Sellout! Notes Reflecting on Retail Island

I’m at a stage where promoting my writing feels beyond me, and I certainly don’t expect there to be a plethora of reviews and interview requests surrounding the publication of my new book, my first proper work of fiction and first output of any sustained length in a full five years. This explanation, apology, dissective reflection, whatever it may be, is likely to be as close to getting under the skin of a book that developed in two distinct but equally difficult phases as will happen.

Not so long ago in real terms – two years ago, maybe – I was working on three projects simultaneously: a concise but monograph-length academic work on postmodernism, a long, long exploratory novel, and a story that was partly inspired by JG Ballard’s later works, but primarily by the bleak landscape surrounding the office space my job had recently located to. Within a few months of the relocation, the inspiration for the latter work proved to the cause for all three projects to ultimately halt.

The venue depicted in Retail Island as The Orchard Carvery was the place where a number of sections, particularly in the early stages, were written, and the mind-numbing dialogue I found myself transcribing in the name of making art that was credible and close to life proved to be a major contributor to my creativity – such as it was – drying up. Having transferred from a town-centre office close to my home, to an out-of-town office in a location almost identical to that in which the book is set, a full hour’s journey away, I found my mornings starting earlier and my evenings starting later, but, worst of all, whereas I had once had access to pubs and coffee shops where I could write, there was only the carvery as an option for lunchtime writing. Increasingly, I found myself either walking to Asda or WHS Smith or Sainsbury’s for something to do over the course of a 20-minute lunch break, or otherwise failing to leave my desk or taking any kind of break at all.

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At what point does enlisting a friend to help cross the boundary into an abuse of power? This was a question I began asking myself after I received a promotion. Finding myself managing a team, I charged one of my staff with the task of making sure I took a lunch break. Was it wrong? This question would ultimately resurface in the writing, which, in hindsight, only became possible once enforced lunch breaks came into effect. I’m aware that assigning ‘tasks’ is in a different league from parading one’s cock, but in a climate whereby I’ve been subjected to the opinion that performing a piece about suicidal self-loathing without a trigger warning is more or less the same as committing rape, I’ve found myself questioning even my most basic assumptions. Given the graphic nature of some scenes – and again, given events over the course of the last few months – I even began to doubt whether it was right to publish. But the function of art is to challenge. Art that does not challenge is merely entertainment. As such, I make no apologies.

Retail Island is in no way autobiographical. I cannot stress this enough. As with many of my works, it’s an exercise, and an idea taken to its (il)logical conclusion. A serious, Ballard-influenced dystopia set in a parallel present on the one hand, it’s also rich in irony and parody, and is not a work designed to be taken as seriously as its surface suggests. The ‘love interest’ strand is simply my exploiting convention, and the apparent lack of irony in its execution is, in fact, a double irony.

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Initially, my new job made writing impossible. I was exhausted, anxietised, immersed in the job. The new role brought with it a lot more stress and anxiety for minimal financial reward. With lunch breaks resumed, I ultimately returned to writing, both lunchtimes and evenings, and the project which had stalled at around the 3,600 word-mark began to flow, and I chiselled out the remaining 27,000 words in under three months. During this time, I found myself again, at least to an extent. I stepped back from the precipice of being a corporate machine, and reclaimed my mantle of being a writing machine. But the elation of production was tinged with the guilt of advantage.

On resuming writing, I remembered that I tend to work best when I have an audience, someone – or some people – I can sling chunks of text to by email, as they emerge. It’s less about feedback (and certainly not about validation) than about targets in some vague way. Most of the books I’ve written have been produced to tight, self-imposed, constraints. THE PLAGIARIST had to contain 200 pages of text and be completed inside three months. Because. A number of other works evolved because I promised – half-joking – to send various people either a page of text or 500 words a day. Perhaps it ties in with my other jobs, as a corporate whore and a music reviewer: give me a deadline and I’ll work to it. And I’ll deliver. So, on finding a willing recipient for regular instalments of my work-in-progress, Retail Island grew quickly. I spent less time thinking, and more time writing. And more time writing meant less time focusing on the causes and symptoms of my stress and anxiety – something else which fed into the book as the protagonist finds himself increasingly tormented by anxiety.

