Saturday, October 27, 2007

Deposit Box pilot: 'The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris'

Obviously I've yet to deliver on my promise, in my last-but-one post, of the launch, finally, of Deposit Box: a new annexe to the vaults here at Thompson's Bank O.C.D. wherein guest writers are invited to place for relatively safe keeping texts that might otherwise be lost or neglected or subject to the inscrutable buffets of The Great Vicissitude. (That's inscrutable buffets as in "I am being buffeted by forces I do not comprehend", not as in "I can't tell whether these are Scotch eggs or not".)

Well, instalment #1 is pretty much ready to go, but a slightly cooler and more cautious head has prevailed here at HQ: it seems sensible to start with a sort of dry run, to make sure everything's as it should be. So here first of all is a pilot edition of Deposit Box: for the purposes of which I humbly submit for your kind attentions a previously little-seen work of my own.

The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris (unpublished, 1977) is, admittedly, by any reasonable measure, "juvenilia": but that said, it would, I think, be a pity for it to be dismissed out of hand, as some critics did at the time, as merely "very nice, dear". In it, surely, can be seen the seeds of my current practice in text-making, and the first adumbration of the preoccupations that have characterised both my literary endeavours over the past thirty years and my terrifying failure to sustain meaningful personal relationships during that time.

The complete manuscript of The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris (hereinafter referred to, for the sake of brevity, as Pigs) is thumbnailed below: you may of course click on any of the frames for larger renderings of the scanned pages. The commentary I offer is not intended to preclude other readings, but simply to frame the territory that this work aims to occupy, and to sketch, wherever possible, a more-or-less candid recollection of my ambitions for what still seems to me, after all this time, quite a bracingly unconventional and provocative novella.

Immediately, one can see my (perhaps slightly overreaching) determination to assert the credentials of the work within a postmodern lineage: right from the get-go, the piece problematizes itself by announcing not "The Book" but "The Books". Is this to be some Oulipian faux-catalogue or library index, perhaps, of the kind that we might expect from, say, Perec? Will these "books" open themselves out within the fabric of my own work, will they take the proto-Borgesian form of a recursively embedded nest of books within books? How can one book contain many? Is everything that follows merely a sequence of advertisements for other, imagined books? The half-hidden word "series" seems to suggest that this last speculation may be on the right lines. If I remember correctly, I was at that time very much in thrall to the influence of the Mr Men books, and I am presumably intending to echo the back covers of those volumes, with their marshalled ranks of "other" Mr Men representing "other" lives, "other" possibilities, mildly signalled as (something like) "the other Mr Men books in the series". But this is not a back cover, but a front: its function is not to direct the temporarily satiated reader towards the populous realm of further consuming choices, away from the "book in hand", but to establish relations with the reader in terms of the content of this book. Pigs can, in other words, be considered not "this" book, after all, but another book in itself, indeed a whole set of notional books that are perpetually yet-to-come. This is, of course, what indicates and lies behind the meaning of "thes": I have been compelled here to coin a new deictically-inflected article halfway between "the" and "these": the "sieris" in question is neither quite definite nor quite here, but it is more not definite and not here than it is indefinite or is somewhere else entirely: in some imagined book depository, say, or down the back of the cooker.

One might easily be tempted to suppose that the disarray of "series" to make "sieris" is itself a sardonic self-reflexive commentary on received (or, rather, 'riecived') assumptions about the ordinal tendencies within any kind of serial organization of information, and indeed the work is responsive to such a reading, as we shall see. But if I remember correctly, my reference was more exactly to an identical misspelling in the earliest surviving manuscript draft of Henry James's The Tragic Muse, in which he refers to Gabriel "emitt[ing] a sieris [sic] of reflections which were even more ingenious than opportune." Quite so.

The text of Pigs is hand-lettered in feculent brown fibre-tip, recto only throughout, an arrangement which is prefigured in the composition above: the back cover is tantalisingly left blank, so as to throw more readerly attention onto the columns of minuscule printed text in the left-hand margin. As can clearly be seen here, Pigs is at least in part an exercise in politically motivated detournement, scrawled graffito-like, as it is, on headed A4 notepaper from the private bankers Tyndall & Co. ("an unlimited company"). With the names of the company's directors spelt out on the back of the book, does the strident image of "the pigs in thes sieris" come to take on a more obviously anti-capitalist resonance? That, of course, would be for the reader to decide; I couldn't possibly comment.

