God jul, Merry Christmas, Счастливого Рождества, etc. Picture by Rob Sheridan. I started sharing this macabre Christmas tablaux seven years ago on Christmas Eve, and then I just kept doing it every year. I guess that’s how traditions are born.
Martine Franck, Paris, France, 1967, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Possibly the greatest pick-up line in history: “
Martine, I want to come and see your contact sheets.” They married in 1970.
One more cross-post. I realized after looking at this picture for a while that if I wanted to be “conceptual”, I could have made it in a studio using creased tin foil paper or the like. But it’s actually a river as seen when looking straight down. This is one instance where the camera could see something I could not. I was standing on a bridge and pointing the camera over the edge and straight down, an angle of view I could never get without leaning over so far that I’d fall over the railing. And presented as a flat surface, you can’t really tell if you’re looking at something straight on, or top down. I think this one will look better in print than on the screen. It’s really amazing how something that looks mediocre on a backlit LCD can actually look fantastic when printed on quality paper. Especially black and white: the blacks get deeper, and the subtle gradations look better. I love the fact that I can see so much photography I’d never get to see otherwise because of the internet; but at the same time, I’m sure I pass over a lot of photographs that look boring in jpeg, but actually look fantastic as a printed, tangible object. I want to go to more shows; see more books; print more. Here’s to 2015.
When I was in Amsterdam, I just ran off spontaneously and had no real plan, so I didn’t really get to see all the the city had to offer in terms of museums (there’s a ton) and art. The one museum I visited was Foam, which is also a magazine and a blog that showcases new and exciting talent. It was one of the last days they were showing Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Teenage Lust. Raw, visceral images of kids doing drugs, having sex, and playing with guns, pretty much. I hadn’t seen the photographs before (shame on me!) and seeing them in print, on a wall, in suitably modest sizes–thank god they weren’t blown up to 40 x 60 inches, but remained as intimate as their content, small enough that only one person could really look at a photograph at a time–and it made me want to shoot more black and white. There was a woman leading a group around in a sort of Socratic dialogue about the pictures, but she seemed to have all the answers and was baiting the audience to think the same things as herself, so I found it much better to walk around on my own. I had a similar experience seeing a Nan Goldin retrospective almost four years ago in Berlin–similarly raw, confessional images but in color, pictures everyone with an interest in art photography know. But seeing them on a wall made them both bigger and smaller. Jpegs hide the grain and grit of the pictures, hide the blur of pictures shot in a hurry and slightly out of focus, but they also fail to reproduce the colors and shades and the materiality of print.
It’s almost criminal to have an interest in photography and go four years between seeing shows by major photographers, but I blame it on living in geographic obscurity and limited funds to travel. Foam also had a great library, a big room with a tall ceiling and a metal stairwell leading up to a sort of atrium of bookshelves full of photobooks, but unfortunately you had to make an appointment to see them. The building itself was hidden away in a side street. I got off at the tram stop indicated on their website, but couldn’t see the building. I walked down the right street in the wrong direction, doubled back, frustrated. Bought a pack of cigarettes at a nearby shop that sold tourist items and asked the clerk if he knew were the Foam photography museum was. He had no idea. I walked less than a hundred yards down the street and then I could see it, on the other side of a canal; the same side street I had initially walked down, but on the other side of an intersection. The fact that a clerk at a tourist shop located within three minutes of walking from the museum, one minute away from seeing the sign if you knew where to look, didn’t know where it was tells me Foam has some marketing to work on. But a wonderful place, nonetheless.
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. (…)
Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags. New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid. (…)
The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.
Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1970!!!). At that time, the internet was still a fetus, a military experiment confined to American warlords and technological mavericks laboring at universities. The web had yet to be invented for two decades. Yet Illich essentially describes the web, except he could not foresee the way such a system facilitates anonymity and pseudonymity. In a narrower sense, he was describing Tumblr. Often decried as merely another symptom of the ADHD hyper culture of kids today, who can hold their attention no longer than it takes a goldfish to reblog a cute kitty, Tumblr–which, you might recall, was founded by David Karp, a dude who never went to college and went on to sell his company for a billion dollars to Yahoo–Tumblr, and social networks like it, can also serve as exactly the kind of peer-matching network Illich suggested back in 1970.
