Louis Armand - What do a crashed satellite, a string of bizarre murders and a time-warp conspiracy have in common? Welcome to CAIRO where the future’s just a game and you’re already dead.




Louis Armand,The Combinations, Equus Press, 2016.


The "European anti-novel" in all its unrepentant glory is here in THE COMBINATIONS, following in the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes, Joyce, Perec.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Not the Booker prize.

In 8 octaves, 64 chapters and 888 pages, Louis Armand's THE COMBINATIONS is an unprecedented "work of attempted fiction" that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. "Golem City"), across the 20th-century and before/after. Golem City, the ship of fools boarded by the famed D's (e.g. John) and K's (e.g. Edward) of the 16th/17th centuries (who attempted and failed to turn lead into gold), and the infamous H's (e.g. Adolf, e.g. Reinhard) of the 20th (who attempted and succeeded in turning flesh into soap). Armand's prose weaves together the City's thousand-and- one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s' awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. THE COMBINATIONS is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.

“Louis Armand’s The Combinations covers more linguistic territory than Dupriez’s Dictionary of Literary Devices and Vico’s On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians COMBINED. Worthy!” —Gregory L. Ulmer

"When an ambitious novelist or playwright decides to compose a modern realistic work--i.e. one imitating das Chaos der Zeit, as Hölderlin called the confusion of his own time, having no idea of what things were to become within a couple more centuries, that is, now, before our eyes--, the dusty so-called classical units become unexpectedly useful again. They provide a center to the chaos. Joyce's Ulysses happens all in Dublin, in a single day. Beckett's plays are models that even Boileau would have approved of. Now Louis Armand, the Australian writer who has lived in Prague for over twenty years at last count, has produced a major modern epic "novel," having Prague instead of Dublin for locale. At about 900 pages, it is a good deal longer than Joyce's Ulysses: if you enjoy the latter, you will find The Combinations to be almost 200 pages more fun and you will not want to miss it."  - Ricardo NirenbergOffcourse

“This ‘European anti-novel,’ as it has been called, is really much more than what it claims to be. It’s a vertiginous journey into the underbelly of a Central European world called ‘Golem City.’ At once humorous and erudite, stylish and poised, it will entrance the reader with its seemingly endless digressions that never bore. For anyone desiring to delve into Prague’s rich history—not as an academic lesson, but as an aesthetic experience—The Combinations is a must-read and certainly the best book of the year.” —Anthony Marais

"Louis Armand's The Combinations is a 'great novel' -- long and complex. It exemplifies remarkably the possibilities of the genre and contradicts the contemporary obsession with its decline and commodification. The Combinations unites several narrations, many gnomic and proverbial expressions, various literary frames and historical data/backgrounds.  Humor, puns and highlighted commonplaces -- however slightly altered by Armand's 'écriture': 'A man's only the sum of his whatsits, after all' -- make the reader able to preserve their own identity and point of view. Comments and pauses are allowed, as shown by the 'Intermission' section. That applies to future amateurs and defines the novel's play upon continuity and discontinuity. In its construction, The Combinations compares with David Mitchell's novels; by its balance between 'totalisation' and 'detotalisation' with Michel Butor's Degrés. Louis Armand's questioning humor, use of commonplaces, and rewriting of many typological stories recall the reflexive attitude of Robert Coover. The cover of The Combinations should not be ignored either, in that its collage offers a precise introduction to the novel. The Combinations should actually be viewed as starting with its front cover and ending with its back cover. That just confirms the questioning power of the novel, since the cover does not show any text, except for the author's name and the novel's title in quite small print."  - Jean Bessière


