Memory Palace

Kunzru1

From 18 June to 20 October 2013, the Porter gallery in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was home to Memory Palace. Sponsored by Sky Arts Ignition, it is the first graphic arts exhibition at the venue in over a decade. It features one eponymous novella by Hari Kunzru (published separately) and twenty installations by as many artists or studios, and attempts to see “how far [you can] push the format and still call it a book,” to provide “an experiential reading format for a story,” to “create an exhibition that can be read’ (Newell and Salazar, “Curating a Book,” Memory Palace 84, 85). It is also a work of sf.

Curators Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar commissioned Kunzru to outline a story that would then be developed in collaboration with the artists, who would be co-creators rather than mere illustrators: Abäke, Peter Bil’ak, Alexis Deacon, Sara De Bondt studio, Oded Ezer, Francesco Franchi, Isabel Greenberg, Hansje van Halem, Robert Hunter, Jim Kay, Johnny Kelly, Erik Kessels, Na Kim, Stuart Kolakovic, Frank Laws, Le Gun, CJ Lim, Luke Pearson, Stefanie Posavec, Némo Tral, Henning Wagenbreth, Mario Wagner, and Sam Winston. This process is recounted in Hunter’s dialog-free, short graphic comic, “Making Memory Palace,” appended to Kunzru’s novella.

The British-Indian Kunzru, a former magazine journalist, who wrote about travel, music, culture, and technology, is, like David Mitchell, one of that generation of authors relatively untroubled by genre-policing. His second novel, Transmission (2005), is about a computer virus, and reads like a slimmed-down, nearer-future version of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) spliced together with one of William Gibson’s Bigend novels; his fourth and most recent novel, the historically-sprawling Gods without Men (2012), includes UFOs and aliens, kinda. A rather trendy literary author, his first novel, The Impressionist (2003), attracted a £1 million+ advance, and he has won several major awards and prizes. The central concerns of his particular brand of popular, not exactly demanding postmodernism, sometimes described as “hysterical realism” or “translit,” are non-linearity and connectivity. Kunzru’s commissioning by Sky Arts is, then, relatively unsurprising (especially as he also used to be a presenter on The Lounge, Sky TV’s own electronic arts program).

His co-creators are rather less well known. Intriguingly, in their brief biographies at the end of the Memory Palace book, not one of them self-describes as an artist. They are all graphic designers, graphic artists, typographers, illustrators, comics artists, book designers, creative directors, art directors, editors, and/or architects. One is left with a strong sense of a smug and slightly shadowy commercial world of professionals, talented but perhaps a bit glib, for whom this is just another commission to be turned in on budget and on time. This perhaps explains why the exhibition’s satirical attack on neo-liberal hegemony and state-imposed regimes of austerity and amnesia is so muted.

Kunzru’s novella, Memory Palace, is set in a post-apocalyptic London. A magnetic storm destroyed the global information infrastructure and brought the Withering, a post-literate Dark Age of totalitarian theocracy, in which Westminster is known as Waste Monster, and other moderately amusing sub-Riddley Walker (1980) wordplay thrives. The Thing (as the council of leaders is known) wants to bring about the Wilding, a future in which the remnants of humanity will live in harmony with nature. The Thing has outlawed writing and recording, thereby criminalizing the Memorialists, those who are devoted to collecting and recollecting the past, whom they now hunt. Appropriately, then, the story, while nicely written and more than competent, stirs with faint echoes: of post-apocalyptic fiction by John Wyndham, John Christopher, and Walter M. Miller; of the television series Survivors (UK 1975-1977) and the coda to the film Threads (Jackson UK/Australia/US 1984); of M. John Harrison’s seedy bedsit entropy, China Miéville’s rejectamentalism, and Evan Calder Wood’s salvagepunk.

The book version of Memory Palace is, as one would expect from such a project, a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with selected work from the exhibition and pictures of the physical and electronic installations. If you have read the book, though, the exhibition itself is a little disappointing (I cannot gauge what it would be like to see the exhibition before, or without, reading the book). Le Gun’s life-size model of what someone from the post-apocalypse imagines an ambulance to have looked like – part medicine show, part museum of curiosities, drawn by wolves and driven by a Día de Muertos cross between Baron Samedi and the Child Catcher – is impressively detailed,kunzru2 as is Jim Kay’s reliquary cabinet devoted to Milord Darwing, the author of Origin of the Species (1859), who is misremembered as a rogue GM scientist. In contrast, Oded Ezer’s eight short films, looped on eight separate screens, are all concept with little art, and Erik Kessel’s enormous temple built from bundles of newspapers and advertising fliers, recalling the pre-apocalyptic religious ritual of aakgo9fm2Recycling, has even less art and barely even a concept. The more straightforward illustrations – whether blown up on large light boxes (Tral), arranged in a narrative thread on a white wall so you have to move to follow them (Pearson), or presented on zinc letterpress plates (Winston) – do benefit from exhibition. And it is quite pleasing – after all the corporate profligacy, the privatization and militarization of public spaces, the peonage of cleaners and others, the jingoism and spitefulness, that the London Olympics involved – to see the stadium reduced to slums (Tral) and Anish Kapoor and Arups’ 115-meter tall ArcelorMittal Orbit, a kind of flying spaghetti Eiffel Tower, being ceremonially burned to the ground (Greenberg).

