Paperhouse reads: Liver

Liver‘s subtitle is “A fictional organ with an anatomy of four lobes” – because it’s a collection of four short stories all set in the same fictional universe. Between the gory physicality of that summary and its literary precision, Will Self gives a perfect biopsy of his style. Funny, bleak, grotesque, dispassionate: Self’s liver is a bilious organ.

liver-cover1

I started reading Self when he was doing the cult books segment for Mark Radcliffe’s graveyard shift show on Radio 1: every few weeks, he’d show up and laud a work of fiction, and a bit later I’d borrow it from the library and add it to my store of teenage pretension. I read Lolita, Perfume and Kafka on Self’s recommendation. I also read Self’s Quantity Theory, Grey Area and Cock And Bull, really enjoying the mixture of dismal sex and absurdist satire. But then Tough Tough Toys… was a bit disappointing, and the columns in the Indy felt laboured and drab, and I let Self drift out of the circle of things in which I was interested. Look, I was 18, barely out of Point Horror and working my way through the best books ever written. It’s almost completely not my fault that I totally underrated Self.

I even managed to miss this happening. But I’ve started to catch up now, and Liver is a decent place to start. All of the extended short stories take place in the same fictional universe, with characters moving between as connecting tissue, although each narrative is essentially self-enclosed. And, more jarringly, each one twists distinctively out of realist-satirical mode and into another genre of its own: Greek mythology, supernatural interventions, sci-fi. The lobes of the book are separate but related, forming a whole from which any part could be lost without changing the function of the book (apart, obviously, from the function of being like a liver).

And it’s also about livers, and the abuses the organs are put to by human appetites. Scabrous about consumption and acute about addiction and desire, there’s a striking lack of compassion despite all the close observation. Sometimes – especially with the characters who stick around across more than one section – this feels almost too hard to take. It’s not the dreadful things Self does to his characters that you mind: it’s that he can’t say anything nice about them while he’s acting as their tormentor.

But the mysanthropy’s the only thing you can see coming. I’ve never read a fiction narrated by a chorus of microbes before. Nor have you (I imagine), and Self throws out these unexpected inventions with the ease of someone who can make this shit up with some to spare. And he can write, too: not just slinging together a few well-constructed sentences, but rolling out perfected phrases by the pageful. His language is excessive and his vocabulary ripe, but it’s controlled excess – the abundant swears have a well-timed precision, and the moments where he throws in one deliberate cliché too many are rare enough to be tolerable.

Copyright kills

Copyright kills innovation (via No Rock And Roll Fun). During my masters in 2005, we had a tutorial about digital publishing and one of the texts for the class was this 1999 article by John Sutherland. After some descriptions of sharp practice by academic publishers, Sutherland gets down to the meat of what’s bothering him: the LRB, the TLS and the Guardian have all started republishing his work digitally, without paying a further fee. I don’t remember there being much sympathy for Sutherland among the aspiring young academics in the room. For one thing, I think most of us would have accepted publication on much worse terms than Sutherland was getting, and happily. For another, Sutherland’s distinction between the online and paper versions of a journal seemed absurd: the Guardian is the Guardian, whether it’s published in paper and ink or zeroes and ones. And lastly, I thought at the time of the seminar that there was something rather greedy about expecting to be paid in perpetuity for any piece of work. Sutherland’s final flourish in the article felt unearned:

One has to weigh advantages. The growth of databases and electronic archives is something to be encouraged. On the other hand, it would be unnatural not to feel alarmed at the commercial stranglehold which their creation permits. […] Freelance authors, as the romantic name for them implies, are less constrained than employees. Subservience is as corrosive in journalism as it is in academic research. Freedoms of thought and expression are at risk. Is this a price worth paying for the new conveniences of knowledge?

As students, the benefits of accessible knowledge were pretty obvious to us; the dangers of John Sutherland feeling “subservient”, not so much. After all, if knowledge isn’t accessible, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is. And as someone now trying to make money from writing, I’m more frustrated by my work being held offline than I am by the idea that there are people reading my words for free: I want to be able to use earlier work to advertise myself for new jobs, and I can’t do that through a convenient website when the publisher owns the copyright. I’m not denying that there’s a case for copyright, but the difference between my feelings and those expressed by Sutherland is that I expect being a writer to involve, you know, writing – rather than ticking along on the royalties from past work.

Paperhouse Style: On Orwell

Unspeak, which is one of my favourite blogs, posted not-very-approvingly about one of my favourite essays and reminded me that I’d been meaning to re-read “Politics And The English Language”. Orwell’s essay serves as a brusque shorthand among some of my friends for literary quality: if you want to point out that something is badly written, the most economical way about it is to mutter “Orwell” and roll your eyes. So it was pretty disappointing to find on further encounter with the essay that Steven Poole’s assessment is a lot more astute that my undergraduate reading.

Continue reading

Messy Tuesday

I wasn’t sure about starting on the messes, on the grounds that I am a catastrophically messy person. I’m afraid that my mess might make everyone else feel unduly decorous. This is where I work:

I share the computer with my husband, so it’s liberally scattered with his film mags and review copies of DVDs. It’s also currently home to Pritt stick and sugar paper left out after craft activities with the kids, a football card, a stray plaster, and one terry-towelling baby wipe. The Righetti and the OED are evidence of an evening spent agonising over the construction of the set-in sleeve and, also, whether twinset is compound or hyphenated.

When I get up from my desk, I will have to clean the pots, which will mean facing this:

I think the washing-up liquid is a nice touch, suggesting the intention get the place cleaned up at some point. Betraying the feebleness of my intentions: bags of change which have been waiting to go to the bank for nearly a year, and a bean that I forgot to plant out and has now twined along the kitchen blinds and borne fruit. Notice also the the Saturday night/Sunday morning one-two of the empties and the painting materials. I like it: it gives my kitchen sink a “kitchen sink” look.