Friday, 26 February 2010

Why Ambassador, With This Perimeter You Are Really Spoiling Us

I was in the Independent yesterday, mounting a weak defence of a heavily defended building.

That's as close to Joan Holloway as I'm ever likely to get.
A 30m-wide "stand-off zone" will make the new US embassy stick out like a sore thumb. "It could have been a lot worse," says Will Wiles, senior editor at Icon architecture and design magazine. "We already knew that security was paramount in the design – it's a big factor in the Americans wanting a new building in the first place. Any design would have this 30m setback, defined by the blast radius of car bombs."

This "stand-off zone" is one part of what's called "hostile vehicle mitigation" or "HVM" - a field of building I'm pleasantly well informed about, having attended a conference on designing for terrorism last year*. There are such things, for instance, as armoured trees; a growing tree can absorb steel bars that will help it stop or slow a rogue vehicle. These hostile vehicles are the car- and truck-bombs that give security planners sleepless nights and twitchy days. As I told the Indie, they're the reason the Americans have decamped to Nine Elms (they wanted a site with the necessary space for the defensive zone). The defensive zone itself was always going to be heavily landscaped, because if vehicles can just drive into your stand-off it's not much of a stand-off. And so all this "it's a fortress behind a moat" talk is old news - that is what the Americans wanted and what Kieran Timberlake has delivered. It's what all the other architects delivered as well.

Kieran Timberlake's winning design for the new US Embassy in London.

I don't see anything particularly fortress-like about the building itself, although the vaguely Corblike pilotis do suggest the hem of a skirt raised against scurrying al-Qaeda mice. Its apparent isolation and aloofness are products of the defensive zone. The contradictions built into the brief must have been impossible - welcoming but defended, open yet closed, War is Peace. This inscrutable International Style Cube is a suitably ambivalent response to that. A winsome and civil bit of Scandinavian modernism, all civic manners and democratic openness, would have been duplicitous to the point of being highly sinister. As I said to the Independent, but they didn't quote: "The symbolism seems rather appropriate to me: a shining city on a hill, surrounded by the most formidable defensive network ever known." And that skin also has potential. A complicated double-surface like that, with its brise-soleil, makes me think of fractals, and the way they contain a small area within a long boundary. It's as if the surface of the embassy has the potential to cover a far larger building, perhaps up to the street edge, but the building has shrunk back. Forgive the simile, but it's like the wrinkled skin of a detumescent penis. I mean that in a good way. Really.

New security structures outside the existing US Embassy's building in Grosvenor Square. Image from the embassy's own Flickr stream.

Duplicitous to the point of being highly sinister. I had to visit the American Embassy on Grosvenor square to get a media visa shortly before Christmas last year. Interfacing with the State Department's bureaucracy is an unpleasant and intrusive business at the best of times, whatever their efficiency and politeness (and they were efficient and polite). But progressing through the improvised security perimeter outside Arne Jacobsen's Eero Saarinen's embassy building was frankly dystopian. Part of a London square was militarised, with heavy hard defences. One progresses from queue to queue before entering the building, progressing to slightly higher echelons of security clearance each time depending on the paperwork one has brought with one. Unsmiling police officers with automatic weapons stare at you, and you realise that if you made a dash towards the building itself, you would have to enter an area of open space that designed as a killzone, surrounded by armed representatives of the Metropolitan constabulary. Behind crossfire plaza is the building itself, its generous Scandinavian spaces seemingly as distant as the country you are trying to visit. The contradictions of that space are horribly unsettling, with a strongly dystopian odour: we can see the structures of a democracy retrofitted with the apparatus of authoritarianism. It gives a sense of how far we've fallen in 10 years.

