Saturday, 18 December 2010

Book Review of Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis by Sean Sheehan from Irish Left Review

Alain Badiou is a heavy weight philosopher of the French May'68 generation and comes from the Maoist tradition. This slim volume of essays designed to resemble Mao's 'little red book' attempts to get a grip with the Idea of Communism in a philosophical sense rather then from its disastrous practice in history. The current of Maoism running throughout (a section on the Chinese Cultural Revolution for instance) is disturbing to a libertarian Marxist like myself; but his believe that Communism cannot transcend its failures by being reduced to a Party/State comes to similar 'non-state' conclusions.

Read Sean Sheehan's review from Irish Left Review here

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Book Review of Michael Moorcock's The Dancers At The End Of Time Trilogy by Steven Wu

One of my favourite series of novels by one of my favourite writers. Highly imaginative depiction of a decadent far future Earth and its clash with the mores of Victorian England, where Moorcock uses the influence of the 19th century fin-de- siecle decadents (Beardsley, Wilde etc) to excellent affect. Read Steven Wu's review here, which reflects my re-reading of the book.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Book Review of David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism by Bob Lloyd: Blogcritics.Org

As the fightback begins against the Tory Scum and their Lib-Dem collaborators with last week's brilliant student protest, it's also important to understand the larger global economic crisis that is shaping the world around us. David Harvey's book is a good way to begin this understanding-read Bob Lloyd's review here.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Book Reviews of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler & Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Two classic novels from the mid 20th Century: The Big Sleep, one of the most influential detective novels of all time, needs no introduction from me, Hangover Square though is a lost classic of unrequited love & alienation, the best book I've read this year. It's a page turning thriller of sorts, a snapshot of seedy Earl's Court just before the outbreak of WW2. It's also desperately poignant. Read the review of The Big Sleep from & the review of Hangover Square by Emily Hill from Sp!ked.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Book Review from Counterfire by Duncan Simpson of Living in the End Times by Slavoj Zizek

There should no longer be any doubt: global capitalism is fast approaching its terminal crisis. Slavoj Zizek identifies the four horsemen of this coming apocalypse: the world ecological crisis: imbalances within the economic system; the biogenetic revolution; and exploding social divisions...

If you are looking for a coherent dissertation of the above paragraph from the blurb of Zizek's latest tome then avoid Living in the End Times. But if you love difficult counter intuitive philosophy(Hegel, Lacan, Marx & Kung Fu Panda!), a bloody sacrificing of liberal PC sacred cows and an explosion of fascinating but frustratingly digressive ideas then this is the book!

Read Duncan Simpson's review from Counterfire here and watch Slavoj Zizek in action at Marxism 2009 here.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Book Review from The Guardian by Michael Moorcock of China Mieville's The City & The City

China Mieville's excellent East European influenced pulp crime novel. A big step away from his previous outlandish urban fantasies, The City & The City has a more realistic setting, except for the conceit that the two cities at the centre of the novel exist in the same space. Read Michael Moorcock's review on the Guardian website, here.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Book Review by R. J. Burgess (Strange Horizons) of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

I was slightly disappointed with Ray Bradbury's dark fantasy classic of small town life. The no doubt excellent poetic writing style was too over-egged for my taste, frustrating an exciting tale of supernatural intrusion into the mundane. Wonderful imagery and nostalgic atmosphere though, but appealing more to the sophisticated middle aged reader, wistful about the passing of time, rather then the 13 year old the book seems to be aimed at.

