Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween from Dan Hallett (via Dan's blog)

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I won't be posting here for a little while. Normal service will resume some time in 2012, when I should have some news about forthcoming projects.

In the meantime, if you have arrived here in search of information on Five Wounds, I recommend the following posts:

Video Interview
Video Introduction
Indepth interview with Jon and Dan at The View From Here

If you have arrived here in search of information on Pistols! Treason! Murder!, I recommend the following:

Introduction at Rorotoko
Short monologue on Radio National
Punk History

Friday, September 2, 2011

Old Snapshots: Liverpool, c. 1987-90

Recently I went through my old colour snapshots, which were taken on a point-and-shoot camera, using colour negative 35mm film. I was not looking for a hit of nostalgia. Rather, I was curious to see what I would end up with if I attempted to edit these images using more objective criteria: that is, I asked myself, 'Are any of these images interesting to me now for aesthetic reasons, without considering their content?'

Out of several hundred photographs, I found five that I thought were interesting, although their style is quite different from that of Let Us Burn the Gondolas, if 'style' is indeed the right word, given that I was entirely indifferent to such considerations at the time. This 'style' has therefore been constituted retrospectively, by a coherent editorial stance. A crucial fact is that they are quite definitely taken by a participant-observer, and not a voyeur. I can't imagine being that connected to - being that present in the midst of - a group of people now.

Like most snapshots, they are of subjects who are fully aware of the camera, and who are responding directly to its presence, in an exaggerated and even theatrical way. At least two are of scenes that were staged solely for the purpose of being photographed, and the resulting images are therefore deliberately ridiculous. Indeed, I was almost certainly laughing - or trying to stop myself from laughing - when I took them, and their principal aim was to make the viewer laugh in turn. But they don't wink at the viewer.

The first image below is, I think, the best photograph I will ever take: it could easily sit alongside one of William Klein's. It is packed with life, and the arrangement of forms it captures obviously fell apart the instant after the shutter tripped. The others aren't as good, but all of them are exciting. I had no idea what I was doing; or rather, I had no set purpose or any interest in aesthetic judgements. Viewed and edited retrospectively, the strike rate is therefore very low - less than 1% - but then the strike rate in my recent photography projects is not much better than that, at least for 35mm images.

These five photographs make an interesting contrast with the images in I Am a Pilgrim, which were shot on 35mm colour slides, without flash, in 2003 and 2004, whereas the images below were taken with automated on-camera flash in the late 1980s. I Am a Pilgrim represents an attempt to find a middle ground between these snapshots and the more formal and self-conscious approach in Let Us Burn the Gondolas.

I don't take snapshots any more.

Snapshot 1

Snapshot 2

Snapshot 3

Snapshot 4

Snapshot 5

N.B. These are very poor quality scans, which are based on recent prints I made myself on an RA-4 machine. Given the nature of the images, there did not seem much point in obsessing over quality control in either the printing or the scanning. In addition, the negatives are degraded, noticeably so in the last image.

Below is William Klein on editing (from his Contacts video project: short films in which several photographers review their contact sheets):

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Inspirations: Eyes Without a Face by Georges Franju

Below is an edited version of the infamous scene from Georges Franju's poetic horror film Eyes Without a Face (1960), in which plastic surgeon Doctor Genessier removes a woman's face to replace that of his disfigured daughter. You don't actually see that much, and the special effects are not convincing today, but nonetheless not recommended for the squeamish.


The cover of the Criterion DVD release of this film (left) is a typical example of the inspired approach to design used by this company, who always pay careful attention to the packaging and presentation of their releases.

The film is an obvious reference for the character of Cuckoo in Five Wounds, although in fact I did not see it until after I had conceived of the character.

My favourite scene in Eyes Without a Face is not the one excerpted in the clip above, but rather the subsequent montage that shows the transplanted face rotting as the recipient rejects the skin graft (which is also apropos to the themes of Five Wounds, but to the character of Crow rather than that of Cuckoo). Unfortunately I couldn't find that clip online.

Bonus inspiration points for the fact that a character is eaten by dogs in the film's finale.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Interview with Zoe Sadokierski

A nice interview with Zoe (the designer of Five Wounds) about her work on two recent short-story anthologies has been posted at Allen & Unwin's Tumblr. Here's an excerpt:

The initial direction was clear in terms of what kind of mood needed to be communicated, but initially we were going to use another illustrator whose work was much more linear in style. It was a collaborative process to get to the rich, layered illustrations these covers ended up with. Designers call this the ‘rebriefing’ process; over the course of a project, you need to keep re-looking at the brief and reassessing how to keep all parties (publishing, marketing, sales, the authors) happy. Sometimes this means stopping, reflecting, and changing tack.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Interview with Art Spiegelman

Style is a capitalist invention. It’s a trademark. It’s very useful in the world of commerce to have a good trademark, but it wasn’t my first concern. I got restless…

[Found at Austin Kleon's Tumblr.]

Friday, August 12, 2011

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

Five Wounds: Review at 'The Spectator Book Blog'

There is a nice review of Five Wounds over at The Spectator Book Blog, by Isabel Sutton, which describes the book as an 'engrossing and original fantasy'. Here's an extract:

To my amazement, I began to lose my scepticism and turn the pages with a genuine care for the characters’ fates. I squirmed at the gruesome deaths and held my breath as the hero and heroine made their getaway; by the end I was greedy to know what happens, fully absorbed in the throes of the story. My progress was checked, however, when the ending arrived. There wasn’t one pat conclusion, but two. In a final act of literary guile, the book pushes you back to consider how – as well as what – you are reading.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dan's Blog

Meanwhile, over at Dan's blog, he has been discussing the influences on his illustrations for Five Wounds, thus:

Piranesi, Blake, Hogarth

M. C. Escher, Chris Ware

Francisco Goya, Umberto Eco

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Inspirations: The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers

I hate purity
I hate goodness
I don't want virtue to exist anywhere
I want everyone corrupt.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Guest Post at Spike Magazine

Spike Magazine in the UK have now published a guest post I wrote for them on the design of Five Wounds. Below is an extract:

Imagine that the appearance of a book is part of the story it tells, as if it was an artefact created by the imaginary civilisation it describes. Book design becomes an aspect of what the science-fiction community calls ‘world-building’, and as such it applies the principle of ‘Show, don’t tell’ to the surface of the page itself. My fantasy novel Five Wounds uses design in exactly this way.

Thanks to Jason Weaver of Spike for arranging this.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Further Comments at 'Shelf Abuse'

I somehow missed some further remarks on Five Wounds by Carl Doherty of the 'Shelf Abuse' site, who concludes:

I couldn’t recommend Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel more. An accomplished, multifaceted work that follows the twisted fates of five sympathetic freaks in what is essentially an alternate-history Venice, its synthesis of words and images is effective enough to change anyone’s preconceptions about them thar picture books.

See here for a more detailed review by Carl. I also wrote a guest post for 'Shelf Abuse' on the influence of comic books on Five Wounds.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Five Wounds: The Art of Grief

Five Wounds is a parable as well as a fairy tale. Throughout, it refers to an invisible, suppressed source: ‘The Art of Grief', an abandoned essay on the deaths of my parents. This essay is never acknowledged directly within the novel, but it is available as a free download on my website for those who wish to investigate.