The new embassy is at least designed with these contradictions in mind, and is consequently fascinating. It's worth taking a step back to really admire what we're looking at: a building designed with explosions in mind. A shape formed by the manipulation of spheres of destruction. It could be the first London building built with attack from the ground in mind since the Second World War. (It's also a testament to the extraordinary power of terror: the fact that a few hypothetical malcontents with A-level chemistry and a driver's licence can race to the head of the queue ahead of a whole gang of other diplomatic considerations.) So, what new forms are these? Going back through my notes from that terror conference is a dispiriting experience; the bureaucratic jargon like "hostile vehicle mitigation" and "exponential decay of blast effect" does not exactly induce good cheer. There are some aspects of HVM that might give pause to Londoners. Firstly, it doesn't stop attacks, it just makes them more difficult and limits their impact. Secondly, it's primarily meant to protect facilities, rather than people. Obviously some people are protected into the bargain - I'm not saying that to make some Spartist the-Yanks-care-more-about-their-office-furniture-than-the-lives-of-honest-cockneys point, it's just a fact of life. 30m stand-off will prevent a truck bomb causing massive structural collapse, but said bomb could still cause horrific death and injury. Thirdly, HVM only protects the one facility, not the buildings around it. The plans for the new embassy show new glass blocks surrounding it at street's edge. Will they still be glass when they're built, I wonder.

That's something important to bear in mind: the effect of the new embassy's security measures extends beyond the perimeter of the embassy itself.

The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all. Winston had never been inside the Ministry of Love, nor within half a kilometre of it. It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons.

- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Chapter 1; emphasis mine

The HVM landscaping creates what can be called a "hard zone" of security. There are also nested "soft zones" of security in and around the building: the sight arcs of CCTV cameras, the streets on which you are more likely to be stopped by police or prevented from taking photographs, maybe a "no-protest" radius around the building like the one around Parliament (now scrapped), no-fly zones. The electronic haze of listening devices and broadcasting devices, security down to the ions in the atmosphere. And there are the streets on which one may feel uneasy and prefer not to linger.

The now-scrapped Parliament no-protest zone. Image: BBC.

The hard defences of Kieran Timberlake's new embassy don't bother me in the slightest. They are obvious, they invite an architectural response, they can be well-mannered and attractive, and they are in their way honest. (I'm reminded of the temporary barricades around Parliament here - unattractive black slabs that were partly reclaimed when people started sitting on them to eat their lunch.) The new US embassy has the potential to be one of the most interesting buildings in London, and I would love to visit it once it is finished (although it's possible I'm now blowing my chance). Hard zones aren't such a big deal - no one complains about the Tower of London, a fortress behind a defensive setback on the Thames. It's these CCTV-covered, drone-overflown soft zones that we need fear. Although ID cards might not be here yet, ID card culture is. We face the slow advance of soft-zone ambivalence, that creeping sense of being unwelcome on the street, a desire to look over one's shoulder. Soft zones are easy to introduce and difficult to shift; they exist in the mind as much as in the city. A bollard is just a bollard, and it can't strike half as much fear into one's heart as the sudden sense that one has brought along the wrong piece of paper.

* "Places Not Fortresses: Can and Should we Design for Terror?", New London Architecture with the Association of Consultant Architects, at the Building Centre, 27 January 2009.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

From Sea to Shining Sea, By Sea

Florida's Overseas Highway. Image taken from the Flickr stream of jbaccile and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Reading N_O_R_T_O_N's superb post about the freaky roadside architecture of Branson, Missouri ("What Vegas would be like if it was run by Ned Flanders," according The Simpsons), I was struck by a strange Sunday-afternoon fantasy. Specifically, I was marvelling at the willingness of Americans to drive distances that would make Europeans weep. It occurred to me that this nonchalence could be an essential part of the American psyche, a denial spawned in response to the enormous size of the 48 contiguous American states. The vast expanses of land that America was fortunate enough to find itself in possession of at the end of the 19th century are as much internal as external - they have manifested themselves in the American mind. There's that expansiveness, that ambition, that generosity, that optimism that comes with the frontier ...

Anyway, this caused me to wonder: What if, instead of purple mountains and fruited plains, European explorers had instead come across a vast archipelago of islands, an Atlantic Indonesia between Canada and Mexico? This is a wholly pointless bit of counterfactual speculation ("How would the Second World War have worked out if Stalin could fly?!") but it made for a pleasant weekend reverie, so I'll share it anyway.

