Going beyond the zero

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“But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children….”

Reader, I read it. It isn’t an admission of great achievement to announce that you’ve reached the last page of a novel after a handful of stalled attempts, but when it’s taken me 36 years to reach this point it feels worthy of note; and besides which, Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t an ordinary novel. Umberto Eco is partly responsible for my return to Pynchon. I’d just finished The Name of the Rose, a book I’d avoided for years even while reading (and enjoying) a couple of Eco’s other novels, and was wondering what to read next. Maybe it was time to try the Rocket book again? The thick white spine of the Picador edition—760 pages in 10pt type—would accuse me every time I spotted it on the shelf: “Still haven’t made it to page 100, have you?” For many people this happens with novels because a book is “difficult” (which I didn’t think it was), or boring (which it isn’t at all), or simply too long (page count doesn’t put me off). Back in 1985 I was looking for more heavyweight fare after reading Ulysses, something I’ve now done several times, so I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a novel which is misleadingly compared to Ulysses on its back cover. If anything the comparison was an enticing one. Pynchon at the time exerted a gravitational pull (so to speak) for being very mysterious, although this was a decade when most living authors, especially foreign ones, were mysterious to a greater degree than they are today, when so many have their own websites and social media profiles. Pynchon’s works were also referred to in interesting places, unlike his less mysterious contemporaries. I may be misremembering but I seem to recall a mention of the W.A.S.T.E. enigma from The Crying of Lot 49 in Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus!; if it is there then it’s no surprise that a writer so preoccupied with conspiracy and paranoia would find favour with the authors of the ultimate conspiracy novel. (And that’s not all. I’m surprised now by the amount of coincidental correspondence between Illuminatus! and Gravity’s Rainbow. Both novels were being written at the same time, the late 1960s, yet both refer to the Illuminati, the eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill, Nazi occultism, and the death of John Dillinger. Both novels also acknowledge the precedent of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, another remarkable conflation of conspiracy, secret history, and wild invention.)

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Pynchon had other connections to the kind of fiction I was already interested in. One of his early short stories, Entropy, had been published in New Worlds magazine in 1969, although editor Michael Moorcock later claimed to have avoided reading any of the novels until much later. And, Pynchon, like Shea & Wilson (and Moorcock…), made pop-culture waves. I think it was Laurie Anderson who put Gravity’s Rainbow in the centre of my radar when she released Mister Heartbreak, an album whose third song, Gravity’s Angel, refers to the novel and is dedicated to its author. As for the novel itself, in the mid-1980s this was still Pynchon’s major work, the one that fully established his reputation. Nothing new had appeared since its publication in 1973; Vineland, and the subsequent acceleration of the authorial production line, was six years away. The final lure was the refusal of the Picador edition to communicate very much of its contents: what was this thick volume actually about? The back cover is filled with praise but doesn’t tell you anything about the novel at all, while the cover illustration by Anita Kunz suggests a scenario connected with the Second World War but little else. (“This was one of the most complicated books I ever read,” says the artist, “and really hard to get the germ of the idea. Pynchon kept going off in tangents. I mixed up the art the same way the writer did and made an image that can be read in all directions.”) It’s only when you start reading the book that you find the connection between the novel’s dominant concerns—the development of the V-2 rockets used by the Nazis to bomb London, and the erotic compulsions of Tyrone Slothrop, an American lieutenant at large in war-ravaged Europe—subtly reflected in the illustration, much more subtly than the cover art on the edition that preceded this one.

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The art of John Thompson

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Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati (And/Or Press, 1977).

John Thompson’s detailed, mystical and erotic illustrations gained prominence in the San Francisco comic scene in the late 1960s–early 1970s, appearing in a handful of titles drawn in their entirety by Thompson or done as collaborations with local artists including Robert Crumb. But it’s as an illustrator of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger that Thompson is probably best known, something I was reminded of recently with the opening of Daisy Campbell’s play based on Wilson’s book. Wilson had seen Thompson’s comics work, and approached him as illustrator of his (ostensibly) non-fiction sequel to the very popular Illuminatus! trilogy, an encounter that Thompson elaborates on in this interview.