"How crude," writes J.H. Prynne in comparing 'our' Western modes with Chinese text, "to set the choice as text or graphics": and, in a sense, this is exactly the anxiety that troubles the heart of Pigs. Straight away, we find ourselves immersed in the body of the work, offered two apparently easily assimilated and mutually cross-confirming items: a caption, "A pigs nose" (I eschew the possessive apostrophe throughout: rather a childish affectation I now think, though the disruption of unexamined narratives of corporal and corporate ownership was well-intentioned at the time); and a drawing of a (perky, slightly idiosyncratic) circle or ellipse, circumscribing two dots for nostrils.

But if we linger even for a moment, instinctively aware perhaps that something here is not quite right, we are quickly susceptible to the quivering tensions that the work sets in motion with such cruelly deadpan esprit. This is not, after all, a caption, but a title: it has been elevated above the image to which it refers, and 'authenticates' or empowers that image rather than simply describing it. Language, in other words, is seen to dominate: and in this context, the power of the image alone, its ability to signify independently of language, is utterly dispelled. And yet language too must bear the brunt of extensive collateral damage. Sure, we see: this is not "a pigs nose", this is a picture of "a pigs nose". Equally, the words "a pigs nose" do not amount in themselves to "a pigs nose", nor to a picture as such, but simply to a game in language, the outcome of which is the idea of "a pigs nose". Text and graphic, once separated at a conceptual level, can never again be presumed to endorse each other, except in relation to some recognized 'third term' which is not here, but elsewhere.

And of course the book has already anticipated and, in a sense, undermined even this manoeuvre. Within the frame of its own insolubly ironizing titular proposition, it will not permit us to be sure whether the linguistic and pictorial signs that represent "a pigs nose" refer in fact to the real nose of a real pig, or merely, instead, to another book in "thes sieris", whose title or topic is "a pigs nose". If there are no things, but only a library of what we might call "reference books", that is to say, books which are able to refer, within themselves, only to other books which are not here, this is already, on page one, an abysmal virus within the operations of porcine epistemology (or, if we trust our more overtly satirical reading of the work, the interests of late capitalism itself).

So already, by page two, all bets are off. What, exactly, are we looking at here?

Is this "supposed to be" a drawing of a pig's ears? If so, it can hardly be called an instance of graphical verité. We might conclude that either the title/caption or the image itself is deliberately lying to us; but of course, there's a third possibility, lurking unnervingly behind the other two but no more conceptually remote than them: that both are lying at once. In other words, there is no categorical difference and no definitive distinction in logical terms between the conclusion that this is a picture of a pig's ears in which the pig's ears don't look much like pig's ears, and the equally valid assertion that this could be a picture of a fire engine, but one in which the image is wrong and the caption is also wrong.

Essentially, then, I am using the occasion of presenting an impossible-to-verify picture of "a pig's ears" (notice how I'm winking at the reader, as it were, through the reverberation of the idiom "a pig's ear" to mean a calamitous error or botch) to further dismantle the apparatus of significance at a textual level. I have already done everything necessary to make available, almost as a scoundrel's refuge, an interpretation reliant on what we might call the bibliogenic gambit: that is, for every turbulent or impossible proposition introduced by the text, a "book in the series" (perpetually elsewhere) may be invented to contain it. In other words, though in this case neither caption nor image can be "trusted" either in isolation or in interrelation, we have no problem imagining a book which reconciles the two and is not, itself, necessarily "in doubt". But the location of that book is unknown and terminally unknowable.

That something of this synthetic, fictionalising impulse is in accord with the text is clearly indicated by the apparent misspelling of "ears" as "eres". Perhaps we are to ask: what is an ere? To which the heavily ironic reply can be given: I don't know, but this is what it looks like (i.e. nothing like a pig's ear; perhaps, by extension, something accurate or faultless). I may possibly have been thinking of the quality of dread and foreboding as evinced at a material level in the famous line of Edward Lear -- "Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish / How pleasant to know Mr Lear" -- but I rather suppose my principal intent here would have been to invoke the homophonic pun "hear"/"here", shaded behind "ear"/"ere". The act of audition has an orienting function: we're here because we hear we're here; but of course there is no "here" here, merely an infinite set of deferrals with a "sieris" of other books at its impossible destination. An "ere", in this context, would therefore be the organ used to not listen with. The pig in this particular poke is as deaf as a post-structuralist.

