Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nick Cave – ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’

In August 1935 Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, to a ‘dominant’ mother with a ‘fondness for drink’. His twin brother Jesse (or Jessie) was stillborn. In April 1936 a tornado hit Tupelo, killing at least 216. Wikipedia further records that ‘A very young Elvis Presley and his mother were two of the survivors’. It doesn’t say why Elvis’ father wasn’t with them (a jail term is mentioned, without dates), but they were together again by 1948, when they moved to Memphis, partly because he ‘had to escape the law for transporting bootleg liquor’. Nick Cave’s song ‘Tupelo’ re-imagines some of these events, making liberal changes. The tornado is replaced with a flood, which is brought together with the birth; the disaster isn’t a freak natural event, but divine retribution. For what? Well, that would be telling: like ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Tupelo’ is a song which likes to keep its options open. It mentions ‘Tupelo’s shame’, and says ‘you will reap what you sow’ without ever mentioning what the sin was. Clearly it can’t have been committed by the newborn child, but this is an Old Testament setting in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers? Communities?) are visited upon their offspring. ‘Come Sunday morn the firstborn dead’ is another close-but-not-identical detail, and the surviving twin ‘carried the burden outa Tupelo’. So you have references to Noah (the flood), Jesus (the ‘cradle of straw’, the carrying away of sin) and the plagues of Egypt (‘the firstborn dead’) in there too, crammed together with the Elvis stuff in a celebration of the power of myth which simultaneously robs it of meaning.

And the Ass Saw the Angel is ‘Tupelo’ writ gigantic. The action is moved to Ukulore, ‘Death Valley, State of Mourning’ (p. 237). Euchrid Eucrow, the mute born with the aid of ‘a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw’, is in this version of the story a young boy by the time the black rain comes. The rain lasts for three years, and this is how it starts:
It thundered. It did. The skin of the sky ripped open, spewing forth its burden into the valley’s basin. Corrupt and putrid and unrecanting, it came in slashes of bilge and sheets of swill – vile and poisonous waters, as if all the welkin bile had been pumped from the sewers of Hell then vomited in a black and furious torrent down upon the shack and the cane, soaking me through to the bone before ah even thought to raise mah head. (p. 48)
Euchrid’s narration is the most interior of interior narratives, slimily energetic and black as anthracite, delivered by telepathy of some kind as he slips forever into the quicksand (‘The Sandman’s mud! The Sandman’s mud!’ – ‘Tupelo’, again). The third person narrative with which this alternates is more erudite, but it is a weird, bloated, Biblical erudition – just take a look at its vocab. It is this voice which tells how the women of Ukulore vainly try to meet the storm on its own terms:
Into the early hours of the morning they had performed their weird piacular rites, each in deep and delirious potation with her own pain, each a single hump of convulsions unto herself and each in a self-effacement as determined as the tempest, inflicting brutal rebuke upon her own person, for these were the dues exacted by a collective shame. (p. 51)
Ostensibly they are trying to placate God, but they also also derive pleasure from their pain (‘potation’ is to do with drinking, and ‘piacular’ with atoning for sin). Again shame comes up with nothing specific attached to it: the ritual is all. The ritual is not nothing, though: Cave clearly finds the language of the Old Testament beautiful, but whereas most go to Christianity for comfort and consolation, he revels in the contradictions it throws up, the things it makes people do. What could be more terrifying than a God-less world in which disaster happens arbitrarily? One in which the disasters are meted out for a purpose you can never know. But what benefits to self-esteem and social position if you can convince yourself and others that you do know.