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This again is something that’s played into my daily life. I’ve suffered from stress and anxiety. I still do. It’s become apparent that a number of people I now manage do, too. I’m increasingly aware of everyday mental health issues, and I’m also one of the worst at dealing with my own. But, moving on…

Retail Island is in no way autobiographical, but the characters and locations are real. Or versions of people and places which are real. I find it easier to write people and places I can visualise.

A large portion of my posts on various websites, including my own, as well as on social media and the sites of lit zines who interviewed or published me in the past have disappeared without trace over the last decade, but those that remain will likely attest that I’ve long advocated the practise of ‘write what you know’. This isn’t a stance against imagination: it’s just that personally, I find it easier to acquire details of a dismal office location while working in a dismal office, and to decorate a low-budget, lowest-common-denominator carvery with detail while frequenting a low-budget, lowest-common-denominator carvery.

For me, life will inevitably inform my art, and it was ever thus. So, for better or worse, a number of characters – a couple in particular – resemble people I know or otherwise work alongside. Their physical characteristics and various quirks, not to mention other details only they will recognise, have been woven into the fabric of their fictional counterparts. This is something I have done throughout my writing career, and no, the subjects aren’t always aware, often for reasons apparent. But Retail Island is a sci-fi novel, at least in the Ballardian sense. As such, the characters are largely ciphers and cardboard cut-outs: they are vehicles and tropes, and not designed to carry emotional resonance. As such, even those based on people I know and like are subject to a distancing, a detachment. These are not the people I know: these are characters, and delineated, two-dimensional ones at that.

To return to the question of power and its abuse: this has long been a topic of interest: having never had any tangible power previously, I’ve always been at the receiving end of any abuse – not ‘bad’ abuse, but the kind of abuse which keeps a person down. I now have a small degree of power. I’m mindful not to abuse it, but there’s always a risk – especially in the current climate – that an off-the-cuff comment could lead to trouble. What do you do?

For the record, I do not work at a pharmaceutical company. But I do work in an office, and like any office, it’s riven with sexual tension. This, paired with the power debate, prompted one of the narrative threads before the whole Harvey Weinstein thing broke. I don’t know if it now looks like I’m trying to cash in on the zeitgeist here, or simply being exploitative. But some of the interactions I have witnessed – none nearly as extreme as the majority of scenes depicted in Retail Island – have made me scrutinise what goes on in workplace environments, and what people accept despite feeling uncomfortable.

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I have a broad guideline for writing: observe everything, then leave 85% out. I adhered to this while composing Retail Island. The omissions provided space for the fiction. And beneath a more serious, genre-sculpted work than my previous efforts, all of the elements which featured previously are still present, just in a different form.

The use of repetition is much more subtle than in several of my previous works: instead of replicating phrases and scenes wholesale, a la Stewart Home (in turn appropriating Richard Allen) the repetitions are more narrative-based, with scenes and ideas seemingly looping, with a view to creating a sense of temporal dislocation. Think Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps. In keeping with the way the central character, Robert Ashton, feels he is constantly stonewalled and making no progress, so the narrative continually returns the reader to appoint of stasis and frustration.

As with all of my works, despite possessing a linear narrative and adhering broadly to many literary conventions, genre trappings and all (I’ve completely avoided any form of cut-up here), the ultimate aim of Retail Island is frustration (to a greater or lesser extent). But hopefully, the brutal violence, gratuitously detailed sex scenes (which are actually integral to the plot as it happens), and explosions will provide enough entertainment to counter the frustration.

Retail Island is published by Clinicality Press on 1 January 2018. It’s available to order now via THIS LINK.

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2014: A Year in Books

This is categorically not a list of my ‘best books’ of 2014. Very few of the titles I’ve read in the last 12 months were even published this year. This is simply a list of what I’ve read with no judgement implied (although I strongly maintain life;s too short to read crap books, so by default they’re all pretty good).