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Here in the UK the comics published by Last Gasp et al weren’t always easy to find (imported comics were still being seized by UK customs into the 1990s), so Cosmic Trigger was my first introduction to Thompson’s art via a sighting of the US edition in a London shop in 1978. The UK paperback was a disappointment when it appeared a year or so later: Thompson’s cover art had been replaced with something more generic but they did at least retain the interior illustrations, albeit shrunk to fit the smaller book size. Many of the drawings in Cosmic Trigger had appeared already in Thompson’s comics which may seem surprising when they don’t resemble typical comic pages, but Thompson’s comics are unusual even compared to the undergrounds of the time. The undergrounds were most obviously radical in the wildness and excess of their content, especially where sex and drugs were concerned. But there’s a smaller subset of underground strips whose approach to narrative is so far removed from typical comic storytelling as to verge on the abstract. Victor Moscoso’s comics exemplify this style but even an ostensible traditionalist like Robert Crumb could experiment with the form (see his Cubist Bee Bop Comics in XYZ, 1972). Thompson’s comics are of this type at all times, blending motifs from a variety of myths and religions with Tantric yoga, astrology, alchemy and pop culture. When speech balloons appear they often contain allusive, esoteric phrases along with untranslated Greek or Hebrew text. It’s a beguiling mix which shows the ability of the comic book to do more than simply ape the stories of film or television. As with many other things from the late 1960s it’s a direction that hasn’t been pursued very much since.

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The interview with Thompson explains why he seemed to vanish after the work for Cosmic Trigger: he says he quit comics and illustration to become a therapist although he still creates private work. The examples here are from The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You (1969), Kukawy [sic] Comics 1 (1969; “Kukawy” is actually a Greek word meaning Cyclops), Tales from the Sphinx 2 (1972) and Eternal Comics (1973).

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Weekend links 307

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Demon (2014) from the Witch Series by Camille Chew.

• Released next month, Machines Of Desire is the first album of new music by Peter Baumann since Strangers In The Night in 1983. Baumann’s first two solo albums, Romance 76 (1976) and Trans Harmonic Nights (1979), are exceptional works of analogue electronica that frequently outmatch his former colleagues in Tangerine Dream. Both albums have been unavailable for over 20 years so it’s good to know that Cherry Red are reissuing them at the end of May (see here and here).

• RIP Jenny Diski whose death from cancer wasn’t a surprise when she’d been writing about her condition for many months. Linked here in 2013 was this pre-diagnosis meditation on death that takes in Nabokov, Beckett and Francis Bacon (philosopher, not artist). “Jenny offered a living example of how, sometimes, compassion can be born of misanthropy,” says Justin EH Smith. The LRB’s archive of Diski writings is currently free to all.

Murder by Remote Control, a graphic novel by artist Paul Kirchner and writer Janwillem van de Wetering that “resembles a Raymond Chandler-esque noir ‘whodunnit,’ viewed through the psychotropic lens of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky”.

Inspired by Gore Vidal’s 1968 satirical novel, Myra Breckinridge which was denounced as obscene by conservatives, [Boyd] McDonald embarked on a radically, offensive publication, one that avoided the sexless influence of middle class gay mores that sought to whitewash the homosexual experience in order to present a more palatable image of assimilated gays to the general society. This political strategy was successful in achieving gay marriage and more tolerance, but, in the opinion of McDonald, came at a cost. Straight to Hell was in fact the first queer zine. Utilizing erotic photos, interviews and news, McDonald saw it as a “newsletter for us,” the small group of deviates who were its earliest subscribers.

Walter Holland reviewing True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell by William E. Jones

• “HP Lovecraft’s…fascination with all things tentacular and aquatic is unmistakably imprinted on Evolution“, a new film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Watch the trailer.

• At Dangerous Minds: Broken, the notorious Nine Inch Nails video collection with “snuff movie” interludes by Peter Christopherson, is available online (again).

BEAK> (Geoff Barrow & Billy Fuller) make “claustrophobic, hypnotic music, drawing…on krautrock, post-punk and Interstellar-Overdrive psychedelia”.

• Mixes of the week: Bacchus Beltane 3 : The Age of Abrasax by The Ephemeral Man, and Secret Thirteen Mix 183 by December.

Tease by Jan Rattia, photographs of male strippers on display at ClampArt, NYC.

Wu Zei (2010), a sea-monster sculpture by Huang Yong Ping.

• “I was born weird,” says Robert Crumb.

Sacred Revelation by Susanna

Broken Head (1978) by Eno, Moebius & Roedelius | Broken Horse (1984) by Rain Parade | Broken Harbours (Part 1) (2001) by Stars Of The Lid

Weekend links 248

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The Dreamers (2013) by Kate Baylay, from Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen.

• RIP composer and musique-concrète pioneer Tod Dockstader. “I didn’t have the money for electronic sounds…I had to have things like bottles, or anything that would make a noise. It didn’t matter what it was; if it sounded interesting, or I could make it interesting, I’d go for it.” Geeta Dayal talked to Dockstader for Wired in 2012. Dockstader’s film credits included Fellini’s Satyricon and Tom and Jerry cartoons. He also wrote the story for one of the latter, Mouse into Space, in 1962. Ubuweb has some early Dockstader recordings.

