Book review: Perennial, by Ben Armstrong

Image result for perennial ben armstrong

In science fiction, space and time warps are a commonplace. They are used for rapid journeys around the galaxy, or for travel through time. But there is an integer at which fact and fiction collide – where the relativity of space-time comes into play – and it at this point, the writer suggests, we might find poetry.

Ben Armstrong’s searing debut poetry collection, Perennial, is laced with this relativity; a sense of warped perspectives as different narrative voices walk us through different places and different times – with different poems separated within themselves and sometimes from each other by a clear sense of distance. Distance between one object and another; between one lover and another; between the past and present; between a remembered thought and feeling and a prediction of a future life.

Yet while the idea of the space (either physical or fourth dimensional) between two set points helps drive the core narrative of the collection, Armstrong’s poetry stridently ignores rules of Euclidean geometry – embracing instead the science fiction (or fact – as Hawkin and Einstein would insist) of space-time warps and jumps. Shifts in tense, and perspectives, blur lines, all the while experimental formal structures breakdown boundaries and conventions, helping the reader rearrange language in unique and surprising ways.

And by jove does this surprise you. From the greeting that opens the poem to the sad vision of a remembered goodbye, Perennial takes us on a ride infused both with comedy and tragedy, seeped with allusions and allegory that are literary, modern, classical, punk, political and pop-culture, using faux-satirical homages to classical literary figures and Homeric journeys, as well as very specific moments in scenes that collide together like atoms in a collapsing neutron star.

Take, for example, the shift in tone and style between ‘old bar’ and ‘Coca Cola Focus Group’. The former: a rather beautiful meditation on loneliness and the risks of being consumed by one’s memories. The latter: an extremely fun, engaging, and wry skit on the failings of modern capitalism. Both are excellent – but what the hell are they doing beside one another? In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace the unpredictability and recognise the order within the otherwise apparent disorder. As Dr Ian Malcolm would say in sci-fi classic Jurassic Park, “it doesn’t obey set patterns or rules […] it’s chaos” (to be clear: in Perennial, the chaos is very much a good thing – not one likely to involve the risk of being eaten by dinosaurs, though probably best never to rule that option out completely).

In short, Perennial sets the highest of high bars as a debut collection and firmly marks Armstrong out as a poet to keep an eye on. Not least because his work reminds us just how damn fun poetry can be.

Advertisements

Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

smile of the wolf tim leach

Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

Iceland winter.png

Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

A book review by other means: Politics of the Asylum, by Adam Steiner

politics of asylum

When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).

So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?

Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.

As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.

Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).

Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!

Professor Wu (PW): 

Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!

Tom Andrews (TA):

Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?

‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze  of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’

It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road).  He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.

PW:

I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.

For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.

This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.

I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.

I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.  

“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews

TA:

I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.

However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.

The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.

‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’

I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.

There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.

“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu

PW:

Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.

So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).

My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?

Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.

Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.  

TA:

The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.

Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.

It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.

Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –

https://adamsteiner.uk/2018/02/08/politics-of-the-asylum-one-month-to-launch/

 Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!

Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/

Movie review: Sink

Sink

There is always a sense of excitement in watching a film debut. We live in an increasingly homogenised culture, in which it seems the only movies released at cinemas are sequels, prequels, reboots or copies of movies that are copies of other successful movies. The commercialism of the movie production industry has minimised the potential of this artistic medium as a tool of change; a tool of artistic expression – where new ideas, new films, new actors, and new directors, are often hidden away or swallowed up by the giant media corporations who only want audiences to think about the next superhero movie.

So, to see a genuinely original movie, produced in spite of the crippling power of the big movie studios, is truly thrilling. And it is therefore a pleasure to have been able to watch – and subsequently review – the world premiere of Sink, which tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Ultimately, this is a movie about money and power. As Micky’s long-time friend-turned-successful drug supplier notes drily: “You either have the cash, or you don’t – nobody cares where it comes from.”

We are presented with a world in which the institutions of the state – once intended to support and provide help to those in need – have been co-opted, privatised, and rigged to support those who own the businesses and corporations who benefit from a precarious, non-unionised workforce who can be picked up and dropped without recognition of their basic humanity.

The writer and social activist Thomas Merton characterises as “double-talk, tautology, ambiguous cliche, self-righteous and doctrinaire pomposity and pseudoscientific jargon”. This, the characters of Sink find, is not just an aesthetic problem: it renders dialogue impossible; and rendering dialogue impossible is the desired goal for those who want to exercise absolute power. Micky and his peers are therefore unable to engage with the state in any meaningful way – during his Jobcentre interviews, he shares a knowing joke with the employees about the language he must use to effectively work within the parameters of the system; he is “willing” and eager to go to as many interviews as possible, yet while this may satisfy the forms and bureaucracy, it does nothing to significantly bring him any closer to stable, gainful employment. Likewise, his neighbor Jean is literally unable to find the words to engage with the problems of what may be described as post-Capitalism (precarious work; the crisis and decline of manufacturing and industry, replaced by a financier economy) – repeatedly explaining “I can’t talk about it – it makes me too mad”.