‘Perhaps,’ suggests the hero of Louis Armand’s The Combinations, ‘when you stare long enough a crack in the wall is just a mirror.’ Is this some kind of bizarre riddle, or a quip about psychosis? Whatever the joke is, it’s cock-eyed, knowing, deliberately obnoxious but still looking for a laugh. Such an opaque manoeuvre, like a snub to convention by someone who’s mastered it long before, is the stuff on which The Combinations thrives. The latest novel by Armand, a writer and theorist based in Prague, it sits fat and square at eight hundred and eighty-eight pages, divided into eight sections of eight chapters each. The mathematical precision might sound alarms for those wary of avant-garde gimmicks, but it shouldn’t take many of Armand’s readers by surprise, since neither he nor Equus Press have ever been shrinking violets about what his novels aspire to do. ‘Equus’ is an abbreviated form of ‘Écriture en quête d’usage’, and the Press (they themselves declare) stands ‘outside the literary establishment defined by the Anglo-American publishing industry, & outside the confines of nationalism, pursuing a broadly cosmopolitan “agenda”’. And that’s a statement that sounds retiring next to The Combinations’ press notes:
Louis Armand’s The Combinations is an unprecedented ‘work of attempted fiction’ that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. ‘Golem City’), across the 20th-century and before/after. Armand’s prose weaves together the City’s thousand-and-one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s’ awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. The Combinations is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.
There’s true ambition in trying to ride the big loop (all of Prague, all of history) and the small one (a single lost soul) at one and the same time. Even before opening a page of the novel, you have a warning pressed into your hand, a challenge to take its dreams seriously – whether or not you’re disarmed by its humour as well.
With all this formal symmetry flaunting its curves, when matters get under way there’s little attention left for any intricacies of plot. The Combinations is not a novel which cares to keep much of an end in view. Němec is our protagonist, a grubby youngish man of dubious health – physical and mental – and he’s averse to plot as well, probably because plot would give him a line by which to live. He avoids most things that might give his life direction. Instead, he scratches around the booze and grime of central Prague; he wallows in reveries, dreams and drunkenness; in more sober moments, he becomes absorbed in the perennial shadow-present of the unsolved ‘Voynich manuscript’. Unearthed in 1912 by the art-dealer Wilfrid Voynich, this fifteenth-century codex is illustrated with drawings of plants and weird nymphs, and written in a peculiar script which remains undeciphered today. (Last year’s facsimile edition from Yale University Press can testify to its hold over scholars as well as novelists.) The impenetrability of the manuscript has accrued a mass of rumours, suppositions, deranged beliefs, over which The Combinations ranges with glee and at considerable length. Is it encrypted in code, and is that code unbreakable? Was it written by Roger Bacon, or Athanasius Kircher? (Would its contents even be interesting? Is it just a fraud by Voynich?) The thrill of the chase might be the heart of another, simpler novel – even Dan Brown can squeeze plots from cryptography – but The Combinations hasn’t got a heart, not a human one, rather something paranoid and mechanical. The mystery is never likely to be solved, not in Armand’s world – it’s more likely to crack its pursuer. Like the manuscript, a mystery both hypnotic and faintly silly,
Armand’s talent in his best works so far – Cairo (2014), Canicule (2013), Breakfast at Midnight (2012) – lay in his ear for snappy phrases, for the dash of vivid image framed neatly in rhythm. There are instances of this in The Combinations too – ‘agents of mindfuck paranoias, agents of entropy’; ‘the circle closed, so to speak, & in closing, opened’ – but the novel prefers to exult in its sprawl. It’s the longer, baggier, sickeningly rich sentences that capture the spool of Němec’s mind:
Němec did his best to envision echoes of machined angelspeak blown by cosmic winds, of agonies & bewailings, fall of Babel, toppling stone & shattered etceteras, Nimrod’s gibberish. But to no effect: the words on the page looked simply like the shrieks of an inmate in a nuthouse. Convulsive xenoglossings of the pentecostally brainbaked.
At times we know it’s him talking; at others it’s someone else, one (or more) narrative voice(s); they all become entangled with the flow. The distinctions between Němec and Prague are never clear, as if he were only a blemish on its skin. Armand’s writing loosens and contracts according to circumstance, weather, smell of drink, time of day. A whole page is consumed by one footnote. The text of a novel becomes the type of a script, the script of a hand, the pictures of a comic-strip. Němec appears in the same places twice, toppling repeatedly into dive-bars or cabarets. Unfolding slowly and disdaining its notional plot, The Combinations comes to read like a distended roundelay. This is the novel as both dance and farce. Sixty-four chapters, plus an overture, and an intermission, and a coda – each ‘an image from a film, but you can’t remember which one’.
Kingsley Amis once distinguished two phases of the morning after: the ‘physical hangover’ and the ‘metaphysical’ one. They’re to be tackled in that order: you can flush a headache out, but regrets and memories may prove more elusive. Armand’s narrators are usually lushes, too, and they keep drinking themselves out of clock-time, making narrative from their delirium. The acme was Hess in Canicule, a ‘down-on-his-luck screenwriter’ marooned on the beach at Collioure. He drinks with psychotic dedication, trying to escape idleness while his more talented wife Louise writes a monograph on a Fauvist painter. In the daily heatwave of the title, the couple convene from time to time, so that Louise can eat salad and Hess can fumble for his second bottle of the day.
Then it was Hess’s turn to talk and straightaway he began to ramble. In his mind their conversation took on a completely surreal quality. He was no longer sure of who was speaking. Someone beside or behind him seemed to put the words in his mouth. Like a ventriloquist’s dummy. But the things they conveyed were entirely in his head. When he looked around, nothing out there seemed quite as real.
It’s characteristic of Armand’s novels not to treat a character as a diminished human being – a person acting shamefully like an animal – but as a material creature who’s suddenly gained a frightening insight into the world. Armand’s figments are little better than puppets, and the reader is seated up in the gods; we watch them impersonate humanity with a failure that’s partly touching and partly grotesque. In The Combinations, too, when Němec puts down his glass long enough to walk, it’s a shambling, Keatonesque spectacle. He moves through the streets like a bundle of limbs, flailing towards the end of a quest he barely understands.
Just past the riverclock the bent lanky figure in dusty bowler hat & suit boarded a Braník-bound tram. It shuddered & swerved along the quays, past the steel rail-bridge… The lone rider disembarking. Then down to the river on his own legs, a dirt path half sluiced away, a wooden bench to watch the ducks drifting by, empty the mind of its arcane dross – the air less suffocating here but still not exactly what you’d call breathable.
At moments like this, he’s described with detachment, as if he were being moved through a videogame cut-scene. There’s often a special kind of clumsiness to Němec; we’re shown an autonomous being, but in a portrait which makes the body’s design, its need to be controlled, visible in the lurch of its movements.
In 2005, he referred to the Internet as ‘a multi-user system with a radically decentred structure’. Intelligence appears like a symptom, read out of a mechanised process. Forget the individual subject of analogue reality – Němec might not be a man at all, but just an output of The Combinations, a complex program, a thinking machine testing itself against itself.
Cairo was the novel in which Armand took these wires and made them the fabric of a world. It scripted all systems, social and technological, as if they were aborted objectives. ‘Welcome to CAIRO,’ says the blurb, ‘where the future’s just a game and you’re already dead.’ (Echoes of Nick Land’s seminal ‘Meltdown’, from 1994: ‘Garbage time is running out. Can what is playing you make it to Level 2?’) Throughout the frantic story, every cliché of gamer aesthetics – dystopia, cyberwar, shootouts, assassins – is played at amphetamine speed, woven through a plot that multiplies in tangles like a conspiracy. The ensemble cast of freaks and agents intersect like ‘ghosts raving at one another through the ether’, their stories connected more by ‘cybernetic voodoo’ than any linear arc. And in The Combinations, Němec seems like the same kind of digital spectre. The reader follows him as if watching a failed film noir – and cinema has long been Armand’s favoured metaphor – but the mode of the narrative, its intangible texture, changes genre whenever Němec stops to rest, or waits, or crumples up in pain. In these little moments of stasis, the novel feels distinctly haunted by a third invisible presence; it’s as if someone, or something, were operating him at the end of a wire. Suddenly he seems emptier, a well-made avatar or fetch, engaging our fears with uncanny intimacy. (The phrase ‘spooky action at a distance’ appears three times in close succession: a failed metaphor for physics, a telling one for games.) At one point he lingers on the steps a moment:
Němec stood there with the rain thudding onto his bowler hat. The thudding grew heavier, then after a while it virtually stopped. … Ever since the night the Prof’s ghost first appeared, the night of “the Fall”, Němec had felt he was passing through the word without really touching it – a world that’d narrowed, a world standing still.
From the moment of that ‘Fall’, the ghostly appearance which opens the novel, he’s been sliding through the map of Prague as if the city were only ‘virtually’ real itself.
Who might be in hidden control, however, is as difficult for him to tell as it is for us, and it becomes an unspoken obsession of The Combinations. From time to time, we listen hard enough, and hear audible voices upon the air. These emanate from a standard Armandian prop, the radio, and they sound like the ‘numbers stations’ whose broadcasts instructed Cold War spies. For instance, take the scene where Němec drops in on old Mrs Severínová, and finds her rapt in the radio’s music:
Němec coughed to get Mrs Severínová’s attention. She looked up at him in a kind of wonderment, as if his presence made no sense to her. He opened his mouth to speak but the old lady raised a finger to her lips & cocked her head. Just then a child’s voice interrupted the music & spoke above a rasping low-frequency buzz:
‘Achtung! Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Achtung!’
Coursing through the air of Prague, these numbers come to haunt Němec’s movements. They ebb in and out of comprehension, fuzzing into the background as soon as heard. Ambient interference rises from nothing and vanishes again: the evanescent coming back. Whenever he turns a corner and stumbles upon a radio-set, voices begin to speak from what’s repeatedly called ‘the ether’. He shrugs off this particular encounter, letting Severínová tap her fingers ‘morselike’, ‘as if hypnotised’; but as he hurries through the shadows a few days later, those phrases will echo in his head unwanted.
Feet wet, shoe soles worn through. It’s cold, it’ll grow colder. He could feel the steel pins in his knee – a creaking of the joints like a rusty gate – bits of metal in his head tuning into the frequencies, numbers on the ether. Achtung! Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Neun neun fünf neun zwo. Achtung!
The activities of the radio come, in Armand’s novels, as intrusions from another world. Its sounds break into Němec’s internal monologue, distracting him the way human voices rarely can; they take hold of his attention and imprint upon it, refusing to die away. The presence of these clips is a mystery we’re not sure we’d want to solve. Most of the known numbers stations were discovered by amateurs during the Cold War; they were tuning through the airwaves when, by a quirk of timing and bandwidth, they stumbled on something they shouldn’t have been hearing. The broadcasts carry an aura of the purgatorial, of a limbo that was meant to stay closed. Often the voices sound like children, though they only exist as machines.
(Armand hints obliquely at this in a long footnoted digression: Orpheus is said to lose Eurydice when he feels ‘the impulse to peep over his shoulder… as if someone’s sending out radio signals controlling his mind’.) Like Cairo and its predecessors, The Combinations operates by multiplication; its incidents and details build up across each other with an obsessive collective drive, producing moments you half-remember and have only ever half-seen:
The night was wearing on without getting anywhere. Some part of the mechanism was missing, some obvious piece of the puzzle. Like a conversation with whole sentences left out, excised, undreamt, forgotten, that no amount of reason could restore into a meaningful dialogue. You joined the fragments & what you ended up with was interference all down the line, a picture with no sides, mists of whitenoise scored across with ravines of static, unmappable, a coagulation of dissolved forms in place of any thing.
The novel is tuned into what Cairo heard as ‘the faint crackle of a radio set to no frequency’, what Canicule transcribed as ‘words spiralling in their own noise’. Armand’s ‘ravines of static’ could be broadcast from Silent Hill: out of the static come voices, calling and warning and mocking, and you keep sensing, with fear, that they know more than the protagonists they obscurely seem to condemn. Approaching a radio-set, whether one ‘antique’ or one ‘portable’, all the hissing that Němec hears has the print of sinister times and places. He interprets it both as ‘Godspeak’ and as ‘randomness’; his thoughts grow more and more ‘spekulative, konspiratorial, downright fantastik’.
In these moments of absorption, the same could be said of Němec as was previously said of Hess: ‘Already a wreck, he became a ghost.’ In the middle of The Combinations is an ‘Intermission’, during which someone called Jan Němec is interviewed by a writer from Unsightly Cinema. This Němec has made a film called The Combine, ‘an extended essay on the status of the individual in modern society’. It revolves around a protagonist who oddly lacks a name. According to Němec, the crew didn’t like calling this figure ‘Mr. Nobody’, so they named him ‘Němec’ too, as ‘a kind of joke’. Since this ‘Němec’ shares his name with the man we follow through the novel, The Combinations may be a textual incarnation of The Combine, or vice-versa; the ‘Němec’ on screen is certainly as opaque as the Němec in print, not quite a character but more a half-formed thing who only deserves the limbo of the director’s quote-marks:
To begin with, it’s possibly misleading to speak about a central “character” in this film. … If this “character” had existed, been a real person, in flesh & blood, he might’ve visited a spiritualist, held a séance, communed with the spirit – only he doesn’t, he’s just a “character”, borrowed, by the way, from a nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright. A kind of ghost, therefore, or a ghost of a ghost.
The ‘Norwegian’ hint may check out, but either way it’s covering the obvious link to Jan Němec, the Czech New Wave director, whose Oratorio for Prague captured the Warsaw Pact invasion, and who was made unwelcome in Prague soon thereafter. What’s happening in this ‘Intermission’, then, could be his fictionalisation in the character ‘Jan Němec’, or the cinematic ‘Němec’, or Němec the novel’s protagonist – it’s unclear how you’d pin any one of these relations down, how you’d tell which way round the influence flows. Names have become replaceable labels; the virtual and the real trade their signifiers back and forth.
And signification, in The Combinations, is a storehouse that functions less like a well than a bottomless pit. Němec itself means ‘German’, but also encases ‘němě’ (‘speechlessly’), and thus sits mere inches from ‘němé filmy’, the ‘silent films’ that Armand’s novels aspire to be. Print always gives us a world without sound, so that we dream up scenes in our heads, set them to noises we’re told to imagine; preoccupied with images, frames, and reels, The Combinations dwells upon its nature as Cairo and Canicule did before it. Němec himself – meaning the central character of the novel – is the most insubstantial of Armand’s protagonists to date, flickering on the page and slipping out of range again. He appears under contradictory signs: a Czech ‘German’, a ghost with no soul, whose unheimlichkeit is at home only when moving, through Prague, prák, ‘threshold’. He’s ‘somehow unreal’, a “character” who both ‘somehow’ fails at reality and ‘somehow’ inheres in its negation. Jan Němec describes ‘Němec’ in The Combine as a virtual being, too. Like his creator, he’s ‘obsessed with films’, not specific movies but ‘film as such’:
The problem confronting “Němec” is that he can’t picture himself outside a film – so the question he asks himself in each situation is, What type of film am I in? Is it this type of film or that type of film?
The ‘Intermission’ ends, The Combinations goes on. But later in the story surrounding this interview, a one-line paragraph pauses to wonder – like no-one had thought it before – ‘What film was Němec stuck inside this time?’
Armand has designed a world where finitude is just another process, able to be paused, ended and started again. Němec may seem an unusual character, not quite up to being a person, but then The Combinations enjoys bringing material things to life and letting them sputter out. In a section from the thirty-ninth chapter titled ‘Celluloid Dolls’, we follow him underground into the Kabaret Grünegast, and wait for the enigmatic actress Alice Steinerová to appear on stage. In the meantime, Miss ‘Ruby Ray’ is up there, a singer with a voice that ‘well[s] up slowly from some dark place’. The performance becomes eerie; Němec becomes absorbed.
While Ruby Ray sang, a pair of celluloid dolls on a chintzdraped Turkish sofa were wheeled on stage by figures in blackface. The dolls were arranged sidebyside, crossdressed: a man’s pointed face above a black satin gown, a woman’s blonde curls fringing an SS uniform.
As frequently happens to names and labels throughout the novel, the letters ‘SS’ are replaced on the page by an icon, the esoteric runes that form the SS logo. The surfaces of things are torn off and pasted into Armand’s text, making it a scrapbook of curiosities; it parades artificiality and stylisation over the drabness of plain old print. Němec is fascinated by this fascism too, stock-still as the narrative drives ahead:
The band blew harder. As the tempo increased, the dolls suddenly came alive under the hands of the sinister blackfaces, jerking in unison in a spastic, repetitive, masochistic labour – their silhouettes like caged animals in a zoo. While this was in progress, Ruby Ray dissolved into the shadows like an apparition.
The dolls come alive; the human dissolves. The Combinations is a novel that plays its games on the threshold between beings and things: ‘discontinuities’ accumulate ‘like celluloid’, dead actors are immortalised ‘in celluloid’, Klement Gottwald falsifies history by manipulating ‘unspooled celluloid’ and cutting rivals out of the picture. Celluloid was used in the early twentieth century not only for making film-stock, but as a substitute material for inexpensive trinkets. In the shape of cheap and glossy dolls, it promised to immortalise life in plastic – but it was superseded within decades, being prone (notoriously) to fire, and then (either way) to slow decomposition. And whenever the word ‘celluloid’ appears, The Combinations, too, shows itself to be made of corruptible stuff. The motif is cut-and-pasted from a previous novel by Armand: anticipating the retrospection to Gottwald, Canicule had talked of ‘history’s revenants’ being ‘like blackened celluloid dolls’. It’s a material haunted by its future. Soon the Kabaret dolls, jerking about in front of Němec, are dropped and whisked off-stage like traitors excised from a photograph:
If there was any point to the performance, Němec was at a loss to guess what it was. Then the music went down & the stage went dark again. The band sat back for the next take while the dolls got wheeled around to the wings.
The hero himself, often described as a puppet, marionette, or pseudo-human, is yet to understand that all created things can die with the living.
It’s when that transience has room to glint, in all the novel’s peculiar obsessions, that the relentless experiments of The Combinations briefly become absorbing.
Prague briefly seems a world unto itself, glimpsed like a revelation, as if we’re given a window into the vast new horizon of a simulation or a game. The vistas of this novel could never be a fantasy, because the rain is incessant, and Němec’s vices are too, so that his repetitions and reboots happen not as purifications but as hangovers, sicknesses, regretted days and blackout nights. But even as his world glitches and repeats, like the ‘multi-user system’ that describes The Combinations as neatly as it does the Internet, there are flashes of beauty in among the grimness of the city. Riding on a tram one afternoon, Němec looks up at the heavens, and sees the clouds beginning to build:
As the day progressed, the weather closed in: discontinuities accumulating like celluloid, voiceovers, ghosts in the machine, faces on sidewalks, on shop windows, cars, framed in grey light, in rain, in silhouette. A thousand doppelgängers, rubber masks, identikit mugshots with eyes blacked-out, crossed-out, scraped-out, billboard faces selling untold visions of future paradise, prostitutes in suits, in fancy dress costume, in uniform always with a product to see.
As the narrative marvels, this is ‘like some future war zone in a movie about a past no-one could remember, & that no-one would ever make’. It’s a virtuoso cascade of images, cut rapidly from shot to shot, with a lively mess of the documentary (‘framed in grey light’) and the human touch (‘untold visions of future paradise’). Then the sequence is over; the paragraph ends. The next begins as ‘a continuous tracking shot’. The cinematography has changed, its experiment done, and the tram carries Němec away. - Cal Revely-Calder