An example may be useful. In the climactic scene of Five Wounds, one of the characters, Cuckoo, makes the (apparently prosaic, apparently unremarkable) declaration, ‘Yes, that’s my wife’. In the novel, this affirmation clearly refers to another character, Gabriella. But this line is also a hidden quotation from the transcript of a coroner’s inquest that forms part of ‘The Art of Grief’. If one knows this, it should be possible to imagine the original context in which these words were uttered (i.e. as part of a deposition submitted to a coroner’s inquest: think about it). But the whole point of the line in Five Wounds is that it turns the original reading completely on its head. In Five Wounds, one of the most desolate and hopeless moments from ‘The Art of Grief’ therefore becomes a positive, life-affirming confession. It becomes the one fact that is going to save Cuckoo from himself.

‘The Art of Grief’ is a key, which unlocks hidden meanings in Five Wounds. However, the relationship between the two texts is more complex than that of a riddle to its solution or a joke to its punch line, because Five Wounds has an independent life of its own. Its characters act according to their own natures, and make their own choices. They are not mere ciphers, condemned to act out episodes of my biography in a disguised, pathological form. The characters may be fantastic, but they are real within their own world, even when they unknowingly refer to events beyond its borders.

In this case, then, one text does not solve the other. Rather, Five Wounds places stolen fragments of ‘The Art of Grief’ in a new setting, which transforms their meaning, as the Venetians studded the façade of the church of San Marco with pieces of marble looted from Constantinople. Here, however, the arrangement is reversed. It is not the loot that shines brightly, but the container, within which the quotations are safely hidden away, like bones in a reliquary.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Five Wounds: Card Games, Part 2

Cuckoo the trickster
[Discussion continues from the previous post:]

One of the protagonists of Five Wounds is a card player: Cuckoo (above). In a crucial chapter of the book, ‘Pick a card, any card’ he explains his theory about the iconography of a specific card in the Tarot pack: trump number 1, ‘The Bagatto’, a name of uncertain origin which is usually (mis)translated into English as ‘The Magician’. The Bagatto, almost uniquely, also has a recurrent and unusual role in game play, in that it is a card to which a high number of points are assigned in the count at the end of each hand, even though it is the lowest ranking Trump card. Cuckoo has a theory on how this role might, pace Michael Dummett, relate to the card’s name and iconography, a theory that is (as far as I know) original, i.e. I’m pretty sure that I invented it. You’ll have to read the novel to find out more, but in that context the point of the digression is that Cuckoo’s theory about the Bagatto offers a commentary on his relationship with his wife Gabriella, to whom he is speaking.

In the early versions of Five Wounds, I specified Cuckoo’s favourite card game as Mitigati, and I described the basic structure of its rules. Mitigati is a Piedmontese game played with a Tarot pack, the rules of which were first described in print by Dummett. Mitigati shares with many other Italian card games a fiendishly elegant scoring structure, in which players are assigned a score at the end of each hand in terms of their deviation from a mathematically average performance. In Mitigati, there are 129 points at stake in each hand, which means that, since there are always three players, the average score for each player in each hand is 43.

How does this work? Let's consider a hypothetical hand, in which player 1 wins cards that add up to 73 points, and player 2 gains an exactly average total of 43; by definition, player 3 must therefore have gained 13 points. The three scores for that hand are then calculated by subtracting 43 from the number of points gained by each player, so that player 1 scores + 30, player 2 scores 0, and player 3 scores – 30. If you add these three scores together, you will always, and again by definition, get a total of 0.

Let’s say that our three players then play a second hand, in which player 1 gains 53 points, player 2 also gains 53 points, and player 3, again unlucky, gains only 23 points. The score for that hand will thus be + 10 for player 1, + 10 for player 2, and – 20 for player 3. These individual scores are now added to those from the first hand to yield the running, cumulative total: player 1 has + 40, player 2 has + 10, and player 3 has – 50. Note that this running total again, by definition, must add up to 0.

The extraordinary elegance (or rigor) of this system is now revealed. The running total continues to indicate the player’s deviation from an exactly average performance, and it does so in the precise ratios in which players will settle their debts at the end of play, since before commencing play, a fixed monetary value is assigned to a point. If our three players were to conclude their game after only two hands, the running total indicates that player 3 should pay player 2 a sum equivalent to 10 times the value assigned to a point, and pay to player 1 the value assigned to 40 points.

This scoring structure is common to many Tarot games. The thing that distinguishes Mitigati among them is that it commences with a bargaining phase, in which each player only receives part of her hand. On the basis of this partial hand, and based on their calculation of the likely outcome of a game played with the cards in their possession, all three players then negotiate by 'asking for' or 'offering' points. If they agree on their respective prospects (that is, if the three bids on the table add up to 0 at any point), then the deal is abandoned.

Much of the art of Mitigati therefore consists in avoiding playing when it is disadvantageous to do so.

The original account of all this in Five Wounds was less detailed than that provided above, but it nonetheless fell victim to the editor’s pen, with good reason. My original point was that Cuckoo’s preference for Mitigati revealed his approach to life, but that point was not made very efficiently or elegantly. The published version perhaps errs on the other side by not providing enough detail about Cuckoo's activities as a gambler. Readers who know nothing about cards will probably assume that he plays Poker. I actually had the ancestors of that game in mind – Primiero or Brag – but it does not much matter, since the description is so generic as to be applicable to any similar game of this type, and that now seems to me to be a weakness in the novel's worldbuilding.

There is, however, one remaining trace of the original account, in which Cuckoo, contemplating his own death, observes that:

When it happened, his face would dissolve into a final nothing. His open, unbreathing mouth would become an exactly average zero.

I remain fascinated by card games, which are a constantly evolving artform, but one with an open and continuous history, in which newer forms do not always displace their older variants. Like Cuckoo, I am fond of gambling metaphors, and I believe that card games offer the most sophisticated versions of these metaphors – but I no longer play Mitigati.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Five Wounds: Card Games, Part 1

Once upon a time, in another life, I was an expert on gambling in Venice, and on the history of card games in general. In the former capacity, I did a lot of original archival research, and I published an article on the subject in Past and Present, which is the only thing I’ve ever written that is cited on a regular basis (e.g. by Wikipedia). In the latter capacity, my ‘expertise’ was entirely second-hand, derived principally from works by David Parlett and Michael Dummett. Nonetheless, I was actually awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship to write a book on the history of fortune (i.e. a book on how people have understood the concept of fortune, from a historical perspective), although in the event I got distracted in the archive by Gerolamo Vano, the protagonist of my first book, and I therefore wrote about him instead.

From about 1995-98, I played a lot of obscure historical card games, many of them described by Parlett. One of Parlett’s great insights was to identify common motifs that recur across different card games, the rules of which can therefore be analysed comparatively as well as historically, as if all card games were derived from a common language or system of differences. Card games are therefore analogous to other aspects of popular culture, such as folk tales and songs, even though the ‘content’ of a card game is otherwise quite different to that of a folk narrative. Games can thereby be classified by reference to shared structural motifs, which the rules of any particular game rearrange and combine in various ways, in much the same way that folk tales and songs rearrange story motifs.

Thus the common structural element that links all trick-taking games (‘tricksters’ as Parlett calls them, here meaning something quite different to the ‘tricksters’ of folk tales) manifests itself in different ways according to the other elements with which this basic motif is combined. In trickster games, a category that includes Whist and Bridge, one player leads with a card, and the other players ‘follow suit’ if possible (this is the origin of the metaphor). The highest card played from the opening suit wins the trick, unless it is ‘trumped’ by a card from a designated trump suit, which ranks higher than all the other suits.