With my day-job having moved to a different office, I’m fortunate and grateful that I no longer spend an hour a day on public transport. The downside is that the half hour trip each way to and from work was time I spent reading up to the end of June and consequently, I’ve done rather less reading this year than I would have liked.

These are the books I’ve read, which have informed and entertained me this year, and some will have no doubt had an influence – conscious or otherwise – on my writing.

Ben Jeffery – Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism

Raymond Chandler – Farewell, My Lovely

Jonny Glynn – The Seven Days of Peter Crumb

Ian Rankin – The Naming of the Dead

Henry Sutton – Kids’ Stuff

Aifric Campbell – On the Floor

Gavin Lambert – The Goodbye People

JG Ballard – The Drought

Douglas Coupland – Generation X

Paolo Sorrentino – Everybody’s Right

Samuel Beckett – Three Novels: Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnamable

Various – Clinical, Brutal 2: Incisive Writing with Guts

Philip Roth – Portnoy’s Complaint

Mickey Spillane – Mike Hammer Omnibus Vol 1: I, The Jury / My Gun is Quick / Vengeance is Mine

Lisa Dabrowski – Dr Sadistic’s House of Whorrors

Martin Crimp – Attempts on Her Life

Chuck Palahniuk – Damned

Malcolm Mc Neill – Reflux

Charlie Wells – Fags and Lager

Beau Rice – Tex

Stewart Home – The 9 Lives of Ray The Cat Jones

Stuart Bateman – Grind

Jonathan Crary – 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

 

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

2013: A Year in Books

When I’m not writing music reviews or books of my own, I spend a reasonable chunk of my free time reading books, for pleasure or for education. I’m not all about the hot new releases, the recommendations or the best-sellers. I read what I want, when I want, and occasionally, I read what I get sent (which is usually something I want to read anyway, which is a double bonus in many respects). So, in 2013, I read 28 books. They’re listed below. It’s not a ‘best of’ list, and the list isn’t about critical appraisal. I enjoyed some of the books I read more than others. Some, I’ve reviewed. Most, I haven’t. A handful of them I’d read before, the majority I hadn’t. So there you have it.

Warren Ellis – Gun Machine

Stewart Home – Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane

Arthur Miller – Focus

Davis Schneiderman – Blank

Davis Schneiderman – Drain

John Tottenham – Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment

JG Ballard – Concrete Island

Carl van Cleave – Incisions, Collisions and Aborted Missions

Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory

James Higgerson – The Almost Lizard

Christopher Landon – The Shadow of Time

John D. Chadwick – The Theosophical Teapot

Robert Silverberg – The Second Trip

Jim Thompson – Savage Night

Mark Thomas – Bravo Figaro!

JG Ballard – Rushing to Paradise

Jim Thompson – The Killer Inside Me

Valerie Solanas – S.C.U.M. Manifesto

Brendan Behan – Borstal Boy

Davis Schneiderman – [SIC]

Elmore Leonard – Djibouti

Martin Amis – The Information

Aldous Huxley – Brave New World

JG Ballard – Kingdom Come

Clinton Heylin – Bootleg! The Rise & Fall of the Secret Recording Industry

Ed McBain – The Heckler / See Them Die

Michel Houellebecq – Whatever

Mark Manning – Crucify Me Again

‘Pretentious and Dull’: Celebrating Ballard’s Lone Stars

Negative reviews have long been something of an obsession of mine. Having grown up reading Melody Maker and the NME in the late 80s and early 90s, it was the out-and-out slatings that I found made the most entertaining reads. In many ways, these reviews were a leading factor in my deciding I wanted to become a music journalist. For the first reviewing job I applied for, which happened to be at my local paper, I sent a deeply scathing review of a recent gig I’d attended, because I felt it provided the best means of demonstrating my flair for description and finding creative ways of saying the bands were shit.

I was elated when the section’s editor rang me to tell me I’d got the ‘job’ (I say ‘job’ as it was unpaid, an ongoing feature of my reviewing career which now spans the best part of twenty years). My elation was countered by no small degree of horror when he went on to tell me he loved my submission so much he was going to run it.