Armand distrusts authentic reader/writer experience no matter how ironised or sentimentalized. He’s seen it happen, the domestication of ‘experimental writing’ where ‘independent’ and maverick’ become code words for ‘rogue vested interest.’ ‘Realism’ becomes a matter of having the last word ‘whilst handing over scapegoats if only to maintain familiar prerogatives for the next fifteen minutes.’ What do books with avant garde impulses become in this our contemporary context? ‘Cash corpses.’ It’s into this particular inferno of despair that he’s writing his magnum.
Where we enter our ‘first world’ of invisible presences, or visible absences, a penny world, self-enclosure has brooding geek angels guarding its exit. It is in this place that we are asked to, as it were, ‘borrow every changing shape/to find expression…’ because this is a place of deliberate disguises where the cultural achievements of the past represent themselves as being out of reach, mocking, never there or like the Byzantine ‘forme precise’ of St Apollinaire, just stone faced with no impulse to scratch. It’s one of the things that the book’s corpse gives out, a lost energy or lost innocence inseparable from the act of reading itself. And so inseparable from consciousness. ‘Innocence’ is the ‘crocodile isle’, Tiresias, Simeon, sardonic Mallarme, those ‘glad of another death’ because they have never yet bloomed. Presuppositions combining. It’s a tough gig.
Louis Armand knows it’s a fatal flaw of avant garde poetics that marginality requires a centre, that radicalism needs a conservative edifice to kick against, that it’s about the fall between essence and the descent, where any nihilist anarchist posing will preserve the despised centre in parenthetical existence or else vanish. It’s when Dante meets Matilda, or Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ where we are simultaneously substance and its shadow, united in death and language as a ghost (parody?) of someone meeting themselves as they might have been, Aeneas and Dido in Virgil’s hell where the scalding rebuke contrasts with the epigraphic earlier meeting of Aeneas with his mother Venus, and Marina reunited with her dead Phoenician sailor father, ‘crossing the bar’ as she sets out across the sea of death. Gradually the novel will open up this sea to a world ‘under sleep’, and it will vanish as in an Apocalypse as all seas will. A face takes shape and a new life. This is a phantom novelisation of Baudelaire’s ‘La vie anterieure’, a submarine reincarnation done as rock noire Realism – down and dirty hard-boil dry shimmering on the edges of a deranged avant garde Easter – imagine Mark E Smith as Philip Marlowe and then pump it up.
It’s the defining angst of modernist culture to retain a perpetual avant-garde in the face of a social setting that has subsumed all the revolutions of the word and bought them off. Here and now the avant garde is ‘… the illusion… of a socially-transformative, revolutionary potential.’ and twists to the idiot joy showland as ‘only the residual after-image.’ Po Mo becomes capitalisms’ masterstroke, it’s authentic culture a middleclass revolt, a definition for the culture industry and its cyber-poetic black screen dominance where a glam racket guts the quantifier and life just bounces. Here’s his anxiety, or at least, the question Armand poses in the 888 pages of his unreal poesis polis Golem City, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, Isaiah’s ‘shadow of a rock in a dry land’ where he meets all the dying gods – Adonis, Attis, Osiris – caught in the idiocy of the brown fog art of capitalist culture and the art obscenity of Canto 26’s lusts all done in a post-Totalitarian frame Pearl City jam. For Armand, art in totalitarianism is obscene, in capitalism idiotic.
So Armand has already asked the question:
‘ Is the cyber-poetic ‘codework’ of Alan Sondheim, Mez, Mark Amerika, Stephanie Strickland and others simply the garlanded machine aesthetic for the Matrix? Are Borges, Escher, Calvino, Rimbaud merely the whimsical sentimentalists of the multiverse? Should we read Kathy Acker and Stewart Home as evangelists or elegists for the Fall?’ The issue is thus about the posthumous status of the underground avant-garde: what is it for and what can it do? And has it been co-opted by the very forces that it might once have hoped to oppose and critique? Can posthumous mean anything anymore? Armand says;
‘ Has in fact a posthumous avant-garde become in turn the myth by which the commodity sustains the idea of itself, as global foundation of the New Order? The compost from which the bright future of perpetual innovation will supposedly sprout fully formed?’
His dissolving and reforming imagination enters this perilous domain seeking the equivalent of an answer in what looks like writing but might not be eventually… What might the alternative look like? Maybe the first Cumaean Sibyl hanging in a jar between the centre and the margin wanting nothing else but to die. Or else the other one, living all those sand grain years in her hand having forgotten to ask for perpetual youth – Armand’s book teeters with the shivered recognition of that modernist horror trope: ‘fear in a handful of dust’. He offers a hermaphroditic shadow-mind containing everything Golem City can try and hide away. Golem City itself becomes an emblem of that margin as centre. There’s a whole critique of the weird commerce between margins of culture and the cauldron of unholy loves at the centre, that easy commoditization and commercialism that picks at the bones of, literally, everything.
Armand knows better than most (he’s written about it since forever) this idea that culture both reflects the economics that frame it and simultaneously critiques itself, facing that perplexing question as to whether art can ever become autonomous from its underpinning economic logic. This anxiety is presented as being sincere and original like Strangeways , like drinking your way out of being psychic, like playing out of tune but doing it properly. The plenum Armand offers is the protean nod to James Joyce, an underworld journey which, as always, is about learning the future, the fate that lies ahead of us, and done as if the shoddy occultism of a cut-price Madame Sosostris did actually get us somewhere beyond the sterility of culture, where every culture biz, be it music, books, art is now just middle class executive business, like a police force.
Duchamp’s retinal art was art fascinated by the contingent, the ad hoc and the arbitrary, the very locus of the commodity and the heart of modern Industria’s high culture that develops mobile, anatomized individuals in a shared high culture free from internal sacred nuance – the cult, the feud, the tribe and so forth. Armand senses that these sacred occult hierarchies held powers – strange hopes and loves, even perversions and sympathy, odd-ball dynamics still seething in his Prague churches, synagogues, libraries, lost streets, each working as sentinels testifying to the presence of mysteries in the ruins of Europe, the sorts of thing found in ‘The Tempest’ that runs to Dylans’ ‘wheel of fire’ punked up as an obscure, Eleusian mystery by the Banshees and then left as a dim recall of spiritual and physical narcosis, maybe written up in a lit critters’ book sometime later, but nevertheless impotent, shop worn and logically disconnected by the very fact of being recalled.
Duchamp’s early modernism was framed by a society where the poetics of commodity was in a setting when the full logic of the arbitrary was not predominant but merely emerging, and so still at play, with space between the arid plain of the fisher king and the responding boat of faraway Tristan. With the commodity now fully formed interest with the endless ad hocery of the commodity seems less like avant-Grail passion and more on-line trawling. It seems it’s no longer a critique but the object and process itself. So how is an Acker or a Home any different from the infotainment possibilities of the internet? And how would we know? Or care? In other words, not only is there a question about what the avant-garde can do now that it’s no longer a type but rather the type-cast of modernity where it has become the culture, there is also the question of how to make it visible as a critique even if it is possible. How does a critical marginal ad hoc remain marginal in a culture where everything is a margin -without being invisible and unknowable? Are we in that realm where identity conditions don’t allow us to pick it out? Could it recognize itself even if it did persist? The avant garde has become the condition of its impossibility and therefore a space of self erasure. Here’s the bed-rock then for Armand: ‘… are we dealing … with the unconscious perturbations of a system? The ad hoc symptomatology of a hyper-repressed? Like the periodic eruption of “classified information” onto the internet? A present, in other words, wherein the only possible avant-garde remains a secret, since that’s the domain it belongs to?’
This great perambulation, ‘The Combinations’, is a case of nerveless romance, Armand’s sub-lingual tablet. He is testing the groundwork. He is producing the self-knowledge and reflexivity of our art’s detonating impotence and self wounding. The novelist here is Perseus or St George in a land ruled by that old sympathetic magic and therefore sterile and masculine in the symbolizing language and tone of Philip Marlowe playing Miranda at chess – it can end either in the death of the King or in a stalemate where two mysteries are united. So either art is buried dead or else we have a faint overtone of an occult purgatorial (the desert, the garden and between them this, the novel as staircase) binding up the drowned hopes of the early avant gardeists with deeper ones. The novelistic persona adopted here is a protagonist with bad nerves, bad teeth, but with the aching working principle of the lone individual working in the strange mythic land where in an Eliotic ‘fisher king’ landscape descent and the temporary death of the wounded knight are recast in Golem City’s leviathan archive quest and library .
Armand (Louis)
Since the 1950’s just what the avant garde can be – if anything – has been a central issue for those working in these margins but Armand here is in a post 1989 state, as well as dropping back a lot lot further like the reaction and bigotry that followed Bohemian independence in 1620, ready to shoot the whole lot of them in an act of aggro pre-cog fever. If the book has a jump skip quality of film then it’s that of Jean Luc Godard who emerged to liberate cinema back in the 50’s. Here’s someone emerging from Joyce, an artist who set up the problem of the modern cultural sensibility of the edit, the montage, the ad hoc and the cut which has become our dominant, all consuming, consumerist, commoditising idiom. Is this the problem or the solution?
Godard ‘… has opened up a new kind of movie making… a new sensibility into film, that, like James Joyce, he is both kinds of master – both innovator and artist. Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us; we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl’s hair differently because of him’ Pauline Kael wrote of him and Armand sees Joyce and Godard as ‘the two major inventors of the modern vernacular.’ And if it’s Godard who says, of his approach,
‘One improvises, one invents in front of the moviola just as one does on set. Cutting a movement on camera in quarters can reveal itself more effectively than keeping it as it had been filmed. An exchange of glances… can only be expressed with enough pungency… through clever editing… A simple reversed shot, by its very restraint, is more powerfully expressive than any premeditated zoom, or pan…Editing , therefore, at the same time that it denies, announces and prepares the way for directing…’ so it is in this novel from Armand that we recognize the same playful improvisory stance, the invention of a form that thinks. Armand’s novel is just that, a novel that thinks, but what it also hangs back from doing is commending any of it, leaving everything as a kind of door left open with a very ambiguous invitation note attached.
Just as with Joyce who said that ‘ whenever I am obliged to lie with my eyes closed I see a cinematograph going on and on and it brings back to my memory things I had almost forgotten’ there’s the same sort of thing here in Armand combining that sensibility of a cinema operating linguistically with a freehand Freud dream brooding, probably out in the Krkonose Mountains. Armand has sought to move from writing to processing. His approach to gargantua is that of the cinematograph where the medium constitutes the message. Like Eisenstein on Joyce we confront : ‘…the limit of reconstructing the reflection and refraction of reality in the consciousness and feelings of man. There’s a special dual-level method of writing: unfolding the display of events simultaneously with the particular manner in which these events pass through the consciousness and feelings, the associations and emotions of one of his chief characters. Here literature, as nowhere else, achieves an almost physiological palpability.’
He’s valued Antonin Artaud’s: ‘ cinema implies a total inversion of values, a complete upheaval of optics, of perspective and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorous, more captivating than love’ and written out of this cinematic, Joycean ‘chaosmos’ which also picks up on Godard’s demand that he should see his writing as ‘ … a place where it is in the living present , … the register of History… the image of the century in all its aspects.’ Armand writes to the heart of a history that is, as it was for Godard, an ‘unresolved anachronism.’ And at the heart of this is montage where written events read back into us through each cut, juxtaposition, overprint and portmanteau, through the violence done by placing images of war with adverts and pornography etc. In this Godardian world Armand has written about and now written into, there’s no room for categorical thought, categorical morality – images remain amoral and irreflexive, become a ‘third image’ – not just putting images side by side but ‘putting two angles side by side’. Colin MacCabe notes this way montage writes with situations in a polysemic multiplicity that describes ‘a margin of undefinability.’
His book becomes Godardian discursis ‘ something into which everything can be put’, a self conscious monstrum, and the texture of thinking becomes like writing sociological essays as novels using only musical notes… ‘a denial of an opposition between fiction and documentary; exposing the paradox of the socially engaging and disengaging qualities …; exploring the affinities between visual and written expression, as well as art and criticism; privileging the more expansive terms sound and image over other possible permutations; overriding the divide between high and low culture; merging theory and practice; and equating reality with image…’
_01godard
Dzigo Vertov, Godard’s collaborator writes of ‘an absolute writing in film’ where ‘Kino-eye means the conquest of space, the visual linkage of people throughout the entire world based on the continuous exchange of visible fact, of film documents, as opposed to the exchange of cinematic or theatrical presentations… Kino-eye means the conquest of time… is the possibility of seeing life processes in any temporal order or at any speed inaccessible to the human eye.’ When Sara Danius writes of Vertov’s ‘Man With the Movie Camera’ she says his ‘…camera sweeps an entire city into spirited movement. Chimneys, workers, typewriters, street crossings, automatons, cars, smiles, sewing machines, pedestrians, bicycles, stockings, streetcars, shop windows, telephones: all participate in Vertov’s rapturous urban ballet.’ When Armand sweeps across his Golem City we are given the sharp realism, dingy words, calculated bathos, dreamy romanticism, high vision, parody, prosody, ruminating caustic monosyllabics and polysyllabics of urban intellectual speech in search of the margin to detonate the pattern of the pattern. It’s a language of anticipation, a plenum where the dreamer reflects on forgetting and remembering, decomposition and recombination, present catastrophes and ancient legacies. Like Godard like Joyce, it’s a work that “spans this gap between processes of memory” and that “ labyrinthine semiosis which constitutes human communication” and human consciousness…
History or histoire(s)
Story, fable, myth, allegory, fabrication.
Night and fog.
Light.’