Whist and Bridge are both 'plain-trick' games (according to Parlett's classification), in which only the total number of tricks won counts, and the individual cards within the tricks are of no consequence after they have been played and captured by the winner of the trick. By contrast, many variant tricksters from continental Europe are 'point-trick' games, in which each individual card has an assigned numerical value, and the score for each player is calculated at the end of the hand by counting the value of all cards won by that player. This latter family of games includes the German classic Skat, and Picquet, once a very popular game all over Europe, including England.

In Italy and elsewhere, Tarot cards are also used to play games – indeed, this was their original purpose, as Dummett's research has clearly demonstrated – and these games are always of the point-trick variety. In Tarot games, the famous named cards (Death, The Moon, etc., and of course The Bagatto, which features prominently in Five Wounds) are part of a permanent suit of trumps (or ‘triumphs’), which perform exactly the same function in play as the designated trump suit does in Whist or Bridge.

The four suits with which English and American players are familiar (diamonds, hearts, spades and clubs) are derived from French models, but elsewhere in Europe, different suits are used. In Italy, standard packs of cards usually have the suits of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons, which are only familiar in the Anglophone world from the Tarot (but in fact the Tarot suits derive from the 'normal' Italian pack, and not the other way round). The precise rendition of these suits, however, varies from region to region. In Spain, Switzerland and Germany, there are different suits again (for example, Germany has Leaves, Acorns, Hearts and Bells). The French suits probably originated as a visual simplification of the German, to facilitate printing, but they in turn were ‘translated’ from the Italian suits, the Italian pack being the oldest in Europe.

An interesting aspect of the history and form of playing cards is that the images on the cards can also be analysed structurally, in terms of variation and recombination of repeated iconographic motifs, but this analysis is entirely independent from the mathematical analysis of the games played with the cards. The only obvious correlation between the iconography of the cards and the structure of the games is in the order of the court cards: so that Kings rank above Queens in play, and so on. Otherwise, as Dummett says of the Tarot pack:

[T]he iconography of the cards had no bearing upon the purpose for which they were originally invented or used [i.e. to play games].

[Discussion continues in the next post:]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Inspirations: Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni

The rest of the film is very badly dated (and is therefore not worth explaining here), but this final sequence, seen in isolation, is perhaps the best music video of all time, even though Pink Floyd's 'Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up' doesn't actually start until about two minutes in. That's okay, because the preceding section is taken up by multiple camera views of an actual exploding house (you would make the most of that footage too, if you had blown up an actual house).

The title chapter of Pistols! Treason! Murder! could be seen as a homage to this sequence.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Five Wounds: Cuckoo and Lacan's Mirror Phase

I recently read the Icon Books title Introducing Lacan, and I was struck by the description of Lacan's theory of the 'mirror phase', an elaboration of Freud's ideas on ego formation in the infant. The description corresponds exactly to (it mirrors?) the characterisation of Cuckoo in Five Wounds. Cuckoo is a man with no face, or rather a face made of wax, which he reshapes constantly in imitation of those whose identity he wishes to steal. He is also obsessed with his reflection, with which he can never fully identify.

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

Now here are some passages from Introducing Lacan (pp. 21-23):

The child identifies with an image outside himself, be it an actual mirror image or simply the image of another child. The apparent completeness of this image gives [him] a new mastery over the body. .... 'But all this at a price [says a picture of a child standing before a mirror in the Icon book]. If I am in the place of another child, when he's struck, I will cry. If he wants something, I'll want it too, because I am trapped in his place. I am trapped in an image fundamentally alien to me, outside me'. .... Lacan shows how this alienation in the image corresponds with the ego: the ego is constituted by an alienating identification, based on an initial lack of completeness in the body and nervous system.

There is a broader point here about how symbolism works: I mean symbolism in a general sense, rather than Lacan's more technical definition of what he calls the 'symbolic register', which for him complements the 'imaginary register' ('imaginary' from 'image'). For Lacan, language is the essential element that distinguishes the symbolic from the imaginary, so that in the symbolic register, the relation to the image will be structured by language (Introducing Lacan, p. 47). Cuckoo, by contrast, remains in the pre-linguistic, imaginary register, where the reflected image of his face cannot be described (in words or otherwise).

What I mean by 'symbolic' is rather the way in which Lacan's theory of the mirror phase describes an ongoing process (of ego formation) via an abstraction. It uses a single, signifying idea - the child looking at its own reflection - to stand for that broader process. The fictional character of Cuckoo then reverses that operation. I mean that Cuckoo's predicament takes Lacan's symbolic abstraction, and makes it both literal and definitive, so that it actually excludes other possible ways of understanding the nature of ego formation.

N.B. I am a big fan of the Icon Introducing series, which I am interested in for theoretical as well as pragmatic reasons: i.e. I am interested in how these unique attempts to present abstract ideas through a comic strip format work, beyond the information actually conveyed in any specific title. In this, they are natural successors to seventeenth-century emblem books. More on this in a future post perhaps ....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inspirations: The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton (1955)

Charles Laughton's film The Night of the Hunter (1955) has thematic concerns in common with another of my inspirations: Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).

To fully appreciate the second clip above, you have to know from the outset that Mitchum is the villain, from whom Lillian Gish is protecting the orphaned children sheltering in her house by means of the shotgun cradled across her lap. Laughton represents the conflict between these two characters (or rather, archetypes, who are defined in part by their opposed notions of God) by having them harmonise with each other while singing the same hymn, which they obviously understand in radically different ways. It is a brilliantly counter-intuitive dramatic strategy.

Simon Callow's book on The Night of the Hunter is an excellent introduction to this unique film, the only one directed by Laughton. On the film's tone and aesthetic, Callow explains (pp. 43-44):

From the beginning, Laughton had been insistent on conveying to all his collaborators the essential fairytale-like quality of the story. Everything, he told [art director Hilyard] Brown, should be seen from the boy's point of view. He accordingly designed the sets 'from the position that only children see certain things.' .... There was little pretence that a real world was being filmed, the shapely lines and symbolic details creating a highly stylised environment in which expressive power was achieved by painterly or sculptural means ....

On Mitchum as the villainous Preacher, Callow has this to say (pp. 65-66):

The performance is almost two-dimensional; both the actor and the character seem to be giving conscious performances, which lends a highly original dimension. At the risk of introducing an over-used and devalued tag, this is a Brechtian performance in the technical sense of the word - it is a demonstration of a certain kind of behaviour which promotes an analytical and critical attitude from the audience. .... Character becomes a kind of conjuring trick: the fascination comes from watching the way in which Preacher works his effects. The more naked the contradictions, the more chilling the effect.

Truffaut's initial review described the film as being like 'a horrifying news item retold by small children.' All of this recalls to me the following comment by Will Self on the worlds created in the fiction of Roald Dahl (quotation from The Guardian, 17 October 2009):

[T]here are big white spaces in Dahl-world where any realistic detailing might well be shaded in by a lesser writer; and again, in common with [Quentin] Blake’s vision, Dahl-world is at once lurid and curiously ill-defined. The passions are strong and clear – fear, hatred, avarice, love, greed (especially for sugar) – but they are played out against a backdrop that is only wonkily apprehended.

Dahl mimicked to perfection a believable child’s-eye view, that, looking up from below, sees the adult realm as foreshortened, and adult foibles as grossly elongated.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Five Wounds: The Proverbs Sequence in 'A Meeting of Minds'

The video trailer for Five Wounds is not the only time I used mathematical principles in thinking about the book. The only scene in which all five protagonists are in the same place at the same time occurs in the chapter 'A Meeting of Minds', at p. 113, ch. 6, v. 1-18. On this momentous occasion, they all spout banal proverbs at one another. The implication is that they do so in a quasi-trance-like state, perhaps under the hypnotic influence of a divine voice that intermittently interrupts them with the refrain 'MeNe MeNe TeKeL UPHARSIN'. They speak as follows.