The final twist in this montage of radical, insoluble dubiety is, of course, that this, alone of all the pig-portions itemised in the book, is the only one referred to by the definite article. These are the "eres" not of a pig, but of the pig. (There is a half-submerged riddle here, surely: Why does "the" pig not lend us its "eres"? Because it's deaf, innit.) With youthful bravado I am rather cruelly satirising the reader's (and the farmer's) desire to engage at a generic level with an almost entirely conceptual pig: not the individuated pig, but a template, a dirty metonym if you will, wherein the particularity of one pig as opposed to another is blithely erased. But as we have seen, there is almost no reliable sense in which we encounter here anything more than the lack of "the" pig. Within the text: no pig. Within the image: no pig. Within the other book: less than a pig. This is, of course, precisely the meaning of that "the": it exports the pig itself wholly into some other, entirely provisional, text. The definite article is irretrievably stigmatised; "the" pig is, at most, some kind of phantasm: it is Banquo's ghost at the feast, representing Macbeth's guilty conscience. (Brodie's Notes on William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', p.9.)

By this stage, I am, quite clearly, taking the piss.

Now, though, on page four, is the most surprising manoeuvre we've yet seen in this supremely ludic text. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we are confronted not with a region of a pig, but with "a pig" entire. It seems to come much too soon, for what we might perhaps have supposed would be the culminating frame. The reasons for this are, at this remove, sadly obscure to me. Was I perhaps lampooning the reader's inchoate desire for completeness, for closure, for going "the whole hog"; or even suggesting something about the way in which the conditions of capitalism both create that desire, pedagogically we might say, and require its vagueness, its incoherence, so that its ultimate fulfilment is always apparently probable but never actually possible? Is this not, after all, the basis upon which any given "little piggy" will go to market?

Clearly redolent of that sense of the compulsory desire that is still not yet quite formed, the picture of "a pig" is, once again, not quite all "there". Nebulous, spectral, this "pig" may remind us, above all, of the 'ghost' we last encountered on page two, where it was disguised as the word "the". Premature, "untimely ripped" (Brodie's Notes on William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', p.11) from the realm of purely conceptual ideation, it is the apparition of some kind of protoplasmic jellyfish, adrift in a sea of white headed notepaper, with a weird sort of prong on its chin, in lieu of a deathly sting: or, more accurately, the drawing of such an apparition of a jellyfish. It is the not-quite embodiment of the not-yet actual, speculatively mapped in a non-space. And yet: only a complete twat could fail to notice the vast brown eye at the centre of this pig's huge head. A disquieting hybrid of Orwell's Big Brother and Terence Trent D'arby's Little Sister, this swirling vortex seems to represent both the penetrating gaze of remote authority and the infinitely penetrable goatseiform portal to all-knowing. It is as if a dense mass of textual information has collapsed in on itself to create a black (or, rather, brown) hole that threatens to consume us: in other words, this unblinking "eye" dramatizes both our appetite for the consumption of knowledge and our fear that we ourselves will be consumed by it.

So dominant is this feature that it is all too easy to overlook the other details by which this figure is characterised. Some merely tease: such as the pig's wry smile, somewhere between La Gioconda and Gerald Kaufman; the chin-prong, for opening soda bottles -- a complement, perhaps, to the corkscrew tail; the curious edge connector in the rear, looking somewhat like a socket wherein one might plug an electric shaver, and perhaps exposed only because of the migration of the anus to the epicentre of the body, where it both engulfs and is subsumed by the eye. Of especial interest to the critic, however, are two striking indicators. Firstly, note that the form of the pig is not quite closed: there is an aperture at what we might, in relation at any rate to the positioning of the mouth, take to be the back of the head: perhaps it is some kind of blowhole or perforated fontanelle. Significantly, this "pig" is therefore not a closed object, but an open system, participating in an imagined universe of all possible "pigs in thes sieris", but not hermetically distinguished from them. (A good test for this is to import the figure into Microsoft Paint and try to 'fill' it with colour.) The inside and the outside of the pig (including the non-pig and all other instances of the similarly open pig-system) are substantially continuous and identical. Thus, once again, the other pig is invoked through the radical non-closure of the pig-at-hand (cf. Lacan's porc actuel).

Secondly, it may be observed that the tail has apparently become detached from the body of the pig, and floats in space posterior to the creature itself. This could be (more or less) dismissed as simply another facetious commentary, arising out of the pun "tail" / "tale", and confirming that the textual body of the "pig"-book can no longer be expected to support any kind of narrative reading. (Well, duh. Wake up and smell Professor John Sutherland.) But I feel certain that my interest here must have been more in the spiral form of the tail. Hence --

-- this vertiginous zoom-in, on the next page, to the "taile" -- a doubly paronomasiac rendering in which not only is "tale" invoked, but the "i" (or "I"?) has itself grown a tail, and now quite clearly resembles a "u" (or "you"?), reinforcing the categorical collapse of the discrete individual that we have already seen invoked in the unclosed "pig" above, cavorting in its universal open field: and incidentally reminding us of the constant crypto-Lettrist slipperiness of this text machine: sausage in, sauvage out.

