South, where a bluesman named Charlie Shaw is picked off the street on his way to a recording session by sadistic policemen, and a post-9/11 New York. As Seth picks his way south, through the history of the blues, of a tradition he cooks up in a studio, the lines between then and now dissolve, and the legacy of Charlie Shaw comes to haunt the present, in a kind of ghoulish racial revenge tragedy, caught between abuser and victim, past and present, black and white.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Perhaps a better way to read White Tears is as an allegory for power, instead of a story about music. For Kunzru, music is just another way of talking about power, about the struggle to express and repress, a struggle which is deeply implicated in any discussions of race. Charlie Shaw might have sung ‘Graveyard Blues’ in the Deep South, but up in New York half a century later, Carter can crow “These fuckers think this music was made in 1928, but actually we made it. We made it, fools! We made that shit last week! So who’s the expert now? Who knows the tradition? We do! We own that shit!” They own that shit, indeed. And look where it gets them.

Hari Kunzru, White TearsHamish Hamilton (London: 2017)

Hamish Hamilton provided me with a review copy of White Tears.