1 ‘MeNe, MeNe, TeKeL, UPHARSIN,’ the voice said.
2 ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ Crow said.
3 ‘Freedom exists only in the kingdom of dreams,’ Gabriella said.
4 ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him,’ Cur said.
5 ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ Cuckoo said.
6 ‘Every bird thinks its own nest fine,’ Magpie said.
7 ‘MeNe, MeNe, TeKeL, UPHARSIN,’ the voice said.
8 ‘One must howl with the wolves,’ Cur said.
9 ‘Better to be a knave than a fool,’ Magpie said.
10 ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ Cuckoo said.
11 ‘The devil can quote scripture for his own ends,’ Gabriella said.
12 ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,’ Crow said.
13 ‘MeNe, MeNe, TeKeL, UPHARSIN,’ the voice said.
14 ‘The cowl does not make the monk,’ Cuckoo said.
15 ‘Love me, love my dog,’ Cur said.
16 ‘Either Caesar, or nothing,’ Crow said.
17 ‘Tell me who your friend is, and I’ll tell you who you are,’ Magpie said.
18 ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wise man,’ Gabriella concluded.

This passage has a marginal cross-reference to Plate 12, 'A meeting of minds', which is reproduced below.

Plate 12: A meeting of minds

There are several things going on in this image, which also relates to Plate 1, Initiation (insofar as it is only possible to make sense of several of the elements within Plate 1 by reference to this subsequent image: you can figure that out for yourself), but Plate 12 receives its immediate textual justification from another passage in 'A Meeting of Minds', at ch. 4, v. 3: Crow imagined all the heads in the room separated from their bodies and floating in jars, dumbly, waiting for the inscription of ulterior motives upon them.

Obviously the particular proverbs that each character 'chooses' to declaim tell us who they are, but the precise sequence is also important, and relates to Plate 12. The sequence breaks into three groups of five, within which each character speaks once (if we remove the three interjections of the disembodied voice, which are null characters in this interpretation). If we assign a letter to each protagonist according to the initial order in which they speak, and break up the sequence accordingly, it looks like this:

a (Crow)
b (Gabriella)
c (Cur)
d (Cuckoo)
e (Magpie)



If you take this list, and use it as if it is a set of vector instructions for a diagram - as if the sequence is actually a program, as I also described the language of heraldry in a previous post - then you get the following layout, which I have scanned in its three successive states, to clarify how it is constructed.

Proverbs 1st

Proverbs 1st + 2nd

Proverbs 1st + 2nd + 3rd

So, if you follow the sequence, and fill in every line accordingly, you progressively build up the figure of the pentacle, as illustrated in Plate 12 above (and in Plate 1, for those who think to make the comparison). Some lines are drawn through twice as the sequence doubles back on itself, but never in the same direction: for example, the fourth transition runs from Cuckoo to Magpie, and the seventh goes back the other direction from Magpie to Cuckoo, but the rule is that once we have traced both directions, we can't then return to this arm of the diagram.

This isn't perfectly logical. In that case, every possible direction would be represented (as it is in the video trailer, using a different set of principles), and for every possible direction to be represented, there would have to be twenty lines rather than fourteen. But this was the best version I could create that also allowed me to construct the pentacle line by line, which is what I was trying to do. I also tried several other ways of arranging the sequence of speakers, but this was the only variant in which I managed to trace all fourteen vectors as unique and unrepeated.

I used a pentacle as the basis for this diagram because it represents the five wounds of Christ in medieval iconography, notably in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I read as an undergraduate (and which features a talking, severed head!).

As for the mathematical games, either you are the sort of person that thinks in these terms, or you aren't, in which case the whole exercise probably looks insane. But even if it is insane, it does relate to the worldview of the protagonists, whom I have desribed elsewhere as autistic. In particular, Crow and Gabriella, who are the intellectuals of the group, and who therefore appear as the first two points in this sequence, are inclined to think in these terms.

[Plate 12 by Dan Hallett; illegible sketches by me.]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five Wounds: Modern Dystopia and Empathy

Last year I appeared in a session on ‘Modern Dystopia’ at the Melbourne Writers Festival with DBC Pierre, moderated by Justin Clemens. A recording of this session was subsequently broadcast on Radio National. It can now be downloaded as a podcast, and I have uploaded it below, along with some further thoughts on the question of empathy, which were inspired by my discussion with DBC and Justin.


[N.B. I am actually talking about Five Wounds in the session, even though the presenter mentions Pistols! Treason! Murder! in the introduction.]

Empathy is a precondition for the novel to exist. In the novel, we imagine what it is like to be somebody else. We imagine an existence other than our own; we try to make such an existence credible, and involving.

If empathy makes the novel possible, then a world without empathy is the ultimate fictional dystopia, because it removes the enabling preconception on which fiction rests. Five Wounds takes place in such a world. Its characters fall into one of two categories. Either they are autistic: that is, they find empathy to be a profoundly difficult and troubling concept; or they are solipsistic: that is, empathy is literally inconceivable for them. So, given that at least some of the characters in the novel are trying to understand the concept, perhaps it is not quite accurate to describe Five Wounds as a world without empathy. Rather, it is a world in which empathy can never be taken for granted. It is never a given; it is never natural or instinctive. It can only be created by a supreme effort of will and imagination.

To whom do we extend our empathy? This is a crucial question. By defining someone as inhuman or subhuman, we are effectively asserting that they are beyond the reach of empathy. We are under no obligation to imagine what it is like to be them. Their pain – or their joy – is no concern of ours. Animals raise an interesting test case here. For a thinker like Descartes, as for many modern scientists, vivisection did not raise ethical considerations, because the pain of animals is of less consequence than that of humans. We do not concede to animals the legal or moral status of persons, and Descartes did not concede to them the status of rational beings. But our responses are rarely so coldly logical, and in fact the pain of animals often engages us. In a fictional context, it is interesting that in Blade Runner, all the questions posed in the test to determine empathic response, and thus determine if the subject questioned is actually human, describe witnessing the pain of animals, and not the pain of another human subject.

I mention all this because all of the characters in Five Wounds are freaks. Like animals, they are test cases, who pose questions regarding the limits of the category ‘human.’ Do such freaks deserve our empathy? And how is it possible for a freak, whose experience of the world is, by definition, singular, to imagine what it is like to be someone ‘normal,’ someone like us?

I write alone, but - at the same time that I imagine the hypothetical existence of my characters - I must also imagine the existence of a hypothetical reader. As I attempt to describe my characters to that reader, I must also in some sense imagine what it is like to be that reader. And what I imagine is the reader in turn reimagining the characters.

The ‘existence other than our own’ that the novel presupposes is thus doubled.

