Monthly Archives: May 2009

Got No Sugar Baby Now

Outer Dark insists upon its own nightmare, exhibits the logic and fractured narrative of a fever-dream and exposes the reader to scenes and images lifted from some hillbilly Disasters of War; except without the war or the disasters, just the threat. The inhabitants of this outer dark are too diffuse, too fated to bother with anything as motivated or focussed as atrocity. Until the last chapter, anyway.

I would compare it to Heart of Darkness but that novel at least has a sense that the darkness has a point of entry. From the moment the two protagonists of Outer Dark listlessly perform the birthing of their incestuous child and then the father, Culla Holme, takes the infant out to die in the woods, we are not invited to witness a descent or burrowing into some dark place, as Marlow allows us to travel. The darkness is everywhere. Heart of Darkness offers up such memorable observations as this, off the top of my head:

“We live as we dream: alone’

Clear statements based on new experiences suggesting that, whilst Marlow is undoubtedly heading towards the horror, the horror, there are other places. In contrast, Outer Dark gives us exchanges such as this, which follows a discussion of the ‘mulefoot’ hog’s place in Old Testament laws on cloven feet:

Makes ye wonder about the bible and about hogs, too don’t it?

Yes, Holme said.

I’ve studied it a good deal and I cain’t come to no conclusions about it one way or the other.

No.

It isn’t a frightening novel. How can there be tension when there is no safe place from which the reader can be ambushed? Like Titus Groan or, even more, Titus Alone, the world we’re presented with is sick in essence, corrupted at an atomic level; it’s too alien, the language too flamboyantly gothic for any bad deed or turn of events to ever shock us. But it is a successfully contaminating novel, as one can only assume the author intended it to be.

I’ve encountered this blank-faced Appalachian nightmarism before; in the music of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and, more particularly, in the songs of Dock Boggs. Boggs recorded a handful of sides for Brunswick in the late 20s. Boggs’s short first career (he was amongst those ‘rediscovered’ by enthusiastic folk scene folk in the 1960s) was similar to many of his contemporaries’ but his songs were not. Greil Marcus gives him a dignified, compelling portrayal in Invisble Republic but it’s one Song, Sugar Baby, where Boggs gives a contemporary voice to the fantasia of Outer Dark.

Just as Outer Dark takes for its heart a broken, doomed family – the baby is lost, the mother/sister escaped and hunting the baby, the brother/father hunting the mother/sister – so Sugar Baby communicates a similar, if more domestic sense of unbearable ties and unbearable divisions.

Over a banjo that always makes me think of dancing skeletons and meant – first time I heard it – that I would never laugh at the instrument again, Boggs threatens and mocks his scolding partner. Marcus describes him as singing ‘like the bones are trying to escape from his face’, or something similar. I have never heard a song that so perfectly captures the tone of male domestic shame and rage. Boggs parrots a nagging voice.

Who’ll rock the cradle, who’ll sing the song?

Who’ll rock the cradle when I’m gone?

His response is far outside the boundaries of any other early folk recordings I’ve heard and, whilst lacking the dramatic extravagance of Holme’s solution to domestic ennui – leaving the baby out in the woods to die – Boggs’s is the same in spirit; both self-pitying and cruel:

I’ve done all I can do, said all I can say

I’ll send you to your mother next payday

Christ, Appalachia must have been the pits. The song, like the characters and landscape of Outer Dark, is both defeated and savage. When I next hear Dock’s banjo staggering and leering out of the speakers I will likely picture the sea of mulefoot hogs that stampedes a ravine-path towards the end of Outer Dark, many of the animals spilling into the river below, taking a drover with them.

Outer Dark presents us, like Heart of Darkness, with a journey through a land where Ovid’s Plague of Ageina seems to have been taking place so long that everyone at first started treating it as normal and then absorbed it, made it part of themselves. It is dotted with ever-more decayed and impotent institutions, an enthusiasm for arbitrary punishment and foam-flecked magical thinking being the only dynamic or uniting social forces. And in that, at least, we can find some common ground with Holme, Rinthy and Dock.

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Atom Heart Mother

‘I’m not signing.’