Which leads us to Armand’s considerations regarding genre. Here his concern is the examination of genre as an institution, which he links with the idea of a joke as, essentially, always a meta-joke ‘whose impetus is one of constant substitution and displacement: the causality of the joke is itself a deteournement of the causal. It operates, in other words, like the unconscious.’ Joke work operates by displacement, as does genre work. It is an orientation ‘which is a disorientation’ as Derrida would have it. Joke work comes full circle.
And then there’s Prague, a city of history and its writers and philosophers in the swim of that history. Lukas Tomin writes three books. One, ‘The Doll’, draws in Armand to its ‘… unredeemed child’s fantasia, replete with maldoror-esque gigantism, its symbolic parricides, its incest, its deranged ecstasies, its polymorph obscenity, its sublime and apocalyptic id-like irrationality’ and on all this the allegorical form that ‘simplifies into archetypes and instructs by indirection’. In Tomin’s hands allegory reverses its spell, and rather than simplification we have a buffed over complexification which ‘bifurcates – multiplies-… places a question mark over the very notion of instruction.’ Instead of instruction we are asked to think. The result is an ‘extreme realism’ that counters didactic forms that reduce to ‘merely describing its own circumstances’ like the Mark E Smith meta-joke: ‘I agree with Colonel Gaddafi. Too much laptops. Too much Nescafe, that is what he said. It’s quite biblical actually. It was predicted in the Bible.’
David Auerbach on another of Tomin’s books, ‘Rain Taxi’, writes:
‘Tomin leaves his characters half drawn.. forcing the reader to puzzle out the connections and distinctions between them. His drastic switches of style abandon cumulative effects for a series of instants, sometimes with heavily compressed plotting or circular passages of dialogue….’ Armand compares the results with French nouvelle vague , Godard’s decoupage for instance. It’s an ‘allegory of language’ where semiotic and semantic orders don’t correspond and it’s well to bear this in mind. Armand can’t resist this and his novel seethes with the great torso of Czech history. Golem City is like the presence of the sign descending in time. This is the secret of the book and its anti-Papal studia generalia of the late Middle Ages blowing in with Bologna, Paris and Oxford older lovers, Prague the first city lying beyond the Rhine and Danube, the first city in either German or Slavonic territory to receive such an institution. The top and the bottom, the inside and the outside are visions of plenitude and vacancy. You can’t do this with everywhere. Armand’s planting his feet specifically in this particular historic swamp and fishing its inner circles of subways, innocence and experience just as Blake did in London, say. But expect a different catch here. This ‘aint London.

If Prague’s the centre of anything its also a margin of the West and the East too, with primitive forests, high mountains favouring defences against invaders, a perfect ideaspace for Armand’s anti-Disney land. Prague is a place in the zone of the former Bolshevik/Romanov dynasty. At the carving up of Europe in Vienna 1815 ‘ … the only criterion capable of public defence is whether the new rulers are less corrupt and grasping, or more just and merciful, or whether there is no change at all, but the corruption, the greed, the tyranny merely find victims other than those of the departed rulers.’ So little changed.
What followed was an Irredentist period of strange mutations where two distinct processes overlapped. The first involved the common agrarian turbulence that occurs at empires whose edges are mountains or deserts. In these places the typical thing to do is for local chiefs to challenge the imperial centre. An historical stabilised nomadic segmentary social order is locked up in these places where the relation between margin and centre is defined by the inversion of Western models of the polis i.e. strong society, weak state. But in the Balkans something disrupted the equilibrium. A new kind of social being mutated out of this familiar setting. In the Balkans the overlords were Muslim, the wild men Christian. Conflict became not just about the regular peripheral dissonance of rebellion from one social type but rather became one between different kinds. Politics and culture were fusing in a way that hadn’t done so before. Out of this peculiar situation came a nascent nationalism. The wild men were not just Christians however, they were wild Christians, heretics. They drew in an Enlightenment and Romantic Christianity and Muslims were disinclined to take a lead from heresies from within a religion they felt superior to in the first place. So the Balkan rebels became nationalists.
The Messianic Salvationism of the Russians, for one, comes out of this heady brew and Dostoevsky its greatest literary witness but a whole tribe of Russian nineteenth century novelists made this their key theme. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn drew on this tradition too, baffling and disturbing everyone post-1989 when he seemed to reject the polis of the western European model by driving back to a Russian nationalism the Soviets and Romanov’s had held in check. But anyone reading the great nineteenth century novels shouldn’t have found this surprising at all. Ignored in 1815, by 1914 everyone recognized nationalism as a potent force thanks largely to the literati. Anyone believing the glib line that writers don’t matter and don’t know are just wrong– and Armand’s a writer knowing it’s not always an insignificant action to write into the monstrous foam of history. Armand’s protean work possesses these restless, historical, anthropological resources and fuses them to the crisis of the twentieth century avant garde with a kind of buckling easy flash drive quid pro prose.
Anyhow, Romanovs modernized faster than the Ottomans on the back of a messianic Salvationism that led to the Revolution of 1917. When the Romanov dynasty collapsed after holding nationalism in check between 1815 and 1918 its brutal dynasty was restored by Bolsheviks in a secular mirror-image and it continued to hold Nationalism in check. Jews, Georgians and Ukranians were leaders in the USSR. Population transfers during this Soviet time didn’t simplify the ethnic map except in Poland and the Czech Republic. So Prague is in this mix, a Golem dead/life still-point of a world that keeps twisting. After the end of the USSR what happens next and why does the Western author remain Racinian – a simplification, a style where, as Camus recorded, ‘ The West does not recount the events of everyday life. It is forever feeding its frenzy on great images. It wants to be Manfred or Faust, Don Juan or Narcissus. But it never quite manages to make itself coincide with these images. It is always carried away by the fever for unity. In desperation , it has invented the film hero…’ – an imagination of types – Armand rips and shreds at this Racinian unity like he’s writing the lost Dostoevskian plague novel where all die living different systems and knows in a way it’s a disaster.
Well, the reason why Czech nationalism (along with Polish nationalism, though for different reasons) is different from its surroundings is that Medieval and early-modern Bohemia was already an important political unit. These were the lands of the Crown of king Wenceslas after all and they had links to Czech culture and written language with its own high culture. It disappeared in the 17th Century at the Peace of Westphalia and became a ghost, a minimal element of the Hapsburg Empire. But the Hapsburgs, the larger successor unit, by not linking up to the Czech language, sowed seeds of its future disintegration – and the resurrection of the Czechs. For a while the Czech language survived as a peasant language. But as the Industrial Revolution rolled in Czech speakers became the majority in Bohemia and Moravia. The language became restored to the cities as their high culture and prestige language.
How was this possible? The old culture was available even when lost. The ancient Bohemian kingdom, and Golem City’s Prague University dated back to 14th century and there were already proto-nationalistic themes in the make-up of Czech students even then. The Hussites, a proto-protestant group, was based in Bohemia resisting Papal and Imperial efforts to subdue it. Prague’s Hussite ghosts rose up in Versailles 1918 to replace the legitimacy of the Hapsburgs who splintered and were lost even as the ghosts rose and replaced them in renewed liveliness.

President-liberator Tomas Masaryk commanded the Czech army in World War One and worked out a theory of national independence that was moralistic not Romantic, that aimed for the transference from the Hapsburg’s authoritarian, dogmatic political and dogmatic dynastic system to an independent, liberal democracy. The Hapsburgs were Absolutist and Papal. The Hussites were proto-democratic and liberal and became Masaryk’s inspiration, capable of delivering a self image for the nation despite their defeat in 1620 and the 300 years wait to Versailles.
But his version of the roots of the democratic soul of the Czech state had a rival that was ultimately to defeat it. Palacky’s alternative vision of Czech nationalism saw it as a romantic awakening, a vision of Austro-Slavism coming into consciousness after years of dormition. This vision served up a Danubian state of all those small nations of central Europe gloriously and bravely working as a bulwark against German expansion and Russian autocracy, a vision largely taken up by Charter 77 and its writers. Thus Masaryk’s thesis was rejected by Charter 77. Jan Patocka , another philosopher taking charge of politics in this wild mix, argued against any continuity between the long-gone Hussites and the modern egalitarian, democratic state and claimed instead that the genuine roots were in the reaction of Catholic peasantry to Enlightenment bureaucratic centralization introduced by the Hapsburgs’ in the late 18th century, a reaction perpetuated by peasants moving from the land to the towns. And any idea that Czech democracy was rooted in western values were proved to be without warrant when first the Germans came calling and then Russians.
It happened like this: in 1918 the Czech’s annexed Magyar territories because they wanted the Danube to work like the Rhine and make communication costs easier. But they did this without demographic or historical justification. Magyars and Bulgarians just happened to be on the wrong side of the river. This resulted in all their neighbours being united against them. It was a fragile arrangement and collapsed quickly, first under Hitler and then Stalin. Anyhow, later, when finally the USSR dynasty collapsed in ’89 Charter 77 saw the restoration of democracy as based on an interest in markets not values. Economic laissez-fairists and Catholics combined in government to set the tone of a more inward looking Czech Republic and this fitted better – though imperfectly – the Patocka vision of the historical roots of the Czech Nation. - Richard Marshall


Louis Armand’s themes are as big as his novel is long. His anti-novel The Combinations sets out to investigate – among other things – the psychological fallout from the collapse of communism and the more intimate breakdown of a lost soul. The soul in question belongs to a man called Nemec, who wanders around a city very similar to Armand’s home city, Prague (here called Golem City) while attempting to come to terms with a world without moorings. There are grand political and moral themes here, as well as more personal explorations of loneliness, loss and intellectual instability.
To borrow one of Armand’s most frequently recurring images, Nemec is playing a game of chess with no clear idea of the size of the board or the rules. He’s been sent on a quest to unlock the secrets of the Voynich manuscript, here described as composed “by an Unknown Author, in an Unknown Language” and which has, “over the course of its moderately long history, attracted the various attentions of occultists, amateur riddlers, pseudoscientists and crackpots of every stripe from the four corners of the globe”.
The Combinations attempts to give most of these riddlers and crackpots space, jostling on the crammed pages alongside the strangely blank and insubstantial Nemec. During one of several metafictional digressions jokily interrogating the nature of The Combinations itself, Armand says that Nemec is “somehow unreal”. He’s right; Nemec never feels like a fleshed-out character, and we never get a glimpse of the inner workings of his mind. To be at such a remove is alienating, but it also fits the uncertainty of this story, where everything is as intangible as mist, obscuring and forever swirling out of reach.
All of this confusion is well reflected in the fractured, sprawling narrative. The novel gets diverted into all the obscure nooks and crannies of Golem City, while the plot winds around itself as much as it moves forward. Armand’s book is freighted with heavily adjectival, overloaded sentences, as well as bursting with lists, ideas half-formed, allusions uncertain and unsettling illusions.
There’s no doubt that Armand is aiming for something profound and challenging, and it is clear that The Combinations is the product of hard work and hard thought. It’s a book that deserves attention. More attention – if I’m honest – than the rushed couple of weeks’ reading I’ve been able to give it during the shortlist stages of this competition.
That doesn’t entirely invalidate my objections, however. The chief of these relates to one of the things that I most wanted to like about the novel. The Combinations is unashamedly avant garde and I want to applaud Armand’s attempt to reach the out-there territories. But the sad truth is that he hasn’t really travelled far at all. Like many who court the avant garde, Armand ends up disappointingly conservative. There’s little that feels new, even in spite of the relentless tide of name-checking and references. It’s all rats, alcohol, asylums, Mitteleurope, masons, Faust, alchemy, dingy laboratories, Enoch, Babbage, Hermes Trismegistus, John Dee, Rorschach blots, the sphinx, mysterious bookstores … It’s sometimes obscure, but mainly predictable.
The style too, feels too much like reheated but still undercooked William Burroughs. Armand has got the sly and sarcastic tone, but the jokes aren’t as funny, the images aren’t as fresh, and – to be brutal – the prose isn’t as good. His metaphors are especially strained: “Like a zen cop on a permanent stakeout.” What’s a zen cop? And how can you be like someone on a – oh, never mind. Look at this one instead: 
The watery folds of the Prof’s eyes contracted as he forged ahead with his proofs and speculations like a Buster Keaton character who conceals his disappointment at finding only an inattentive audience with increasingly strange antics.
Is it the folds of the eyes that are performing those antics? Or the Prof? And when exactly does that Buster Keaton character encounter such disappointment?
That Buster Keaton reference brings up another problem, exemplified in yet another tricksy simile:
In a vortex beneath the central light fixture, five tireless March flies alternately pursued one another and were pursued – feinting, retreating. Spiralling in a kind of three-dimensional chess puzzle Kepler might’ve set himself had the game been known to him.
It isn’t just that that metaphor is strained, or that it is a desperately verbose way to describe something as inconsequential as the movement of flies. It’s that you’ve got to know enough about Kepler for it to make sense. Such references aren’t only frustrating – I sometimes wondered if Armand really knew all the root meanings of all his allusions, if he cared, or if it mattered. This uncertainty was increased by occasional lapses. To give a quick and minor example, he translates a bit of Latin for Pythagoras - “numero est ipsum movens” – as “the soul is the number that moves itself”. Alas, the Latin Armand provides doesn’t actually have a word for “soul” in it, leading to the suspicion that he’s quoting without properly understanding. And since there is so much quotation everywhere, a lapse like this seriously undermines faith in the book.
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And you just can’t lose trust in a novel where so much depends on believing that the author is in control. To go back to those metaphors, Armand possibly has a get-out clause. He could argue that those similes are deliberately half-cocked and discombobulating – which would certainly fit the rest of his themes. But there are so many more clumsy sentences that it’s hard to be sure that he knows what he’s doing.
The biggest loss of belief came for me when immediately after page 202, I found myself reading page 427. There was then a straight sequence of pages until page 650 – after which page 427 arrived again and the whole chunk was reprinted. The unsettling thing was the fact that I couldn’t tell whether or not Armand had intended the pages to run in this curious manner. At first, I didn’t even notice I’d skipped so much. Was this another joke? Was it another convoluted metaphor for the ever-decreasing circles of Nemec’s existence? Was it a genuine mistake? Or just more bollocks? I honestly didn’t know. And when it’s got to the stage that you can’t tell the difference between an author’s intentions and a printing error, you know there’s trouble.
But even that doesn’t entirely invalidate this book. There are still some interesting moments and there’s still something to be said for the book’s ability to discomfit and destabilise. Yes, it’s often boring; a few extravagantly soporific passages even rendered me unconscious. But art isn’t just there to distract and amuse us and to seek easy pleasure in this work is to miss the point. Armand has interesting and ambitious things to convey, whether we like it or not.
Even if you hate every page, this 888-page monster still has its uses. Should someone attack you, you can use it to fend him off. Or, if you really want to mess up your assailant, you can open it up and start reading it to him. -