This is where Abie Poe comes in. Previously ‘a salesman selling silver cutlery sets door to door’ to ‘young wives […], bullying them with soft nothings’ (p. 79) (a pre-emptive nod, so it seems, to cocksman and salesman extraordinaire Bunny Munro), he rides into town as a gun slinging preacher and pretends to explain the curse of the rain to the people of Ukulore. ‘Not a soul among you is clean. You are all steeped in filth’ (p. 85). Well maybe, but there is more filth going unpunished elsewhere – see the quotation on Toad Morton, below, for example. Euchrid himself quite likes the rain, because it narrows the gap between himself and the Ukulites: ‘ah concluded that suffering was, in general, a comparative sensation felt most keenly in the face of felicity’ (p. 97). There is not a little irony in the fact that Abie Poe proceeds to lead them from the church to the wetlands for some kind of symbolic cleansing which, owing to the rains, just ends up making them all literally filthy: ‘Clambering aback of him came the multitude, like a grand parade of clowns, tripping and tumbling their way to a sloppy, fully slapstick salvation’ (p. 87). The satire cuts both ways, targeting the crowd for their credulity as much as Poe for his pomp.

Euchrid is a pathetic creature. At least, that is how he begins. Early on he admits, ‘nothing ever happened that was a direct result of mah doing’ (p. 71). At this point it seems that, in contrast to Bunny Munro, there is no danger in Euchrid’s lust. Gradually this changes, and it is his blood lust which has the ascendacy. He gets it from his parents. His mother, whom he loathes, is Jane Crowley, AKA Crow Jane. There is a song about her on Murder Ballads, in which she kills 20 miners for taking her whiskey. The details of the story shift with every re-telling: in And the Ass Saw the Angel the community is attached to a sugar refinery rather than a mine; Jane’s bootleg liquor (inspired by the real Presley Senior?) is rather less than whiskey, coming in the three varieties ‘White Jesus, Apple Jack and Stew’ (p. 29); and it is her husband Ezra who is more likely to go on killing sprees, coming as he does from a family of serial killers. He changes his name for fear of persecution after his brother Toad Morton is caught red handed, in this horrible passage:
Found in a small stone cave bitten from the roadside, stitchless save for his great outsized boots and a plague of flies, fat on the human scrappage of dinners long past, Toad squatted in the slitted stomach of a warm child, eating loudly the face of her hapless, headless father, who sat a good foot off the ground impaled up the ass on a pointed post. (p. 24)
In fact he doesn’t just change his name, he moves – again in an echo of the Presleys – and finds domestic misery with widow and sot Jane Crowley in Ukulore. She drinks herself insensible and bullies her son mercilessly; he spends his time building and setting cruel traps for animals, designed to maim rather than kill. He takes his mule on a daily round of these traps, and tips the live animals from sacks into a disused water tower in his back yard, where he watches them kill each other. But at least he is not mass murdering people, like his brother.

While his parents are alive, Euchrid is an observer only, affecting nothing. But they both die, horribly, and he comes into his own having buried Paw in the back yard and taken over the running of the compound, which he renames ‘Doghead’. Hitherto he has been a reasonably sympathetic character. Born mute, to the worst parents imaginable, he is understandably introverted and isolated. Utterly friendless, aside from the angel he imagines, he spies on the Ukulites but doesn’t do any harm, and it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that if he could speak, he would be accepted. True, he does invoke their wrath during Abie Poe’s soul-cleansing operation, when he lets off the brake on Wilma Eldrige’s wheelchair and she plunges ‘headlong into the shallows of the abysmal, baptismal bilge’ (p. 92), but they are soon more interested in battering the prostitute Cosey Mo, led on by Abie Poe, who convinces them that she is responsible for the plague of rain. Poe loses his influence when he is proved wrong: Cosey is badly beaten, and banished, and still the rain comes. Euchrid idolises Cosey, he loves to spy on her pink caravan up on Hooper’s Hill when she is at work inside. Cosey is a tragic figure: doomed to die in a ditch not long after the beating, having deposited a newborn babe on the doorstep of Sardus Swift, who brings her up. Ukulore looks upon this girl, Beth, as a blessing, because when she arrives, the rain does finally stop. Beth is more cipher than character, but she has a dual meaning: for the Ukulites, she is holy; only Euchrid knows, through his spying, that she is Cosey Mo’s daughter.