My thoughts started in New York, essentially an offshore archipelago-city in itself - of the five boroughs, only one, The Bronx, is on the American mainland. It is a place geographically and socially defined by its bridges and tunnels - down to the expression "bridge and tunnel" used by Manhattanites as shorthand to describe (unsophisticated) non-Manhattanites. The view of New York from an approaching ship is already an iconic American image; one can imagine it applied to all American cities. New York is matched, on the West Coast, by San Francisco and its surrounding cities - not an island-chain, but still a place defined by waterfronts, bridges and tunnels. Boston, similarly, is a peninsula. These are beautiful places; the American mode of city-building could have thrived in Columbonesia. Consider the Florida Keys, an island chain transformed linked by the 127-mile Overseas Highway - a bridge-causeway that could be read as transforming the islands into a single megastructure or the world's largest inhabited bridge.

The way that America's rivers served as conduits for the settlement of the West shows how the straits in Amernonesia could have carried pioneers west - paddle steamers completely supplanting railroads as the engines of expansion.

More from the Keys. Image taken from the Flickr stream of jbaccile and used under a Creative Commons licence.

But what of the roadside architecture that America's wide-open (contiguous) spaces have inspired? Among teeming thousands of islands, it's pleasing to imagine a vibrant wharf-front architecture springing up - eye-catching decorated sheds and Long Island Ducks designed to draw in visitors from the traffic streaming long the Interstate sealanes. Wharf-front architecture and decoration is the ancestor of the gaudy Great Sign and googie structures we know today. PLaces like Nyhavn and Bryggen can be read as the Las Vegas Strip of the ocean-going age, best understood from a boat as the Strip is best understood from a car. Hanseatic gabled architecture is the grandaddy of the decorated shed. One can easily and happily imagine it propelled into the 20th and 21st century - Wan Chai with Venturian characteristics.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

I Have Always Relied on the Strangeness of Crowds

An Angelyne billboard in Los Angeles; Angelyne is a model/actor more famous for her self-promoting billboards than for her modelling or acting. Image taken from the Flickr Stream of Thomas Hawk and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Simon started it, by asking Peter on Twitter what he thought of a writer's attempt to "crowdfund" a book - soliciting small donations from a large number of people in order to cover her living expenses while she turned out the deathless prose. I contributed a few off-the-cuff remarks, as did Tims Maly and Maughan. Tim Maly has done a superb job of gathering together the key points here - or at least the key points as they stood on 14 February, because since then the entire business has continued to bubble and spread like the instant pudding in Woody Allen's Sleeper. Tim followed up his heroic bit of Twarchiving with a more detailed post summarising his position, opening a new front of discussion in the comments; Peter (D Smith, nonfiction book critic for the Guardian) a post of his own; Michelle Pauli on the Guardian's books blog also joined in, bringing a vastly larger audience with her and opening a third front in her own comment section; and, perhaps inevitably, the author in question has struck back (in the comments on the second Quiet Babylon post and the Guardian piece). Meanwhile, it's still being discussed on Twitter.

Since everyone else is talking about it, I'm keen to clarify my own position (for my own benefit as much as anyone's), but I'll try to keep it brief. It's a difficult subject though, combining the emotive and subjective fields of art and money, and every time I type a general point, a host of exceptions pop up like Oompaloompas with icepicks and gouge holes in it.

I don't have any antipathy towards Zandt herself, or her venture - the real question is the value of crowdfunding as a general model for publishing. And I think it makes a very bad model. Writing and fundraising require very, very different sets of skills, and in some cases those skills are mutually exclusive. Writing is a solitary business; writers should not have to build communities around themselves in order to support their writing.

The community that Zandt has built is just one of the reasons she's a special case - she also has a deal already, a tight deadline, and the kind of profession that allows one to take three months off. These factors are not common and mean that crowdfunding might work for her while not working for other people.