In autobiographical narratives, this idea is sometimes presented as a problem. In other words: What makes you think that anyone is interested in reading about the minutae of your life? Why would you imagine that My Battle With Cancer or My Miserable Childhood might be compelling to someone else? Assuming that there is an audience for the unremitting chronology of your life is here evidence of a greater failure of imagination: a more far-reaching variety of solipsism. The problem is that the audience conjured into being in the writer's head in this case is an audience of poorly-conceived, two-dimensional characters who have nothing better to do than read about someone else's self-obsession. Imagining real readers - readers with their own experiences and preoccupations, whose interest has to be solicited and constantly re-engaged - requires a far greater effort, and at some level, a surrender of self (even in autobiographical narratives: perhaps especially there).*

As the writer of Five Wounds, I am obliged to make this effort, which - among other things - requires me to sublimate the autobiographical backstory to the novel. Within the story, each of the novel's autistic or solipsistic protagonists also struggles to pose these questions in a way that makes sense to him or her. Cuckoo, for example, thinks in terms of mimesis (imitation). To imagine what it is like to be someone else means taking that person’s place, literally. Magpie, by contrast, applies the notion of empathy to perverse ends by imagining what it is like to be a machine: that is, a camera, or, to be more precise, a photosensitive emulsion. Identifying with a machine frees him from the obligation of identifying with other people. Crow acknowledges no peers: for him, the category of those who are entitled to empathy is limited to himself, and since he is leprous, and therefore literally insensible, even this formula presents him with some difficulties.

The novel in general asks, What does it feel like to be someone else? Five Wounds in particular asks, What does it feel like to be unable to imagine what it feels like to be somebody else?

*This paragraph recalls the argument of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments in some respects, a text I may return to in a later post.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Guest Post for the 'Big Idea' Feature at Whatever

A guest post I wrote for the 'Big Idea' feature at John Scalzi's popular Whatever blog has now gone up. It is on the advantages of illustrated books as a format, and it includes some detailed discussion of the 'Synaesthetic Paradise' diptych from Five Wounds, which I use as a case study to explain the relationship between text and image in the novel.

There is actually some additional discussion of this pair of images here, and there will be more to come shortly.

Below is an excerpt from the post at Whatever:

According to an old set of critical prejudices, the adult pleasures of true literature are entirely separate from the infantile sugar rush of pictures, and the presence of the latter in a book is therefore a kind of an implicit admission of failure on the writer’s part. The very word ‘illustration’ is part of the problem here, since it implies redundancy and subordination. Illustrations understood in this pejorative sense are somehow both more direct and more naïve than language. They cannot be paraphrased, but nor can they dissemble. They do not require interpretation, and they cannot contain a subtext. They are, by definition, un-literary.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Five Wounds: Daguerreotypes

Susan Sontag's On Photography is a classic introduction to the medium, whose influence can be felt in almost all subsequent discussions. But there is a problem with it, in that actual photographers do not recognize its depiction of their activities, or perhaps more significantly, do not identify with its description of their motivations. Consider the following passage:

What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality – which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal. ‘The pictures have a reality for me that the people don’t’, Avedon has declared. ‘It is through the photographs that I know them’. To claim that photography must be realistic is not incompatible with opening up an even wider gap between image and reality, in which the mysteriously acquired knowledge (and the enhancement of reality) supplied by photographs presumes a prior alienation from or devaluation of reality. [On Photography, p. 121]

The idea that photography is at war with reality seems counter-intuitive to most of its practitioners, who also take exception to the idea that they are all, by definition, alienated voyeurs. An alternative point of view is advanced eloquently by Nan Goldin:

The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history. [The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, p. 6]

In a later interview, Goldin explains, again in implicit counterpoint to Sontag, 'For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress' [Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your Mirror, 1996, p. 452].

One of the protagonists of Five Wounds is the thief Magpie, who also works as a daguerreotypist. Daguerreotypes were created by a photographic process that yielded a unique, positive image. They were popular in the 1840s, but were subsequently rendered obsolete by William Fox Talbot's introduction of negatives, which permitted multiple prints to be made of any individual image. In the world of Five Wounds, however, the daguerreotype remains central. I chose it over other better-known photographic processes as a way of returning to the pre-history of an overfamiliar technology: to draw attention to unchallenged and unacknowledged presuppositions surrounding its later, more familiar variants, whose characteristics we retroactively assume to be given or inevitable. Other examples of this same technique in Five Wounds include the use of heraldry to think about superhero costumes and the introduction of a character with a mutant strain of rabies to think about werewolves.

Magpie's activities as a daguerreotypist are therefore a parody of the argument of Sontag's book. I started with a thought experiment: What if you were a Martian who had never taken or seen a photograph, and the only evidence you had as to what that activity might involve was Sontag's book? What kind of person would you imagine the ideal photographer to be? The answer is: a freak; an alienated thief. In the extract below, Magpie describes his philosophy.

1 AT first, Magpie had paid prostitutes to pose for him.
2 They required no explanations, but in other respects they were not ideal subjects, because they had mistaken assumptions about the nature of his interest.
3 He discouraged them from adopting provocative expressions.
4 He did not want the illusion of intimacy.
5 To remind himself of this, he removed the faces from their portraits.
6 It required little force. A single motion of his thumbnail would do it.
7 ‘Don’t squirm. You’ll only get scratched.’

1 UNDER a magnifying glass, which revealed details invisible to the naked eye, the intensity with which the image was fully present was disturbing.
2 It was more present than the living bodies of the prostitutes had ever been.
3 ‘Pretend you’re dead if you like. That sometimes helps people stay still.’

1 MAGPIE would eliminate what was inessential and reveal what others could not bear to see.
2 He would steal from his subjects the revelation of their deeper selves and the truest aspect of the world they inhabited.
3 He would photograph the shift between the face people presented to others and the scratched face they revealed involuntarily and refused to acknowledge.

In fleshing out this account, I did, however, draw on the work of several actual photographers to create the character of Magpie, as indicated below.

Magpie's Photographic Influences
Above: Magpie's Photographic Influences

Of these acknowledged influences, Witkin and Arbus are both famed for their interest in freaks, and in Witkin's case, for his habit of photographing corpses. Both photographers are quoted on several occasions within the novel (e.g. the extract above includes a paraphrase of a remark by Arbus); and, indeed, one of the epigraphs used at the beginning of Five Wounds is a quotation from Arbus. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in early twentieth-century New Orleans, and several of his images, infamously, have the faces of the subject scratched out (below: Plate 29 from Storyville Portraits by Bellocq).

4 Bellocq Plate 29

This defacement has prompted much lurid psychosexual speculation in a manner derivative of Sontag's analysis: for example in Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter (which features Bellocq as a character). There are in fact much more innocuous reasons why someone - not necessarily Bellocq - may have defaced the images after their maker's death. However, as in my (ab)use of Sontag's book, I picked up on this motif - of scratched-out faces - and gave it a more sinister origin related to Magpie's psycholgy; but I also asked Dan to use it for quite different purposes in the illustrations depicting one of the other characters in the novel: Cuckoo, the man with a wax face. He is always represented with a scratched-out face, in homage to Magpie, and hence to Bellocq (below: Plate 6 from Five Wounds, Cuckoo's reflection).

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

[Pie chart diagram and Cuckoo portrait created by Dan Hallett.]

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Inspirations: Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky

The clip above includes (from about 41:00 onwards) the final sequence in Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky, a (very) unorthodox biographical film about a fifteenth-century monk and icon painter in Russia. The action of the film directly dramatises selected scenes from Rublev's life in black-and-white, but after the action concludes, we enter this colour sequence, which consists of a series of slow tracking shots (interspersed with equally slow zooms and / or push-ins) over the painted surface of Rublev's surviving icons. This method of animating static paintings has become a cliche in TV documentaries about art, and Tarkovsky's production notes from 1962 indicate that it was already established as a convention even then.