“When an ambitious novelist or playwright decides to compose a modern realistic work—i.e. one imitating das Chaos der Zeit, as Hölderlin called the confusion of his own time, having no idea of what things were to become within a couple more centuries, that is, now, before our eyes—, the dusty so-called classical units become unexpectedly useful again. They provide a center to the chaos. Joyce’s Ulysses happens all in Dublin, in a single day. Beckett’s plays are models that even Boileau would have approved of. Now Louis Armand, the Australian writer who has lived in Prague for over twenty years at last count, has produced a major modern epic “novel,” having Prague instead of Dublin for locale. At about 900 pages, it is a good deal longer than Joyce’s Ulysses: if you enjoy the latter, you will find The Combinations to be almost 200 pages more fun and you will not want to miss it.”—Ricardo Nirenberg, Offcourse


“Don’t take any of this too seriously, it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Enjoy the show.”
The Combinations, by Louis Armand, is a vast and sprawling literary game of words, ideas and form. Set in post communist era Prague, it is written with an underlying tone of cynical sarcasm. It regularly mocks and derides its own content, challenging the reader to follow the labyrinthian narrative of puzzle within puzzle, to seek meaning within the hyperbole.
The protagonist is a man named Němec who has crushing memories of being raised in an orphanage after his parents were arrested for crimes against the state. He escaped this incarceration only to attempt suicide by walking out of a window. After many months of rehabilitation he is released from hospital, another institution, bearing scars and a pronounced limp. He becomes addicted to the drugs he is prescribed and to alcohol. He spends his days in cafes, bars, clubs and at the cinema. The people he sees in life and on the screen feed his inebriated, vivid imagination.
Němec is invited to play chess by a man he comes to know as the professor. This man tells him of an interest he has in a valuable manuscript, location unknown, its provenance shrouded in mystery. It is written in a language that no one can translate.
After the professor’s death Němec’s curiosity is piqued when the old man’s papers are locked away by the state. He starts to suspect a conspiracy linked to the professor’s past and takes it upon himself to investigate.
“As usual Němec’s thoughts are getting carried away by themselves.”
It is difficult to describe the way in which the great arc of this tale is presented. There are rambling and disjointed discourses on Němec’s thoughts and activities, on episodes from the Second World War that mix possible fact with the films he has watched. There are lengthy lists that present ideas from many angles, dense outpourings of thought from which it is difficult to fish coherency. I was reminded of ‘Infinite Jest’, although found ‘The Combinations’ more readable.
“like a game of chess which goes on to the bitter end, long after the outcome has lost its meaning. Each remaining move a dumb mechanical persistence”
What is the point of a game of chess? Is it enjoyment, a challenge to exercise the mind, a game played to teach strategy and ordered thought? Here we have the literary equivalent, a conundrum created by the author presented in 8 octaves, 64 chapters, 888 pages. It is a play on ideas and language, weaving the plot and many subplots in delirious directions. It tells a tale in what may be no particular order or a concealed and well practised plan. It is clever, perhaps too clever. It required feats of concentration that at times I struggled to muster.
The observations on Němec’s life are shown through a lens that suggest much of what is happening may be delusional. There is legend, history, science, philosophy, multiple references to modern culture. All are subjected to mockery, none more so than the text being read.
“The whole thing smacked of some heterocomical contrivance”
There is a bleakness pervading Němec’s life yet the narrative refuses to take anything too seriously. Certain ramblings were reminiscent of the overly embellished descriptions of art gallery exhibits in highbrow magazines; these would often contain a footnote agreeing with such a perspective. It becomes clear that much of what is going on is happening only within Němec’s head. What is more difficult to work out is which events are real enough to advance the main plot, which moves are cunning feint and which strategy required for the endgame. Of course, all are part of the whole. Within each obfuscation lie nuggets of backstory.
The writing offers a very male perspective. It also presents man in a notably unpleasant light. There are continual references to gobs of phlegm, congealed foodstuffs, drifting dandruff, stale piss and vomit, filaments of snot swallowed down or picked and examined. Sex is pornographic with oedipal references. Women are objectified and, more than once, raped.
“An actress merely exists to give flesh to men’s fantasies”
Němec writes his own screenplay featuring the people he sees, or imagines he sees. His life is filled with dead time, suffocating in his endless introspection, self medicated and delusional yet convinced that there is a grain of truth to be sought. What he is searching for a key, a solution, a mind map for his life.
“Everything’s just how you decide to think about it”
I have no doubt that this book will be considered a must read by those who enjoy challenging, clever writing. It is an astonishing creation, a literary journey that I am glad to have experienced. Having said that, it took effort and dogged persistence at times to circumvent the quantity of words and ideas. It demands time, so much time, and attention.
“People have been known to believe all sorts of things”
I wonder what interpretation others who choose to peruse this tome will take from it. As the publisher so enticingly invites: your move, reader.—Jackie LawNeverimitate


“We are living in the Left Bank of the Nineties.” When legendary International Herald Tribune correspondent and founding Prague Prague editor Alan Levy wrote these words, about “living in an historical place at an historical time,” he forecast a literary renaissance in Prague that many doubted and few recognised when indeed it did occur. For after the spotlight of media attention turned away from Prague in the late nineties, a group of writers emerging from the Prague scene had already begun to make their mark. 
Tom McCarthy, Joshua Cohen, Travis Jeppesen, Louis Armand, Phil Shoenfelt, Myla Goldberg, Christopher Cook, Toby Litt, Robert Eversz have all received international recognition as novelists during the last twenty years, meeting the challenge laid down by Bruce Sterling in Wired magazine to write “new and powerful” work. Notably, all of these writers rejected the Hemmingway model of the “expat” novel, producing instead work of universal significance, of which Cohen’s Witz and McCarthy’s Remainder are outstanding examples. 
But if the much vaunted “Prague novel” is something to be claimed for an English-language Prague author, there can be no doubt that Louis Armand’s monumental 900-page The Combinations, published this year by London press Equus and composed over a period of eight years, is definitive. 
In the vein of Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk and deeply rooted in the city’s literary and politico-satirical culture, Armand’s novel fulfils Alan Levy’s predictions and makes a powerful claim upon what Sterling sceptically referred to as “a Prague literary philosophy,” representing a major document of the post-Communist Prague literary renaissance, which includes writers like Jáchym Topol, Iva Pekarková, Michal Ajvaz, and the late Lukáš Tomin and Hana Androniková. 
Paris critic Jean Bessièrre has described The Combinations as “a ‘great novel’ – long and complex. It exemplifies remarkably the possibilities of the genre and contradictions the contemporary obsession with its decline and commodification.”
The novel follows the short life journey of Nemec, a young runaway orphaned by the state, adrift in Prague in the years immediately following the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution.’ Nemec’s encounters with the city’s various ‘underworlds’ are both unsettling and hilarious, weaving a mesh of universal history from the incidental, the coincidental and the conspiratorial on the scale of an Alan Moore novel – “a circumnavigational maze whose dominant theme is unanswered questions, with swathes of brilliance, scenes that truly unnerve, outrage, illuminate” – “whose characters – lost souls, conmen, Fuhrers, femmes fatales, concentration camp survivors, political prisoners & men-without-qualities” populate a landscape that appears less and less a work of a fiction and more and more a portrait of our contemporary irreal condition. - Bruce Sterling



The Combinations is Louis Armand’s eighth novel to date, and undoubtedly his masterpiece. Clocking in at more than 900 pages (including coda), the book is hardly an “easy read” – not something you’d pick up in the airport bookshop to while away the hours. This is literature with a big “L”, replete with arcane references, historical riffing, myth and legend that would require a doctorate in the humanities to fully access. And yet for all this, it is eminently readable, a page-turner, no less. At its heart, The Combinations is a good old-fashioned detective novel – albeit one that has more in common with Eco’s The Name of the Rose than anything by James Ellroy. Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses might also be useful markers, but only inasmuch as Armand’s narrative ambition and breadth of vision – not to mention his erudition – are of a similar stature to those of Pynchon and Joyce. The central character Němec is reminiscent of a post-communist Malone or Molloy, but he also shares a fractured sense of time and space with the anti-hero Blake, from Armand’s 2012 novel Breakfast at Midnight. As we follow Němec’s day-to-day peregrinations around “Golem City” (a vision of Prague as a psychogeographical chess board), we encounter a cornucopia of historical and mythological characters, from Faust and Edward Kelly, to Enoch and Hermes Trismegistus, with Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Slánský in walk-on roles. The ostensible grail at the end of Němec’s quest – if indeed there is an end – is the mysterious Voynich Manuscript: a work of Renaissance philology “Composed by an Unknown Author, in an Unknown Language, (which) had, over the course of its moderately long history, attracted the various attentions of occultists, amateur riddlers, pseudoscientists & crackpots of every stripe from the four corners of the globe…” This description should at least give you an idea of the novel’s trajectory, its gallows humour, it’s fascination with the flora and fauna of occult history and literary in-jokes. Two central mysteries remain: how Armand has managed to structure so much learning into something so readable; and why he remains “under the radar” to mainstream literary critics and the reading public in general. - Phil Shoenfelt






Louis Armand, Cairo, Equus Press, 2014. 
atelierlouisarmand.wordpress.com/

excerpt 1   &   excerpt 2
“Frightening, hilarious, insane…”

What do a crashed satellite, a string of bizarre murders and a time-warp conspiracy have in common? Welcome to CAIRO where the future’s just a game and you’re already dead.