But Deschooling Society is more than a critique of educational systems. It is also a radical critique of society. Illich argues that school is just one of many systems which institutionalize society. Which confuses process with result. Go this route: you will at the end of it have gained X, where X is supposed to be an education, a well-paid job and a social life. Yet school systems indoctrinate us to believe that the process is the result, which it is clearly not, if we look at statistics. They indoctrinate us to think of “
the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” Even Karp, who opted out of higher education in favor of working in the real world, has bought into this myth. In a recent Q&A with middle and high schoolers, Karp implored kids to stay in school, because the only reason he didn’t was the knowledge and skills he sought couldn’t be found in school at the time, but they can now.
Yet Illich, whose great value is that he was a true cosmopolitan, not a myopic American but someone who divided his time between continents and spoke 7+ language, tells us school everywhere is the same. And it still is. Education and schooling have become synonyms, when in fact the latter is supposed to be the road to the former. Grades are inflated, Bachelor, Master’s and even PhD degrees are becoming devalued. And most of all: it leads to a sameness of experience that reinforces the status quo and teaches everyone to criticize society and suggest reforms, whether you aspire to be a social reformer or a “simple” carpenter, but only within the existing structures which society has designed to contain that criticism.
It’s important to note that Illich is not proposing there is a grand conspiracy behind it all like a paranoid lunatic, but diagnosing society as a whole, trends that permeate the entire world and for which no individual or cabal of individuals is solely responsible. The people who maintain this status quo were indoctrinated by the same institutions that they now use to indoctrinate their younger generations. Thus even the successful drop-out has been indoctrinated to believe the current system is not only viable but commendable, that he or she is a lucky exception rather than an example to follow.
The idea of universal education came from the Enlightenment, a period that ended with the French revolution. Universal shooling was the solution, and it was a good idea in a time when most people were still illiterate. Yet what was a few years in childhood has now been extended to be almost mandatory through your early twenties if not beyond. At the end of this pyramid you are supposed to find peace and prosperity and along the way you’re supposed to have acquired an education. Yet as Illich tells us, education is not the same as middle school or college. Those are merely means to an end, and they are increasingly failing to meet the laudable standards for which they were intended.
As a critique of society Illich was remarkably prescient, and those are comforting words to hear as I comtemplate whether I should just drop out of it all myself and try to be an adult in the real world.
The Configurations (sleepless night), 2014
Maybe if I change up positions.
Maybe if I undress.
Maybe this blanket is holding me back.
Maybe the other end of the bed is more inviting.
I just want to roll into a ball but I’m incapable of crying, I’m so tired.
Maybe if I just roll into a ball.
Maybe if I consume every single sedative I have.
No. Bad idea.
Fuji instax, 2011
Tomorrow is the winter solstice, and I think of summer. Summer, to me, is hope. Winter is dark and depressing. In summer, the sun barely sets, or when I go to visit family in Narvik, where I was born, it doesn’t dip below the horizon at all. Nights are as long and light as winter nights are long and dark. I sleep less, but deeper. Getting up isn’t such a drag. This was just a chance snapshot, but it captures the idealized dream of just running away. Summer is run-away time; winter is when you settle down and dwell, waiting for spring. Just like animals–when you live far to the North, anyway, the body is very attuned to the seasons. Winter depression is quite common, but the resurgence in summer makes it worth it. Every spring a new start.
Blueberry Hill (Blåbærhaugen), 2009
Perhaps the earliest photograph I’m still satisfied with. Taken shortly after I bought a 6×6 medium format camera. One of my favorite activities is still looking down into a top-down matte screen with a grid overlay, even when there’s no film in the back. Most of my images are digital, but I’m still fond of square-ish formats and my good-to-bad picture ratio is much higher on analog film than on digital. Comes with the territory when you have twelve and not twelve hundred exposures at your disposal.
Want fewer words, more photographs? Go here. Below are some words about that.
I detest self promotion. I have no idea how to do it. By simply being in the right place at the right time and getting a few eyeballs on my stuff, I got the ball rolling seven years ago, and from then on I’ve simply focused on creating and sharing good things, and that has been enough. I have a comfortable audience here at Enthusiasms, and over on science tumbled we’re hitting 250,000 followers soon. But other than putting out good stuff, I have no idea how to do it.