It was a vital lesson in writing, and at a relatively tender age (I was about 18), namely that if you’re going to write something, you have to be prepared for people to read it. The paper received a number of letters of complaint, the first review to have elicited such a reaction in its entire history.

Still, it wasn’t the first time my writing had received complaints. A couple of years previous, during the summer holidays, I had produced a newsletter of sorts, a parodic ‘gossip column’ type affair about people from my school. It went by the title of ‘The Parish News’, and I simply printed up and posted out copies to various friends and people I knew. Unfortunately, one (female) recipient shared initials with her mother, who opened the correspondence, and, taking offence at the references to her daughters breasts, decided to call the police about this ‘offensive’ publication. They turned up at the back door while I was cleaning the porch for pocket money, and delivered some stern words. They couldn’t tell me who’d complained, of course, but I spotted one of the, coppers was holding the envelope they’d been handed by the complainant and read the address, and made the simultaneous discovery that bobbies aren’t always the brightest. They also told me in no uncertain terms that I was to cease the publication of ‘The Parish News’ or anything similar. I gave them my word and they went on their way. I was a lot more careful with the distribution of the subsequent three issues of the quarterly A4 one-pager.

Since then, very little’s changed in many respects. I learned quickly to develop a thick skin when it came to comments regarding my work, and for every detractor there are many protractors, and besides, I’m of the opinion that it’s better to be slated than ignored – although that doesn’t stop me bailing in, feet first with all guns blazing when I receive a particularly feeble or otherwise irksome CD in the mail. It’s good to let off steam to flex my muscles that are primed for serving up vitriol, and I still believe the bad reviews are the best.

Unfortunately, many reviews on the Internet, be they reader reviews or fan reviews or little blogs or zines, are extremely poorly written, and the one-star reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., are nowhere near of the standard of the scathing reviews penned by good journalists who possess wit, humour and an extensive vocabulary. It was this strain of review that was a key inspiration for This Book is Fucking Stupid, and long before I decided to write / assemble the book, I’d developed the habit of skipping straight to the one and two star reviews of books or CDs I was considering buying. Sometimes I’d find myself embarking – unintentionally – on extensive one-star journeys, reading all the terrible reviews of books I’d read or by authors I like. And really, most of them are truly terrible. Invariably, it’s abundantly clear that the reviewer is only semi-literate, and needless to say they’ve generally missed the point of the book completely.

I’ve recently been on something of a Ballard trip, and it’s perhaps not surprising that despite the glowing critical reception his works have received, many ‘everyday’ readers have been less impressed. tvpunter’s comments on Amazon.co.uk concerning High Rise – a book I found powerful and quite affecting – are in many ways typical:

1.0 out of 5 stars WE-1984-, 8 May 2011

By tvpunter

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

That kind of novel that potrays the middle classes in turmoil as oppossed to the state controling the masses..a metaphor for today in 2011..did’t work for me.

Clearly, spelling ‘dos’t’ work for him either, and reviews like this reveal more about the reviewer’s deficiencies than the shortcomings of the book. The point is, I’m aware that Ballard is guilty of the occasional lumpy sentence and sometimes the action scenes are so hastily sketched it’s difficult to discern precisely what’s happened. Consider these features endearing, small imperfection that are essential to the unique style of Ballard’s writing. Therefore, while not all of his books have had the same effect on me as The Atrocity Exhibition, I nevertheless find myself marvelling at the way in which he constructs his narratives, and I’ve not once – thus far – found a Ballard book to be ‘disappointing’ – unlike Thomas Hunter of Banbury:

1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 11 Nov 2011

By Thomas Hunter (Banbury, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

This book started so well, painting a great picture of a realistic brave new world on the French Riviera, and setting up an intrigue that promised to blossonm into an exciting mystery. But then it all went wrong as implausibility piled on top of implausibility. JGB thought he was building tension but instead he was building incredulity, finishing off with a pathetic ending that made me think the whole experience had been a waste. My first Ballard and probably my last.