Read R.J. Burgess's review on the Strange Horizon website here. For more detailed information and analysis see the Wikipedia entry here.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Book Review from Mad Bibliophile: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

A gothic tale about isolation with one of the most unsettling opening paragraphs of any chiller:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Read the short review from Mad Bibliophile here

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Book Review from The Mumpsimus Blog: The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison

A dark, subtle & difficult novel about the after effects on three Cambridge students of an occult ritual gone wrong, by 'literary' fantasy and SF writer M. John Harrison. Read the short review from The Mumpsimus blog here.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Book Review from Lenin's Tomb: Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, Edited by Mike Davis & Daniel Bertrand Monk

From the blurb at the back of the intensely Ballardian (see J.G. Ballard's novel, Super-Cannes) Evil Paradises: What kinds of worlds would pure capitalism, unfettered by organised labor or state regulation, bring into existence? In this stunning collection, an extraordinary group of urbanists, architects, historians and visionary thinkers reflect on the capitalist "utopias" being constructed in cities, deserts, and even in the middle of the sea. All across the globe-in Dubai, Kabul, Hong Kong, Cairo and the Iranian desert-the nouveaux riches have created fantasy Californias, complete with Mickey Mouse statues, while their maids sleep in rooftop chicken coops. Filled with "stories of greed, exploitation and enough consumption to make a hedge fund manager blush" (Los Angeles Times), Evil Paradises is a timely and powerful exploration of these phantasmagoric but all too real places where consumption and inequality surpass our worst nightmares.

Read the review from the blog Lenin's Tomb here

Saturday, 12 June 2010

A Human Centred Ecological Awareness: Josie Appleton's essay, 'The Challenge of Climate Change: Towards Human Species Consciousness'

Josie Appleton's essay on the RSA website is very controversial, likely to upset deep ecologists, dark greens, and assorted anti-science/anti-technological types. But I found it an inspiring counterpoint to the eco-doommongers and life stylists of the mainstream green movement, offering a rudimentary philosophical basis for an environmentally aware but ruthlessly human centred politics. It has flaws of course; its vague, almost new age, liberal idealism ('Human Species Consciousness') and an absence of any mention of the radical left. Read the essay here and make your own mind up.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Book Review from The Mumpsimus Blog: Greybeard by Brian Aldiss

A melancholic story of the sterilisation of humanity by nuclear testing and the consequential collapse of civilisation by veteran science fiction writer Brian Aldiss. Read the excellent review from The Mumpsimus Blog.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Book Review: Hello America by J.G. Ballard

With Hello America I have now read all of J.G. Ballard's novels (except the disowned and out of print Wind from Nowhere.) I was unable to find a decent review of this minor work of J.G's; a straight forward post-apocalypse adventure yarn, but packed with Ballard's characteristic imagery and obsessions. Read the rather geeky Wikipedia entry here.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Book Review from Jouissance: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizick

The End of Underground Man (as we know it)

Due to a change in my work pattern (I now work on a Friday) and a lack of free time, I'm discontinuing Underground Man in its present form. From now on it will contain links to reviews of books, films and music that have inspired me and blogs, websites and articles I have found on the Internet. From time to time my own writing might appear but basically I'm using my blog as a personal recording of my own peculiar interests-hopefully though some one out there will find it of interest.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Book Review: The Stories of Ray Bradbury: Volume 1

Ray Bradbury is probably the most successful writer whose work consists mainly of short stories. The bulk of the stories collected here come from the 1940's & 50's when short story magazines were a popular form of entertainment, from pulp fiction to serious literature. If you want a master class in the art of writing the short story of any genre, then this is the book for you. Sometimes the style is too deliberately poetic and the dated nature of much of the tales-see The Wilderness (relating to gender) or The Big Black and White Game (relating to race)-can be grating to a modern reader. For those who love the fantastic in literature Bradbury's stories are a must. They are the down to earth type of fantasy though, mostly set in small American towns, imbued with nostalgia for his childhood in the 1930's, even those stories set on Mars collected in The Martian Chronicles. He is labelled a science fiction writer, but Bradbury is not interested in science & technology but on emotions of wonder, wistful sadness or fear-a few of the stories collected here are not fantasy but tales of small town life. I was surprised at how dark & melancholy Ray Bradbury is-I was expecting to be irritated by folksy sentiment-& my favourite stories are his horror tales; for instance The Playground. which is a sort of reversal of childhood nostalgia, or The Skeleton, a hypochondriacs' nightmare & The Next in Line, a terrifying tale drawing on fear of death and being far away & estranged in a foreign culture.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Book Review: Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection & the Politics of Militant Dysphoria by Dominic Fox