In our film there will not be a single shot of Rublev painting his icons. He will simply live, and he won't even be present on-screen in all episodes. And the last part of the film (in colour) will be solely devoted to Rublev's icons. We will show them in detail (as in a popular scientific film). The on-screen demonstration of the icon will be accompanied by the same musical theme which sounded in the episode of Rublev's life corresponding to the time during which the icon was conceived [quotation taken from Robert Bird, Andrei Rublev, p. 37].

In the colour sequence, the music fills the entire soundtrack and thereby assumes an importance that recalls the ending of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped: i.e. it seems to signal transcedence even as it literally emphasises immanence and materiality (the surface of the painting).

Robert Bird describes the significance of the colour coda to Andrei Rublev in the following terms (p. 10):

[It] consummates the halting narrative, retrospectively revealing its underlying logic and transforming its deep textures into glorious surfaces. However, the icon display also suspends the complex weave of dialogue, music and ambient sound in a pious supplication. In effect, it dissolves the film's heavy temporality in its eternal patterns, as if Tarkovsky was ceding authorship to St Andrei Rublev. Several of Tarkovsky's subsequent films end in a similar confusion of temporal and spatial planes, a feature which irks some viewers as an 'easy transcendence' of the characters' otherwise torturous progression across the dolorous earth. However, by extending his searching gaze into the transcendent plane, Tarkovsky is also raising the stakes of his aesthetic gamble. Instead of the certainty of faith, he contemplates the possibility that there can be no true ending, possibly no true story at all, under the weight of time [Bird, Andrei Rublev, p. 10].

I first saw Andrei Rublev in about 1991. Its coda had a transfixing effect on me, and I have spent the twenty years since trying to re-enact this effect in one way or another. One of the immediate, enabling ideas it seemed to suggest was that the dialectic of realism vs. abstraction was a question solely of the scale of observation: that is, any image becomes abstract if you zoom in close enough; and any apparently flat surface is revealed to be sculpted if you blow it up large enough. I have therefore engaged in numerous attempts to photograph the surface of historical paintings in microscopic detail. Below are two attempts at this: close-ups of the surface of paintings from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which are part of icon-like renditions of gold fabrics, in which imprinted abstract patterns achieve their effect by textural means.

Painting Close-Up 1

Painting Close-Up 2

In Five Wounds, Dan and I do something similar by isolating a fragment of Tintoretto's Paradise, and then translating it into a collage of abstract shapes of different colours, which are juxtaposed as if in an insane painting-by-numbers exercise. This exercise combines the literal and abstract within the same scale of representation: i.e. by means of a mosaic effect, it combines the perspective of the 'establishing shot', which shows the whole painting, with the isolation of particular details or fragments that characterises the close-up.

Synaesthetic Paradise (left panel)

In the endpapers of Five Wounds, this manipulated visual citation from Tintoretto is rendered even more abstract by being presented as a blown-up fragment of a fragment, thus:

Five Wounds Endpaper

Many icons are literally mosaics of course, and Tarkovsky compared the unusual structure of Andrei Rublev to that of a mosaic:

You can stick your nose into some fragment, beat it with your fist, and scream: 'Why is it black here? It shouldn't be black here! I don't like to look at black!' But you have to look at a mosaic from afar and on the whole, and if you change one colour the whole thing falls apart [quoted in Bird, Andrei Rublev, p. 38].

The mosaic is an ancient pictorial technique, but the ending of Andrei Rublev is - despite its eschewal of dramatisation and mise-en-scene - intrinsically cinematic, or rather, photographic, because slow-motion and the close-up are both quintessentially photographic effects, which initiated a new way of looking at the world by giving us access to what Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious. Photography also revolutionised the way we think about paintings, not only by making it easy to reproduce them, but also by making it easy to isolate details from them (and even, via X-rays, to analyse their constituent elements).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Inspirations: Gerry Anderson

Above are the title sequences to Thunderbirds (1965-66) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68). Both shows were created by Gerry Anderson, working with his then-wife Sylvia Anderson. Most of their programmes involved elements of science-fiction, and were ‘Filmed in Supermarionation’, as the inventive title cards put it. In other words, they featured puppets and miniature models rather than actors on full-scale sets. Puppets were both cheaper and easier to direct than actual human beings. Unfortunately, they were also far less expressive, a limitation that Anderson tried to overcome by creating more and more ‘realistic’ facial features and bodily proportions as his career progressed, with mixed results. Ironically, greater verisimilitude meant less mobility, and so the most detailed puppets also had the clumsiest movements.

Of course, no-one watched Gerry Anderson’s programmes for emotional catharsis. In most cases, the rudimentary and highly repetitive storylines were obviously pretexts for the special effects sequences, which involved intricately-designed futuristic vehicles (rockets, aeroplanes, spacecraft, submarines), and lots of explosions. The most characteristic setpiece in any Anderson series was the sequence in which pilots were delivered (usually via tubes or hydraulic chairs) to their waiting vehicles, followed by a complicated lift-off protocol. Below is the title sequence from Stingray (1964), which is exemplary in this regard. Indeed, the title sequence of an Anderson show is usually the most dramatic and effective statement of the show's themes. It often features flash-cut excerpts of the episode to come (a device borrowed recently by Battlestar Galactica), and it always has an extremely catchy theme tune.

In most cases, the characters in an Anderson show were members of a quasi-military organisation with a ludicrous acronym and an entirely abstract structure, most notably the colour coded SPECTRUM agents in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, in which the titular protagonist was aided in his struggle with the titular alien antagonists (and their possessed factotum Captain Black) by agents such as Captain Blue, Lieutenant Green and Colonel White.

Less obviously schematic, but along the same lines, was the distribution of the various Tracy brothers (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John) among the consecutively numbered Thunderbirds in the show of the same name, in which they were in effect extensions of the craft that they piloted, or at least they were only ever distinguished in terms of the different functions assigned to the various Thunderbirds. These latter were all vehicles organised under the umbrella of the secret philanthropic organisation, International Rescue, which operated from a disguised island headquarters, under the direction of the Tracy brothers’ father, Jeff.

The obvious absurdity of these various premises (I have not even mentioned Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility, which severely limited dramatic tension in his adventures) did not affect their popularity, which derived in part from their effectiveness as early examples of what is now sometimes described as '360 degree marketing': meaning, in this case, that the programmes were accompanied by a multiplicity of associated toys, which ultimately derived their justification from the original television narrative(s), but which could also be used to create quite different narratives in the heads of consumers at home.

The most famous example of this kind of cross-platform marketing is the Star Wars universe, but the closest recent equivalent to the spirit of Anderson’s output is something like Pixar’s Toy Story, in which the synergy between the films and the related products is built into the premise on which the fictional world rests, since the characters are all toys, whose appearance can therefore be duplicated exactly by toy manufacturers.

Toy Story is (much) better written than Anderson’s work, but his programmes are better designed, and the worlds they depict are three-dimensional, even if they are miniaturised. Indeed, every aspect of their production – sets, objects, vehicles, costumes – is remarkably coherent. This unity is only emphasised by the literally wooden acting, which adds to the impression of an entirely self-contained fictional environment, but the production design remains striking even in the live-action successors to Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet: UFO (1969-70) and Space 1999 (1975-77). And since all the futuristic vehicles were models, they, like the characters of Toy Story, were relatively easy to duplicate as die-cast metal toys.