More important than that is the fact that raising money from book sales (rather than crowdfunding) works. Risk is acceptably distributed between the parties involved, and a fixed contribution, the price of the book, gets you a fixed return: the book. The return-on-investment in the Zandt model is lousy; you only get a "free" book if you give more than $100. There are far better models than that - I like Robin Sloan's Kickstarter, for instance, which offers a sliding scale of contribution and reward. I like it this way - I think it is healthier for writers to think of themselves as producing works for sale, rather than having an artistic hobby and a lifestyle that has to be supported. Selling books supports the writing as well as the writer; crowdfunding just supports the writer. I strongly believe that writers do deserve to be paid for their work - the idea that paid artistic output is obsolete because true artists would continue to work even if they had no expectation of reward is an insulting and repellent aspect of the internet's (mostly otherwise admirable) open-source culture.

To take a step back, what do I mean about crowdfunding supporting the writer but not the writing? So many of the great books have been written by trainwrecks: drunks, junkies, wifebeaters, wifeshooters, boors, holders of insane and disgusting views, mooches, liars, cheats, sloths, reprobates, the list goes on and on. The history of literature is littered with patrons getting dicked around by writers - and vice versa. I wouldn't want to fund Malcolm Lowry's lifestyle, but I'll happily buy a copy of Under the Volcano. The work is what matters, but this funding based on no upfront writing - not so much as a list of chapter headings or an elevator pitch - naturally attaches attention to the author. Look at the unpleasant way that attention has adhered to Zandt's lifestyle, appearance and manner. The work is worth something; that's what we should remember in an age when a distressing number of people seem to believe that books should be free (or next to free) and writers should fund themselves through unrelated work or tipjars and T-shirt sales. Book presales - "buying a copy" before the thing is written - is a model I could imagine, but I would still prefer that the publishing copy handled that risk in the form of an advance. That, I think, is what publishing companies are or should be for.*

All that said, here's a strange thing. I don't have any trouble with an actual charitable appeal by an author - for instance, if a writer said they're going through a financial blackspot and need £5000 to keep their house, I would chip in (if I liked the author). Because that's charity. Replacing the income from book sales with systematic charity in the form of crowdfunding is the beggarisation of literature.

* Here's an idea for redistributing the risk in publishing - crowdpledging. How about a publisher says "get 1000 people to say they'll buy a copy of your proposed book, and we'll give you a contract?" Could that be made to work?

Monday, 15 February 2010

Islands of Flickering Light

"Night Flight", taken from AMD5150's Flickr stream and used under a Creative Commons licence.

My recent post about Jonathan Littell's book The Kindly Ones was long enough, and yet I still don't feel that I quite did justice to the Stalingrad sequence. The chapter stays on my mind, particularly its unrelenting opening. The Kindly Ones is full of powerful, regularly horrific and surreal, imagery – a lengthy blog post could be written about its treatment of underground (excuse me, U-bahn) stations, but it would be spoiler-heavy – so what was it that made Maximilien Aue's flight into Stalingrad so haunting? This post won't return to The Kindly Ones in depth. What I want to do instead is tie together the Stalingrad sequence with a number of other scenes from books and films, and with any luck compose some general conclusions about technology, civilisation, infrastructure, power and what might be called islands or pockets.

So what follows is a kind of chain of connected phenomena.

1. In my previous post, I talked about the encirclement of the German armies at Stalingrad as a sick technological joke. What kept the “kessel” alive for the brief time it held out was not resupply from the air – which never even approached adequacy – but the promise of resupply from the air, specifically Goering's vain boast that the Luftwaffe was up to the job, pending eventual relief on the ground. The hope is that normal service will shortly be resumed. And when Aue arrives we're treated to a picture of 1940s high-tech in a state of advanced stress: the airfield, surrounded by wreckage, under constant bombardment, the Wehrmacht radio trucks clustered together, aerials maintaining an electronic link with the outside world, the HQ in snow-covered rail cars. These details are unusually memorable and moving, and I think that the reason is their precarity. These technological sinews keeping the kessel alive are extremely precarious and vulnerable.

Sketch of the "Kessel", the pocket of surrounded German troops at Stalingrad.

But the situation in the kessel is also evocative because the place is a world in its own - a microstate struggling to keep alive, with its own self-contained hierarchies and infrastructure, albeit starving and in a state of terminal collapse.