Although I had great hopes for Dominic Fox's (see his blog, Poetix, here) pamphlet I was disappointed. All those who call themselves radicals of the left are estranged from mainstream society; they do not fit in, they are alienated. This is a given and does not need much explanation. Alienation can be enforced through circumstance or temperament but all 'militants' are displaced or dispossessed materially or mentally from the everyday environment of capitalist work and leisure. Displacement is their motivation to become politically active, to struggle against society so as to change it, rather then wallowing in gloomy 'existentialism' or a trendy type of middle-class adolescent angst. I include myself in this description of general alienation of course; furthermore I'm a solitary, shy, sometimes melancholy person, with a deep suspicion of 'happy-clappy' positivism and hippy New Ageism. A book like this should appeal to me.

But Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection & the Politics of Militant Dysphoria, deals not with alienation as such or the importance of negativity, withdrawal or refusal in political action, but extreme states of depression or despair; a terrifying mental illness that precludes all hope in the mind of the sufferer, without any allevation through political action, merely suicide, a rejection of life. For those who do not suffer from deep depression, an embracing of an aestheticism of despair is merely a privileged life style choice for western teenagers, easily co-opted by consumerism. Also there is very little politics in Cold World and is mainly a close reading of dark aesthetics: the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Coleridge and the extreme misanthropy and bleakness of Black Metal. This in itself is interesting, especially the chapter on extreme Black Metal, a musical genre I'm getting into at the moment, but how this relates to leftist social struggle is so tenuous and obscure as to only create frustration in the average reader. When we do get to some 'political analysis' in the last chapter on Ulrike Meinhof and the Red Army Faction what we actually get is something even more obscure. Maybe I'm lacking understanding here, but is this chapter a critique of the 70's left wing terrorist group or an intellectual defence of Meinhof's Marxist-Leninist vanguardism and her disregard of 'ordinary' people as mere 'collateral damage'? Dominic Fox was too busy being clever to give a clear answer.

I fail to see what the concept of a 'cold world' has to offer the radical left. Negative emotions such as alienation, anger or boredom, even clear-headed hatred can lead to worldly engagement through resistance, but a freezing up in despair leads only in one direction, to misanthropy and nihilism and the logic of that is suicide, ultimately to the extinction of humanity, which is really the unconscious path of capitalism. Hope for a better world is the positive side of the dialectic of struggle and is as vital as negativity ; so is seeing the potential in technologies such as the Internet which have directly arisen out of capitalism. The message of the so-called urban guerrillas of the 70's was that the defeat or co-option of the popular movements of the 60's lead to the despair (the cold world) of some of its participants, resulting in pointless violence and utter contempt for the working class and eventually their own organisational collapse into lengthy prison sentences, or for some such as Ulrike Meinhof, suicide itself.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Book Review: 1980 & 1983 by David Peace

Them and the depressing music and the grating jingles on the radio, the constant rain and the tepid wind, the mongrel dogs that bark all night and shit all day, the half-cooked food and the luke-warm teas, the shops full of things you don't want on terms you can't meet, the houses that are prisons and the prisons that are houses, the smell of paint to mask the smell of fear, the trains that never run on time to places that are all the same, the buses you are scared to catch and your car they always nick, the rubbish that blows in circles up and down the streets, the films in the dark and the walks in the park for a fumble and a fuck , a finger or a dick, the taste of beer to numb the fear, the television and the government, Sue Lawley and Maggie Thatcher, the Argies and the Falklands, the UDA and LUFC sprayed on your mother's walls, the swastika and noose they hung above her door, the shit through her letterbox and the brick through her window, the anonymous calls and the dirty calls, the heavy breathing and the dial tone, the taunts of the children and the curses of their parents, the eyes filled with tears that sting not from the cold but the hurt, the lies they tell and the pain they bring, the loneliness and the ugliness, the stupidity and brutality, the endless and basal unkindness of every single person every single minute of every single hour of every single day of every single month of every single year of every single life-