• “…anyone who has ever sat in a cafe, or in the bath, with a paperback owes a debt to Aldus and the small, cleanly designed editions of the secular classics he called libelli portatiles, or portable little books.” Jennifer Schuessler on Aldus Manutius, and the roots of the paperback.

• “At Chernobyl, we made ‘the world’s first radioactive nature preserve.’ We made black rain. We made the Red Forest, which was green when the day began, and is dead.” Mary Margaret Alvarado reviews The Long Shadow Of Chernobyl by Gerd Ludwig.

Prison was often the fate of those caught circulating samizdat in the Soviet Union—not only the “high” samizdat such as Solzhenitsyn, but the crude and lowly joke books as well. The official rationale for the prohibition was in context no less reasonable than the rationale given more recently for condemning Charlie Hebdo or R. Crumb. There is always a perception that the very serious project of perfecting society is being undermined. But society will not be perfected, and it is a last resort of desperate perfecters to go after the subtle-minded satirists who understand this.

Justin EH Smith on why satire matters

• “You have to do your research, and you’ll find treasures that you couldn’t even have begun to sit down and draw until you saw them in front of your eyes,” says Annie Atkins, graphic designer behind The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Tales of Hoffmann: exclusive materials from the making of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece. The film will be released on Blu-ray by the BFI later this month.

• The illustrated score for Irma, the opera offshoot of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, is now available from Lulu.

Mellifluous Ichor From Sunless Regions, a free album of Hauntological electronica by The Wyrding Module.

Kraftwerk at the controls: what the group’s live instrument setup looks like today.

• Booze, Blood and Noise: The Violent Roots of Manchester Punk by Frank Owen.

• Mix of the week: 14th February 2015 by The Séance.

Vintage logo designs

Transmission (1979) by Joy Division | Radioactivity (William Orbit mix, 1991) by Kraftwerk | Bellstomp/Pond Dance (Mordant Music remix, 2012) by Tod Dockstader

Weekend links 95

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Seven Songs (1982) by 23 Skidoo. Sleeve by Neville Brody.

The first volume of The Graphic Canon will be published in May by Seven Stories Press, a collection of comic strip adaptations and illustrations edited by Russ Kick. The anthology has already picked up some attention at the GuardianWestern canon to be rewritten as three-volume graphic novel—and Publishers’ WeeklyGraphic Canon: Comics Meet the Classics. I know someone who’ll bristle at the lazy use of “graphic novel”. The Graphic Canon isn’t anything of the sort, it’s a three-volume voyage through world literature presented in graphic form with a list of contributors including Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Molly Crabapple, Rick Geary, and Roberta Gregory. My contribution is a very condensed adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray that will appear in volume 2. More about that closer to the publication date.

• LTM Records announces a vinyl reissue for Seven Songs (1982) by 23 Skidoo, an album produced by Ken Thomas, Genesis P Orridge & Peter Christopherson that still sounds like nothing else. Related: an extract from Tranquilizer (1984) by Richard Heslop, cut-up Super-8 film/video with audio collage by 23 Skidoo.

• New exhibitions: Another Air: The Czech–Slovak Surrealist Group, 1991–2011 at the Old Town City Hall, Prague (details in English here), and Ed Sanders – Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts 1962–1965 at Boo-Hooray, NYC.

• “…we have a situation where the banks seem to be an untouchable monarchy beyond the reach of governmental restraint…” Alan Moore writes for the BBC about V for Vendetta and the rise of Anonymous.

Announcing Arc: “a new magazine about the future from the makers of New Scientist“. Digital-only for the time being, as they explain here. Their Tumblr has tasters of the contents.

• From another world: Acid Mothers Temple interviewed. Also at The Quietus: Jajouka or Joujouka? The conflicted legacy of the Master Musicians.

• More from Susan Cain on introverts versus extroverts. Related: Groupthink: The brainstorming myth by Jonah Lehrer.

Ten Thousand Waves, an installation by Isaac Julien.

Afterlife: mouldscapes photographed by Heikki Leis.

• The book covers of Ralph Steadman. And more.

• “James Joyce children’s book sparks feud

Arkitypo: the final alphabet.

Book Aesthete

Kundalini (1982) by 23 Skidoo | Vegas El Bandito (1982) by 23 Skidoo | IY (1982) by 23 Skidoo