Photography and writing have been the two passions that have never let me go. I’ve kept at them, until I got good, and hopefully I’ll be continuing to hone my craft and get even better. I’ve written a lot about photography and shared a lot of photos, both my own and others’, and I know many of you were attracted here because of that. But these past few years I’ve just been bumbling around trying to become something I’m not, afraid to take that step. To put myself out there and say, I’m a photographer. Oh, and I can write. I do photojournalism and art photography in the documentary vein. For money. Will you hire me? This is what I want to be doing for a living.
There’s a million people trying to do the same, and if you try to compare yourself to others, you’ll always come up short. That’s why comparison is a mortal sin to the artist; it only destroys your confidence and gives nothing in return. Inspiration is the creative side of looking at other people’s work; comparison is the destructive side. I can only put my stuff out there and hope that it’s good enough, and if not now, it will be. The only problem with this approach is that I’ve always been patient, never tried to force myself into the spotlight. The few times I’ve struck a nerve and something I’ve made is noticed and appreciated, it’s only been a bonus. Now, I’m more in a hurry, because if you’re going to make that leap, with no backup plan–well, my backup plan is to stay in school long enough to get student loans, but that plan runs out next summer–you need that spotlight fast.
I don’t know when I first started taking photography seriously as an art, but in 2009 I bought an old Yashicamat, 1958 model, and took the first photographs that I still like. I studied for one year at the Norwegian School of Photography in 2010-2011, and since then I’ve been on my own, trying on different hats that don’t fit. Russia studies, film production, major depression.
My sources of inspiration have always been American photographers: William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Alec Soth, Zoe Strauss, and numerous other photographers I discovered on the internet. All of them working primarily on their vision of America. I was, and still am stuck in Norway, sort of looking for these things that aren’t there. Norway isn’t as distant from America culturally or visually as, say, Asia or Africa, but it’s suitably different that I’ve trained my eye on things that aren’t quite there. This photoset, which saw a lot of reblogs, I like because it looks like it’s taken from 1970s America, but it’s all a matter of framing a moment that passed by in Northern Norway, in 2011. So I’ve had to carve out my own style from different source material, and I’m not sure to which degree it works.
My main obstacle has been my own introverted personality. I started making landscapes not because I didn’t like portraits–which is not to say I don’t enjoy landscape photography as well–but because I was afraid of people. Luckily, I know many successful portrait photographer are introverts, too. You need the mindset that you know what you’re doing, this is your job, passion and craft, and you can set aside your personal fears for the moment because right now, you’re the man with the camera and you’re in control.
I’ve had to push my own boundaries to make good portraits, and I need to push them further, to get even more intimate, to get to the place I want to be. The combination of intimate, up close, and detached, far away, is killer in my opinion. I’ve never quite felt like I fit in anywhere–which is probably more to do with me than all the somewheres I’ve been– but although I long to be a photographic ranger, I’ve had limited means and opportunities to travel. So my most enduring project has been a documentary, mixed-feelings view of my childhood lands, the areas around where I grew up. I had my first solo exhibition this fall, showing off this project. It’s sort of an eternal project, since I’ll keep returning to the same places due to familial ties probably for the rest of my life, but I’ve grown weary of it.
So now I need to find a new angle within my geographical boundaries, or I need to find the means to travel farther. I have lots of ideas, but no realistic ways of realizing them. And I need to find a way to generate a somewhat sustainable living.
This is a soft launch. I aim to have a real portfolio up by the beginning of 2015, aimed both at Norway and the international audience beyond. In the meantime, I’ll be going through my archives and posting old photographs, some of which have appeared on this blog before, many of which have not. This will be all my own stuff; I’ll continue writing here, and putting out photographs there. If you like my photographs, I hope you’ll follow along. The photoblog will be short and concise: only pictures and occasionally short vignettes giving some context. None of my usual verbose shit, that will stay here. I just read an interview with a photographer who said something to the effect of, a project isn’t cumulative, it’s subtractive. It’s all about finding out what you can take away. So I’ll try to be a good self-editor, although killing your darlings, the shots you worked so hard to get that didn’t quite work, is somewhat heartbreaking.
Here fucking goes, press publish, you coward. Do it! Done.