Dinky Spectrum Patrol Car

Dinky Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle

Above are the toy versions of the Spectrum Patrol Car and the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle from Captain Scarlet, made by Dinky, in whose catalogues they joined versions of British Leyland cars and other tediously mundane vehicles. The Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds toys were more exciting, not only because of their ready-made backstories, but because they incorporated spring-loaded weapons and other detachable gadgetry. Their only obvious competition at the time in this regard was from the Dinky versions of various James Bond cars, such as the Aston Martin with ejector seat and retractable machine guns, originally from Goldfinger. Models that were too delicate or complicated to cast in metal – such as the Angel interceptors from Captain Scarlet – were instead sold as plastic model kits, which were assembled and painted at home. These were produced by Airfix. They were less robust than Dinky toys, but they afforded the additional pleasure of participating in their process of their recreation.

In many of Anderson’s programmes, the original narrative therefore served as a set of instructions for how to play with the toys, but this strategy can only work when the template provided by the programme is as generic as possible. Every episode of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet is more or less interchangeable with every other episode: the former always features a daring rescue in the face of an imminent disaster (often the result of sabotage), while the latter always involves a race to foil the latest Mysteron conspiracy against Earth (which the Mysterons always announced helpfully at the beginning of the episode), usually culminating in some new test of the limits of Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility.

One might describe this process as quintessentially postmodern, since it invites the reader / viewer to participate directly in the story, or rather to invent new variations upon simple story types, which are, in another sense of the word, ‘modelled’ by individual episodes. It is not, however, a new idea. A similar process is perhaps implied in the various reiterations of story cycles like the Arthurian and Grail legends, which the original listeners were encouraged to internalise and imitate in their own behaviour.

My novel Five Wounds shares a tendency towards highly schematic organisation with Gerry Anderson’s work, notably in its application of colour coding to the five protagonists, who are also puppets, in the metaphorical sense that their fates are overdetermined. They are at the mercy of their allotted role in the story structure: that is, at the mercy of forces external to their own nature. Indeed, the idea of the miniature, along with the related ideas of the doll and the automaton (both closely related to the puppet), all suggest a world that is simultaneously hyperreal, in its use of precise detail (as in the production design of Anderson's shows), and weirdly artificial, in its recourse to caricature (as in Anderson's use of puppets).

I doubt that anyone has ever described Anderson’s work as uncanny before, but that is what this combination of elements suggests.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bernard Caleo on Montage in Comics

Check out the video above from Readings Bookshop in Melbourne, hosted by Oz comics impresario Bernard Caleo, who is talking about montage in film and comics (some - maybe all - of the featured art is by Michael Camilleri, who also appears). The first of a series of events on comics run by Bernard for Readings.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Five Wounds: Archetypes

We often think of fairy tale characters in terms of archetypes, but many such characters – the werewolf, say – are now so over familiar that they have been tamed imaginatively. They have lost their teeth. One way around this problem is to retrace the genealogy of a particular figure, and return to its primitive prehistory rather than use its domesticated modern variant.

Cur and the black dog

For example, Five Wounds features a character, Cur, who is not a werewolf, but is nonetheless animated by the same conflicts that drive the character type of the werewolf (human vs. animal, reason vs. instinct, free will vs. involuntary response). Cur is not affected by a full moon; nor is he ever physically transformed into an animal. Rather, he has a mutant strain of rabies. This links his condition to very old ideas about the physiological origin of anger, which was once thought to be caused by the heating of the blood. That’s why ‘in cold blood’ is still a synonym for ruthless premeditation, as opposed to reactive, spontaneous violence, which is by contrast ‘hot-blooded’. Anger was thought to make men brutish, and in particular to make them canine, so rabies was understood as an acute case of infectious anger in its most concentrated form. [1]

[1] These ideas are explained in more detail in Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli during the Renaissance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Five Wounds: A Fairy Tale

Traditional fairy tales have a kind of casual viciousness entirely alien to modern sensibilities, which distinguishes them not only from comic books (with which they otherwise have much in common), but also from the lavish gore of modern crime fiction. In fairy tales, there is never any attempt to ‘explain’ cruelty in psychological terms. It is not motivated by trauma and it does not result in trauma. It is simply there, an accepted part of the fictional world, just as starvation, premature death and casual violence were an accepted part of the lives of those who first listened to such tales in pre-modern Europe.

The violence in fairy tales is described in a matter-of-fact tone or (even more scandalously) is relished for its comic possibilities. Its cruelty is thus doubled. The narrative not only subjects the characters to all manner of ghastly events, but it refuses to acknowledge their right to be psychologically damaged, or to grieve.

This use of violence underlines the fact that fairy tales are not 'realistic,', by which I don't just mean that they feature magical plot devices. In general, their events do not occur as a result of modern, scientific relations between cause and effect; their characters are not explicable according to modern, post-Freudian notions of personhood; and the context in which their narratives occur is often composed only of a few isolated and impressionistic details. To put this last point in terms familiar to consumers of modern science-fiction and fantasy novels, fairy tales are not at all interested in 'worldbuilding.' Connections - between successive events, characters or apparently separate contextual details - are often made according to the same principle that links the two terms in a metaphor: i.e. by means of a violent imaginative leap.

Style is not just a matter of how you write. It is also a matter of what you miss out: what you do not feel it necessary to explain. Fairy tales take this principle to an absurd extreme. The wild imaginative leaps they make, and the gaping holes in their narrative logic, are another kind of cheerful violence that matches on a formal level all the amputations and violent transformations and deaths that occur in the content of their stories. These absences, taken together, constitute their distinctive voice, but that voice, judged according to the more familiar terms of a realist narrative, sounds like that of an affectless sociopath with a tenuous grip on reality.

Five Wounds takes the disturbing contradiction between fairy tales and realist narrative as its starting point. The five protagonists begin the story as irredeemably traumatised, and this trauma manifests itself physically, as deformity, but this is their natural condition, which they take for granted, and which in turn defines the world they live in and the limits of their choices. Those choices do not change their natures, but rather reveal them. Everything is simultaneously overly literal and overly symbolic. Everything is fixed in advance and everything is subject to arbitrary reversal.

This should not be taken to imply that Five Wounds is cold or detached. On the contrary, it is a boiling pot with the lid pressed down tight.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Guest Post at The Spectator Book Blog

I have a guest post up at The Spectator book blog, which is about the influence of the King James Bible (published 400 years ago this month) on the design of Five Wounds. Here's an extract:

The modern paperback is not a natural object. The advent of e-books has made this painfully obvious. In the current state of confusion as to what a book is or should be, it might be an opportune moment to review the sacred prehistory of the novel. Five Wounds reaffirms the relevance of the King James Bible to modern storytelling, but it also draws on medieval traditions that were erased in 1611, just as the novel erased its own sacred origins.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Five Wounds: Review at 'Shelf Abuse'

Following on from my guest post at the Shelf Abuse site, Carl Doherty has posted a review of Five Wounds there. A quotation is below:

Five Wounds' story would stand proud in any format, but the combination of Walker’s rich cityscape and Hallett’s spidery imagery results in something beyond a conventional book with superfluous pictures. Text and imagery feed off one another like Siamese twins, to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine either element surviving if separated.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Influence of Comic Books on Five Wounds

A short article I wrote on this topic has now been posted at the Shelf Abuse site. Thanks to Carl Doherty for arranging this. An extract is below:

Long decried as reductive and simplistic, comic books are actually, as Douglas Wolk has recently suggested, a vehicle peculiarly suited to allegory: that is, to the representation of abstract ideas through narrative. Wolk argues that superhero comics in particular ‘provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction. They’re the closest thing that exists right now to the “novel of ideas.”’ (Wolk, Reading Comics, p. 92) All superhero characters and plots are, in some sense, allegorical, but this in no way detracts from their integrity as stories.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Release of Five Wounds!

