Her fingers called her in the middle of the night. The telephone rang – it woke her – and she sat up, blinded by darkness, and reached out her hand for the receiver. Pressed it, cold against her ear. It was them, her fingers. They played Beethoven to her.

It happened every night. In the morning, she looked at her hands and counted the digits and wondered how her fingers could be living this double life. Sometimes she sat down at the piano in the TV lounge and placed her fingers on the keys, but nothing came of that. Only plink plink plink crash, and the shooting pains that went from her fingertips all the way up through her arms, to her heart. Then she would take as many of the prescription painkillers as she dared, laying them out in ranks on her bedside table. One for sorrow, two for joy… a third and a fourth… and then her hands would be completely numb and useless.

Beethoven. It was always Beethoven. She had used to like Philip Glass, but her fingers liked to play the Moonlight Sonata. She knew they were her fingers, because they stumbled in just the places she always had. There was that terrible third. She remembered the sharp rap of her teacher’s voice: Adagio! Adagio! At least that was all over now.

But was it over? Why did her fingers telephone every night? Were they trying to tell her something, and if so, what was it? Sometimes she whispered into the receiver: if you can hear me, tell me what it is you want. But her fingers just carried on playing, on and on, until she either put down the phone or fell back to sleep listening to the music.

the flame alphabet

The Flame Alphabet may be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. The fact that it is beautifully written only adds to the nasty queasy feeling one is left with at the end. The sense of being made complicit in a series of cruel acts. I’ve never read a book which contains so much that is wrong and off and weird in the most unpleasant ways. Oh, but it is brilliant.

The subject of the novel is language. When language becomes toxic and lethally unspeakable, unhearable, and unreadable, all relationships fall apart, and love itself becomes impossible. Society breaks down, and the post-apocalyptic world is characterised by an inhuman desperation to re-connect with one another. That’s a very basic summary of the plot. The strangeness of the setting, the twisted Heath Robinson-esque contraptions deployed by the narrator in his efforts to cure himself of language illness, the secret cult of the Forest Jews who listen to sermons through flesh-like ‘listeners’ attached to cables underneath the earth, the scripts and signs that are also diseased – this all makes for a very odd novel full of thematic richness. But the most disturbing elements of the book are to do with parenthood, with fatherhood, to be precise. And in many ways, the novel is traditional – it has a protagonist and a plot, a beginning, middle and end. Yet there is something absolutely surreal and estranging about the writing that washes you up somewhere very far from home.

This novel made me feel slightly sick, if I’m honest. I appreciate that this is a meta-message – language is toxic – but mainly, I just feel a bit ill.

mind your language?

I was involved in a pub discussion the other night about whether certain extremely offensive words are okay to say and use, if you are not personally offended by those words or sitting next to someone who might be. One side of the argument claimed that words are neutral – if they hurt, it’s because of the speaker’s intention to hurt/the hearer’s allowing the words to hurt her. Another side was saying, words have power and meaning that they carry with them, regardless of who is speaking. A question was raised as to whether it’s possible to subvert the meaning of such words, or whether they should be unspoken and neglected until they fall out of usage.

My opinions don’t completely line up anywhere in this argument. Of course words have power of their own – some words carry a great deal of history and meaning with them. And we know that intentions aren’t all that matter – it’s the reader/listener who completes the meaning. So writers/speakers do have a responsibility to consider that the words they are using mean more, lots more, than they may want those words to mean. That’s why claiming the ‘right’ to use a word, just because it is a word in the language, isn’t as straightforward as it might be. People talk about freedom of speech – but what do you do when your freedom of speech forces another person/group of people into silence, or into inhabiting a marginalised position? I don’t know the answer to this.

On the other hand, powerful words derive their power from real social relations. There are highly unpleasant words used against women, for example, but getting rid of any of these words doesn’t eradicate misogyny. If there were no misogyny, there would be no hateful words used against women, and words which are now vile to us may persist but would no longer be vile.

There is also the question of context. Who is speaking, and when, and why? A group of women might use all sorts of language amongst themselves that would be offensive/threatening/nasty when used by a group of men, or called out in the street, or graffitied on a wall.

More convincing than any of this, for me, is the fact that I cannot speak some words without feeling faintly repulsed. The words themselves are toxic. You can see them having a physical effect on people who hear them, too. Something happens when these words are summoned into conversation. Something physically happens to people – they react bodily. That’s not a political argument, and more level-headed rationalists would probably dismiss it as twaddle of the worst kind. But it is true. A word aimed at you can make you shrink back, can make you cry, blush, fill you with adrenalin. Some words really hurt.

I’ve been reading ‘The Flame Alphabet’ by Ben Marcus, a novel in which the whole of language is toxic, where language can be used as a weapon to injure, sicken and kill. Children are immune to the toxicity of language, and it is they who hurt and kill their parents and others around them. Their motives are not really explored, and I suggest that this is because it’s motiveless to an extent. The children don’t make war on their parents for any rationalised reason. They do it because they can’t help it, because they must use language, must speak, and must say whatever they want to say. I’m interested in the idea that language has an existence of its own, like a virus that seeks to perpetuate itself by any means it can. If that is the case, our discussions about language are kind of pointless, except in that they keep reproducing language, which is only thing language itself cares about.


time will tell

So I was given an an assignment I really didn’t want to do. Write a diary entry from the perspective of your eighteen year old self. I didn’t want to do it for a number of reasons, none of which I care to rehearse here, all of which can be boiled down to, ‘stop taking everything so seriously, George.’

I’ve been thinking a lot about my eighteen-year-old self and where she is now. What happens to our selves as we get older? I mean, in my case, I became incredibly cool and popular, but does that mean my awkward, brash, unloved eighteen-year-old self is gone? Did I eat her? Or did she eat me, and that’s how she got older?

It should be clear already that I don’t have a clue how time works. But if, as the scientists say, all time is happening at the same time, then my eighteen year old self is right now existing just as much as I am. If she is existing now, then do the things I say and write about her affect her subconsciously? Does she have terrible dreams because I keep sending tendrils of story at her? Do I have terrible dreams because she is sitting in another room with a knife? How does it work – are there an infinite number of parallel universes in which every possible version of ourselves exists? That’s what they say, right? Every instant is happening right now, and somehow I am travelling through space, through the membranes between the worlds, and that’s what I’m calling time? If we could stop feeling time, would we be more than we are? Would we be all our selves at once? Or would the universe cease to exist?

Here’s a big question with no useful answer. What’s the difference between time and narrative? Because the way I see it, the only difference between me and my eighteen-year-old self is the story I am telling myself about myself and the world. (And, obviously, that I grew into my good looks.)

Time probably doesn’t work like this at all and I’m an idiot. Although I expect that the people who laugh at me for my unscientific and bizarre notions about time also don’t know anything about how it works or indeed what it is. Even scientists have to admit that time is made of language, and so it is a writer’s prerogative to wonder just how the hell it works, even if she makes herself look silly in the process.

not dead, just resting my eyes

Currently reading Barthes’ Death of the Author, which is not as much fun as the title would seem to suggest, given that no one actually dies in it. However, it is the prompt for some high dudgeon and dramatic outbursts. I overheard one of my fellow students referring to Barthes as “our enemy – the one who wants us all to disappear…” A very interesting construction to put on this text, the premise of which is unnecessarily obscure, but not especially controversial. He’s just saying, it’s about language, it’s not about you. Get over yourself. Right?