Psych ward, 2014
I read Bad News by Edward St Aubyn, all night long, unable to sleep, waiting for it to be early enough in the morning that I could take my daily dose of clonazepam but late enough that its effects would endure until the next dose, and unable to sleep. That is perhaps the best possible state to read this raw, acerbic, and above all precise novel. I read one review of it that contained this line: “
I found myself wondering about that age old question of what it’d be like to take some drugs. Not in this way, of course – and, wait, what am I saying, not at all!” What a sheltered world he must live in. Can you review this book without having done drugs? Of course, with the outsider’s view of grotesque curiosity, and the impossible attempt at empathy with experience for which one has no point of reference. Can you review this book having done drugs? Of course, with the insider’s view, which can blind you to the literary qualities of the work, because the book doesn’t have to do as much heavy lifting to evoke the joys and horrors of drug abuse if the reader has already felt it intimately.
This is the second book in a series of five largely autobiographical books, which starts with Never Mind, published in 1992, and ends with At Last, published in 2012. It charts Aubyn’s alter ego Patrick Melrose from the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father in early childhood, through the self-abuse he subjected himself to in early adulthood, to some kind of attempt at a resolution in middle age, I think. I haven’t read the other books and probably won’t, for some time. This is the book that speaks to me. It’s 1982, Patrick is 22, just a little bit younger than I am now, and on his way to New York to pick up his father’s remains. Unlike me, he has an enormous family fortune to squander, and manages to spend ten thousand dollars on a drug-fueled ramble through NYC in about forty-eight hours.
This book manages the rare feat which I strive for and seem to always miss in my own writing: to be raw and clinically precise at the same time. There are ugly, brutal depictions of junkies juxtaposed with ugly, satirical depictions of the excesses and hypocrisy of the British upper class, such as a sequence in which Patrick meets some of his father’s friends and associates for lunch–he will later retreat to the bathroom to throw up, have a fix, pass out for an hour and run away from the whole party. In this sequence, one particularly caricatured, middle-aged upper class man proceeds as follows: one of the other men, who recognizes his vanity, amiably offers, “
Ballantine is one of the best shots in the world.” Ballantine protests, “
Whoa, whoa, whoa, used to be the best shot in the world.” Already in this sentence he betrays the falsehood of his modesty: he has modified the statement, even as he declares that it is now past tense, from “one of the best” to “the best shot in the world.” But never mind, what he hasn’t lost is the greatest gun collection in the world. He gets a servent to fetch a book about his own gun collection, which boasts, on the cover, “
the most valuable firearms in the world,” where only replacing the triggers costs over a million dollars. He follows up with another book: this one documenting his safari in Africa, where he used the greatest gun collection in the world to hunt:
‘This is a photo of me with a Tanganyikan mountain goat,’ said Ballantine, handing Patrick the second book. ‘I was told that it was the last potent male of the species, so I can’t help having mixed feelings about it.’ God, he’s sensitive, too, thought Patrick, looking at the photograph of a younger Ballantine, in a khaki hat, kneeling besides the corpse of a goat.
The man’s vanity has no limits, but the satirical caricature fits right into a book which happens as much in reality as in a state of pseudo-reality, of hanging fast to a lamp-post as strong winds of past pains and current drugs coursing through veins try to rip Patrick completely out of reality and into psychosis, a point at which he arrives at the mid-point of the novel, as a cacophony of inner voices keep him deliriously awake all night, arguing, commenting, defending themselves and accusing each other, sometimes to bluntly sad effect, sometimes to satirical hilarity, such as when The Fat Man, a man Patrick has glimpsed at a restaurant earlier in the day, invades his psychotic mind and stands on trial before a set of judges, defending his fatness as a way of life. The section with Ballantine, the arch snob, concludes:
Ballantine closed the two books and rested them on his knees. The loop of his monstrous vanity was complete. He had been talking about a book in which he wrote about his photographs of the animals he had shot with the guns from his own magnificent collection, a collection photographed (alas, not by him) in the second book.
But Bad News isn’t really about skewering the upper class to which Patrick (regrettably, yet at the same time embracingly) belongs. That isn’t what speaks to me in the book, because frankly I couldn’t give two shits about what those ultra-rich snobs are doing right now–they’re always up to no good in ways that would be hilarious if they weren’t so seriously fucked up. This book is about a bitter young man and the two most important, all-consuming relationships in his life. The prose is clear and littered with precise little sentences that, amidst the satire and general dreariness, strike you like a hammer and get at the real core of the issue. Here is the core of the book summed up in one paragraph:
The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? ‘Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third.’ What woman would not be proud to be ‘among the medals’ in such a contest?