The one thing that’s always struck me about Ballard is his ability to signpost the future. The London Riots of August 2011 immediately brought to mind High Rise and Millennium People. But the trouble with writing the near future is that for many, it will seem far-fetched and improbable, in much the same way Smellgrovia finds aspects of Kingdom Come ‘silly’.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pale Imitation, 21 May 2007

By Smellgrovia (Blackheath, London)

This review is from: Kingdom Come (Hardcover)

I am a huge Ballard fan and so am sorry to say that I really did not enjoy this. I agree with other reviewers in feeling that Ballard has done this so much better in other novels such as Cocaine Nights. I thought the shopping mall run riot was silly at best, and I just could not get involved with the characters or plot. By the end I was skim reading just to finish the damn thing – never a good sign.

2.0 out of 5 stars gratuitous, 17 Nov 2010

By biskit

This review is from: High-Rise (Paperback)

i knew this book was supposed to be alarming, thought provoking etc., but i didn’t bank on the feeling of impatience and horror. never one to abandon a book half way, i kept on through gritted teeth. I have since passed dwellings that have made me think of this book, but that can be its only legacy. a fear that the hell within this book could become reality is what makes one read on, but beware the same is true for other stories of the horror genre. this is not a convincing tale, people going to work as normal and then setting up war zones in their own block of flats? i dont think so!

We live in silly times. I suspect many inhabitants of inner city areas would liken their tower blocks to war zones. Many considered 1984 absurd in its day, and no one got Nova Express, yet these books are now very much reflections of the society in which we now live. It’s a pity the authors weren’t around to witness recent events – or perhaps it’s a blessing. Sometimes, it’s not pleasant to find you were right all along.

I wrote This Book is Fucking Stupid as a means of addressing the dichotomy that runs through the whole field of reviewing as it’s emerged in recent years. Readers rarely seem to agree with critics, yet purchase books on the strength of the reviews its received – and then complain, feeling that they’ve been in some way misled by the critic’s positive assessment of any given text.

1.0 out of 5 stars One for the Daily Mail readers, 28 July 2008

By Bryan (Newcastle)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

If it’s a satire, it’s lacking wit, insight and humour, and if it’s not satire it betrays a staggering naivete. Characters are poorly drawn, but even in their one-dimensional state manage to be either wholly unsympathetic or downright offensive, and the world they inhabit is one seen by the most blinkered Daily Mail reader, where school fees are an important economic indicator, and the death of Jill Dando can shake the country. (The inclusion of a version of the Dando murder is so bizarre it’s almost funny, but not quite enough). The point of the book, such as it is, is facile – professionals have a function in society – but by presenting their closed world as the entirety of society, and not giving us any shade, or any tension, against their short-sightedness, the book’s never going to work unless you can actually sympathise with their views. And if you can, then I pity you. There’s also a nearly quaint 1960s radical feel – the giveaway line for me was a reference to a ‘shared lover’ – the uneasy balance between permissiveness and misogyny bringing the bearded conservatism of 60s student to mind. (The idea of overpriviledged revolutionaries obviously chimes with the theme of the book, but I don’t think that’s a deliberate echo).
There are some nice prose flourishes, but a handfull through the book, which mostly reads somewhere between plodding and clunky, while the dialogue is risible. If I’d not read some early Ballard, I’d say his editor hadn’t paid attention to an esteemed author’s manuscript.
Overall the book is a re-tread of High Rise, and suffers that book’s problem of a fundamental misanthropy based on a wilful acknowledgement only of the most venal side of humanity, that expressed in the broadsheets and world cinema of the London middle class. That could work if it was sufficiently stylised (and much as I disliked High Rise, it nearly worked through the conceit of staying within one building), but this wants to operate within a real world, but completely fails to acknowledge one exists.
If you like your writing dull, your authors solipsistic, and your themes akin to being battered over the head with a rolled Telegraph, then fill your boots on this one, but otherwise, there’s nothing to see.