The grey-haired man pushed the cheque back across the table, the pen with it. The pen rolled onwards, stopping against a bronze statuette of a wolfhound at the edge of the walnut desk. The pen was a Biro with chewed end and ink leaked inside the shell. He stepped back, defiant yet unnerved.

‘I’m not going to be harassed like this.’ He hugged himself, drawing in the folds of a silk kimono like protective wings. The figure silhouetted in the window did not move. ‘And how did you get in here, anyway?’ The stranger gave an unpleasant snigger.

‘He’s been forward,’ the stranger spoke, his voice ironic, once musical yet roughened by smokes of various hues, provenance and transformative properties. The kimono-clad man leaned back on the desk, a burlesque of insouciance; ‘He’s been what? Forward? What on earth are you talking about, young man? Speak sense.’ ‘You know what I mean, Freddie,’ the stranger turned to the window and, had he not been preoccupied with maintaining as contemptuous a smile as possible, ‘Freddie’ may have noticed that the light outside the window was beginning to brighten.

‘He’s been forward. We took him forward. He’s seen what’s coming. And he doesn’t like it.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘He’s decided he’s going to…to pre-empt his critics.’ The stranger stepped away from the window, his long coat of thick, pure white fur swinging at his ankles. Round, black-lensed glasses fragmented the light that struck them into skittering droplets:

‘You’ve got five minutes.’

‘This is absurd, I’m calling the police.’ Freddie, back straight and ever-watching the stranger, reached for his BlackBerry Curve. The stranger gave a conciliatory laugh, as if being shown a Japanese toddler trying to roller-skate on YouTube but having seen the film before. ‘I am the police, Freddie,’ he reasoned; ‘He’s done what he promised to do; he’s cut away the red tape, downscaled, outsourced and rationalised and here I am. The New Police. Now write the bloody cheque, won’t you?’

‘If he humiliates us like this we’ll annihilate him. We made him,’ Freddie growled, the smartphone gripped in his fist like a flint axe-head.

‘He doesn’t care. As I say, he’s been forward, he’s seen the shit-storm that’s coming: The worst loss of a majority in Parliamentary history, Jon Snow calling for the death penalty for disgracing pubic office. And the queen’s first ever party-political statement; in support of Snow, in case you hadn’t heard. It’s all less than a year away. He needs to act quickly.’ The stranger crossed the room, brushed past Freddie, giving him a disorientating whiff of Chanel Ω. Freddie shivered.

‘So he sent his…his ladyboy thug to demand the menaces, did he?’

‘Yes…well, he certainly thinks it’s his idea.’ The stranger gave a conspiratorial grin as he flounced into a mighty, black leather chair. Freddie looked up in surprise, an old hustler’s curiosity flashing across his face.

‘You mean, he’s not the dog?’

‘Christ, no. He’s the tail, Freddie, always was.’

‘Who’s paying, then? No, let me guess…’

‘You’ll never get it.’

‘Oh, you don’t know me,’ Freddie waved a finger, sparkling like an ageing matador given an unexpected opportunity for one last flick of the cape.

‘If you don’t get it, you sign the cheque,’ the stranger offered. Freddie’s finger waved again; his face was reddening.

‘Oh, you’re a naughty boy,’ he laughed. Then, ‘done’. Freddie held out his hand for a gentleman’s shake but the stranger spread his arms as if in welcome, reclining further into the hide. ‘Well, it’s not the Russians. They lost all forward-tech under Yeltsin. Putin puts on a front but everyone knows they’ve got nothing. The US could do it but they don’t care enough, not now…wait, wait,’ he was becoming excited, pacing the room, rubbing his thumbs against his temples. ‘I’m looking in the wrong place. It’s a market, it’s a market…so, who wants the UK going under…my God, its the French, isn’t it?’

Nil points, Freddie, old chum. You’re so old world. Can’t say you’re even warm.’ Freddie banged his fist on the desk. The bronze dog remained unmoved but the biro rolled over the edge and onto the floor. The stranger sighed, stood up and picked it from the deep, lush carpet.

‘Wrong place, okay…got it…it’s a company. Of course. Haliburton? No, no, too obvious…everyone would think of them, first. General Electric? Can’t be them, just gave out a profits warning; Immelt would be smug as hell if he knew this was coming…Christ, are you working for the Chinese?’