And later, a biting comment: “
He could even imagine loving a woman if he had lost her first.” Patrick has two major issues in his life that overshadow everything else: he can’t let go of his past, and when he turned to drugs, he came to love them so deeply that he can’t let go of them either. Patrick is a disgusting human being, able to spot the hypocrisies of others and constantly seeing them in himself, yet unable to stop himself from carrying them out nonetheless: people, to him, are not real, they are “Other People.” Yet he is also relatable, as you can see what has brought him to this point, and at times, if you recognize in yourself Patrick’s traits, you waver towards the horrifying conclusion that you might be a disgusting human being too.
His infidelity is serial, both against his girlfriends and to himself and his constant promises to give up drugs, and never to give up drugs again. This is illustrated in a late scene in the novel. Patrick has, through a series of phone calls, scheduled his homecoming: first, he will meet up with his friend Johnny to do drugs; then, pushing his “arrival time” forwards a few hours, he will meet his girlfriend Debbie; and then after that, he’ll meet another girl. Despite this, despite only being forty-eight hours away from England, his friends and girlfriend, he needs a hole to fuck: “
Above all, he needed the oblivious moment of penetration when, for a second, he could stop thinking about himself. Unless, as too often happened, the appearance of intimacy unleashed a further disembodiment and a deeper privacy. Never mind that.”
After being spurned by Marianne, the daughter of a family friend and also friend to his ostensible girlfriend Debbie, Patrick goes to a club and eventually finds a girl to drag along to his hotel. As we briefly switch to her perspective–a narrative trick used sparingly, but effectively in this novel–we learn that she wants to start an art gallery and thinks maybe she can exploit this “
eccentric Englishman” for money; Patrick, clearly, wants to exploit her for sex. Finally they reach his hotel room, and while the girl, Rachel, is in the bathroom, vomiting out the huge meal she has just gorged herself on–Patrick reflecting, while she eats, that drug abuse at least has a certain illusory romanticism to it, but no such thing exists for eating disorders, which are, of course, more vulgar addictions–Patrick’s mind again becomes fixated on his next fix:
Patrick was surprised to see Rachel standing miserably at the end of his bed. She faded quickly from his memory while she threw up in the bathroom, losing her individuality and becoming Other People, someone who might interrupt his fix, or his contemplation of the rush.
Patrick is an embittered, upper-class drug addict with obsessions with his past, which he can’t let go, even after the object of his hate, his father, is dead, and issues in the present, with drugs. This is the point at which the relationship between Patrick and Edward, the character and author, which has been explored to tedium, pops up, but more importantly the relationship between Patrick the character and the reader gains significance. Bad News is an ugly portrait of drug addiction, as Patrick is constantly juggling intravenous injections of heroin and cocaine, “black beauties” (amphetamine capsules), quaaludes–methaqualone, the mythical downer which circulated widely in 1982 NY, where the story is set, and gained infamy with the book and film The Wolf of Wall Street, but is rarely seen anymore–and alcohol.
I’ve read Junky by William Burroughs, which is also a stark portrait of rock-bottom addiction, but St Aubyn’s prose shines brighter. While Burroughs portrays addiction among the poor and homeless, Patrick is extremely well off economically, and yet the depictions of missed veins, the horrors of possibly injecting a deadly blood clot, the near-death knife’s-edge dance between the rush of injection and deadly overdose, feels more vital and just as raw in Bad News as in Junky. While Patrick has more money than he could ever need, he is as desperate when his connects fall through as Burroughs’s penniless comrades. Money does not equal happiness, and Patrick’s addiction is, if possible, even uglier than that portrayed in Junky, precisely because, since he doesn’t have to scramble for money just to get one more fix, he can go even further, take even more, really run himself into the ground on an endless supply. I wrote earlier that it feels absurdly privileged to think of oneself as having reached some sort of (watch out, cliché) “rock bottom” while having a caring mother preparing dinner and a warm bed and roof over one’s head, but Patrick is deeper in the hole than I’ve ever been, and also has more money than I’ll make in a lifetime.