The focus of the film shifts as it progresses – as it paints a view of London that feels often taken from the inside looking out; from the council estates on which much of the film takes place just a stone’s throw from the City’s financial district. We are presented with the crises facing both the old and the young – Micky’s father, Sam, battles with dementia and is removed from his care home following some money-driven ‘restructuring’; meanwhile his son, Jason, fights his own demons alone on an estate in which – so he says himself – drugs are the only thing available for him.

Of course, the fact that there are a multitude of different things going on is precisely the point – no person’s life can be lived in isolation, or from the perspective that one development or action will not have its own impact on the other narrative strands that make up a person’s life. This is not just a story of one man – but of so many men, and so many women, living within a society that has been structured in such a way as to ignore the real actuality of existence – what it means to be alive – and thus creates inevitable existential crises.

What makes this film all the more visceral is the fierce plainness with which it is told. It has passion and directness coupled with a darkly comic streak that exposes the Orwellian nature of this bureaucratic world. There are also moments of genuine tension that leave you with a tight chest and on the edge of your seat – a sure sign of real film-making talent for a movie debut and an exceedingly small budget that should make people sit up and take notice.

Indeed, blessed with exceptional performances from the cast, particularly Martin Herdman as Micky, and Ian Hogg as Sam, with an excellent score from Mallik Gris, along with a fine script and direction from Mark Gillis, Sink gets under the skin of the audience in a way precious few films do these days (Associate Producer Mark Rylance says you will find yourselves “immersed” in it). Crucially, it gives a vibrant voice to protagonists who have otherwise lost their language and their power; and so serving a very necessary level of kitchen sink realism to a world and society that seems increasingly ignorant of reality.

 

 

Book Review: Kingdom by Russ Litten

 

kingdom

Kingdom is written by Russ Litten and published by Wrecking Ball Press. You can read our extensive interview with Litten here

Few books will capture your attention from the first page as Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Indeed, the quasi-surrealist opening scene in an unknown prison library is perhaps the most interesting and unique introduction to a novel that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have read all year.

Of course, many novels start extremely well – explosively well, even – only to lose some of their initial spark and magic as the plot progresses. And while in this case the plot does settle down, it retains that opening magic for the entirety of the book.

While the action of the plot may be light on significant moments of incident (this is about gradual exploration of both the world and the self – more so than driving the narrative on through event after event), Litten’s style is infectious. And when you read writing as crisp and as fast as this, it is difficult not to turn page after page with a broad smile on your face.

Described on paper as a ghost story, this is unlike any ghost story you’ll have read before – and that’s a declarative statement we’re happy to be challenged on. More than anything, the book is a reflection on – and an exploration of – what it means to be alive (or not) in 21st Century Britain.

Indeed, what Litten explores, with gripping clarity, is a reality left unseen and marginalised in the national consciousness. As with works such as Alisdair Gray’s Lanark or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Litten vividly paints a picture of working class inner city life with concision, but also sensitivity and charm.

In the context of modern Britain, Litten thus explores the legacy of neoliberalism – which leaves us with a country of burgeoning inequality, stripping assets from the poorest and most vulnerable to redistribute them to the wealthiest in society. But we can all read statistics about income gaps, zero hour contracts and housing and rental crises; what is more difficult is imagining the realities these statistics infer for those people most affected by them. And this is where Litten’s remarkable writing skills truly enter the fray, because this book is not cold in the way facts, figures and statistics – or even political theory and rhetoric – so often is. It is rich, and warm – with a underlying, constant beating thread of humour which is both grim and good. And there are moments that will also hit you in the lungs and take your breath away.

Indeed, it is a hard task to think of a more sympathetic character than the novel’s protagonist, Alistair Kingdom. Considering Kingdom is self-described as having been “born a ghost”, creating such a compelling and fleshed out (pun intended) character from a ghost is quite some feat. And when Kingdom falls in love with another of the book’s great characters – Gemma – it pulls at the soul in a way few other love stories manage.

A clear reason Litten’s characters – especially Kingdom – seem to grow out of the page, is Litten’s use of language. For this is the language of real people.

For want of a better term, one might describe the changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique which leaves sentences unfinished and thoughts left unsaid – as well as the use of expletives – as “non-standard English”. But there is hesitation in using such a term since there is surely no “right” or “wrong” way to speak.

Indeed, using language in the way Litten does strikes the reader very much a political decision. Since Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1748, there has been a conscious effort to standardize the English language; cultivating what Smith viewed as “the most imperfect” dialects found across the United Kingdom.

But what this standardization of language has meant is the obliteration of entire cultures and communities. Thousands of voices silenced, or pushed to the margins, seen as inherently other – as being beneath those who hold the power of “perfect” speech.

And when you take away an individual’s language, you also remove their heritage, their culture. Consider the words of Booker-Prize winning author James Kelman:

“Everybody from a working class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain  none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and Morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpoth of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling  unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero, whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it.”

By using language and accurate representations of working class, urban dialects, Litten thus presents us with a challenge to the status quo. Kingdom therefore provides us with a glimpse of the real United Kingdom that is so often otherwise ignored. An extremely timely and necessary book.