by Richard Makin
Paperback 468 pp
Paul A. Green [Brother Paul]
Narrative is still our comfort zone. The bardic news anchors talk us through the narrative, that reassuring fabulation of reason/event/result in which our character actors/national leaders allegedly have clear motivations and are driven into conflicts that will have a coherent resolution and definitive closure. Characters develop, rising and falling on their narrative arcs as they navigate the three-act structure and move towards some final epiphany. This working model of reality is reinforced by Hollywood cinema, in which writers and producers, trained in the craft of Story as taught by screenwriting gurus like Robert McKee, design their inciting incidents, their foreshadowing episodes, their subtexts, steering their narrative through conflicts and reversals towards climax, guided by the tropes of genre, usually with an eye on audience expectations and the market place.
The discipline of the classic dramatic structure which weve inherited from Aristotles Poetics has, of course, given us great art on the page and in the moving image. But gatekeepers in film and publishing have also embraced the concept of the Heros Journey a narrative template thats a popularisation of Joseph Campbells studies in myth, often combined with notions derived from Jungian psychology. Thus the Hero goes on a Journey, takes on the challenge of a Quest, encounters Guides and Helpers before undergoing Death and Rebirth while Saving the World. Christopher Vogler, another screenwriting sage, has claimed that this structure satisfies the archetypal psychological needs of audiences. (One could also argue that it has given rise to innumerable bad sci-fi and fantasy movies.) And editors who commission novels, whether literary or commercial, continue to favour beginnings, middles and ends, insisting that this offers the reassurance readers desire in a contingent and chaotic world. In his Work, Makin follows a very different lineage, recognising perhaps that beginnings are a mystery, middles are a dark matter and all the ends are dead...
The subversion of linear narrative, along with naturalism and the consolations of genre, can be traced back over a hundred years and is perhaps typified by the pioneering surrealist text The Magnetic Fields (1920) by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, an experiment in pure psychic automatism. It is the exploration of a European urban dreamtime after the trauma of the First World War and the disruptive impact of non-linear electric media. Prisoners of drops of water, we are but everlasting animals. We run about the noiseless towns and the enchanted posters no longer touch us. It could certainly be seen as an ancestral paradigm for Makins Work, which could also be related to the cut-up novels of William Burroughs, illuminated by flashing jump cuts: cross wounded galaxies we intersect, poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history... (The Ticket that Exploded, 1962) Yet Makin doesnt use cut-ups, stating in an interview with publisher David Vichnar that he prefers to employ a rigorous method of rearranging the text a way of inviting chance and accident which is essentially numerical, and could be described as a way of tripping oneself up, placing potentially productive obstacles on the path. In this context the work could be seen as a work-out, as a ritual magical working, the alchemical Great Work, even as the Work-on-Oneself in Gurdjieffs sense, breaking down the habitual reflexes of everyday perception and language.
For this vast prose poem is a wild fugue of intertextuality and polyphonic entanglement, a mosaic of glittering narrative shards, an explosion of verbal shrapnel. From the opening words: bitter roadkill, composite with tubular heads of yellow steel, a great aluminium star afloat on the ocean. The prose pans across landscapes of decay and monstrous rebirth, a manic teratology. We catch glimpses of sci-fi dystopias, cosmic (or comic) apocalypse, doomed marine voyages, war-zones ancient, mediaeval or modern. There are frequent close-ups on carnage and torture - His tongue is branded with a red-hot iron before the firing squad takes aim. - juxtaposed with desperate pleasures. Glad you enjoyed the ossuary fuck.
So many asides contain the DNA for an entire novel. One of the Norse gods then described how he once slew himself by swallowing the worlds ashes. Personae wrestle for their moment in the tracking spotlight of consciousness, from paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, from one subordinate clause to another. Youre not sure if youre reading or being written. Each sentence seems suspended in its own zone of radiation, generating a drift of fall-out over the next. Locations in space/time shift rapidly, with only occasional hints of specific co-ordinate points. One is Zagreb. Makin lived there from 1987 to 1990 and continued to visit the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s. The other visitor experience that keeps recurring is a decaying coastal landscape, like the seaside town of St Leonards, (formerly a run-down enclave of displaced feral lunatics, now partially upscaled) where Makin has lived for some years. Yet this mutating POV is delivered in carefully structured paragraphs, with recurrent tropes and leit-motifs, in the manner of a Wagnerian operatic score. Like its predecessors, Dwelling (Reality Street 2011) and Mourning (Equus Press 2015), it consists of thirty-three chapters. As Makin explains, All three books somehow exist for me at once, simultaneously, regardless of when the physical volumes appeared.