Hunter S. Thompson, the first name that pops up when one thinks of literature about excessive drug binges, is more like a tourist guide. His is more of an idealized version of the binge that most people, like the reviewer I quoted at the beginning, will never have the courage or stupidity (yes, they are not antonyms) to embark upon. As fine a writer as HST is, the great Dr Gonzo has nothing on either Burroughs or St Aubyn, who is a fine prose stylist. The book is littered with fancy similes, a few of which seem overwrought, but most of which are spot on. Yet it is also a very self-reflexive work. At one point, Patrick thinks:
Sir Sampson Legend was the only honest suitor who ever sang the praises of a woman. ‘Give me your hand, Odd, let me kiss it; ’tis as warm and soft – as what? Odd, as t’other hand.’ Now there was an accurate simile.
As for myself, it is impossible for me to write about this book without to some degree identifying with Patrick. Patrick is richer than me, and much deeper into drug addiction than me; yet we both share the impossible task of letting go of a difficult past. There is no need to compare one painful past with another in a crying contest; the important part is that it is all far into the past, and yet neither of us can let it go. Patrick’s two most important relationships in life are his hatred of his father, even as his father sits in a box of ashes, and his relationship with drugs. Other people become just that: Other People, obstacles that distract us from either our obsession with events and burning hatred for people from our past–or from drugs. They become inhuman. We collapse into solipsism. This morning, things unraveled for me again. Unlike Patrick, I do not have the cushion of an enormous heritage, so I’m broke as fuck, subsisting only because I’m currently staying with my parents over Christmas. I’m still trying to get the money for a job I did for a magazine; the bureaucratic obstacles keep making what I thought was simple hard. When my third attempt to bill this fucking magazine was met with a patronizing dismissal from the company’s accountant, referencing various rules and regulations which I thought I had covered, but apparently had not–it fucking unraveled. I called my mother horrible names; I told her to leave me alone so I could die in piece. I lack a panic button; only a careful schedule of drug-taking can keep me in balance. Right now, having administered said drugs–thankfully orally, not IV in damaged veins–I feel balanced and look upon the incident as both insane, embarrassing, and above all, a horribly selfish lack of self-control.
My mother pretends nothing happened. She’s a fucking saint. I don’t know how I’m going to survive almost a month more with my family and not irreparably break my relationships with them, which is all I have–oh, all the “friends” I’ve made through my insane expeditions into the social world are superficial. When Patrick, having overdone the downers and getting tired and dizzy while visiting a family friend, goes into the bathroom, dumps the contests of a Black Beauty and sniffs it off the bathroom tiles, I could only think, fuck, I wish I had some speed. Speed is just what I need. Of course it’s not. It’s the last thing I need. But jesus fuck it would be great to feel that sting in the nose, which signifies the oncoming rush of euphoria, of motivation, and of fearless social interaction. The chemical drip down the throat. Early in the book, Patrick describes a familiar ritual:
He checked the pills again (lower right pocket) and then the envelope (inside left) and then the credit cards (outer left). This nervous action, which he sometimes performed every few minutes, was like a man crossing himself before an altar – the Drugs; the Cash; and the Holy Ghost of Credit.
I remember doing this: the pills (inner jacket pocket), the debit card (left pants pocket), the smartphone in place of the Holy Ghost of Credit (right pants pocket). While I had no cash, since no one but drug dealers uses cash anymore–even my dealers have moved online–and a smartphone (with Orweb and Orbot installed, two apps that allowed me to access darknet drug markets), the ritual is the same. Not much has changed in essence between 1982 and 2014. When I was in Amsterdam, I’d withdraw 100 euros from an ATM, which would come out as two fifty-euro notes. A smart shop clerk told me no one uses fifties anymore and said he had no change. I found I could ride free on the tram by walking up to the ticket booth inside the tram, a claustrophobic little space with barely enough space for a woman behind the counter, and asking for a day pass (seven-odd euros), and trying to pay for it with a fifty. She had no change, so I simply sat down and took the tram for free, with a clean conscience, since they wouldn’t take my money, and didn’t accept cards either.
Bad News is a short read. It’s a tiring one though, if you emotionally invest in Patrick’s aimless journey. If you don’t, it’s probably tiring for the opposite reason. Yet the book is chock-full of precise, beautiful prose. Toss-away lines punctuate the book with surprising power. “
People think they are individuals because they use the word ‘I’ so often.” Or Patrick riding a cab downtown, looking out the window:
Those pencils of steel, chrome fans, and crystal towers that seemed to burst like pure soprano notes from a prima donna’s hideous, pockmarked face, were muffled by darkness. Crossword puzzles of lit and unlit offices slipped by cluelessly. Two lit offices down – call it ‘no’ – and five across. Five-letter word beginning with ‘o’. Oran… one… order. Call it order. No order.
