“Our words are entering a new era,“ writes Richard Makin on page 25 of Work. Boy ain’t that the truth. The world has undergone a paradigm shift and we need a language to reflect this condition, to explore its dimensions, measure its apertures and parameters, put a periscope up and take a look at the landscape. The world needs a Noah to survive this moment. An ark of paper and spine to transport the English language forward through time, preserving all of its former potential while adding new possibilities to its mutant future. Work is such an ark. The finesse of its hull and keel indicates a measure of work performed with gladness and invention and here are the results: a language pulsing, pounding, pushing forward with humor, wit, and unbridled elucubrations of life à la Tristram Shandy. Had Laurence Sterne survived into the second decade of the new millennium he may have written such a book. I see his wink of approval everywhere.
Work is not a vessel that operates by Newtonian mechanics. It observes some of those fundamental laws, but the main drift is one of non-linearity, constellated energies of atomic pop and sizzle, polysyllabic éclats of linguistic panache. The world in this book is highly unstable. It’s an arena of extreme volatility. This is my way of saying there isn’t a single, over-arching narrative – at least one that’s easy to spot – that carries you along in its current, but multiple narratives constellated in segments that are often highly accelerated by quick paratactic turns of phrase that relate obliquely to the subject while evoking alternate realities and rocking the mind back and forth. In brief, it functions more like a paste-up, a nomadic collage of neural science, entomology, ontology, paleontology, gobs of crazy surrealist twists, and an encyclopedic take on pretty much everything. The driver of this prose is its sheer delight in language. I already mentioned Tristram Shandy, but Work also runs a close parallel to Gustaf Flaubert’s so-called book about nothing, Madame Bovary, though Bouvard et Pécuchet, with its rampant and wanton hunger for experimentation, and its sharp satirical blade, runs a far closer parallel.
But enough about other works. I want to stick to this Work. Here is a sample paragraph:
I can never remember your name. Ash in the grave is said by some to resemble grey feathers.
Here then is the definition of spirit: a slow walk down, no rush, maybe even take a casual shot at a passerby. I took place at two o’clock last night:
- The empress or the costly electrician.
- The magician who claims that within all of us lives an inner bestiary.
- The holy fool, sectioned again.
The goal is amnesiac writing. The task of the disciple is to quarantine the self. Your cells will teach you everything.
Such is a small room in which a prisoner is locked up or in which a monk prays, or the smallest structural and functional unit of a life form – typically microscopic and consisting of cytoplasm and nucleus enclosed in a membrane – or a sealed cavity in an organism, a group forming a nucleus of political activity that is secret and subversive. Another device contained electrodes, immersed.
We entered a stormdrain that led to a vast subterranean chamber.
References and ideas are all over the map here. One item of immediate interest is the use of the pronoun ‘I’: “I took place at two o’clock last night.” ‘I’ becomes a happening, an activity, a phenomenon and not merely a static marker for a subjective state. The lateness of night is a clue that the phenomenality of the event is strange, perhaps exciting, and keeping the speaker – whoever it is – awake. The following itemized “definitions of spirit” are as enigmatic as they are distant from one another: an empress or a costly electrician, a magician who claims that within all of us is a bestiary, and a holy fool, who has been sectioned, again. Sectioned how, exactly? It sounds a bit gruesome, unless we take the word ‘sectioned’ in an abstract and figurative sense, sectioned visually, à la Picasso and early Cubism, or sectioned in a psych ward, which means you are being kept in hospital under the Mental Health Act. This would help explain the wildly disjunctive banging between sentences.
As one works one’s way more deeply into Work, we find sudden, inexplicable shifts between first person singular and third person singular, sometimes in both genders. There is the sense of an omniscient narrator standing in the shadows behind these words, but one cannot be too sure; it might be the language itself which has assumed a disturbing and frolicking autonomy.
“With every speech act I return to a state of purposelessness,” avers the mysterious narrator. A curious statement, to be sure. I’ve sometimes felt an acute sense of purposelessness, particularly when I’m writing, and it feels quite good, disencumbered and liberating. It could be an entire aesthetic, in the Kantian sense: a purposiveness without a purpose. Purposiveness is a sign that an object or concept was created by a rational agency following the pattern provided by a rational concept. Purposiveness is a thinking in reverse: to think from effect to cause, from particular to universal, from the object of the concept that made it possible, which is a process Kant called “reflective judgment.” Purposiveness without a purpose upends the entire dynamic. The end result is a detour for thought. And beauty: the beautiful stands outside purpose. It is essentially non-utilitarian. The same could be said for invention, creativity, and a partial comprehension of the incomprehensible.
“We are at twenty thousand leagues,” Makin states a few sentences further, invoking Jules Verne and a journey many fathoms deep in the ocean. “The structure,” he begins in the next sentence (‘structure’ is deliberately ambiguous; it could be a submarine, a garden shed, or the novel itself) “has no doors, no hinges of any kind. He (the pronoun ‘he’ is also deliberately ambiguous; it could be Captain Nemo, Moses, or Noam Chomsky) “strides up to my table and tells me the ark is concealed in full view, within the stone house we have been occupying for months.” ‘Ark’ is also left ambiguous; it could be the Ark of the Covenant, large boat, or any conceivable structure offering protection and safety. I’m reminded of Lacan’s theory of the human mind, that the human subject is always split between a conscious side, a mind that is accessible, and an unconscious side, a series of drives and forces which remain inaccessible, although evidence of its existence is in plain view.