The above from David Peace's 1983, similar to 80's punk poetry, encapsulates the grim atmosphere of his Red Riding Quartet (see my review of 1974 & 1977 here) Yorkshire in the early 1980's is depicted as a cold, grey corrupt hell, with its criminal police, murdered children and prostitutes, framed and tortured innocents and deeply flawed protagonists; where the only way out seems to be through religious redemption or suicide. It's a completely male world where the women are merely victims of violence and abuse; but there are no heroes, male or female in 1980 and 1983, only those with some ethics like top police man Peter Hunter from 1980, sent to investigate the incompetence of the West Yorkshire police dealing with the Ripper murders, or Big John Piggott from 1983, the fat and lonely solicitor, (the narrator of the above quote) who is representing the man framed by the Yorkshire cops for the child killings from 1974. The style of writing of both novels is terse and darkly poetic, first person narration with random inter-cuttings of images, thoughts, and snippets of songs, but runs at a breakneck speed, ending with the devastating denouement of 1983. Peace's style can be very confusing and I'm still not clear about parts of the plot, but 1980 and 1983 like the previous novels are page turning thrillers at heart, dark crime fiction at its best. But if you are looking for uplifting, cosy, escapist fiction, do not touch!

For a fascinating 'spiritual' interpretation of the Red Riding Quartet read Mark Fisher's (K-Punk) blog post: 'Can the World be as Sad as it Seems': David Peace and Negative Theodicy.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Book Review: Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

I've been an avid reader of Mark Fisher's blog K-Punk for over a year now and its cultural, philosophical and political writing is the sort I love. He pushes the mind into zones of thinking way above the tired nostrums of the mainstream and the dull backward looking left, both liberal and so called radical. This is his first book and it packs more original ideas in its 81 pages then a year's worth of issues of The Guardian newspaper or New Left Review. It deals with a subject that has frustrated and haunted me all my adult life-the seeming social, economic and cultural totality of late capitalism and the corresponding impossibility of offering any alternative to the system without hitting a brick wall of 'being practical' or 'realistic,' translated as 'there is no alternative to the market.' Mark Fisher calls this totality 'capitalist realism' and the book could not come at a better time, when neoliberalism has at its most basic, material level been shown conclusively not to be working. Into this philosophical analysis of total absorption by capital-for instance the subsumption of the protest ethic itself into the Live Aid phenomenon and various ethical and green life style choices (see Chapter 2:What if you held a protest and everyone came?)-he weaves his own personal experiences and many references from popular culture-the film Children of Men and Kurt Cobian, etc. But he exposes three cracks in the overwhelming ideological structure of capitalist realism, climate change of course, but also an increase of mental illness and depression in the more advanced neoliberal societies and paradoxically considering that new right thinking aimed to overthrow red tape and inefficiency, a proliferation of bureaucracy-auditating culture (he draws from his own workplace experiences of teaching in a further education college) and the Kafkaesque nightmare of the call-centre:

The call center experience distils the political phenomenology of late capitalism: the boredom and frustration punctuated by cheerily piped PR, the repeating of the same dreary details many times to different poorly trained and badly informed operatives, the building rage that must remain impotent because it can have no legitimate object, since-as is very quickly clear to the caller-there is no-one who knows, and no-one who could do anything even if they could. Anger can only be a matter of venting; it is aggression in a vacuum, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality. Just as the anger has no proper object, it will have no effect. In this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself.

The above paragraph is a brilliant example of the type of writing contained in Capitalist Realism; deeply intellectual but not abstract, giving concrete examples from everyday life and the popular culture of western societies. It's this that differentiates Mark Fisher from many writers of the left, who tend to look pityingly or voyeuristicly elsewhere (Palestine, South America) and bypass the 'mundane' and 'ordinary' frustrations and struggles of work and leisure, situated in the very society most of these worthy and sometimes moralistic writers come from. The only weakness of the book, if it is a weakness and not a valid description of the difficulties we face, is the impression that you get of a system so total that it enters your dreams, making it difficult to see any future post-capitalist world. But he ends with a brief account, again taking from his own experiences working in education, of new ways of struggle that might contest the new bureaucracy and a hoped for formation of a political subject (agent) that can revitalise the left and vice versa.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Book Review: Epiphany of the Long Sun: The Second Half of the Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