“Armand’s prodigious gifts as a storyteller, wordsmith, imagineer and general fiend are copiously and carnivorously on display in this wonderful, horrifying book. Cairo is a vivid, dizzying and ultimately exhilarating exploration of the global nightmare and our big ideas about mental illness and democracy. Raw and ruthless, yet richly detailed and human, Armand takes a circular saw to the dusty corpse of western narcissism and the dread afflictions that torment and beguile the contemporary psyche. Peopled with a staggering array of the doomed, depraved and flat-out zorched, everybody’s on the last gasp and time’s running short. It’s forceful and convincing – and fist-pumpingly hilarious. Armand is a formidable, first-class writer.” - Thor Garcia


“The book follows a disparate collection of narrators. Lawson is an Aboriginal geophysicist in central Australia, tracking meteorite debris to sell to collectors. Osborne, a lost soul in New York City, is recovering from a mental breakdown with the help of the mysterious Dr Suliman. Joblard is a former heavyweight boxer turned low-level thug, working for a pornographer with a fascination for the weird. Shinwah is an assassin from the future, tasked with hunting down anachronisms – future technology – in our present. The fifth protagonist begins the novel nameless and confused, waking in a Cairo that doesn’t yet exist, led by instinct through its decaying ruins to an uncertain destination. An apparent accident, the destruction of a previously unknown satellite, brings each of these characters into conflict with shadowy forces.” Sky Kirkham

“A timely reminder of what fiction can do when it chases ideas, Cairo will reward those looking for a way to escape the enclosure of realism, cutting a hole in the fence so readers can wriggle out into the more interesting and dangerous terrain of the unknown.” - Jennifer Mills 

“Cairo… is a reflection not only of the current independent European publishing scene, but also of literature’s ability to globalize.” - Mycah McCrary

“Beware the savage jaw. The future is here now, and it’s gonna eat you up and shit you out like a half-digested Wozzie Burger. Louis Armand as the Swiftian prophet of the Virtual Age? Cairo is the best psychogeographic sci-fi detective novel I’ve read. An original take on the genetically engineered, pornographic surveillance state that we are living in right now (in case you hadn’t noticed). Dark, frightening, hilarious and utterly gripping.” - Phil Shoenfelt

Talk about a clockwork universe. This book leads you through a weird, gruesome maze through all possible pasts, futures, & presents only to arrive at the floor collapsing under you, right into a huge steaming vat of apotheosis. It's a rabbit hole in the very best sense of it, in that a 'hole' isn't just something that drops down forever, but a series of confusing warrens filled with dark, damp things where time & space become irrelevant. If you try to use logic to interweave all the narratives with the underlying re-occurrences, you've already failed, because 'Cairo' is like a magic 3D picture; you have to fall back and let yourself go out of focus in order to appreciate this trip. - Matt Lewis

“Much has been written about Louis Armand’s affinities with noir fiction and cinema. His eloquence dealing with the sordid reminds one of Raymond Chandler, and in Cairo his cinematic cuts from short chapter to short chapter containing seemingly-unrelated plots remind one of the best of film spy thrillers. But imagine the hallucinatory opening of The Mystery of Edwin Drood punctuating a whole book; imagine the fog and smoke darkening the beginning of Bleak House, the dust penetrating Our Mutual Friend darkening our whole planet. Imagine an author as familiar with the landscapes of New York, Northern Africa, London, Prague, the Australian outback as Dickens was with London, The Thames, and Rochester. Imagine the latter’s 19th-century grime become radioactive, dusting our globe. Then imagine a frustrating and destructive conspiracy like Dickens’ Chancery insinuating itself everywhere, but armed and dangerously aware of all current technologies, and characters’ lives caught up in this conspiracy they understand no better than Chancery’s victims understood their tormentor. All this comes to you, no at you, in a complex style that blends staccato phrases, short sentences, deadpan observation of amazing phenomena with apt quotations from philosophy, and with an instructive but never bothersome range of technical information. A gripping, lively, intelligent novel both rooted in tradition and absolutely current. And hip: why give up style when all the lights might go out?” - Lou Rowan

“A grim and hilarious reckoning with the future and how we got there. Jonathon Swift on a crack binge channeling James Ellroy on a transnational time-warping blitz through the contemporary hallucination and these strangest of end days. Compulsive reading, relentless, unlike anything you have read but uncomfortably close to the life you’ve been living in some fractured corner of the moment.” - Michael Brennan

“A dark, challenging, dystopian novel that is addictive to read. It warps the boundaries of genre, time, identity and place. It’s like being sucked into a video game where you have to figure out the rules on the go. You hit the ground running and hold on till the end with this novel. I’ve not read anything quite like it before.” - Michele Seminara


“Cairo is an anachronism waiting to happen, a black hole, a black-market book, a demolition of the corporate oasis, a walk through the city of the dead. Transnational but never global, Cairo is also what WILL happen if things go on as they are. Shinwah’s gaze meets the picture of a future more artificial and more real than you could ever imagine. A novel of ruins. The name of a place. A return to zero, the apex of all possible futures. Psycho-pharmaceutical biocapitalism is tomorrow’s news; so ours too. Cairo: a perfect encapsulation of what it means also to be living in the end times.” - A.J. Carruthers

Climate catastrophe, drone warfare, border fascism, corporate dictatorship, the auto-surveillance of social media, the banality of corruption, the hypocrisy of the security state and its disinformation: the world we inhabit seems to be growing into quite the Ballardian dystopia. In these conditions, the contemporary Australian literary novel seems increasingly delusional. In its conventional realist mode, it depicts peaceable, white, heterosexual, presumptuously universal families negotiating their domestic conflicts to a resolution centred on the rediscovery of individual human goodness, more or less while Rome burns. Historical fiction, memoir and thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction win our awards and top our bestseller lists. Prefabricated baddies are more popular than the present crop of contemporary corporate proto-fascists; Nazis are safely back in fashion. Political machinations are externalised, individualised, as if politics is not relevant to everyday life, or political reality is not remade daily by our actions and our imaginations.
Increasingly it seems to me that the primacy of these types of broadly realistic writing is a tyrannical form of reactionary nostalgia: an obsessive repainting of a portrait of a good Australia that bears little resemblance to its actual face. Perhaps I am simply having a version of the literary tantrum Patrick White experienced when he declared his intention, on returning to this island in the 1950s, ‘to prove that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’. The phenomenon, however, is not restricted to Australia. ‘Nonfiction has crept closer to fiction in our time in ways that are not flattering to fiction,’ wrote Rebecca Solnit in a recent essay on Virginia Woolf’s embrace of the mysterious in her writing. Almost as an aside, Solnit points to the horrors of World War I as a motive for the shock of modernism. The sheer unimaginability of that war turned great writers away from the formulas of the nineteenth century novel; Woolf recognised the need to describe the world in freshly uncertain terms. It took real trauma to burst through that barrier.
On the other hand, literature before modernism was often gothic and wildly imaginative. There were less borders between the real and the imagined, not more. The fantastical endures, but largely by inhabiting categories that exist to defuse its power. With the death of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, I was again reminded of the reach of his fiction, its ability to infiltrate so many arenas of discourse, to break out into the world. But what is also remarkable about his legacy is its enclosure within a genre. Magic realism has always been a contested genre. By definition, it is a crossing-over rather than a category, a literature that creates a bridge between indigenous and colonial world views. Simeon Slemon describes the effect thus:
This mode of narration requires the reader to read the novel in a dialectical manner, forestalling the collapse of either one of the two narrational modes into the other, but recognizing the erosion in massive and totalizing system that the dialectic effects in each. The texts thus demand a kind of reading process in which the imagination becomes stimulated into summoning into being new and liberating ‘codes of recognition’.
What magic realism seeks to do at its best is to decode the real. The imaginative does not come into play simply to make more things possible – as in the argument for science fiction’s value as a prediction machine – but to interrogate the real and its false frontiers, to make visible and cross borders. Magic realism is a post-colonial literature because it understands that those frontiers are what hold systematic oppressions in place.
By contrast, genre is an invention which reacts to transgressions by enclosing them in categories of identity. Genre thus becomes another way to reinforce the borders between the real and the imaginary. The fantastical becomes harmless, even cute. It is no coincidence that the prevalence of memoir is matched by escapist and often brutal fantasies such as Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. The popularity of teenaged dystopias is a subject of mockery, but perhaps it is a safe way for coming generations to articulate the traumatised planet they will soon inherit.
The idea of imaginative fiction as a post-colonial force of resistance is tempting, but the tendency is weaker than it was in the freshly globalised 1990s. Post-colonial is an optimistic term, given the continuing juggernaut of enclosure and exploitation which threatens the planet’s very habitability. Just like the disappearing wilderness, the imaginary is always under pressure from the real; it is shared territory that must be fought for. Ursula K Le Guin wrote: ‘to think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.’ And there is an ideology behind that imitation. Its work is to reinforce itself: to draw a mark in the earth and build a fence along it. To keep the strangers out.
So desperate are readers for an imaginative challenge that the presence of a symbol can ignite enthusiasm for the fantastical. And yet there exists a subtle pressure on writers not to ask too much of readers’ minds, not to worry too much about ideas – a bent that is exactly what drives intelligent readers away from literary fiction. The empire of the real is in our heads.
Fences are everywhere. It has become difficult to imagine land that is not enclosed, borders that are not patrolled. Countries that have not been invaded. Why, a hundred years and countless wars past Woolf’s backgrounding influence, do so many of us write as though none of this is happening? As though Woolf or Joyce or Pynchon or Acker or Carter or even Márquez never existed? Do we blame the flattening influence of the creative writing degree, the post-Cold War retreat from radicalism, prize culture, the hard-times conservatism of the publishing industry?
I suspect it has something to do with the ideas themselves, and with a human inability or unwillingness to comprehend the challenges of the future. What we now call ‘realism’ does not go near the end times. It is a lifestyle-magazine fantasy: a fantasy of retreat into a safe, stable, morally predictable universe that is no more likely to exist than the Isle of Westeros. Literary fiction is becoming a byword for boring books built out of pleasant sentences. We read these sort of books in order to avoid the world, not to understand it. An obsession with the manufacture of the real is the mark of a culture which is desperately retreating from its own reality.
The most interesting writing is an effort, not to describe the real, but to contaminate it.
*
Louis Armand’s Cairo is, I think, aiming for just this sort of contamination. Cairo is both a futuristic dystopia and an attempt to respond to the dystopian nature of present reality. Although it appears on the surface to be a science fiction novel, it depicts a state of being that Umberto Eco described as hyperreality, in which life is experienced as a bewildering array of simulacra. This is gamer-generation fiction which invokes a sinister kind of software in place of a moral code.
Armand divides his world into five distinct but linked narratives. Cairo follows a gangster in London, a Nunga fugitive in the South Australian desert, an ice-addicted time-shifter possibly in Beijing, an accidental bounty hunter of sorts in New York, and an unnamed person who seems to be in some sort of virtual universe, haunted by something or someone called The Stranger. Each of these characters has a fragmentary hold on their identity, their body, and their sense of reality. Each faces a world filled with brutality and exploitation and numerous dead ends.
Armand’s prose, too, is fragmentary, often offering up strings of images rather than sentences, dropping the reader into an overwhelmingly visual world which is at once disorienting and familiar. It is like being surrounded by flickering screens. Each chapter is headed with a symbol denoting which of the five narrative threads we are taking up, as well as the co-ordinates of the location in which it ostensibly takes place. This is no cute sci-fi gimmick, but an indication of the technique at work, which seems borrowed from the realm of role-playing games. Each of these limited chapters is narrated in the third-person in a way that suggests another intelligence, the omniscient narrator or author, is hovering over the game, attempting to map it. It gives the whole a sense of sinister conspiracy, into which the reader is plunged but in which she is never fully immersed. This deliberate disorientation encourages multiple readings of the book, as well as multiple interpretations of its various stories.
Armand’s aesthetic world will be instantly familiar to fans of science fiction. It borrows heavily from sci-fi classics, from Ballard to Bladerunner, with a dash of The Matrix thrown in. ‘Spectral minarets flanked by giant cranes … Corporate zones, gradually propagating outwards, consuming everything’: it is a deeply cyberpunk aesthetic, a world of normalised hyper-surveillance, paranoia, shadowy corporate control and bionic surprises. The borrowing from science fiction is an affectionate gesture, but it also gives these futuristic scenes a sense of somehow being of the past. Saturated as we are in both prediction and nostalgia, this time-shifting feels intensely contemporary. If the term did not already feel dated I would be tempted to call this technique remixing.
Armand’s previous novel, Breakfast at Midnight (2012), was a compact noir narrative of traumatic violence, with a yearning for lost love at its heart. Cairo is something more ambitious, but also defined, I think, by its aesthetic choices as much as its content. As in Breakfast at Midnight, the characters all seem to be suffering from a kind of reality-trauma. They are hunted, on the run in a labyrinth of seediness, intensely uncertain. This makes for an urgency which is occasionally bewildering, though for the most part the novel is action-packed. The momentum counteracts Armand’s more cerebral obsessions with images and reiterations. His fiction is unashamedly demanding and occasionally disturbing.
There are a few missteps. Shock value wears thin in places. The most glaring errors, though, are the troubling references to ‘the dwarf’, ‘the albino’, and at a couple of points ‘the negro’, as though these were not fully human characters. It is not a minor flaw, if you are intent upon any kind of imaginative expansion, to depict as freaks those already clichéd outsiders, and a sign of a laziness of thought that is not evident in the structure or the world-building. While Lawson, a character of Nunga and American heritage, is better developed, her musings on identity and indigenous world views are often clumsily rendered. Cairo has strong echoes of Wim Wenders’ classic sci-fi epic Until the End of the World (1991), particularly in the outback scenes. Lawson’s need for a sense of home seems at odds with Armand’s project. I wondered why this character was black and what her fugitive sensibility actually meant, beyond a need to make some easy judgements about the Australian occupation – though, granted, a real live Aboriginal person is a step up from the usual trope of conveniently abandoned ghost landscapes that riddle Australian fiction.
On the other hand, contested identity is central to this novel. The fragmentary voices that criss-cross the globe work well, disorienting and re-orienting the reader. In a hundred short chapters, Cairo hypnotises with the abrupt tilts and shifts of a pinball game. Each chapter intersects in some way, building a complicated and occasionally vague plot that links satellites, virtual reality, time travel and corporate crime. None of the characters are able to escape or fully comprehend the rules of the game they are in. Those closest to the designers of this game remain sinister glimmers: the creepy De Laurentiis, a kind of cyber-pimp, or the artist Momo, making his mysterious cypher in Cairo’s streetlights (a nod to the real New Yorker of the same name who spray-painted MOMO on the streets all the way across Manhattan in 2006, a tag only visible when mapped).
Despite its limitations, Cairo is refreshingly nightmarish. It crashes like a piece of space junk into the flat, dun-coloured plain of Australian realism. It is hard to box as anything other than science fiction of the cyberpunk variety, yet it is also a work of postmodern social criticism that deliberately crosses every boundary it can find. Armand trespasses on reality and identity, asking deep questions about the expendability of the individual in the world view of those in power, making an effort to outline the shadowy nature of that power, and contaminating the real with several virulent versions of the existential mise-en-abyme. A timely reminder of what fiction can do when it chases ideas, Cairo will reward those looking for a way to escape the enclosure of realism, cutting a hole in the fence so readers can wriggle out into the more interesting and dangerous terrain of the unknown. - Jennifer MIlls

