Bill Direen, ed.: brief 42 (May 2011)
Johnsons or Shits
Mike Johson, Travesty. Auckland: Titus Books, 2010.
I've just been reading a very entertaining graphic novel (or series of comics brought to a premature end by lack of commercial success, if you prefer) called Outlaw Nation, by Jamie Delano. It elaborates on a concept of William S. Burroughs, which divides the population of the world into two groups: Johnsons and Shits. A bit of ferreting around on the internet brought up the following definition:
Burroughs first encountered the concept of the Johnson Family while still a boy reading the book You Can’t Win by Jack Black [no relation to the actor - Ed.]. First published in the 1920′s, Black’s autobiographical account of hobo life was immensely popular in its day. Burroughs describes the Johnsons in The Place of Dead Roads:`The Johnson Family’ was a turn-of-the-century expression to designate good bums and thieves. It was elaborated into a code of conduct. A Johnson honors his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy, self-righteous, trouble-making person. A Johnson will give help when help is needed. He will not stand by while someone is drowning or trapped under a burning car.In contrast to the honorable world of hobos and criminals, Burroughs describes a type of person known simply as a `Shit.’ Unlike the Johnsons, Shits are obsessed with minding other’s business. They are the town busy body, the preacher, the lawman. Shits are incapable of taking the honorable road of each-to-his-own. Burroughs describes the situation in his essay “My Own Business” thus:This world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: `Some people are shits, darling.” I was never able to forget it.
So what about it? Which one are you? A Johnson or a Shit? I came across what seems to me the perfect example of a literary shit the other day whilst idly clicking on links in other people's posts: British Historian Orlando Figes.
Here are some quotes from mini-reviews on Amazon.com of books by various of Figes' rivals:
Description by "Historian" of Molotov's Magic Lantern, by Rachel Polonsky:
"This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published … Her writing is so dense and pretentious, itself so tangled in literary allusions, that it is hard to follow or enjoy."
"Historian" described Robert Service's 2008 work Comrades, a world history of communism, as 'rubbish':
"This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read … it has no insights to make it worth the bother of ploughing through its dreadful prose."
And here's a little piece by the same reviewer about one of Figes's own books:
The Whisperers (2008) was "beautiful and necessary":
"A fascinating book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians … it tells us more about the Soviet system than any other book I know. Beautifully written, it is a rich and deeply moving history, which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted … Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever."
And who was "Historian"? Why, none other than Orlando Figes himself.
Yes, yes, very naughty, I hear you saying, but surely puffing your own books anonymously isn't that mortal a sin? Silly, yes ("I hope he writes for ever"), but hardly criminal. Fair enough. Putting up damning reviews of other people goes a bit further, but it's still not completely beyond the pale.
Attend the sequel, though. Some of Figes' victims began to suspect who'd really written these "anonymous" reviews, and even began to voice their suspicions. Figes immediately instructed his lawyer to threaten them with a libel suit.
When that didn't work (his footprints weren't particularly difficult to trace: "orlando-birkbeck" isn't that cunning an alias for a historian called Orlando who teaches at Birkbeck College, London), he then blamed his wife, barrister Stephanie Palmer, for the whole thing. "I've only just found out about this, this evening," as he said in a statement released through his lawyer a few hours after demanding damages from a prominent newspaper which had printed some information on the matter.
But after a week of questions and increasingly critical headlines, Figes today [23/4/10] revealed that he had been responsible for the comments.
A bit reminiscent of Richard Nixon, really. I didn't do it; well, actually, even though it looks as if I did it, it was actually my wife; well, no, it wasn't my wife, it was me, but I was perfectly justified in doing it; well, no, I did do it, and I wasn't justified in doing it, but it was because I was under a lot of pressure of the time and I'm very sorry so please go away and don't bother me any more ... Man up, Orlando. For a historian of the Stalin era you don't exactly exhibit that good old Mandelstam spirit.
Robert Service, one of the Russian historians defamed by Figes puts it rather succinctly in his quote for the Guardian article I got all these details from in the first place:
I am pleased and mightily relieved that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean ...
That's what Burroughs means by a shit, I think: a petulant little whinging coward who cries like a baby and begs for mercy when he's found out, all the time sharpening the knife he's longing to plunge into you the moment you turn your back. More like Beria than a full-fledged monster such as Stalin himself ...
What about a Johnson, though?
Funnily enough, that seems to be the main subject of Mike Johnson's novel Travesty, which appeared earlier this year from Titus Books, after what Mike described at the launch as an almost thirty-year gestation period.
Travesty is a very strange book indeed. It includes some (very striking) illustrations by Darren Sheehan, some of which are in strip-cartoon form, but doesn't seem otherwise to conform to the "graphic novel" genre. Why call it a graphic novel, then? Why not simply an illustrated (or even, in a rather more Blakean vein, an "illuminated") novel?