2. In James Cameron's film Titanic (discussed recently over on Fantastic Journal), some of the most moving shots are when we see the crippled ship from a distance, surrounded by dark, empty, freezing ocean. It is an ember on a sheet of black ice. As it sinks, there's a moment when we see the desperate situation in the electricity generating plant - men frantically throwing circuit breakers amid total chaos as the rising water consumes and shorts the ship's electrics. They are trying, in the face of inevitable failure, to keep the lights on. We have not hitherto seen the ship's power plant, and of course we don't see it again. Up until that moment, the lights are just background - they're a given, implicit, or as Peter Sloterdijk would say, they are latent. Then we see the desperate men in the power plant, and they suddenly become explicit - we see the precarity of the ship's lights. And then the lights go out. The ember goes dark.

It's a critical moment in the death of the ship – in some ways as important as the moment when it breaks in half, or the moment when it finally disappears beneath the waves.

Again, here, the ship is microcosmic, a high-tech product of Edwardian civilisation, and a self-contained world. Its sinking can be seen as a period when the denizen of that microcosmos attempt to keep it running – power, lights, class system – in ever-harsher conditions, until the moment of disappearance.

3. In High Rise, JG Ballard presents us with a giant tower block that is designed as a self-contained city for its residents, complete with shops, banks, swimming pools, schools, health clubs and so on. (Le Corbusier aimed in this direction with the Unite d'Habitation, and to connect it with the previous item, it 's worth remembering that he was drawing on the design of Edwardian ocean-going liners.) Following the logic of their building, the tower's residents reject the outside world and set about pursuing arcane tribal wars. As conditions in the tower deteriorate, the power fails on many floors - patterns of blackness across the facade of the building, and flickering lights, are recurrent motifs in the book. The air-handling, garbage and water infrastructures also decline, or are weaponised by one floor against another. The habitable pockets inside the building break apart and shrink. At the end of the book, it becomes clear that the disintegration that swept through the tower has started in another building in the same complex - its lights are going out.

Of course, the news that visitors were stranded on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa recently by a lift breakdown brought this story to mind.

"City Afire", taken from BWJones' Flickr stream and used under a Creative Commons licence.

4. The George Romero film Land of the Dead isn't great, but it has its good points. In it, civilisation has been wiped out by a zombie apocalypse, but some survivors have managed to form a basic society in the middle of the city of Pittsburgh, protected on three sides by rivers and on the fourth by an electric fence. And there's a fortress within this fortress, a gated community housing the elite. Again, a precarious island of light in an ocean of dangerous darkness. Of course Romero's earlier Dawn(s) of the Dead have a similar premise, with survivors holed up in a shopping mall - a perverse island of consumerism, with power and light, surrounded by savagery. In the 2004 remake of Dawn, this isolation is driven home by the survivors' communication (by whiteboard) with a man trapped in a nearby gun store. He's only a street away, but might as well be on the moon.

5. The remade Battlestar Galactica exemplifies the sort of mood I'm talking about. Battlestar concerns a ragged fleet of ships housing the few tens of thousands of people left alive after a devastating attack by the robot Cylons. From the very first moment, everything in the fleet is on the brink of running out - water, power, fuel, ammo, fighter ships, pilots. Scarcity is a more pressing menace than the pursuing Cylons, and much of the drama in the series comes from the fleet's internal political difficulties as it implements rationing and a kind of war-socialism while attempting to keep up internal democracy. It is fabulously claustrophobic and tense - at times it's Das Boot with spaceships.

6. In the new Stephen King novel Under the Dome - which I haven't read - a community in New England is cut off from the outside world by a myterious dome, and swiftly reverts to barbarism. The plot is strangely similar to the fate of Springfield in The Simpsons Movie; indeed, Springfield's steady decline is one of the stranger things about that film, being uncharacteristically dark for The Simpsons - a haggard Kent Brockman informs the populace of rolling blackouts. (Similarly, I sometimes find myself idly wondering what would happen if my apartment building, or the train carriage I'm in, were suddenly cut off from civilisation. This - on the scale of an apartment building and a single house respectively - is what happens in the films REC and Right At Your Door, but they don't quite fit into this post. Will Self has written entertainingly about this, in an essay in which he imagines that he is trapped in the Eden Project on a day trip by an ecological catastrophe and he and his fellow day-trippers have to organise a feudal society - a lottery-funded Battlestar Galactica.) (Actually, there's another Stephen King datapoint: The novella The Mist, in which New England townsfolk are trapped in a supermarket by a dense fog containing horrible creatures. The generator that is providing the supermarket's electricity become highly important.)