In a sense this is simply a coda, a tailpiece that follows the whole-pig apex of the previous page, just as the tail follows the pig. We might almost see the image as a post-climactic curlicue of cigarette smoke. But the far more obvious reading, contrariwise, is of a downward spiral, a helical plummet down a helter-skelter, at the end of which we are in freefall: a most apt metaphor for the reader's experience of this text. Where do we land?

Falling back to earth with a bump, we find ourselves once again confronted by the stark "realities" of plain text: though here, the sudden imperative mood is quite clearly intolerant of the multifarious types of ambiguity (I counted eight in all) that the rest of the book has so vivaciously fomented, from its similarly unadorned coverpage onwards. The instruction may at first glance appear to be a variation on the too-familiar closing trope, "I woke up and it was all a dream"; or an interrupted cadence triggered by the abrupt introduction of some outside influence, of -- in this case -- unusual, brutish force: a "Terminator from Porlock", as it were.

But this "Stop" sign does not have the effect of undermining or dissipating the fictive space that has been created before. This is not a bubble being burst or a nightmare from which we suddenly awake, nothing having happened of any lasting consequence. If anything, we are being held within the frame of the text: we find that 'the end' is, in this instance, a dead end; a cul, if you will, very much de sac. We are trapped, dagnabbit. Trapped like Colonel Abrams. How will we ever find a way out of this book? Is the reader to climb out of the pig's blowhole on p.4? Hardly: this isn't A.S. Byatt, you know. And even if we did, as I hope I have already shown, we would only find ourselves stranded in a universe that is entirely and limitlessly full of pig-essence, like some infinite literary Swindon.

It is, of course, a test. In the space of just six pages (including the cover), The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris has lethally undermined the very notion of textual authority. Why should we obey this instruction? Why should we do as it tells us? Because some of it's in upper-case? What are you, some kind of bedwetter? Come off it. If it can lie to us about what may or may not be a picture of a pig's ears, surely it may be deceiving us about the extent of the actuality of this text? We can't go on; we'll go on.

The reader who dares to flip past this stern injunction will find herself in some kind of nether world of one, two, ...and so on up to six blank pages. What is the final, secret challenge of this text? What comes after the end of a book, but before the return to the world outside its frame? One might, I think, helpfully rephrase that question, so as more closely to approach my authorly concerns as I now recall them. We might instead ask: What kind of end comes before the physical extent of the book is exhausted? Am I, perhaps, directing the reader's attention not towards the material end of the text itself, but towards the teleological end of Pigs? Towards the purposive end of this work? Is "Stop END of BOOK" simply an intertitle or section heading which introduces that which follows it? And is it therefore in these six final blank pages that the book can be seen ultimately to divulge its motivating impulses? Here, deserted by the pigs, the reader confronts nothingness. What are the imperatives of this empty space? Is it to be preserved, gazed upon in fear or meditation? Is it a reflective space, a mirror-zone in which the reader encounters only herself looking back? Or is it un provocation supertemporel, a blank canvas upon which the reader may become the writer, inscribing her own pig-parts in this "sierial" fiction? What's clear is that, whichever way these pages are used -- whether their blankness is to be preserved and relished or interpreted as an invitation to participate -- they irresistibly suggest the implication and involvement of the reader in the universe of pigs: that is, the vast and chilly bibliographic universe of endlessly reflected and deflected other-pigs.

Stop END of POST.


Ian Shuttleworth said...

You acknowledge the idiomatic, but neglect the possibility that the young author may have been striving towards a kind of Platonic absolute in which "the pigs eres" stand(s) for ever as an ultimate diametrical opposite to those rather more intimate parts of the dog.

One might, for instance, say of the current play Upstairs at the Royal Court - with a possible implicit comment on factory farming, industrial processes of meat reclamation and the impossibility of certainty with regard to kashrut or halal in such circumstances - that "Kebab is the pigs eres."

simon said...


But really why does our juvenalia rock so much, no but REALLY why?
Are any of us ever going to come close to making mistakes as good as this again?
You spoof an inadequate critical response but at the same time Boy how this stuff mind gets the mind working. It's incredible.
And you should draw more. x


simon then said...

not mistakes

you know what i mean

(what do i mean?)

Anonymous said...

Reperspectivated puerilia, but what would Coriolanus have made of the pigs BiG tuoe?

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