Ellis Sharp - Informed by influences as various as Swift, Gogol, Proust and Joyce, these fictions engage with language and the nature of narrative as they explore history, story-telling, memory, philosophy and the monstrous temper of an age steeped in blood."
While this opinion is as banal and uninteresting as the novels it condemns, its inclusion points to the value of the journal form. Both Lamees Najim and My Struggle were written quickly, which we know from many interviews enabled Knausgaard to bypass the block he felt writing generic fiction. He could not find truth or necessity in that direction. In Lamees Najim, the baby's birth was on the second of May 2015 and my copy of the book arrived five months later to the day. Like My Struggle, it bypasses aesthetic concerns in order to go straight for what lies beyond life and writing in an age of information even as it includes only that which an age of information might comprehend. In doing so it echoes the question heard right at the start, a question coming from the sidelines, out of sight and quickly shut down, the name of someone or something beyond the conventions of news reports and the techniques of literature – what can it be called?
Ellis Sharp, Dead Iraqis: Selected Short Stories of Ellis Sharp, Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2009.
"Dead Iraqis brings together the best short fiction of one of Britain's leading underground writers. Written against the grain of commercial literary fiction, these stories from the era of neo-liberalism are often darkly comic in thrust, with a strong historical or political dimension. Emily Brontë runs off to Nicaragua and starts a new life as a guerrilla. Stalin fakes his death and becomes a Conservative MP. Karl Marx is discovered alive and well and living on the Isle of Wight. Using a range of techniques from collage to surreal satire, Sharp savages the values and delusions of the age, mocking everything from crop circles to political biography and imperialism. But Sharp is also a writer acutely conscious of literary tradition. Informed by influences as various as Swift, Gogol, Proust and Joyce, these fictions engage with language and the nature of narrative as they explore history, story-telling, memory, philosophy and the monstrous temper of an age steeped in blood."
"Ellis Sharp writes fiction unlike any other writer I have encountered to date... his books are jam-packed with wondrous things." - Lee Rourke
"Ellis Sharp is an outstanding rebuke to all those who think political fiction means drab and po-faced fiction. Who says it can't be surreal, enraged and utterly invigorating?" - China Miéville
" 'Please abandon your realist expectations,' says a talking train in one of the stories collected here. Ellis Sharp demands that we set aside a whole set of expectations, not only about realism, but also about political fiction and English literature. The techniques that Sharp employs in these stories - jump-cuts between different ontological spaces, words becoming worlds, facts bleeding into fictions - are familiar enough from postmodernist fiction. What makes Sharp unique is his application of these to British politics. The closest comparison that leaps to mind is Iain Sinclair - Sharp has something of the same feel for English place - yet Sharp's writing has none of the opaque hermeticism of Sinclair's. Even at its most playful, its least constrained by narrative, its most densely allusive, Sharp's writing has an openness, a lightness and a lucidity that Sinclair's work often lacks.
Dead Iraqis collects short stories that Sharp wrote between 1991 and 1999. At one level, Dead Iraqis can be read as a phantasmagoric alternative history of postwar England. It begins with a story in which the narrator - an unborn child - refuses to leave the womb for the whole duration of the Atlee government. The next story, "Dobson's Zone", follows the decline of Sixties radicalism into disillusion - "Lyotard and Baudrillard, post-Fordism, the world made safe for Nietszsche and NATO". "The Bloating Of Nellcock", meanwhile, is a ferocious broadside against Neil Kinnock: Sharp takes literally the former Labour leader's image as a "windbag", transforming him into a grotesquely inflated homunculus.
The title story, written in a similar spirit of Swiftian satiric savagery, is like a literary equivalent of Martha Rosler's photograpic collages, Bringing the War Home. Like Rosler, Sharp juxtaposes atrocity and death with scenes of domesticity. Rather than being kept at a safe distance, the "dead Iraqis" from the first Gulf War are dumped on English lawns, but they prompt neither horror nor outrage from the British public. They become instead a waste disposal problem, one more thing for homeowners to complain to the authorities about:
I rang the Town Hall and asked for the Dead Iraqi Disposal Officer... She wanted to know how many dead Iraqis were in our garden.At that point I am sorry to say I became petulant. How was I supposed to know how many dead Iraqis were in the garden? You know how it is with dead Iraqis -- they are almost always papery and fused together. It is like someone emptying two hundred packets of crisps in your garden and asking you how many individual crisps there are.