The climax of the book comes with Euchrid’s realisation that he must kill Beth (he hears voices, God passes on the instruction this way). Time has passed: he is 28, she is 15. Wilma Eldrige has developed an unhealthy obsession with proving that Beth in a virgin, in the hope of a virgin birth. Euchrid has been spying at her window, as he did at her mother’s, and she leaves him notes, thinking for some reason that God has come to call (probably the Ukulites’ talk regarding her blessed, holy status). By this point Euchrid has become substantially less sympathetic: he has picked up where his father left off with the animal traps, and though he doesn’t have his prey fight each other, he keeps them in cages barely bigger than the animals themselves, in a state of constant hunger. Having lived his life without company, he is now King of Doghead, the dogs and other beasts are his subjects. It is strongly hinted that Euchrid doesn’t notice when ‘mah dogs’ die of starvation. There is a lot he doesn’t notice, or remember. ‘Have ah told you about deadtime? Yes? No?’ (p. 114). And: ‘Ah’m no killer, no. Well, yes ah am. OK – so ah killed a few hobos last year’ (p. 213). All of this is reminiscent of Bunny Munro’s constant haziness about detail, and the one moment when he forgets himself and admits to using ‘roofies’ to sedate the women he has sex with. Although And the Ass Saw the Angel doesn’t have this disturbing sexual angle, it is bleaker in that there is no redemption. Bunny Junior shows no signs of following in his father’s footsteps (though Bunny is clearly damaged by his own father); he loves him, but the signs are that he won’t emulate him. His character lends a balance to The Death of Bunny Munro that And the Ass Saw the Angel totally lacks – to its benefit: it works entirely on its own warped terms, the 3 year tempest is caused by the author, not by any of his sick characters. Euchrid, who is connected to Bunny Junior through a shared eye condition, conjunctivitis, is drawn as though inevitably into the cruelty and madness exhibited by his father and uncles, and when he is gone, when Beth is gone, Wilma Eldrige has her bogus virgin birth and the Old Testament world keeps spinning and reeling and spitting as it has done all along.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Menaced by cachinnations of the corvine kind

Just waiting for a photo to go with the forthcoming post, but in the meantime, here are some words from the book it is about:

paludal, quitch, bibulous, purl, fremitus, subfusc, cynosure, erumpent, aureate, epizoon, piacular, potation, reboant, sabbat, funest, eidetic, hyaline, scotoma, versant, phocine, nuchal, murine, extravasate, cicatrix, veridical, tonitruate, atramental, cachexic, anhelation, cloacal, catropic, lamina, hyalescent, eudemonia, mussitation, sorority, sorghum, scoriac, conceptus, gravid, choof, ictus, monostich, nutant, fulgent, saltation, cachinnate, corvine, caducous

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The War is Over

Things I didn’t write about over the last month or two, for one reason or another. Mostly connected with the La Terrasse war season, which you may or may not have noticed (in fact, I seem to have forgotten to write most of it).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

A novel based around the Nigerian-Biafran War. Split into sections set in the early and late 1960s (before and during the conflict), it follows Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University, husband of Olanna, whose parents are rich and corrupt with commerce. Olanna’s sister Kainene has an English partner, Richard Churchill, who makes a name for himself writing journalism on the war. With the addition of Ugwu, Odinegbo’s ‘houseboy’, and Kainene’s military friend Madu, a cross section of society is achieved. The intellectuals who want change, the establishment who want to keep making money, the military who want power and the poor in their villages who don’t really consider that they have a choice; although Odinegbo has Ugwu educated, and he finally becomes the writer Richard fails to be. The factions in the war are Igbo and Hausa, the main characters here all being Igbo. The massacre of Igbo civilians in 1966 is the point at which the novel kicks into gear; the descriptions of atrocities witnessed by Olanna and Richard in chapters 11 and 12 are brief, but shocking. Half of a Yellow Sun is as much a history as it is a novel: interesting, impressive and informative, its characters work insofar as they give you an impression of what it might have been like to be there, as this arbitrarily created post-colonial state, Nigeria, trembled then re-asserted itself. When the subject is this big, perhaps that’s all they need to do (would be unfair to mention that Pierre Bezukhov does so much more?)