7. I recently flew over the Isle of Man at night. The whole island was visible from the plane window, towns and roads lit up. That whole place could be powered by a single generating station, I thought, a closed system - but a precarious one. Then I considered my only situation, in a plane thousands of feet up, warm and comfy but only foot away from the screaming breathless nothing. Precarious.

So what does all this amount to? I've long had an interest in end-of-the-world dramas and tales of besieged cities; I think what it might amount to is an interest in seeing technological civilisation under stress, or to see technological civilisation pared back to the barest possible minimum. This kind of situation exposes the workings of the machine, the sinews holding it together; the "threads" that gave Mick Jackson's nuclear war drama its name. Seeing a microcosmic part working (or failing to work) exposes the workings and the vulnerabilities of the whole. It also exposes those "givens" or "latencies" at work in our society: we expect the lights to stay on, we expect water to come out of the taps, we expect there to be food in the shops - we expect these things so totally that we don't even think about them.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Pocket Utopias

Kanakee Ward, Kanakee State Hospital, Illinois, from Christopher Payne's book Asylum. (Via)

Ruins are seemingly inescapable nowadays - here I am reviewing a beautiful book of photographs of America's decaying mental hospitals. Here, and here, are the details of the book itself.

I was given a pleasingly generous word limit for the piece, which of course I used to the full, and I'm not surprised that an unlucky sub has had to cut it quite a bit. That's all for the best, but here's a paragraph from the original with some interesting details:

These hospitals were built at an extraordinary pace from the middle of the 19th century until into the 20th century. At the time, alternative treatment for mental illness was non-existent – madness was a route to destitution, imprisonment and early death. Reformers campaigned for the construction of homes for the mentally ill, and American states – frothing with prosperity and neophyte civic pride – competed to build them bigger and better. The clamour, crowds, pollution and disorder of urban life were thought to contribute to insanity, so the new hospitals were built outside towns and cities on open land. The designs were utopian – they included gardens for rest and pleasure, and agricultural land so that the patients could work. Many hospitals were self-sufficient. The buildings were, for the time, high-tech, with central heating and gaslight – in period photographs, they could be mistaken for resort hotels. Hospitals were, after the 1850s, generally laid out according the “Kirkbride” plan, with a central block for administration and staff quarters, from which stretched two long wings, one for each sex. Self-sufficient, highly centralised and controlled, removed from the depredations of industrial civilisation and minutely organised according to sex, class and condition, the Kirkbride hospitals were 19th-century pocket utopias.

(Some very repetitive writing there, and the rhythm isn't great. Drat.)

There were two striking elements to this part of the story for me: first, that cities and urban life were thought to cause or exacerbate madness, and second the conscious utopianism of asylum design. The anti-urban taint to the philosphy behind the hospitals is interesting. And as the asylums are total environments – in contrast to other 19th-century institutional buildings, such as prisons, schools and workhouses, they provide for every aspect and stage of a person's life – there is unparalleled scope for turning them into little models of a perfect world, a “pocket utopia”. With that in mind, it's possible to see in greater detail their appeal to 19th-century social reformers.

A hospital on the Kirkbride plan.

Those two strands, then, connect in my mind these giant asylums with the Garden City Movement. There's that same hygienic concern with separating people from the malign influence of the big bad city and reconnecting them with the healing powers of the rural landscape. And there's also that stifling clerkish utopianism: the winged Kirkbride plans of mental hospitals have the same organisational impulse in them as Ebenezer Howard's compass-drawn plans for garden conurbations, orderly orbiting planets in a universe set right.

