Sunday, 22 November 2009

Book Review: 1974 & 1977 by David Peace

Dark, violent and gritty, words to describe 1974 and 1977, the first two novels in David Peace's The Red Riding Quartet. In all of my years with 'my head in a book' I have never got round to reading anything strictly labeled as crime fiction. I've always gravitated to the fantastical in genre literature, (science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror) but I love tense and atmospheric Film Noir and related sub-genre's, so it was only a matter of time before I dabbled in this popular field. These two novels are a good starting point if your looking for fast moving but quality writing, with intensely bleak poetic and atmospheric seasoning.

From the first page of 1974, David Peace's debut novel, you're plunged head first into a sort of hell, Yorkshire in the 70's; narrated by a young and naive journalist, Eddie Dunford, who uncovers a labyrinth of corruption, (1974 is also a conspiracy thriller) while attempting to report on a series of grisly child killings. There are no good guys in this story; the police are the equivalent of a Central American death squad, torturing, ethnically cleansing gypsies and killing with impunity and Eddie's fellow journalists on the Yorkshire Post are alcohol drenched hacks with a penchant for misogyny. There is no hope for salvation either, only brutal vengeance. The writing is terse, dialogue driven (mostly obscenities) and moves at a frantic pace, but still manages to be darkly poetic. 1974 (and 1977) should be read as a master class on how to write using a minimum of words, but conveying a thick miasma of atmosphere, almost gothic in intensity.

1977 is more of the same. But David Peace is becoming more ambitious here, moving away slightly from genre conventions, sometimes using experimental syntax, almost 'stream of consciousness.' The gloomy religious references, drawing from the parable of Job from the Old Testament and religious themed horror movies from the 1970's (The Omen in 1974 and The Exorcist here) is more obvious. But the novel is as tightly paced as 1974, a page turning crime and conspiracy thriller based this time (although still fictional) on real events-The Yorkshire Ripper murders. Narrated by Detective Sergeant Bob Fraser and Jack Whitehead, crime correspondent of the Yorkshire Post, (both minor characters from 1974, both desperate and flawed men) there is no let up in the violence-most of it carried out by the police against West Indians and the prostitutes working in the Chapeltown area of Leeds. The novel finally ends in darkness and despair the only way it could, without even the savagely cathartic retribution of 1974.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Book Review: Screening Sex by Linda Williams

Linda Williams is a feminist writer and professor of film studies at the University of California, Berkeley, specialising mainly in the academic study of pornography! I first came across her writings in an anthology called 'Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate' in the early 90's, that opened my mind to another, more libertarian side of feminism, in opposition to the authoritarian anti-sex feminism, represented by the Dworkin/MacKinnon axis.

Screening Sex is not about pornography (although Deep Throat, the 70's gay porno Boys in the Sand and the present day porn film-Pirates are discussed) but the depiction of sex both straight and gay, soft and hard, in art and mainstream cinema; from kissing in early silents and post Production Code Hollywood, through the 60's and 70's with Sexploitation, Blaxploitation and explicit art films such as 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'In the Realm of the Senses,' up to a new wave of hardcore art films, for instance Romance and Shortbus. Linda Williams shows how the screening of sex has changed over the decades but also how the divide between hardcore (explicit expressions of sex as in pornography and European arthouse) and American movies has remained in place. She brings in lots of psychological and sexual theory, Freud, Bataille and Foucault, into her analysis but keeps it personal with her own anecdotes about watching sex on the screen. As a fan of the erotic in cinema and in moving images generally Screening Sex was fascinating, but as the book has many very intimate black and white stills I was unable to read it on my commute to work or in public spaces.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Book Review: The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee

Those curious about European ultra-left anti-politics might have stumbled across The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee. The text has been on the net for some time and is now published in English as a pamphlet by Semiotext(e), distributed by the academic MIT Press. Supposedly written by the Tarnac 9, a group of young commune dwellers in rural France, arrested by armed anti-terrorist police for allegedly sabotaging over-head electrical lines on the railways; (leading to serious delays of over two hours for train passengers!) The Coming Insurrection has been seen in France as a sign of a revival of far-left terrorism in the Baader Meinhof style. The pamphlet has also been taken up by the right wing commentator Glenn Beck on Fox News, as evidence of a potential violent communist take over of the US-see the hilarious clip on You Tube here. But does The Coming Insurrection live up to the hype? More importantly does it offer anything new to left wing and anarchist theory? It's certainly well-written, intelligent but without too much academic jargon, incredible forceful, painting an apocalyptic picture of both our alienated society and its collapse.

Right from the get-go I found myself sharing their sense of disengagement and anger at our political and economic culture as mapped out in the first seven chapters. (Dante's seven circles of hell) There are similarities with Guy Debord and the Situationist International of the 60's especially 'The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy' and 'On the Poverty of Student Life'-extreme but erudite attacks on our society like sneering punks with a PhD. The paragraph below is particular apt:

The sphere of political representation has come to a close. From left to right, it's the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or a savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys. Those who still vote seem to have no other intention than to desecrate the ballot box by voting as a pure act of protest. We're beginning to suspect that it's only against voting itself that people continue to vote. Nothing we're being shown is adequate to the situation, not by far. In its very silence, the populace seems infinitely more mature than all these puppets bickering among themselves about how to govern it. The ramblings of any Belleville Chibani (arabic for old man) contain more wisdom than all the declarations of our so-called leaders. The lid on the social kettle is shut triple-tight, and the pressure inside continues to build. From out of Argentina, the specter of Que Se Vayan Todos (They All Must Go!-the chant of the 2001 Argentine rebellion) is beginning to seriously haunt the ruling class.

It's only when the anonymous authors of 'The Coming Insurrection' start to contemplate this social upheaval that I find myself getting seriously irritated. They savage all forms of organisation, even local community or citizen groups, as mimicking "the form, mores and language of miniature states." They rely on pure spontaneity and outbursts of dis-organised violence as in urban rioting (they talk a lot about the banlieues riots in France, 2005) as a method of contestation. Like the anti-civilization anarcho-primitives they embrace catastrophe and disaster, a form of left-wing survivalism, failing to realise that the breakdown of society and the frightening chaos ensuing, can lead to the victims embracing the police and the authorities or fascism and Stalinism, to bring some form of stability. The largest experiment in libertarian socialism or workers self-management was carried out in Catalonia, Spain in 1936, where anarcho-syndicalism, a form of directly democratic but highly organised, working class based anarchism held sway. Although spontaneity played a role as it always does, without the long organising period of the CNT-AIT union, the Spanish Revolution would not have survived as long as it did. There is no alternative either in the community or in the work place to organisation.