Sharp uses the same technique, but in reverse, in the later story "The Henry James Seminar At My Lai": here, the genteel and refined world of literary scholarship finds itself pitched into the middle of a battlefield.
In his informative introduction, Macdonald Daly (who some suspect is none other than Sharp himself - a conjecture that the ontological spirals of Sharp's fiction was bound to inspire) maintains that Sharp was at "the height of his confidence and consistency" at the time of his 1995 collection, Engels On Video. I must respectfully disagree with Daly on this point. The two stories from that book collected here - "An Interview With Nietzsche's Moustache" and "A Maze, A Muse, A Mule" - strike me as both over-indulgent and exhausted (and exhausting). The conceits - an expedition through a Nietzsche's moustache hyperbolically-inflated so it becomes a whole landscape; Engels meeting Janis Joplin and Nico - are not strong enough to hold together Sharp's teeming gaggle of tropes, jokes, speculations and leaps between worlds.
Sharp's stories work best when there is a logic - not a traditional narrative logic, but a logic of association and correspondence - motivating his juxtapositions. This is emphatically the case in Sharp's masterly 1992 story "The Hay Wain", in which the serenity of Constable's supposedly timeless painting is violently disrupted by proletarian rebellion. In "The Hay Wain", English culture and history become a repeating labyrinth where the rebels are always on the run from the forces of power and privilege. Fleeing Peterloo, Jack Frake eventually stumbles into the Suffolk scene Constable is painting; meanwhile, in 1990, a Poll Tax rioter takes refuge in the National Gallery and "notices what he has never noticed before on biscuit tins or calendars, or plastic trays on the walls of his aunt's flat in Bradford, those tiny figures bending in the field beyond."Sharp replaces the dominant pastoral image of the English countryside, not with a deflated quotidian realism, but with a different kind of lyricism, one coloured by revolt: fields and ditches become hiding places or battlegrounds; landscapes that on the surface seem tranquil still reverberate with the unavented spectral rage of murdered working class martyrs. It is not the sunlit English afternoon that is "timeless", but the ability of the agents of reaction to escape justice. When the Poll tax rioter is clubbed by police and his blood starts to stain Constable's emblem of English nationhood, we're uncomfortably reminded of more recent episodes. "He was resisting arrest, right? Right mates? (Right, Sarge.)... We used minimal force, right?... Don't piss yourself and we'll see this thing through together, right mates?... Everyone'll be on our side, remember that. The commisioner. The Federation. The papers. And, if it comes to it, the Coroner. Now fucking go and call for an ambulance." - Mark Fisher
"The title story of this volume was, we are told in a note at the end, written between 10.30am and 4.45pm on 3 March 1991. This is more than a mere detail: it is the day after the US 24th Infantry Division, at a cost to themselves of one damaged armoured vehicle, one tank, and one wounded soldier, more or less wiped out the Iraqi Republican Guard as they retreated, two days into a ceasefire, from Kuwait along the coastal Highway 8.
Sharp's response is savage, as savagely indignant as Swift. He paints a hurried picture (the story is almost the shortest in the book) of an outraged narrator who rings up the council after waking up to discover "a quite astonishing heap of dead Iraqis in our front garden. There were so many that some of them had spilled over the top of the hedge and on to the pavement."
In a way, this is not wholly representative of Sharp's work. A more typical example of his skewed vision comes in the story "A Maze, A Muse, A Mule", in which we meet Friedrich Engels sitting in a bar called El Quijote, drinking tequila. Up comes Janis Joplin, who offers to buy him a drink. "Engels could see at once that Janis Joplin was one of those young women who are suffering because of the relative disappearance of a generally accepted systematic metaphysics that bears on daily life." That last phrase, as I doubtless need hardly remind you, comes from "Anni Mirabiles, 1921-1925: Reason in the Madness of Letters", one of the American critic RP Blackmur's lectures on modernist poetry. "Janis was dazzled by the clarity and power of Friedrich's prose. It was after reading The Bakunists at Work that she wrote 'Mercedes Benz'."