Science fiction, for all its association with wild technology and alien cultures, has always concerned itself with the state of the world as it is now, using future possibilities as a lens through which to examine current issues. Louis Armand is clearly fascinated by the way our world is shaped and the way we shape our place within it; in addition to his previous novels, he has written or curated essays on literate technologies, on the avant-garde in a post-structuralist world, on pornography and bodily existence. So it makes sense that in his latest novel, Cairo, Armand has turned to cyberpunk, the dirtier, angrier child of science fiction, to examine questions of the environment, perception, identity, and time.
The book follows a disparate collection of narrators. Lawson is an Aboriginal geophysicist in central Australia, tracking meteorite debris to sell to collectors. Osborne, a lost soul in New York City, is recovering from a mental breakdown with the help of the mysterious Dr Suliman. Joblard is a former heavyweight boxer turned low-level thug, working for a pornographer with a fascination for the weird. Shinwah is an assassin from the future, tasked with hunting down anachronisms – future technology – in our present. The fifth protagonist begins the novel nameless and confused, waking in a Cairo that doesn’t yet exist, led by instinct through its decaying ruins to an uncertain destination. An apparent accident, the destruction of a previously unknown satellite, brings each of these characters into conflict with shadowy forces. - Sky Kirkham

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

—T S Eliot, The Hollow Men
I'll start by saying I don't much like science fiction. I'd rather read science, especially physics. Science fiction is constrained to present a reality that is explainable, though it can have the goal of convincing the reader of some "moral truth," as too often in the Star Trek series. To narrow the scope of what I mean by science fiction, let me make clear that Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is not science fiction. His explanation of how it is that Tyrone Slothrop plots a map of random (Poisson distribution) rocket hits on London before they occur is not a rationalization within the science fiction genre but rather a joke of the future affecting the past due to psychological extinction as an infant of classical conditioning pairing an explosion as conditioned stimulus to an erection as response. The satire is the reversal of the order of response and stimulus. The butt of the joke is the pseudoscience called psychology.
Science fiction writers struggle to make nonsense seem plausible, though sometimes they attempt to make what is mundane in science seem bizarre. Modern physics, particularly quantum mechanics and general relativity, doesn't bother to make its mathematical models seem plausible, since it relies on experiment to test via falsification. That is to say, by making precise predictions based on theory (precise predictions the defining condition of theory), experimenters attempt to falsify the theory, as with classical (Newtonian) gravity which incorrectly predicts the orbit of Mercury when near the Sun, a prediction made correctly by general relativity. (The distinction between general relativity and classical gravitation is more profound on a metaphysical level than is evident from the generally small differences in predictions.) The reality presented by general relativity and quantum mechanics are way outside the bounds of "rational" experience and there is no need to make them seem plausible by rationalization given experiment by prediction. Which is why I prefer to read science. Mathematics is yet more creatively outlandish; according to the great 19th century American mathematical physicist J. Willard Gibbs, "A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane."
This is by way of introducing Cairo, the latest novel from Louis Armand which is not really science fiction, in so far as it doesn't attempt to base its reality on science, but which parodies science fiction by employing a satellite as a plot device. This illustrates the other reason I tend to avoid science fiction, namely that the rationalizations presented for events or conditions are often as implausible as simply saying they are due to magic, reminiscent of the cartoon of a mathematician at a blackboard presenting a proof at a step that cannot be justified simply saying, A miracle happens here. (This is akin to the justification for implementation of SDI under Bush the Younger, despite the fact that it never passed any operational tests: No matter if it works, because God will make it work when it is needed.) Of course, for most people it seems that technology is miraculous or magical, given they haven't a clue how the devices they believe in and live by function. As in the action film where a car explodes when a trunk full of C4 is hit by a bullet, complete malarkey to anyone who has spent time in combat situations around the explosive. For this reason, it is not dangerous for those writing science fiction to be ignorant of the technology they rely on for their magic, but it is a problem for me when I understand the technological underpinnings. This not only happens in science fiction; one would be hard pressed to find a more implausible book than The Talented Mr. Ripley, a thriller where logic is suspended as Patricia Highsmith relies on the reader accepting events so implausible that Ripley doesn't believe he can possibly get away with them. Perhaps this has to do with the novel being a psychological thriller, psychology an academic pseudoscience so full of holes it can justify anything. And though I have some problems with Cairo, Armand is a far more accomplished writer than Highsmith; Cairo requires less credulity than The Talented Mr. Ripley.
As I noted, Cairo is not science fiction, since there is plenty of magic not explained. For example, time-warping, which is not only not explained but not really represented in concrete actions, though we do have at least one character in two places at the same time (apparently) but who may be "time-shifting" in different places. In the end, it is not important, given that the purpose of the novel seems to be to represent a dystopian future (though without any concrete basis for the dystopia that I could pinpoint). It is more a horror story in the nature of Arthur Machen or H. P. Lovecraft, an unnamed horror lurking in the ambient background, perhaps The Digital, given the stab at horror in an unstated problem with digital technology, another wrinkle I intend to address. But to be sure, time-warping is a natural part of general relativity (GR) in that gravity (which is curvature of the four dimensional object that models reality in GR, though for a clearer understanding of what that means it is imperative to have some understanding of differential geometry, a pure art form going back to Carl Friedrich Gauss and his student Bernhard Riemann that provides the foundations for GR, especially through the work of Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro and his student Tullio Levi-Civita on tensors of which curvature is a particular example) slows time, which is why time began with the big bang and stops in a black hole. Both differential geometry and GR are more imaginative creations than any science fiction I have encountered. (Which makes it amazing that a creative genius like John Milnor, the inventor of exotic spheres, for example, could find science fiction entertaining, but it is difficult for us mere mortals to grasp the world inhabited by such creatures, for whom the science fiction might be a simplistic and mundane halfway stop from his mathematical universe.) Of course, in GR "place" is not defined by spatial coordinates in three dimensions but by events, four-dimensional "places" on that geometric object called a smooth manifold in differential geometry, that in GR entangles time inextricably with space. Among consequences is that the order of events need not be absolute. (For example, considering your reading of this word as a space-time event, there exists a future event and another simultaneous event (say taking a breath as you read word) in your reference frame which occur simultaneously or in reversed order in some other reference frame. For a discussion of how "tensed language," which distinguishes between past and future and, less clearly between then and now, imposes the false (according to relativity) world of Aristotelian absolute now on humans, I suggest chapter seven of Relativity and Geometry by Roberto Torretti. This effect of language on the perception of reality is the basis of Benjamin Whorf's linguistic theory.)
In Cairo, each chapter is demarcated with an earth coordinate in latitude-longitude, spherical coordinates on the earth geoid. There are essentially five trajectories of events in space-time, one in New York City, one in and about London, one in southern Australia, one beginning in Prague and moving via Italy to Cairo, and a central locale in Cairo where the story begins. Everything converges to Cairo, however, with the character in New York apparently in both New York and Cairo simultaneously though it is not clear what that might mean if one considers reality in a relativistic sense (can a single entity's space-time trajectory span two different reference frames, ie split into two paths?). There is a bit of Cairo apparently in London via a museum with Egyptian artifacts, from which enters a touch of magic via an ancient tiny homunculus (the Black Osiris, which it seems is visible when implanted in humans using an eye-piece like a jeweler's loupe as seen embedded on the Borg) that plays a part in "infecting" the character in New York who is apparently the same as the disoriented and other-driven character (a zombie?) in Cairo with whom the novel opens. Since there is no time demarcation associated with the coordinates, the trajectories are incompletely specified, but then there would be a need for specifying reference frames for the characters as well unless it was assumed they were all in the same frame, difficult if the zombie from New York is to traverse Cairo as well on a split trajectory. The Australian, a half-aboriginal woman linked to a weather scientist investigating an apparent correlation between meteorite hits and long-term weather patterns, seemingly a crank study, seems to end up in Cairo where she is tortured for no apparent reason, having been transported by extraordinary rendition, space-time warp, or perhaps typo on the coordinate heading of the last two of her chapters. There is one certain coordinate typo, the chapter entitled Manekineko on page 317. It also seems clear that the weather scientist ought to have taken some classes in orbital dynamics of earth satellites, which will be discussed shortly. The character in Prague is a Chinese woman who might be an assassin, controlled by someone she believes has her body stored in suspended animation in a tank in China, a belief discounted by a woman she meets in Italy presenting an even more awkward story based on the satellite at the center of this tale. The New Yorker possible part-time zombie is a loser whose wife meets a gruesome end, her pet bonobo last seen playing with her detached head. The London character is a thug of sorts, an enforcer for a pornographer who is infatuated with dwarfs and tied to the homunculus and some evil other-worldly types: a dwarf and a character more or less without a face. The London thug wisely bows out before things get out of hand.
Before exploring more of the story, it is necessary to give a brief (nontechnical) account of the Newtonian classical two-body (Keplerian) satellite orbit. Unfortunate, but it seems almost no one understands it, including the Palestinian climate scientist (named Dix) in Australia with a fascination for meteors. We will stick to earth-orbiting satellites, though the basic two-body Newtonian theory works fairly well in the solar system except when solar satellites like Mercury get too close to the sun and GR is needed to account for the stronger gravitation. It is sad that people who are certified as educated are unfamiliar with such a classical theory, but for example the MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, ceremonially certified with a PhD in something or other, once expressed amazement that NASA didn't steer a satellite over to view some event. NASA doesn't steer satellites; but then Maddow also touted Janet Yellen as a natural choice to run the Federal Reserve since her predictions are so good compared with those of economics in general which, as Maddow noted, has a terrible record of making correct predictions. This shows a complete misunderstanding of science: the predictions of individual scientists are irrelevant. It is the theories they create that make the predictions, inherent as theory of necessity must make precise predictions that can be tested to falsify. Scientists are not prophets, though Yellen might be. Like astrology, economics has a penchant for complicated mathematics, but in economics that is a sleight of hand trick to divert attention to a false cause and effect relationship between, for example, supply and demand based around a phantom "force" called equilibrium price, avoiding the difficult question of what drives demand and what is the actual rationale for manipulating supply. Clearly given the track record of economics, the causes of demand and supply have nothing to do with the so-called equilibrium price (but there might finally be consideration of human primate instinct, a study going back to the economic observations of Thorstein Veblen). For a recent article regarding the application of econometric chicanery in applying mathematics to trading software through backtesting to convince buyers (and academics) of the efficacy of said software or strategies for trading in financial markets, see David H. Bailey et. al., Pseudo-Mathematics and Financial Charlatanism: The Effects of Backtest Overfitting on Out-of-Sample Performance, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, May, 2014 (available free online at the AMS website). It seems sad that a person could graduate from high school without understanding, not just as a factoid to recite but in the sense of grasping the derivation, the mechanics of the two-body orbit in classical gravitational attraction. In any case, Rachel Maddow is as superstitious as Bill O'Reilly, despite their opposite stances on most other matters.