Epiphany of the Long Sun, an omnibus edition comprising Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun, brings Gene Wolfe's meandering epic to a close. (see my review of the first two novels contained in Litany of the Long Sun, here) Maybe I shouldn't even attempt to review this book considering I've only read it once. Here lies a major problem I personally have with Gene Wolfe's work; to fully appreciate him as every reviewer points out you need to re-read his novels. I confess I'm a slow reader (Epiphany takes even longer to read then most books due to its trickiness) and the backlog of fiction and non-fiction waiting for me is immense; I do not have the time to re-read, only years afterwards when the memory of the book has faded. But this of course is my problem not Gene Wolfe's and Epiphany (and the whole series) is without any doubt brilliant literature disguised as generic science fiction. It has many characters , human, animal and mechanical, encompassing politicians, priests, nuns, robot soldiers and servants, spies, thieves and prostitutes, who are each vividly portrayed. The culture and religion, (which involves animal sacrifice to a pantheon of gods who are in fact computer persona), of an immense cylindrical synthetic planet called the Whorl, originally from Earth and now travelling through interstellar space, is also vibrantly detailed. The plot centred on a disillusioned priest and reluctant figurehead of the city state of Viron, Calde Silk, is complex, as political intrigue overlaps with civil war and insurrection. The last book, Exodus of the Long Sun ends as the title implies with escape from the Whorl for some of the characters, linking the plot with its major theme of a breakout from both a confining artificial environment and the falsities of a manufactured religion.

Overall The Book of the Long Sun is a slow, exhausting read. There is plenty of excitement but you have to be in tune with the author's cryptic style to get extra understanding. It sometimes lacks the imaginative richness and wide scope of Gene Wolfe's classic Book of the New Sun, the Whorl seems ordinary in comparison with his very alien Earth (Urth) of the very far future, but as the sequence progresses the more involved in it you become, lingering in your mind long after you have put the books down.

Postscript: The universe of the Long Sun books is I believe the same as The Book of the New Sun, but I am very unsure how they actually link up. If any reader of Underground Man knows any connections with the New Sun novels I would be very grateful.

For an in depth essay on The Book of the Long Sun, read Nick Gevers' article posted on Ultan's Library.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Book Review: Lost Girls by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie

Alan Moore, writer of the ground breaking graphic novels, Watchmen and From Hell, here turns his considerable talents to erotica or pornography produced as art. His partner in this endeavour is his wife, the equally talented Melinda Gebbie, who provides the beautiful but sexually explicit drawings. The titular lost girls are the adult versions of three characters from classic children's fiction-Dorothy (Wizard of Oz), Wendy (Peter Pan) and Alice (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.) They all meet by chance as guests at the exotic hotel Himmelgarten on the Austrian border, prior to the start of World War 1. Their meeting soon blossoms into a triangle of lust and friendship as they recount to each other their randy exploits-Alan Moore bases these on the plots of the original stories-while engaged in copious amounts of lesbian sex. This is marketed as classy erotica, but please don't think Lost Girls is softcore; it's very hardcore indeed, suffused with a genuine (porno)graphic explicitness and will be considered obscene by many.

But unlike boring formulaic porn made to make money, Lost Girls is something more then a cheap turn on. Melinda Gebbie's colourful, fantastical but also realistic art is based on many different types of late Victorian and Edwardian styles, complimenting its Fin-de- Siecle decadent feel. Alan Moore's writing is wonderfully overripe, the story and the stories within a story engrossing and most importantly it's more then about sex as a mere bodily function to be gawped at for visceral thrills (although there is a lot of that too!) It deals with the lose of innocence of the three 'lost girls'; combining a subtle feminist critique of male values with a literal 'make love not war' message; nor does it shy away from difficult subject matter such as child abuse. It's overriding theme though is the power and ecstasy of the sexual imagination which does not always relate to reality-what gets you going inside your head might not do the same if acted out in real life. As one character says: "Fiction and fact: Only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them."