“I’m inserting myself into a lengthy complex chain,” Makin writes on page 36, evoking the polypeptide chains of a semiotic biology. The last time I embarked on a journey like this I got words all over my brain. It’s a funny feeling, a hybrid mingling of the natural and unnatural, the macabre and the solicitous, the rational and irrational, the silly and the sly, the theatrical and the magical. It’s what the mind does. It plays hide and seek. It glows and vanishes like swamp gas. Here is how Makin describes the human psyche:
The psyche is largely clandestine, unrevealed, strictly confidential, untold, classified, undisclosed and unknown – it operates behind one’s back, off the record, concealed, camouflaged, covert, underground, hidden, shrouded, conspiratorial, surreptitious, underhand, coded, enciphered, arcane, concealed, unfrequented, solitary, sequestered, remote, isolated, secretive, unforthcoming, reticent, taciturn, silent, clamlike and introverted. As soon as one touches the uniqueness of the individual trajectory, it can no longer be witnessed and the observer becomes eyeless.
The irony here is both obvious, and hidden. Obvious in its profligate cloud of synonyms for that which is hidden. Hidden in its use of camouflage; the verbosity begins to seem like a smokescreen, obscuring the mind’s truer waters. The conscious mind sits unsteady on a raging bull already pounding at the gate.
Reading is a creative activity. It’s closely linked to the act of writing. Works like Work are particularly good at stimulating this faculty. Reading, at its most rewarding level, occurs when the words stir the embers in our skull and ignite our inner fire, and this becomes most apparent when there is a notable shift toward style over content; this doesn’t mean Work is without content, quite the contrary, it’s chock-a-block with philosophical quandaries and cognitive bumps and intellectual joyrides, so yes, it does have content, but it’s not delivered by a forward moving engine running on the steel rails of a single predetermined direction. Work is flagrantly Copernican. It doesn’t offer a privileged position with regards to the rest of the universe. It offers multiple positions all relative to one another. What we have are constellations of words, all bright and burning, that lead to the dark matter and the lairs of the unnamable.
“I am composing here a bitmap of indeterminacy,” Makin characterizes his method of making, “unnamable territory, a collision mentality.” Each paragraph, each body of prose reads like a construction based on the principles of Cubism. Seeming non-sequiturs, incongruous juxtapositions and a continual shifting of pronouns fracture our sense of time and space. Everything feels simultaneous, as if everything in human history and prehistory were occurring all at once. There’s a sense of disembodiment. Of looking down at earth from an altitude of 30,000 feet and seeing how sectioned and geometric the landscapes have become. There’s an aesthetic goal stated here as well, “These machined blocks of time accentuate quiddity, the whatness of things.” The persistence of the language to remain visible – physical, full of spurt and sputter – is what propels us forward. It’s not what is about to happen so much as what is already happening that makes this both a challenging and a stimulating read.
Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a non-hierarchical rhizomatic structure is as evident here as the roots of a mangrove forest in the Bay of Bengal. “The subject exists in the mode of having to realize its own being,” Makin writes on page 159. “If you went and later returned, what would that achieve?”
And what if all these events occurred at the same moment? Wouldn’t it be ideal, time folded back on itself, so that it fits neatly into the shelf in the closet, with the gravitational waves and planetary nebula?
Makin has a knack for incorporating the language of science in these prose fragments. They take on a strangely vatic flavor at times, or are used to heighten a sense of tremendous lucidity, the glare of things seen for the first time, or are chosen for their intrinsic surreality. We find a surplus of flagellum, protozoa, bacteria and spermatozoa assuming linguistic roles. The primal is imagined as a form of language inherent in the convulsions of a universe continually creating itself. The word ‘Origin’ emerges frequently in the guise of an animating force, a protagonist of cosmological significance. “Origin is us, formed on the pattern of bridgehead,” “Origin is sluiced from the verb…,” “Origin is old gnash (teeth) or crack (jaw) of unknown,” “Origin is six moves from corsair, an early experiment.”
All writing, by its very nature as a symbolic system, transcends reality. In the realm of fiction, it offers two basic approaches: the language of adventure or the adventure of a language in freedom. One is mimesis, the other kinesis, “a movement that is a response to a stimulus but is not oriented with respect to the source of the stimulus.” Makin’s Work combines both, offering facts that can be transformed through writing to create a synergy of fictions and non-fictions. Work – as an activity performed to achieve a purpose – is unpleasant due to its monotony; Work, as a book, as a language, as a body of writing, as a continuous making in Makin’s innervating schemata, works supremely well as a barometer of the unnamable, and as such, provides a spirited antithesis to the monotony of work.
© John Olson, 2022
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