‘Time’s up. And I even gave you a clue.’

‘You didn’t say anything about a time limit.’ As if in answer, the dull thud of a distant explosion sounded outside the window. A vase toppled, an African Mask on the wall swung. ‘Jesus, it’s got bright out there,’ Freddie gasped. The stranger found it eerie that the banker had noticed the light before the noise. Freddie ran over and looked out. All machismo left him. The stranger stood at his side. In the distance, the NatWest tower was in flames. A vast bowl of fluorescent light arced up from the City and from Docklands beyond. Helicopters and other less familiar craft buzzed and wove through the towers, releasing small bursts of artillery. A low block, topped with a conceit reminiscent of a Greek temple, sagged like a structurally-unsound sandcastle. Freddie steadied himself.

‘What’s the light for?’ he croaked. The stranger shrugged.

‘He wants everyone to see what he’s doing.’

‘What…what is he doing? What possibly…what’s his plan?’

‘He doesn’t have one. He just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Wants everyone to know it. That’s not even the regular army.’

‘Come on, son, you can tell me who’s behind this.’

‘Sorry. Cheque-signing time.’

‘What possible difference could my giving back my pension make to anything now?’

‘Very philosophical, well done.’ The stranger held out a thin object and Freddie flinched. The stranger laughed and turned the nib towards himself, as when handling scissors. The banker slumped, old suddenly. A fresh burst of detonations shook the windows.

‘He’s not doing the whole city, is he?’

‘No, they’ll get to him before that. But the point will have been made.’

‘What point? You’re loving this aren’t you…you should…’ The stranger, with a bark of impatience, suddenly moved very fast. He grabbed Freddie’s arm and hooked it around his back at the same time as drawing a slim, elegant armament from within his coat. He pressed it against the back of Freddie’s head and marched him to the desk.

‘This coat is pure polar bear,’ he hissed in Freddie’s ear, ‘and I don’t want your blood on it. So sign the cheque.’

‘All right, All right,’ Freddie took the Biro and, scrambling, hand shaking, scrawled out numbers and signature. ‘Who do I…who do I…make it payable to?’ he struggled to breathe.

‘Just leave that part blank.’ Freddie slammed the Biro onto the desk, chipping the veneer. He began to weep. ‘Let it go,’ the stranger soothed. ‘It’s only money.’ He released Freddie’s arm and gave him an awkward but affectionate hug. Then he pulled the trigger, releasing a thin but needle-sharp sliver of ice into the banker’s brain. The tension eased from Freddie’s limbs; the stranger, distracted now, always antsy after a kill, lugged the body around and eased it into the big chair.

He picked up the cheque and walked toward the window; looking out, it had begun. Regular Army gunships were arriving, fat bumblebees amongst the Prime Minister’s black gnats. The Swiss Re Building had been beheaded, the top blown off like the crest of a termite mound. It was spreading, too. Firestorms were visible on higher ground, as far as Blackheath. The stranger took a smartphone from his pocket and spoke ‘Atom Heart Mother’ into the voice-dial. Whoever answered, answered immediately.

‘It’s Jerry. All done. I know, I know, I’ve got a great view from here. There was a bit of to-and-fro but he saw sense in the end. Of course. Me?’ Jerry sat down on the sill. He was shaking and the veins beneath his skin were darkening almost to black. He coughed. ‘Oh, I’m fine. Very thoughtful of you to ask. No, no, I couldn’t. The only reason I did this is that I know, for you, it was never about money. I will. You too. I think everyone will want what you want, now,’ he said.

He opened the window for a breath of air but clouds of some acidic brimstone had already rolled up from the north. It was time to go.

‘Anyhow, must go. Goodbye, your majesty.’

Jerry hung up with relief and leaned into the window frame. He reeled a pair of headphones from his pocket and tuned into a stream of Pink, by Boris. It seemed the respectful thing to do. After a few deep breaths, when he felt he was collected enough to enjoy the moment, he removed a transparent red cigarette lighter from his coat and set alight to the cheque, holding it out, framed by the distant carnage and letting the ashes be lifted away, one by one, to join the common anarchy.

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