In between the suburb-planets of Howard's garden cosmos, what do we see? Insane asylums, homes for waifs, epileptic farms, homes for inebriates. The social debris of the 19th century, and the casualties of industrial society, being looked after – but also out of the way. It's a mistake to write off these reforming instincts as pure anti-urban prejudice, as the 19th-century city was undoubtedly an unhealthy place to live. But the 19th-century concern was social contagion as much as poor housing or air pollution. Mentally ill people were seen as a potentially destabilising force while in the cities – their removal was for the health of society as much as for their own good. The Garden City is the world run as a Victorian hospital.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Imagining the Nazis

Part of an anti-fascist photomontage by John Heartfield, via this Flickr feed.

Controversy is a strange thing. Unlike rage or disgust, you can't feel controversy – it's not an emotional response to a work of art. It is, at best, an abstract, group phenomenon, a manifestation of the hive mind, something that you can take part in somehow (details are hazy). At worst – and I think this is the case nine-tenths of the time – it is entirely contrived, imagined, a Jabberwocky invented by yellow press that can pursue targets that aren't actually causing any rage, disgust or hurt feelings. Controversy is a red herring – either the problem is something else (the thing in question is revolting, hurtful, dangerous or whatever) or there is no problem.

Over Christmas and the New Year I read a controversial book – Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, a fictional memoir of an SS officer closely involved in the Holocaust. An attempt to get inside the head of a Nazi genocidaire, The Kindly Ones was feted in France and condemned in Germany and by the influential Michiko Kakutani in the USA. A delightful miasma of ill-repute surrounded the book when I picked it up in the spring of 2009 - I then proceeded to ignore it on a shelf for some months, intimidated by its length - more than a thousand pages of closely printed hardback.

It took about a month to read - far more time than I'd normally have to devote to a book - but the effort was worth it. It's superb, and I think it's a fairly safe bet that its reputation will grow in the coming decades. Much of its content is revolting: the protagonist, Maximilien Aue, is personally involved in mass-killing of Jews in occupied Russia, and later in the mechanised slaughter of the extermination camps in Poland. He's also a sexual and moral degenerate, possessed by incestuous desire for his sister and sexual hatred of his Mother. It's not easy to like him, but spend enough time in any character's company and (if they're well written) you will at least begin to understand their patterns of thought and the how they see the world.

And Aue is superbly written. The book has its off-passages, where it drags, but at its best it is magnificent. Aue is not a front-line soldier - he is in the rearguard, theoretically charged with military security but in fact among those responsible for exterminating large chunks of the civilian population of the Soviet Union (mostly the Jews). The opening third of the book, 1941-1942, cover the helter-skelter early successes of operation Barbarossa, and for Aue the pestilent absurdities of turning the mystic hatred of a handful of daydreaming bigots into actual "actions". Much turns on the practical question of how to kill very large numbers of people efficiently: and with minimum human cost to the killers. (That's the Nazi state all over - institutional mass violence coupled with soppy-stern nannying.)

In the Caucasus, where the Wehrmacht's advance finally runs out of steam, Aue become involved in steadily more crazy hair-splitting over the questions of which nationalities should be exterminated and which should be considered potential allies – an attempt to fine-tune racial boundaries that is totally in the realm of pseudoscience, given that the whole notion of distinct races is doubtful. One character is able to voice this view at one point – in context, the moment is utterly shocking, as the story is told from the point of view of a man whose entire job is identifying and “dealing with” racial differences. Although Aue is insane – possibly at the start of the book and certainly by the end of it – he's also lucid, and makes his case. Of course he can't come close to justifying the business to the readers, but instead he stirs up clouds of relativism (at the time Aue is writing his memoir, the Vietnam war is being fought, giving opportunities for a lot of “are we really so different” talk) and attempts to show the logic of the actions where it exists. He doesn't harbour any particular hatred of the Jews; instead, for him, the “problem” is all logistics and linguistics – and efficiency, as he is at the perversely humane end of the spectrum of Holocaust engineers: if such a group is subhuman, better to use them as slaves than to waste resources snuffing them out, no? Senseless killing bothers him because it is senseless, not because it is killing.

Anti-fascist playing card, via this site and the Bibliodyssey Twitter feed.