Another key aspect of This Book was recycling. In these times of austerity and while green issues remain to the fore, I’m still the keen advocate of recycling I was a decade or more ago. I was raised to waste not, want not, and I’ve spent most of my writing career working to this ethos. Just as William Burroughs cut up Naked Lunch to create much of what would subsequently become the Nova trilogy, so a large proportion of the material that became THE PLAGIARIST and From Destinations Set began life as a novella entitled Destroying the Balance. This novella became my ‘word hoard’ so to speak, and I decided it was a more than fitting text to recut, re-edit and reconfigure in order to produce This Book. And why not? By reworking a pre-existing text, I’m joining a lineage of great authors who did precisely the same. Of course, not all readers appreciate what could be considered formulaic plotting, although no-one seems to complain that the bulk of crime, horror or romance novels all follow the dame formula.

1.0 out of 5 stars A waste of time and effort…, 4 Oct 2001

By deborah.daley@marshallcavendish.co.uk (London, UK)

This review is from: Super-Cannes (Paperback)

I bought this book as I was going on holiday and needed something to read. It was a haste decision based on the rave reviews and the fact that this book had won an award. I did not find this book to be exciting, tense, thrilling, visionary, etc. This story of a man tracing the footsteps of another man’s killing spree is written in such a way that I wasn’t immersed in the story – I didn’t care about any of the characters, the plot was unbelieveable, long winded and consisted of twists that I had been guessed early on. It was only when I got to page 371 that I felt the story had some real feeling or was exciting – this isn’t a good sign in a novel.

Another thing was that there were too many poetic terms for describing things throughout the story. This is a talent of Mr Ballard’s that he utilised to the nth degree. I challenge any potential reader to open a page in this book and read – you’ll see that it’s difficult to keep track…

Why is this author praised as some kind of genius? Reading the synopsis of his other books it looks suspiciously like he rewrites the same story over and over again – perhaps he is a genius…

There is of course a fine line between genius and insanity, and if dumb is the new smart and the rewriting of the same story over and over again is the height of creativity, then This Book is Fucking Stupid is the very definition of a work of genius. What’s more, I’ve long said that plot’s overrated, and while a substantial number of truly important works of literature dispense with plot completely (again, The Atrocity Exhibition, Naked Lunch are obvious leading examples), while others relegate plot to a secondary or even tertiary position (I’m thinking instinctively of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work here, although again, there are many others) but of course what I really mean by this is that a truly great book needs a lot more to it than plot, and readers who read for plot alone are missing out on vast portions of the experience reading can provide. How often does plot as of and in itself make a reader pause for thought to assess their own lives, beliefs and the world around them? Still, even a good plot is wasted if the readership’s incapable of following it without it being spelled out. Perhaps more complex novels should come with plot-line summaries, and, better yet, a diagram with the key events in sequential order, just to make sure no-one gets lost along the way.

1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious and dull, 24 Mar 2008

By A. Auburn (Cambridgeshire, England)

This review is from: Millennium People: Novel (Paperback)

This is among the worst books Ive ever read. I couldnt follow the plot,and the language was over pretentious and unexciting. I have heard alot about J.G. Ballard but he is highly overrated and dull.

Ultimately, any writer has to accept that they’re not going to please everyone, and in fact, few would want to. I’ve made my decision: I’m going all out for the one-stars. I want to produce an entire oeuvre of ‘worst books ever’ than crush my soul churning out potboiling bollocks about knights or espionage. Let’s face it, the paperback fiction chart is grim and endlessly samey. Where’s the variety? Where’s the writing that challenges the reader and the status quo? I’d rather sit with Ballard in the ‘pretentious and dull’ corner of the literary world than be adored by the masses who loaf around on the beach reading Shopaholic or dross by Dan Brown. Stupid? Career suicide? Perhaps, but then so’s the idea of writing to become rich or famous. Fame and fortune are even more overrated than plot, but again, you’d have to venture off the bestseller list and read something other than celebrity autobiographies to find that out.

 

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The late, great J G Ballard and his untidy bookcase

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk