Sunday, November 16, 2014

I spent most of October working on two long profiles, both of which have come out this weekend. First I went to Berlin to interview Olafur Eliasson for the New York Times' T magazine. Then I went to Vancouver to interview William Gibson for The Observer.

And for completeness' sake, while I'm here promoting my journalism, it occurs to me that I never put a link on this blog to my essay for Aeon about Donald Judd.

Here is a section that I very regretfully had to cut from the William Gibson piece for reasons of space:

Gibson has described the internet as a component of our 'global, communal prosthetic memory'. In that spirit, I didn't bother to ask him very much about his personal history, because he detailed it so comprehensively in a 2011 Paris Review interview which is available for free online. All the same, he did tell me one fascinating story about his past that I'd never come across in the dozens of interviews with him that I'd read (although I've subsequently discovered from Google, our most dependable prosthesis, that he has mentioned it in the course of at least one public event).

First, some background. One of the most rewarding qualities of Gibson's work is the thoroughness and precision with which he describes inanimate objects. You might think of Gibson as the poet of the virtual, but really he's always been much more about the actual. If fiction strives, as James Wood puts it, 'to open the pores of our senses and feel the world', I'll take Gibson over nearly any author of so-called 'realist' literature. We live among objects, and it's still through objects that the future creeps up: today a cheap smartphone or a polyethylene running shoe, tomorrow a vat-grown hamburger or a 3D-printed sniper rifle. If a writer reserves his or her best prose for faces and landscapes and weather and other pretty things that have always looked the same, he or she is giving only the vaguest account of real life, compared to the exceptional tangibility of Gibson's work.

'When I started,' Gibson told me, 'I had a list of what I regarded as deficiencies in genre science fiction. There was a story I read – I have no idea who wrote it – where the character looks out of the porthole of a spaceship and sees a prone figure wearing “silver boots”. And those “silver boots” made me so mad. Were they tarnished sterling? Were they Vegas lamé? Just the laziness of it. I thought, “This is one of the reasons the other writers don't take us seriously.” If it was worth doing this ridiculous thing of imagining what the future might be like, it was worth doing it less fuzzily.' (At this point I must apologise for referring inadequately to my 'dictaphone' in an earlier paragraph. It was in fact a Chinese-made Olympus WS-110 digital voice recorder dating from the first generation iPod era when plastic in a hospital shade of white was briefly a signifier of advanced technology.) 'Something else that fed into it,' Gibson went on, 'was a kind of political awareness that everything in the human universe was made by a person, or by a machine that had been made by people. And there also may be, I sometimes suspect, a kind of borderline autistic fascination with objects. Not everyone shares it, but there's much more of it evident now on the internet than was previously evident in the world, so I feel less odd about having it.'

Tracing this tendency back, he told an innocuous story which practically made my jaw fall off when I heard it because it seemed to explain so much about the work of one of my favourite living writers. 'The only writing teacher I ever had was in a high school composition class and he was someone he wrote contract specifications for the US military. He talked a lot about his job, and about how if he didin't describe the thing exactly, and then it arrived and it went wrong, the Pentagon was stuck paying for it. He would have us do exercises describing a wooden pencil to that standard.'

Ernest Hemingway spoke fondly of his time as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star, where the official style guide instructed him to 'use short sentences. Use vigorous English. Eliminate every superfluous word.' To me, Gibson's story about the high school teacher is equally revelatory. Of course, it's not the whole picture: Gibson would not have found that class so stimulating if he had not had a preexisting interest in squinting at objects through the loup of prose, just as Hemingway would not have gone for that newspaper job if he had not had a preexisting interest in getting manly deeds down on paper with a minimum of fuss.

Nevertheless, to use a Gibson phrase, it's a 'nodal point' in his biography – not only because of the writing exercise itself, but also because the teacher was working for the Pentagon. One of the constants of his work is that we live in a sort of military surplus society, where military technologies, methodologies and philosophies are forever leaking into civilian life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"And then the bastards chose to fire off three more flares followed by a stream of miscellaneous rockets that burst prettily among the stars. Of course! Bright idea! This was for the sake of watchers in the valley who might be inquisitive about the mysterious explosions high up the mountain. They were having a party up there, celebrating something. What fun these rich folk had, to be sure! And then Bond remembered. But of course! It was Christmas Eve! God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay! Bond's skis hissed an accompaniment as he zigzagged fast down the beautiful snow slope. White Christmas! Well, he'd certainly got himself that! But then, from high up above him, he heard that most dreaded of all sounds in the high Alps, that rending, booming crack! The Last Trump! Avalanche!"

from On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming (1963)

"I've got a very good publisher's reader, William Plomer, who's a great poet and an extremely nice man, and he said some time ago that I never put in any exclamation marks. This stuck in my mind, and so in my last book I put in exclamation marks like pepper. And my publishers stupidly enough left them in. Then I get a fierce review from The New York Times saying not only is Ian Fleming a very inferior writer but he has the girlish trick of putting in exclamation marks all over the place."

Ian Fleming in conversation with George Simenon (1964)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I have just finished Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity by Thomas Metzinger. It took me ten months, on and off, so finishing it feels like a Life Event. The book is 635 pages long and extremely technical; it's a difficult read, in other words, but I found it exhilaratingly difficult. And my picture of the human condition has been permanently changed, which is all you can really ask of a book. This change only amounts to a bunch of tweaks and polishes, admittedly, because I was already pretty sympathetic to the worldview expressed here, but they're tweaks and polishes at the deepest metaphysical levels. For those without any philosophical training, Metzinger has published a shorter, more accessible version called The Ego Tunnel. I haven't read that, so I can't authoritatively recommend it, but what I can recommend without reservation is Peter Watts' terrific SF novel Blindsight. That book is in some respects an 'adaptation' of Metzinger's theories, and I bought Being No One after finding it discussed in Blindsight's appendix, which is an agreeable route by which to arrive at a philosophy book.

I don't know that I have the mental resources at the moment to write anything substantive about Being No One, so I'll just finish with a short passage chosen almost at random from the many I highlighted. Consciousness is sometimes regarded as a sort of gift from God that allows human beings to appreciate the external world in all its plenitude; Joyce and Proust came to mind when I encountered this idea that consciousness is, on the contrary, a way of narrowing the external world to a manageable and unambiguous sliver.

"One main function of conscious experience may be to construct a final phase in a process of reducing information, data, and uncertainty originating in the buzzing, blooming confusion of the external world. As recent research into bistable phenomena (e.g., see Leopold and Logothetis 1999) has vividly demonstrated, if two incompatible interpretations of a situation are given through the sensory modules, then only one at a time can be consciously experienced. The generation of a single and coherent world-model, therefore, is a strategy to achieve a reduction of ambiguity. At the same time, this leads to a reduction of data: the amount of information directly available to the system, for example, for selection of motor processes or the deliberate guiding of attention, is being minimized and thereby, for all mechanisms operating on the phenomenal world-model, the computational load is reduced."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

I was one of the judges of this year's Frieze Writer's Prize. Congratulations to the winner, Linda Taylor.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Small talk between spies in 1956, from the memoir Undercover by E. Howard Hunt

There came a night when both Samoilov and I were guests at a diplomatic affair and found ourselves standing next to each other. He offered me a Russian cigarette, which I declined. Nervously lighting one and puffing it, he seemed to be searching for a conversational subject when he suddenly blurted, 'You are a friend of the Chernikovs.'
  'I am?'
  'Yes. You knew them in Shanghai.'
  Shanghai, I thought. Who? Then I remembered Valentin and Marusha. My memory might have been faulty, but not the KGB files. Pleasantly I asked, 'How are they?'
  'Fine, fine,' Samoilov said. 'They have three fine children now.'
  'Is he still with Tass?'
  'No, oh, no. He is now a diplomat.' He smiled almost mockingly. 'Like ourselves.'

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Glow is published in one week. This is the first of my books to be directly inspired by music. Almost every minute that I spent working on it, I was listening to a playlist of songs that evoked the atmosphere I wanted for the story. With some trepidation, I have shared that playlist on Spotify.

A few notes:

1. Not all the songs from the playlist are available on Spotify. The missing songs are here, here and here.

2. In Glow, I never specify exactly what genre of dance music is being played at the raves and on the radio, because I don't want the book to seem dated as soon as it's published. And the songs on this playlist are not supposed to represent the music heard in the book (for one thing, you can't really dance to them).

3. A lot of these songs may bear a superficial resemblance that most unfashionable of '90s genres, chill-out. Personally, I think they all share an undercurrent of dread that renders them unsuitable for hotel lobbies and tanning salons. At the same time, if you've read the book, you'll know that chill-out isn't a totally inappropriate reference point, because, after all, it began during the rave era as music to take the edge off people's drug experiences.

4. This post does not represent an enthusiastic endorsement of Spotify or its business model. Like many people, I worry that Spotify may be grievously undermining the long-term sustainability of the art form that it purports to promote. And yet to my shame I use the site anyway because it's so convenient. Which is a predicament in which we all seem to find ourselves increasingly often these days. Anyway, if you like any of these songs, please do purchase the MP3s. And my book.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Glow is published in two weeks. I will be doing a few events in the UK (and France) in May.

May 6th: at Lutyens & Rubinstein, Westbourne Grove
May 9th: at The Feast of Reason, Brixton
May 12th: at Shakespeare & Company, 5th Arrondissement, Paris
May 15th: at Kill Your Darlings, Cube Cinema, Bristol
May 19th: at 5x15, the Tabernacle, Notting Hill
May 25th: at Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye
May 28th: at Bookslam, The Grand, Clapham

If any further events are confirmed I will add them to this post.

In other news related to author Ned Beauman, my first ever published science fiction story can be found in the new issue of Arc magazine. It's called 'Specious Present' and it's about a commodities trader in near-future Istanbul.

Friday, April 11, 2014

For the fifth anniversary of his death, Fourth Estate are reissuing all of JG Ballard's books with new covers by Stanley Donwood and new introductions including one by me for High-Rise (1975).

Saturday, March 08, 2014

My third novel, Glow, is published by Sceptre two months from today, and I've written a Frequently Asked Questions about it. Because the book isn't out yet, most of these Questions I haven't even been Asked once, let alone Frequently. And it might seem a bit too early to start talking about it in detail. However, plenty of proof copies have already gone out, and I'm told that reviews are already being written. So the following FAQ is for interviewers and reviewers, anticipating some of the more obvious questions that they might have. General readers will not find any of this information very interesting, and should not bother to read it. Still, just in case, I've made sure not to spoil any of the plot.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Last night I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Because I've spent most of my career writing fiction about the 30s and 40s, and I'm quite meticulous about avoiding anachronisms (except when I introduce them deliberately), it was interesting to see a Hollywood film about a heroic anachronism: Steve Rogers is frozen in 1943 and wakes up in the present day. Unfortunately, no effort is made to make the character speak in the language of an adult from that era (with a few rudimentary exceptions e.g. Steve refers to Peggy Carter as his 'best girl'. Carter is about 100 years old at that point but is played, as in the previous film, by 32-year-old actress Haley Atwell. Impressive CGI is used to age Atwell's face, but she hardly bothers to adapt her vocal timbre to match, giving the unsettling effect of an old person speaking in a young person's voice, which is inadvertently quite appropriate in the context of this screenplay.)

In one scene, Steve is in a lift with Nick Fury, and he says something like, 'In my time, they used to play music in elevators.' This irritated me so much that I almost couldn't enjoy the rest of the film. 'I don't know exactly when "elevator music" was introduced,' I thought to myself, 'but it couldn't possibly have been earlier than the 50s or the 60s. There's no way a guy from the 1940s would have a nostalgic memory of elevator music. These writers are so lazy. Why didn't they hire me as a script consultant or something?'

But today I found out I was wrong!

'On May 31, 1931... New York City unveiled the 102-story Empire State Building,' writes Joseph Lanza in his book Elevator Music. 'Music had to be piped into the elevators, lobbies and observatories to give people at least some illusion of continuity amid the disorder. One particular incident shows just how much elevator music became part of the historical record. On July 28, 1945 an Army B-52 bomber on a cross-country mission crashed into the Empire State Building's 79th story. Flames shot up the elevator shafts, damaging glass cables and threatening to engulf fifty people stuck inside of a glass-encased observatory on the 88th floor. The front-page article in the July 29th New York Times reported: "Even at this terrifying juncture, however, the 'canned' music that is wired into the observatory continued to play, and the soothing sounds of the waltz helped the spectators there to control themselves."'

So they really did have elevator music in Captain America's time. All the same, I maintain that it would have been installed in a relatively small number of commercial buildings, and an army officer from the Lower East Side would not have spent so much time in elevators with elevator music that an elevator without elevator music would later seem worthy of comment. I was at least 15% correct in my cantankerous pedantry.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