Newell and Salazar write that “Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience” (85). In this case, however, the layout of the space, and the clearly marked entrance and exit, do produce a linear exhibit, whereas reading the book, with its out-of-order narrative and illustrations that tempt one to flick back and forth between them, is more successfully non-linear. Consequently, I would recommend the book over the exhibition, especially as it is available from online stores for less than £10, and unless you live in South Kensington (or “South Keen Singtown,” as it will be known during the Withering), getting to and seeing the exhibition will cost you more than that.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 121 (2013), 596–8.

Best books of the millennium so far

The BBC asked a bunch of US critics, what is the greatest novel of the millennium so far? Such an obviously completely bullshit question, you can imagine my eagerness to see the results. I was really looking forward to the pleasure of being outraged and/or bemused by their idiocy and poor taste. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through the day.

What can I say? I was robbed.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped the poll. And, leaving aside for one moment the obvious and complete bullshitness of the question, I had no problem with that. I like the novel an awful lot. And Junot very generously blurbed the Africa SF collection and contributed an extraordinary long interview to the SF Now collection, extracted here, so I’m very happy for him personally. But none of that helps when I’m jonesing for affront.

The situation was redeemed a little by one of the judges comparing Oscar Wao to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit. What the fuck? At last some provocation! Such pedestrian taste! How benevolent of white literary culture to elevate Díaz to such company! The unsavoury reek of appropriation, not only of Dominican/Latino culture, but of geekdom, too! Who dared to say such a thing?

I clicked on the link, and was once more robbed. The journalist is paraphrasing Greg Barrios’ interview with Díaz in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which the comparison – which also mentions  James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan – is really just an attempt to explain the structure of the series of Oscar Wao stories Díaz once contemplated writing.

Maybe the other 19 titles in the poll’s top twenty would offer some enormity, some better shots at genuine WTF moments.

Of the other books, I have read only three.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (number 6) has been sitting on the shelf for years. I finally overcame the potential embarrassment of being seen not to have read it yet, and got through it in one long sitting on two trains and two planes (serially, not simultaneously) en route to the US. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of geek-stroking moments, and I get why people like it so much. But all the way through I was troubled by how comfortable it was. How comforting to imagine twentieth-century American history so utterly free from any anti-Semitism whatsoever. It just seemed dishonest. Good, but a long way short of great. On the whole, I probably rate Jonathan Lethem’s vaguely comparable Fortress of Solitude more highly. (By coincidence, my partner, sat next to me on one of the trains and both of the planes, read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall (number 3), and had a kind of mehhh response. Neither book made the return journey.)

A professional obligation recently required me to read Zadie Smith’s NW (number 18). It took me completely by surprise. A genuinely compelling page-turner, if ultimately also just a bit too comfortable in its rather bourgeois worldview. I promptly bought White Teeth (number 11), but have not had chance to read it yet.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (number 17) utterly mystifies me. It is flimsy and trite and I really cannot see what anyone sees in it. But people damn well keep on seeing something in it.

Three others are in the to-read pile or, rather, one of the to-read piles, ‘cos this place is becoming unmanageable again. There is a looming happy convergence of personal interest and work which will hopefully get me to Edward P Jones’s The Known World (number 2) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah (numbers 10 and 13) within the next year.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (number 12) has been flickering in and out of a similar indeterminate space for a few years now, but every time I decide this time I really do need to read it I realise I don’t actually have a copy.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (number 19) would be in a to-read pile but I am determined to read one of these shorter books of his I have lying around before committing to such a sizeable tome. I mean, over there in the corner, there’s a small mountain range comprised of the evergrowing proportion of William Vollmann that remains unread. Surely I should do something about that first?

I confess to finding the whole idea of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, number 5) baffling. At least he only provokes indifference.

But Ian McEwan? (Atonement at number 9). Genuine ire.

I have not managed to get past the first chapter of anything McEwan has written since, I dunno, Black Dogs or possibly Enduring Love, though I can recall nothing about either of them. (I remember quite liking The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, and the two early story collections, which is why I stuck with him as long as I did, but I was fifteen or sixteen when I read them, so I doubt it is worth going back.)

At least, I suppose, we are spared Martin Amis. I agreed wholeheartedly with Beulah Maud Devaney’s statement this week that ‘life is too short for Martin Amis’, though found myself repeatedly moving her words and their meanings around a little. Martin Amis is too short to live! Let’s shorten the life of Martin Amis!

Nothing on the rest of the list provoked a thing. Least of all interest.

I don’t know which are the greatest novels of the millennium so far. Not least because is it such an obviously and completely bullshit idea. But here is my list of the books published so far this millennium that I rate most highly. My criteria boil down to this: I could not wait to finish them so I could force my copies on other people to read. Which is unusual for me since, despite my enthusiasms, I am not by nature enthusiastic.

In date order:

2002
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt 
2003

Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (this is cheating a little, since it was published in France in 1998)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
2003-4
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
2004
Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient.
2005
Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
2006
Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
2007
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions
2009
China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street StationThe Scar)
2010
Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
2011
Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire
John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun
2012
Zadie Smith, NW