Even skyscrapers passing by a cab window at night become a metaphor for Patrick’s life.
This book is dark, satirical, cynical, bitter as fuck, like trying to swallow a can of pure cocoa powder–but also funny, and insightful, and surprisingly, a page-turner. Why do we keep turning the pages even though nothing much seems to be happening except Patrick loathing the world, mocking the world for its mockability, mocking himself, finding new ways to abuse his body and his mind? Why don’t we just off ourselves, or, in this case, throw the book across the room and wow never to touch it again? Patrick:
As the telephone rang he again wondered what kept him from suicide. Was it something as comtemptible as sentimentality, or hope, or narcissism? No. It was really the desire to know what would happen next, despite the conviction that it was bound to be horrible: the narrative suspense of it all.
Or perhaps funny observations such as this one. Patrick is in a night club desperately looking for anyone vaguely pretty to fuck before his plane departs in the morning–earlier he expresses surprise when the desire for a particular woman, objectified as a girl with an S-shaped spine that plunges her breasts forward and her ass backwards, seductively, temporarily overpowers his desire for drugs–and then he spies some prey:
There she was! With her back to a column and her hands behind her, as if she were tied to a stake, she looked up at the musicians with reverent curiosity. Patrick concentrated madly and imagined her sliding across the floor towards the magnetic field of his chest and stomach. Frowning ferociously, he cast a neurone [sic] net over her body and hauled her in like a heavy catch. He whipped mental lassoes around the colum she stood beside, and brought her staggering across the floor like a bound slave. Finally, he closed his eyes, took flight, and projected his desire through the room, covering her neck and breasts with kisses.
When he opened his eyes she was gone. Maybe he should have tried conversation.
Maybe conversation indeed. But conversation proves hard for Patrick; he is unable to be genuine, finds it difficult, no, impossible to get out of his sarcastic, superior modus operandi. To actually make genuine conversation with a person, to be a Real Human Being, not a solipsistic asshole. His most genuine conversations in the whole book, perhaps, occur, if not inside his own head, with his drug dealer, who says he spent eight years in a mental hospital thinking he was an egg, and who insists that he mix heroin with his cocaine injections, because “it’s medicine,” and who heartlessly cuts him off from the absolutely required seven grams of cocaine a day to only two.
I don’t know if you’ll get as much from this book as I did, but it is one of the best reads I’ve had in a long while. It’s also a book, like Hamsun’s Hunger, that feels so overpowering that you’re glad to have read it, but never want to read it again. Luckily, unlike Hamsun, St Aubyn is also genuinely funny, even if most of the humor is of the gallows variety.
No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness in one touch.
Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver
to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on the same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.
From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
high and profound, of the blind library.
Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.
In shadows, with a tentative stick, I try
the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
I, who had always thought of Paradise
In form and image as a library.
Something, which certainly is not defined
by the word fate, arranges all these things;
another man was given, on other evenings
now gone, these many books. He too was blind.
Wandering through the gradual galleries,
I often feel with vague and holy dread
I am that other dead one, who attempted
the same uncertain steps on similar days.
Which of the two is setting down this poem—
A single sightless self, a plural I?
What can it matter, then, the name that names me,
given our curse is common and the same?
Groussac or Borges, now I look upon
this dear world losing shape, fading away
into a pale uncertain ashy-gray
that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.
Jorge Luis Borges,Poem of the Gifts(1958), addressing his progressive blindness, which began shortly after he was appointed director of the National Library of Argentine–succeeding Paul Groussac, who happened to also be blind. The theme of the dissolution of the self pops up; again and again, the self is nested, fractured, imaginary in Borges’s works, such as inThe Circular Ruins. Borges also wrote that each writer is the creator of his own precursors: if he did not write, they would not be his precursors–we would not read their works the same way–the writer modifies the past and the future. Of course, this is an expression of idealism: reality is mental. And while I do not agree, fundamentally, I agree that reality as experienced is mental; and no long argument needs to be constructed to see that each writer modifies the future’s reading of past writers.