"A tunnel, with about 6 feet of head room and 1800 feet long, would be dug from the U.S. sector in Berlin to the buried cables some 900 feet within the Soviet-occupied sector. A spacious building, ostensibly a military warehouse, was constructed to serve as an on-site headquarters and cover the entrance to the tunnel. It would also explain the to and fro of our personnel, and mask the movement of engineering equipment. Before the digging began, experiments in tunnel construction were conducted in New Mexico and in Surrey, England. The disposal of 3200 tons of earth was dealt with in daily increments... From the outset American personnel, hidden in the apparent “warehouse” and armed with binoculars, maintained a twenty-four-hour-a-day watch of the area stretching from the warehouse to the tap site into the Soviet sector. As dawn broke one morning, the watcher dropped his binoculars, pushed the panic button, and shouted that a dusting of snow was melting on the warm ground above the tunnel. The melted snow marked the tunnel path from the warehouse to the tap site as precisely as if it had been laid by a surveyor’s transit. The crisis was eased when the first half hour of early-morning sunlight melted all of the light snowfall. A few hours later, Harvey had contrived a temporary solution to the problem: in mid-winter and without any explanation, squads of Quartermaster soldiers stripped every available air conditioner from Army premises throughout Berlin. There is less that need be said about the cesspool inadvertently breached as the tunnel engineers navigated beneath a bombed-out farm, or the laundry that had to be established in the warehouse to cope daily with the inexplicably soiled clothing of those working underground."

from A Look Over My Shoulder by Richard Helms

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

"Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life." Susan Sontag, 1966

"Every good work should have at least ten meanings." Walter de Maria, 1972

Friday, February 14, 2014

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Food of 2013

I travelled a lot this year, often for promotional reasons, and I also ate a lot. Here are my favourite restaurants in chronological order (limited to one per city, and leaving out cities where I didn't eat anything notable). This may seem like the document of a life of excess, but please note that only two of these meals cost more than £10.

Paris: L'Office
This year I realised that I tend to like bars and restaurants in foreign countries in proportion to how much they feel like bars and restaurants in New York. Then at the end of my trip I touch down at JFK and breathe a sigh of relief because most bars and restaurants in New York feel 100% like bars and restaurants in New York. Yes, I am a pitiful tourist, hostile to new experiences. Anyway, you know how a low-end washing machine has more processing power than the mainframe used to launch Apollo 11? Sometimes in New York it feels like they've put more thought into the house bread alone -– more agonising debate, more Hegelian synthesis, more statistical meta-study – than they would have put into the entire steak dinner for two back in the old days. And they will not let you forget it. To be honest, I love that about the place, but I also enjoyed the unfussy, down-to-earth quality of the better restaurants I went to during my two months in Paris. And my favourite was this restaurant near the Gare du Nord, which had a terrific 33€ set menu. I can't remember what I ate.

My spirit shall find eternal happiness in the arms of my lord, my saviour, the first and last, the beginning and the end – Gotham. I have eaten so much good food in this city. And of all the restaurants here, my most beloved is the northwest Chinese fast food chain Xi'an Famous Foods, which has six locations plus a new sister place called Bi'ang. When I was living in a sublet in East Williamsburg for a month in March, I was only ten minutes' walk from the Greenpoint branch, so I ate there several times a week – mostly for $3.50 cumin lamb burgers and $6.50 hand-ripped pork noodles. No, it's not the most refined cooking I've ever eaten, but no other restaurant in the world has come close to giving me, in aggregate, so much joy. Plus, there's the adorable earnestness of the warning on their menus: 'Food tastes best when fresh from the kitchen. When hot noodles cool down, they get bloated, mushy, and oily. If you must take your noodles to go, please at least try the noodles in the store or right out of the to-go containers when it's handed to you, so you can get the best possible Xi'an Famous Foods experience.'

Quemado, New Mexico: nameless barbecue truck
Quemado has a population of about 250. The general store sells souvenir T-shirts that make fun of how sleepy it is. We camped nearby only because Quemado is where the Dia Foundation pick you up to take you to the Lightning Field. And yet, bafflingly, this town is a bit of a food mecca. I had marvellous burgers in two different diners here, plus there's a third which I didn't visit but which is apparently just as good. Above all, we got some of the best barbecue I've ever tasted from a truck parked on Main Street – on the Land Art Road Trip we ate a lot of brisket and ribs, but these won easily. I can't find any reference to the truck on the internet, so I don't know anything more about it. Maybe it was a dream? I realised recently that you're most likely to lose yourself in a meal – really abandon your faculties – when you have to pick up the food with your hands and bring it right up to your face to gnaw on it. If it's good enough, you close your eyes and forget where you are, like a meaty tongue kiss.

Roswell, New Mexico: Henry's Tacos
These were probably the best tacos I've ever eaten. I had three, then went back for two more. My friend only had one. Many people on the trip didn't have any, and never will. We are playthings of an unfeeling universe.