Lipmann Kessell – ‘Surgeon At Arms’

From my mum, who buys this out-of-print book whenever she sees a copy. Her father features as the character Shorty, and although I read his own (private) war memoir years ago, I never got around to this before. It centres around the involvement of Kessell and Shorty as surgeons during the Battle of Arnhem, and it’s pretty incredible stuff. The long opening chapter finds them in an operating theatre in St. Elizabeth’s hospital, part of an area which sees heavy fighting, and which changes hands several times. When the Germans are in control they wander the wards, shooting the odd patient. When an SS officer tries to move the surgeons out mid-operation, this happens:
Shorty’s obdurate blue eyes looked the interpreter up and down as though he was inspecting a defaulter, and he remarked: ‘I’ve never heard such rot!’ Very deliberately he put back his gauze mask. ‘Tell your officer I protest most strongly.’ (p. 34)
Isn’t that just exactly the kind of thing you want to discover your grandfather did in the Second World War? The German officers’ manner is nicely characterised as ‘a frigid playfulness’ (p. 45). There is also the following fabulous piece of surgeon-geekery. Kessell, planning an escape attempt from Apeldoorn POW hospital (this is after nearly everyone else has gone – they stay for as long as there are casualties), can bear to leave behind everything except:
the specimen of a traumatic aneurysm of the popliteal artery which I’d removed the previous week and preserved in a jar. (p. 66)
This is a vibrant, matter-of-fact account of a campaign the author acknowledges to have been ‘a disaster and a military fiasco’ (p. 136). The book starts in the white heat of battle, and cools gradually through POW camps, escape and the hiding places employed by the Dutch resistance. Kessell’s tone is gregarious, he captures the characters of those he encounters briefly but effectively. He doesn’t even seem to notice his own accomplishments, blithely falsifying the extent of injuries in order to keep men in hospitals from which it was easier to escape than from POW camps; falsifying, too, the identity of a brigadier (they dress him up as a private to escape, though his severe abdominal wound makes walking almost impossible), and also the total number of prisoners. The men stand still but never in the same place for very long when they are being counted. Brilliant.

Tim Footman – ‘The Noughties: A Decade that Changed the World, 2000-2009’

By Tim out of Cultural Snow. In fine contemporary fashion with not just a double but a triple title, this is a zip through the last ten years for anyone who was there but somehow felt that they missed it, like a Guardian Weekly for an entire decade. Taking us neatly from 9/11 to the credit crunch, by way of the War on Terror, climate change, US TV drama and social networking, The Noughties glides swan-like through something that feels a lot more coherent than the decade itself feels / felt. It is useful to have events prioritised and summarised, but the fragmentation of the media which is a theme of the book make this process itself seem a little old fashioned. Not that it should be old fashioned, necessarily. The conclusion talks about the shift in culture over the twentieth century, when popular culture took over from high culture, and describes where the democratising influence of the internet has taken this. And not just the internet. De-centralisation seems to touch everything: war is de-centralised by being waged upon a noun (what causes more terror than war, exactly?); news is de-centralised by being taken away from professional journalists; wealth is de-centralised by the shift in the global economy towards Asia (and de-stabilised by becoming an abstraction of an abstraction); music is de-centralised in one sense by being taken away from the music industry, and in another by its increasing disconnection from fame; even truth is outsourced to something identified here as ‘truthiness’, which is ‘the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than those known to be true’ (p. 160). It is right that we do this, it is right that we do that. Some of this de-centralisation is bad, but by no means all. Either way, it is here to stay. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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