I think part of the answer may lie in the book's lack of a conventional, overt narrative drive. Nobody, I suspect, could help but find the various characters and settings interesting - poor burnt-out glow-addicted Harvey, Drunk Len, the sneaky double-dealing therapist Dr Reingold, and (best of all from my point of view) batty old "people's advocate" Dilly Lilly, trapped in her mountainous accumulation of old toys and teddy-bears.
But what's the point of them? They're all burnt-out, used-up human shadows, recycling old damaged neural pathways in some kind of semi-official holding-pen ("Travesty") threatened by the Lion King and his sinister allies named after old characters from Donald Duck (Chip 'n' Dale, the Beagle Boys, the Gladstone Ganders). And as the fog gradually envelops their clapped-out roach motel, the "rathouse", they're all gradually forced out onto the streets awaiting some wondrous (or horrendous) lolly scramble on the Day of Delights. And it seems that something apocalyptic has indeed been averted in the last couple of chapters, where Harvey gets it together sufficiently to complete the set of equations in his head.
But none of it's clear, exactly. All of it's told as though through a glass, darkly. And while it's hinted that Harvey's otherworldly saviour Hermes may simply have been sent by "Netlife, that vast illegal gambling operation on the blacknet where credits, zings and even souls are waged on how people behave":
Netlife is not above prodding things along when the show gets slow. Push the emotional infant, Harvey, out of his nest. Get cameras on him, take over Mercy's eyes, get the punters punting - build up the tension. .... Big bikkies riding on ever twist and turn. [p.231]
Travesty, then, "was caught up in Netlife in ways it did not understand."
Is Travesty, then, a huge gameshow run by net gamblers who prod it from time to time like children stirring up a big glass-fronted ant's nest? In one sense, yes, but it's not just that. Travesty can't be decoded as simply as The Matrix. Once you get behind the mask, you find the same confusions, the same infinite spectra of possibilities as in (so-called) "real life".
"I should like to live in a very much simpler world," Harvey says [p.196]
As Dr Reingold meditates on the (programmed) flirting propensities of his holographic secretary, as Nisa Michelangelo constructs his exact scale model (except in one respect) of Michelangelo's "David", we begin to see that the thing that holds these various levels of reality (or "virtuality") together is - as in the Christian cosmos of Dante's Divine Comedy - love, that Aristotelean "love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Paradiso, canto xxxiii, last line).
The book concludes with a series of meditations on works of art. Mercy, the holographic secretary, recites Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to her master Dr Reingold (himself, one presumes, named after the central symbol in Wagner's Ring):
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
We leave him contemplating the "her impeccable thighs and the perfection of her smooth backside. Cold pastoral! Pit this against the living, sweating, stinking, bloody flesh whose privilege it is to know pleasure and death in equal measure." [p.238]
Nisa Michelangelo, the (alleged) reincarnation of the "real" Michelangelo, sees the huge erect penis of his redesigned "David" being shot off almost at the moment of its completion. Like any revisionist artist, though, he manages to tell himself that this reversion to the statue's original state is somehow for the best:
Looking at the statue now, he sees there is a kind of truth in the mutilation, the severance; the gunman might have taken aim with an artist's eye. All the upright virtue of the lost member is merely suggested now, not blatantly exposed. The mind may build its own addition where he imposed his; the severance itself speaks in resonances. [p.243]
It's an interesting place to end. The fascination of Travesty has lain all along in the parts rather than the whole. The world Mike Johnson constructs up so painstakingly is contradictory, partial, jerry-built to its very bones. But so's the one we live in.
Dilly Lilly's long crawl through the rat burrows that criss-cross her heap of toys is a kind of narrative tour-de-force which calls to mind some of the more extreme passages in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, but the tiny mutant rat she extracts, then nurses on her own blood comes from an even more extreme universe (reminiscent as it is of Philip K. Dick's apocalyptic masterpiece Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the War). In his refusal to resolve his warring plotlines, to explain the tie-ins which unite all these various levels, Mike Johnson goes them both one better, though.
The mercy of that all-forgiving narrative plot-doctor, knotting up all the loose ends, is perhaps the last thing we must abandon before opening the doors of perception to see each thing "as it is, infinite."
Travesty, then, is (at any rate in conventional terms) a magnificent wreck of a novel. Make sure you unroll a thread behind you before you venture into its intricacies, though. This is the kind of book that might insist on reading you.
[Mike Johnson: Travesty (2010)]
brief 42 (2011): 40-44.
[Reprinted from The Imaginary Museum: http://mairangibay.blogspot.co.nz/2010/10/johnsons-or-shits.html (4/10/10)]
brief 42 (2011)