Makin was educated as a painter (BA Fine Art, post-grad Royal Academy) and delineates his surreal landscapes in with a precise painterly use of language. In places there could be comparisons with Dali, Magritte or even the giant vitrines of the Chapman Brothers, tableaux of nightmarish monstrosity. He was more animal than human, flamboyant bill studded with minute sensors, robbed of which he would never dine. His internal organs are constellated in a delicate fan array. I entered the cell to find him lying on a heap of filthy straw... The vocabulary is enormous and the range of reference is encyclopaedic, embracing surgery, anatomy neuroscience, biology, botany, astronomy, physics, engineering, electronics. Neuroscience becomes the new Pataphysics. A small translucent cover for intimidating indoor plants has been grown from a clump of brain cells. There is a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, driving the volunteer on and on in a forced march across a frozen landscape...
Working It Out
How then to read a polysemic anti-narrative that constantly diverges and bifurcates? Its no use looking for a multi-strand narration in which all the storylines are finally braided together and tied up in a neat ending.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that Work could be only read at random, like B.S. Johnsons The Unfortunates (1969), a box of unbound pages that can be perused in any order, except for opening and closing sections. There is possibly an implicate order in the repetition of key words and phrases, in addition to the palimpsest of overlaid sub-texts. There are eight epistles addressed to the Gauleiter and signed by the Savant at different points in the text, ranging from the reflective - ...historically, we are thought to be composed of indifferent sleeper cells... - to the familiar - Thank you for another rapturous evening with St John at the gasworks...
Ants, witches and the all night laundromat are frequently invoked. There are repeated allusions to an ongoing courtroom drama: The judge affirmed that her statement claiming the defendant had once toiled as an assassin would have to be taken into consideration. Your Courtship wrote his thoughts in a great ledger set before him using a quill pen.
Assassination and the figure of the assassin frequently recur: I am descended from feudal assassins, an untried economic order. His assassins are extensions of himself. Acid is another repeated signifier, in various contexts: Resistance to attack by acid is making todays date auspicious.. I dislike using battery acid for divination myself. Lightning strikes again and again in the book: The peasants demanded messianic lightning strikes. Mass incineration occurs when there is a lightning ratio of thirty-six bolts per square kilometre, or more. She was skipping across the strand when lightning struck. And the female pronoun is a dominant node of significance throughout, surfacing dozens of times. She is patron saint: her blazon incorporates a marine invertebrate with five or more radiating arms. At the station she realised she had forgotten the diaphragm. I am to tell you that your name is an anagram, she whispered... She hangs him upside down from a hook in the ceiling. I am haunted. I haunt. You haunt. He/She/It haunts... And in this context, theres even an elegiac note, a battered romanticism: Ever since we met you have been constantly in my mind, like the spent waves of a forgotten summer riot.
One word Origin permeates the text, occurring 266 times, always as a radical surrealist re-definition of itself: Origin is an obsolete hook for pulling off a horse. Origin is gnawed speechless. Origin is a prayer of commemoration, whispered too late. Origin denotes an ornamental brain of malachite green or ash blue. Origin is a four-sided spinning top with a letter on each side as a gamble the aleatory imperative. Origin is decayed time.
Makin suggests that his use of the word origin stems from a fascination with etymology, or rather, the impossibility of determining source or derivation. The search for Origin might also be interpreted as an attempt to drill a worm hole into the fundamental ground of existence, where the possibility of everything co-exists simultaneously , ready to stream out like white-hole emissions in a Big Bang, a superflux of creation. Although the fractured nano-worlds evoked in the text read like a montage of dark nihilist travelogues the void is filled by the prodigious energy of the language. His invention is a mojo that just keeps working....
©Paul Green July 2022
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