At which point I found myself becoming quite fascinated by Sharp. His first name was also the first nom de plume of Emily Brontë - and she features here in a story called "Shooting Americans with Emily" ("Her family. They drove her to it. Sister Charlie a real bitch, sister Anne a pious worm"). He had existed on the fringes of my consciousness; a rumour more than anything concrete. He was published only by one obscure independent publisher (Zoilus Press), and went out of his way to shun publicity. "Sharp's scalding up-front politics and the literary demands he makes on his readers will inevitably alienate him from a mass readership," says Macdonald Daly in his introduction (and I would be very surprised, incidentally, if "Macdonald Daly" and "Ellis Sharp" were not, in reality, the same person. Daly does the criticism, Sharp the fiction).
But, as I hope I have indicated, Sharp can be funny ("a spectre is haunting Ventnor - the spectre of Marx"), although the humour can be appalling, saturated in unease. "'Literary criticism can be a powerful thing,' agreed infantryman Roschevitz as he shot three participants in the head with an M-16 'for not having anything new to say about the first paragraph of The Ambassadors." (This from the arrestingly titled "The Henry James Seminar at My Lai".) But elsewhere Sharp exploits the full comic potential of the language of revolutionary communism, and makes play with the movement's historical figures. Stalin fakes his death and becomes, after some initial resistance on its part, a member of the West Bognor Conservative Association. ("Does he look like a mass-murderer?") A disgraced civil servant travels to cold-war era Russia in order to unravel the mystery of Lenin's trousers.
But other stories pile anything and everything in. One would not have thought an author could link Che Guevara and the Loch Ness monster, but Sharp does. Sharp is sui generis. At times he comes across as if he were a compound hallucination dreamed up by Iain Sinclair, William Burroughs (formulaically only; few drugs and no pederasty here) and... well, himself. This might sound like an unappealing mix but I am delighted to have read him. You can trust him because beneath the zaniness, at the level of the sentence, he is very good indeed. This is not magic realism. These are the bad dreams of the 20th century." - Nicholas Lezard
Interview with Ellis Sharp
The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Ellis Sharp: This is a "Greatest Hits" compilation, which covers the period 1991 – 1999. So all in all, about a decade. The title story Dead Iraqis, inspired by a photograph of a burned corpse, was written in a single draft over a period of six hours. But that’s unusual. Some of the others took months. I like congested texts (which is why I like Ulysses and Under the Volcano) and my drafts tend to collect clutter as they expand.
TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
ES: Not originally. The stories just bubble up. But certain themes started to emerge, such as rewriting history by putting famous people in unlikely situations, like sending Emily Brontë to Nicaragua, for instance, or making Charles Fort into a revolutionary and Karl Marx into a paranormal investigator.
TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
ES: Mac Daly, who is an academic at the University of Nottingham, made the selection. I was invited to participate in choosing the stories but I declined. If I had been involved I would have included some of my more recent work. Mac prefers the early stuff. However, I think it’s a coherent and tight collection, and I’m pleased it ends with Tympoptanomania, as this story embodies my interest in collage.
TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?
ES: Plot, which can be a trap. Plot can become a substitute for emotional and intellectual engagement. And “story” also signifies fiction that’s shorter than a novella. The shortest story I’ve written is Re Dare, 35 words. It puns on "reader" and "read air" (in a volume entitled Aria Fritta, which means "fried air" and is the Italian expression for nonsense). The length of my stories has shrunk in recent years.
TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
ES: No. Although my readers will likely be people who enjoy satire and have an interest in left politics, avant-garde literature and movies.
TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
ES: Did you laugh? How often?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
ES: Anxious. Will they get to the end?
TSR: What are you working on now?
ES: My fourth novel, which is about the end of the world. To my mind, the great theme of our time is climate break-up. But this can’t be approached literally. Realism doesn’t appeal to me. There has to be displacement. I am pessimistic about the future of the human species, but then literature has always been interested in entropy (think Hamlet). So I veer towards bleakness and unhappy endings
TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?
ES: John Updike, The Early Stories 1953-1975, Tao Lin, Bed, Patricia Highsmith, Nothing That Meets The Eye. I have a love-hate relationship with Updike. Impressive craftsmanship, sometimes drowning in syrup. I think Tao Lin is one of the most original and interesting new voices to emerge in contemporary American writing. And Patricia Highsmith is amazing. I like the way she torments conventional narrative expectation.