Cover image for Five Wounds

Five Wounds is released today in the UK. The official US release will follow shortly, although it is already available to buy in both countries (links are on the right). It is published by Allen & Unwin.

Five Wounds is fantasy noir, and is presented in a unique 'illuminated' format with many original illustrations created by Dan Hallett (see the video below for more information on the format). You can download the opening chapter for free here. Here is the publisher's synopsis of the story:

In a cruel and arbitrary world, where disturbing lapses in logic are commonplace, five orphans must face their traumatic origins.

Gabriella is a crippled angel, haunted by her inability to interpret prophecies. Cur is the rabid leader of a sect of dogs, desperate to escape his inheritance. Cuckoo is a gambler with a wax face determined to find a fixed identity before his luck runs out. Magpie is a thief in search of the perfect photographic subject, but terrified of going blind. Crow is a leper trying to distil the essence of death as an antidote to dying.

Each of them is deformed; each has a special ability; each is connected to all of the others. And each gets exactly what they deserve. Or do they?

Here are some quotations about the book:

In a world of increasing vacuity and self-concern, this beautiful illustrated edition of Five Wounds is like a medication - a mystical, elegant treatise on empathy that is at once also a novel and an anti-novel. It’s a turning-point book, but one that can live on a coffee-table like a beating heart. I’ve seen nothing so rare, curious and beautiful in a long time. – DBC Pierre, author of Vernon God Little and Lights Out in Wonderland

If I say this fable is peculiar, it’s a compliment. Not so much steampunk as, what? Canalpunk? This elaborate macabre book plays games, runs riddles, leaps in flights of fancy and dives down chasms of nightmare with Tarot, murder, jokes, and angels thrown in for good measure. The illustrations are Goya meets comic-book, the text is Perfume and Pan’s Labyrinth, Gogol, Calvino and Casanova’s memoirs of Venice all in one. Extraordinary. – Kate Holden, author of In My Skin and The Romantic

The template suggests an old-fashioned children’s classic: handsome proportions, elegant print, fancy chapter headings, centre plates on shiny paper. But a virus has gotten in there: the illustrations are nightmarish and hermetic, calling on the Tarot, Escher, psychotic heraldry, and the text here and there is scribbled through, the nice fonts mocked by scrawled block capitals. And the story likewise takes the blackness that underpins traditional fairytales and brings it front and centre. .... [T]he book takes you places, and the illustrations are wonderful. - Owen Richardson, review in The Age

Think back to your first trip with Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, or how it felt to enter the Matrix after Neo takes the red pill. Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel takes you down a similarly twisting path and leaves you pondering the journey well afterwards. .... a thought-provoking and beautifully presented work. - Aliese Millington, review in Transnational Literature

The five senses are a common theme in Five Wounds and it seems fitting then, that it appeals to the senses in such detail. I have literally tried everything short of licking the book. The hardcover, thoughtful selection of paper stock and red ribbon page-marker makes the book seem like an artefact; it is a privilege to hold it. .... The scribblings peppered through out the book add to its mystery. I feel as if I am reading a diary, a draft, a spell book; something personal that was not meant for the eyes of others. .... [They] lend the book a desperate sense of urgency. - Dave Drayton, review at Vibewire

Here is a video interview (courtesy of the Wheeler Centre) about the unique format of Five Wounds:

I'll be posting some additional discussion about Five Wounds here over the next couple of months. I'll also be doing some guest posts on other blogs and sites, which I'll link to from here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Five Wounds: Video Trailer

The video above is an extremely abstract trailer for my novel Five Wounds, which is released this month in the US and the UK. The trailer is adapted from the 'Teaser' section of my website, and it consists of a sequence of twenty short phrases, which are displayed via twenty successive screens. Each screen uses two colours, out of a total of five: one for the text, and one for the background. In the book, and thus in the trailer, each of these five colours represents one of the five protagonists: blue for Gabriella; red for Cur; black for Cuckoo; silver for Magpie; gold for Crow.

Amateur statisticians may note when viewing these screens that the entire sequence represents every single possible combination of two of the five colours (excluding those combinations in which the same colour appears twice). The first few screens run through these combinations according to the order that they appear in the Five Wounds hand, after which the sequence progresses systematically. The lettering on each successive screen is in the same colour that appeared as the background in the previous screen. The logic of this progression is therefore not entirely dissimilar to the terza rima rhyme scheme used by Dante, which I described in a previous post.

The entire sequence of twenty screens is as follows:
1. Blue text on a red background: Get out while you still can.
2. Red on black: Don’t turn back.
3. Black on silver: You have to choose.
4. Silver on gold: Don’t move.
5. Gold on blue: You can’t win.
6. Blue on black: Run faster.
7. Black on red: I can’t keep up.
8. Red on blue: He’s right behind you.
9. Blue on silver: I don’t understand.
10. Silver on red: It’s your funeral.
11. Red on gold: It’s eating me up.
12. Gold on silver: I’m not your friend.
13. Silver on blue: Cut it off.
14. Blue on gold: I’m not like you.
15. Gold on red: Give up.
16. Red on silver: Dust to dust.
17. Silver on black: No-one will help you.
18. Black on gold: I’m not afraid.
19. Gold on black: Don’t scream.
20. Black on blue: Bet everything.

These short phrases - mottos or slogans - are rather banal when taken individually, since they are entirely without narrative context here, and they also use a restricted vocabulary, which is deliberately inexpressive. Individually, they are flat and affectless; but collectively they should give a sense of increasing menace and claustrophobia. This echoes the style of the book, which similarly lapses into flat, affectless tones during the most violent or disturbing episodes. The sequence itself is also a coded message. Each screen represents one of the five protagonists 'talking' to one of the other five, and, in doing so, revealing the way in which they understand their relationship to that other person. So the first screen, which says 'Get out while you still can', in blue letters on a red background, represents Gabriella talking to Cur; the second screen, 'Don't turn back', in red letters on a black background, represents Cur talking to Cuckoo; and so on, until the final screen, 'Bet everything', in black letters on a blue background, which represents Cuckoo talking to Gabriella. Like the heraldic coats-of-arms at the beginning of Five Wounds, the sequence is therefore a coded map of the book's contents.

The schematic nature of this exercise caused some problems. The sequence is in part derived from heraldry, but it ignores the heraldic 'rule of tincture', which forbids placing, for example, gold against silver, because with this and similar combinations it is difficult to distinguish the foreground from the background. However, since the sequence here must by definition include every possible combination of two of the five colours, it follows that it must break this rule. Moreover, the cross-hatched patterns under the pigments sometimes 'interfere' with the letter forms, making it difficult to read the text. The (imperfect) solution to this problem was to display the text for each screen in two states: first in empty white, with the letters reversed-out, and then in the relevant tincture, on the theory that at least one of these two states would be legible. It's not perfect, aesthetically, because of the legibility issue (compounded in this version by a noticeable image deterioration: the silent version is much cleaner visually).

Nonetheless, the sequence gives a flavour of Five Wounds, which also includes puzzles, riddles and allusions. Both the trailer and the book use text visually, as an element in the design, and both are structured according to hidden principles. But the trailer probably works better as commentary for those who have already seen the book than as an introduction for neophytes.

[Video credits: Painted textures by Dan Hallett; video created by Sarah Lyttle and Adam Hinshaw; concept and art direction by Jonathan Walker. Thanks to Peter Newman for permission to use an edited extract of one of his compositions as the soundtrack.]