London: Wild Honey
After spending nearly a year away from the city in 2011-12, it was a real shock to come back and find that from nearly anywhere in south London you could now look up at the Shard like a shiv in the gut of the sky. But compared to that, the hyperaccelerated maturation of London restaurant culture in my absence has been as disorienting as about a dozen Shards. Everything's changed! You can find a really good meal pretty easily now! (At least if you're willing to get on the Tube; we're still not at the New York stage where you can be confident of finding one within walking distance in almost any neighbourhood.) For all that, though, the best meal I had in London this year was at a restaurant that opened in 2006. I know 2006 doesn't seem like that long ago, but it is. Just cast your mind back – in 2006, we were all still going to Pizza Express, and we were grateful for it. Order the smoked eel here. Also, try to arrange for someone else to pay.

You hear so much about how Anglo-Indian food isn't real Indian food, a lot of the best 'Indian' restaurants in London are actually Pakistani, real Indian food is a lot of vegetables and not much meat etc. that I basically arrived in Delhi expecting to eat nothing but subtle chickpea curries for a week. Sheer blithering ignorance, of course: it's not as if Anglo-Indian food was invented in the 1970s by bureaucrats at the Meat and Livestock Commission. It has a historical basis, and at least some of that, I now know, is Mughlai cuisine. At Karim Hotel I devoured the tandoori chicken like a starving hyena, and although the intensity of the experience must be attributed at least in part to the panic hormones still effervescing in my bloodstream after a high-speed tuktuk ride through Old Delhi at night, I can nevertheless assert objectively that this is one of the world's great meals.

Kathmandu: Newa De Cafe
In Kathmandu Airport there are signs on the walls with facts about the country, one of which observes that the nation of Nepal has never been conquered. When I mentioned this to one of the Nepali literati I met in Kathmandu, he told me that although Nepal has never been conquered from the outside, it's certainly been conquered from the inside: in the eighteenth century, the Ghorkas crushed the Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley. I'd never even heard of the Newari people, let alone Newari food, and between you and me my first thought was that 'the Newari' sound like one of the alien races from Babylon 5. Anyway, it's apparently a 'purer' Nepali cuisine, with fewer Indian influences. I can't describe the chicken and buffalo dishes I ate at Newa de Cafe in any detail – they were strikingly distinct from any other ethnic cuisine I've ever tried – but it was all so good I went three times in three days. This stuff should be ubiquitous. Every market town in England should have several mediocre Newari takeaways.

Seoul: one of the restaurants on Gul Bossam Alley
The Seoul Food Tour section of the Visit Seoul website has twenty sections, hundreds of photos, and its own cartoon mascot. It seems to assume that you, the foreign tourist, are not just interested in Korean food but pathologically obsessed by it. All tourist information websites should be like this. The truth is, before I went to Seoul, I never thought of myself as much of a fan of Korean food, but I now know that Seoul is one of the greatest dining destinations in the world. The highlights were the various 'food alleys', which have a dozen or more small restaurants all specialising in the same dish. Almost every one of them is able to display stills from a TV news feature on its cooks, because the Koreans, unlike the British, think that cheap food prepared by unassuming professionals is important enough to be worth celebrating. I'd only heard of bossam because it was the original, failed premise for David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village. You wrap up steamed pork, raw oysters and kimchi inside a lettuce leaf, but before you take a bite it's important to put on a protective helmet – you're probably going to have some sort of grand mal seizure because it's so delicious and you might bang your head on something.

Bangkok: open-air buffet around the corner from Chatuchak Market
I love Thai food more than any other cuisine, and I'm happy to trek all the way across London or New York or LA because I've heard a new Isan place has opened under a pub or in a strip mall, but I'd never actually been to Thailand. So after all these years to find myself eating real Thai food in Bangkok was, inevitably, both climax and anticlimax. I was like Jessica Chastain's character at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, when she's spent her entire career tracking Osama Bin Laden from a distance and then she finally gets to touch his corpse and she's so overwhelmed she doesn't know what to feel. Is that a strange analogy? My point is, I've been to the Heron in London and Ayada in Queens and Pok Pok in Brooklyn and Jitlada in LA. I've methodically eaten my through the best (non-fancy) Thai food you can eat in the western hemisphere. I wanted the food in Bangkok to be ten times better than that but most of the time it was only a bit better (which is either an indictment of my dining choices there, or, more optimistically, a tribute to the abilities of the top 0.1% of Thai cooks in the US and the UK). However, there were exceptions: one was the unidentifiable peppercorn-heavy curry I ate on my first morning there, which literally made me weep with happiness, and I wasn't even hungover.