With its involved (pseudo-)academic debates and bitchy rivalries, for a surreal moment The Kindly Ones feels like a campus novel, with the occasional interlude of ultraviolence (a rhythm that reminds one of American Psycho). This moment is cut short when Aue is sent to Stalingrad.

The Stalingrad sequence is astonishing - an awe-inspiring symphony of human misery, pain and violence that I think propels Littell's book from the merely good to the great. When Aue arrives, the German armies besieging the city have already been encircled, in turn, by Soviet armies. Inside the encirclement, the “kessel” (cauldron), conditions are beyond terrible. The imagery of Aue's arrival in the kessel is haunting – it is snowbound; an ominous mountain of wreckage overlooks the airfield, which is under constant artillery fire; a cluster of radio trucks; a line of railway carriages, buried in snow, serving as a field office. The railway goes nowhere – the airfield and the radio trucks are the only link with “civilisation”. Indeed, the airfield – and Goering's vain promise that the trapped armies could be supplied by air – is the only reason the kessel does not collapse immediately. The promise is that 1940s high-tech (in the form of radio and Junker aircraft) can redeem the situation – but it is doing is prolonging the agony. Many of Aue's (savage and strange) experiences in the city take place in the structures of modernity: theatre, factory, department store.Although it's not written as such, the Stalingrad sequence of The Kindly Ones feels like a mockery of the whole idea of technological civilisation. Having read Antony Beevor's superb book about Stalingrad, I was interested to see exactly how Littell could do justice to the real story of the battle there – but he succeeds, superbly.

There's much else - Stalingrad doesn't even take the book to the half-way point - but this isn't a review or a summary, more a sweeping together of loose ends of thought. Back to the matter of controversy. It's now 65 years since the defeat of Nazism. There is a desire, an understandable desire, to screen off the Nazis from the imagination - to keep them in the realms of heartless supervillains or comic butts of jokes, rather than flesh them out as human beings. It is somehow feared that a book like The Kindly Ones, and a character like Aue, makes Nazism thinkable again. Aue, for all his insanity and despicable traits, says "hey, see things my way", and if we read to the end, we've given him a hearing. And some believe that they shouldn't be given that hearing at all.

It doesn't matter if this is a reasonable position or not - given time, the special cultural status of the Nazis is going to crumble. We're fortunate that the first fruits of this cultural thaw are extremely high quality: The Kindly Ones and Downfall are superb. The "angry Hitler" remixes on Youtube are a sign that the dam is bursting, but luckily standards have been set quite high.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Two Very Short Stories

Houses in Ixtapaluca, Mexico. Image taken from the Flickr photostream of jmb1977 and used under a CC Licence.

[These are two stories written for the Ballardian/Savoy Books microfiction competition, the results of which have now been announced. Stories written for the contest had to explore Ballardian or Savoyard themes. "Live-Work" got an honourable mention. The second story, "Unruins", was inspired by the above image, first seen on this Things post some months ago. It's now the basis of a longer, more elaborate project, to be announced at a later date.]


“After the crash, all the money went out of urban renewal,” said the property developer, Maxinalon. “This warehouse conversion was slumming itself anyway, so ...”

He had moved in the dealers and the people-traffickers. The live-work units were now meth labs, and the niche coffee outlet was a burned-out husk. The redundant creatives had adapted marvellously, because the hours were flexible.

To the sound of the exhausted police beating down the period-feature, iron-braced doors (wires trailed from the smashed entryphone), Maxinalon smiled a smile that was all percentages. “We’ve exhausted the potential of regeneration; the future is obviously degeneration.”


The machines were still moving somewhere on the surface of the mutilated planet. They still extruded the epoxycrete frames of suburban houses, open at both ends, windows gaping. In some places, the land was eight deep in rapid-rendered family homes, jumbled in the upper levels as walls intersected with pitched roofs and the detritus of civilisation. Pictures from the ocean floor were discouraging. The hunting party had found a pocket of stale air in a second level subdivision. A car radio was embedded in the wall, and snarled the signals of new lifeforms emerging in the unruins.