The two-body (Keplerian) orbit of a satellite is determined by a second-order differential equation requiring six initial conditions (for definiteness, we are choosing the earth orbiting satellites). Those initial conditions, say initial position and velocity at some time, completely determine the orbit. Speed is a function of the orbit, with lower orbits having a higher speed, higher orbits slower speed. An equivalent set of six conditions to initial position and velocity are the orbital elements. These specify a conic in a plane, for our purposes an ellipse, with the earth as a focus of the ellipse, an orientation of that plane in space, and finally the shape and orientation of the ellipse in the plane and an epoch, that is a fixed time at which the orbit passes some chosen point. Orbits with small eccentricity are nearly circular. If the orbit is circular (that is, the eccentricity is zero so the satellite distance from the earth center is constant) the speed of the satellite is constant. The period of the orbit is determined by the height of the orbit as well (leaving out complications with highly eccentric orbits). A geosynchronous orbit, for example, has a period the same as the rotation of the earth, so when in orbit above the equator the satellite remains above a fixed point on earth (geostationary orbit), quite high and not moving very fast; a GPS satellite has a lower orbit with an approximate period of two, that is it orbits the earth twice per earth rotation; while a spy satellite might have a polar orbit that is quite low so it has a high speed and a high period and hence can cover a lot of ground as the earth rotates beneath its orbit. (Note that speed is the magnitude of the velocity vector, which vector incorporates direction as well as speed.) One could have several satellites configured in the same orbital conic and plane except with different epochs, and they would all have the same speed and thus not collide.
With two-body (Keplerian) orbits other effects (perturbations) are ignored. For example, in the derivation it is assumed the earth is a sphere that can be treated as a point-mass, a fiction given the earth is an oblate spheroid bulging along the equator due to its rotation. This bump requires a gravitational potential that has an infinity of extra terms, harmonics, with names like J2, J3, J4, ad infinitum, which must be accounted for to get more accurate orbits, especially for low-earth satellites which may also be affected by atmospheric drag. Low orbits require more maintenance than orbits of higher bodies, which are more affected by other celestial bodies like the moon and which are also more affected by the likes of solar wind. These details are not so important except to say it is necessary from time to time to adjust the orbits with controlled "burns" in what is often called station keeping, implemented by communicating commands from the ground via data links. Keep in mind that the satellites generally have some device pointing at the earth, a camera or antenna or radar, and that the orientation of the satellite must be such that this device does not point away from its intended line of sight. For a camera, for example, it is important that not only the satellite position be known when a photo is taken, but also the orientation of that camera as well as its offset from the satellite center of mass.
In particular, satellites do not come out of nowhere, which is what the weather scientist Dix says to his aboriginal friend about the satellite that has collided with some other body, perhaps an asteroid. Earth satellites are easy to track: one needs only two positions and the time of transit to determine the two-body (Keplerian) orbit (Lambert's theorem, which solves the two-point boundary value problem). If the satellite had just been put on orbit, not a credible suggestion given its purpose in the story, the device that had released it into orbit, generally a rocket, would be apparent. Dix says the satellite was in a high orbit and that it was moving fast, though as noted, its speed is a function of the altitude which is a function of the semi-major axis of the orbit ellipse and its point on the orbit; if it were high up it would not be moving so fast. And were it a missile, as he suggests is possible, it would likely have a lower orbit or perhaps a more eccentric orbit designed to intersect the earth at some point if it had already "gone ballistic" (ended powered flight). If it were still powered it would not look like a satellite given its speed which would not be consistent with an orbit. At any rate, something lands at ground zero in New York City, and some other pieces land in the southern wastes of Australia. Dix sends the woman after a piece that lands in Australia and she finds, oddly enough, a black box I assume as on an aircraft, which is a very strange thing to have on a satellite. For one thing, it is not likely that such a thing would be of much use, as satellites are usually monitored in real-time by telemetry; nor is it clear what it would be recording; nor would it likely survive re-entry. Real estate on satellites is precious and the devices one can place on a satellite are limited. The computer you use, whether it be laptop, desktop, smart phone, etcetera would be unlikely to survive long in space. Cosmic radiation is hard on the guts of the devices we use here on earth, the memory and processors, so they must be redesigned using materials less susceptible to its ravages. Since there are so few of these devices needed in space, there are no economies of scale and prices are insane: a small amount of memory and an ancient chip design built for space might cost millions of dollars. Besides, there is not much power available: it is difficult to run an extension cord to a satellite. This requires devices that use little power. Finally, heat is a danger, as fans cannot cool processors in space (why? take this to be an exercise) and must be dissipated in some less efficient way, which means processors that run hot will likely incinerate or melt.
However, given the Egyptian roots of the unnamed horror, we could assume the satellite was an ancient Egyptian spacecraft as recorded on panels of the hypostyle hall of the Great Temple to Osiris at Abydos, flowing along a geocentric orbit of modified Tychonic heavenly system perhaps on the lines advocated by Robert Sungenis in his book Galileo Was Wrong, or better yet akin to the original Ptolemaic system with deferents and epicycles. Perhaps the satellite was on an especially loopy epicycle and so, according at least to Newton, did come from out of nowhere. It is possible that ancient Egyptian earth-satellites followed "orbits" with elliptic epicycles that hurl satellites great distances from earth through some ancient mechanics. What blows the satellite as science fiction device is its use according to the woman who rescues the Chinese woman Shinwah from her handler de Laurentis. She tells Shinwah that her body is not in some tank in China under de Laurentis' control, but rather that he tracked her by the satellite that crashed; in fact, the satellite kept track of her coordinates. "'…the comsat that used to feed the coordinates back to your Head Office got taken down. We don't know how. The signal went dead two days ago. Something crashed in New York. Ground Zero. Maybe that was part of it. The Americans are pretending it was an asteroid. But then they would, wouldn't they?'"
So Shinwah is told she has a transmitter implanted in her head that evidently communicated with the satellite that has since violently de-orbited due to a collision (though why it's pieces would not simply remain in space in a new orbit, perhaps eventually spreading out like a ring, is not clear, at least according to Newtonian gravity). How that single device obtains her location is a mystery. Magic. At least according to modern scientific theory and engineering practice.
A single satellite tracks her? How? It can't follow her around. What is determining her location? If this were a communications satellite in a geostationary orbit that only serves to communicate her location, that still begs the question of how that location is determined. (There are other orbits for communication satellites, including more eccentric orbits, but they all present the same problem.) If there were implanted within her a tracking device like a ranging transponder, assuming it could operate on very low power, it would not be possible to locate her coordinates with a single range (at least two are needed to obtain a two-dimensional projection onto earth, but real accuracy would require three) unless it was tracked by some sort of device like a monopulse radar that could detect not only range but azimuth and elevation, a difficult proposition at such distances in any case given the lack of resolution of those angles measured from afar. Perhaps a laser beam would allow more resolution, though having enough power to run such a device that would anyway be absorbed by buildings is not a feasible story. An implanted GPS device might work, though GPS, a one-way spread-spectrum radio that computes an antenna position and the offset of its receiver clock from GPS time using four satellites (four are needed to solve for position in three dimensions along with the time bias since the measurements are not ranges but pseudoranges, measured as difference between time of transmission on the satellite in highly stable GPS time and generally sloppy time of reception on the receiver clock, which measurement contains more information than a range from which time cannot be deduced; see Jonathan Abel and Jim Chaffee, On the Existence and Uniqueness of GPS Solutions, IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, November, 1991, On the Exact Solutions of Pseudorange Equations, IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, October, 1994, and GDOP and the Cramer-Rao Bound, Proceedings IEEE PLANS '94, Las Vegas, NV, April, 1994) would not work well indoors (advances have been made in such solutions, especially with aided GPS where long integration times across data boundaries are possible to increase sensitivity by providing satellite information externally so as not to require demodulating the data or else by transmitting the data to another device for post-processing; but accuracy is still poor given the scattering of the signal that diverts the exact line-of-sight path to the satellite; see for example Günter Hein, et. al., GNSS Indoors: Fighting the Fading in Inside GNSS, March-April 2008 available online from insidegnss.com). But of course, the problem is how to get the data to the satellite from her physical location when there is no line of sight; the GPS receiver itself does not communicate without mediating devices like a screen with a physical link to the receiver (like having an FM radio without speakers), or a cell-phone, or some other radio (wireless device like Bluetooth or Wifi that might access the internet) to transmit location information. At any rate, for me the satellite would be merely a plot device to get several people involved and tied to a central story were it not linked to the ancient Egyptians via some ancient space magic, which need not cause one to wonder WTF because it need not be plausible to modern science. Plausibility is not a strong suit nor a necessity for Machen or Lovecraft or their spawn, Steven King. We can forego the physical necessity of line of sight by calling this pseudoscience fiction, a cross between Lovecraft, ancient astronaut Egyptology (perhaps Ed Sanders meets David Icke and Peter Kolosimo), and Osirian afterlife (though much understanding of this was destroyed along with the cult of Osiris through Christian persecution under Justinian).
At any rate, Shinwah and her lady friend trot off to Cairo in search of what the friend calls a cartouche to get rid of the transmitter in Shinwah's head. "…the only way of doing the job clean is you have a cartouche. And the only place you'll find one, is Cairo." The link would be tenuous was not this cartouche connected with the Black Osiris homunculus that resides, it seems, in a cartouche containing a "transparent cylinder studded with circuitry" that radiates a low warmth and pulses red, opened early on in the novel by the hapless New Yorker who is zombified by that tiny black homunculus. The ancient homunculus residing within its cartouche with circuit-studded cylinder is apparently in part a tracking device tied to the satellite that has seemingly crashed with something or other and de-orbited in pieces. And has something to do with relativity, which might be compatible with Egyptian Osiris cult astronomy instead of with quantum mechanics. That is pseudoscience fiction.
The story also posits a catastrophe spawned by corporate abuses of unspecified modern digital or virtual technology. The unnamed horror, The Digital, a bugaboo that is difficult to wrap one's head around, is an unnamed horror in the tradition of Lovecraft. It made me think of the cartoon by Tom Toles in which Randolph Itch dreams he is being coerced to walk a wireless tightrope, high-wire funambulism with wireless technology, high speed no less. In the novel it is said that there are mobs and riots, stock market collapse, and all sorts of havoc resulting from some unspecified catastrophe, the nexus of which is a domed building in Cairo built by some unspecified corporations. "The way you stop a sickness spreading is by quarantine. Which is whey they built the dome. To keep death out. And the intifada blocked every tunnel past the periphery. To keep the entropy in." I had trouble fitting this bit in with my Egyptian pseudoscience motif. Entropy is a macroscopic measure of a microscopic phenomenon like temperature is of the kinetic energy that is heat. Of course, entropy is a hot word ever since Pynchon put it in the buzz lexicon of modern fiction with his highly overrated short story of the same name. I suggest everyone who wants to play with the word read at least a short work regarding entropy (to avoid the longish expositions of physics texts on thermodynamics) like Elliot Lieb and Jakob Yngvason, A Guide to Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, May, 1998, available free from the AMS website.
In Britain, meantime, there are characters associated with the main Brit, a motorcycle riding thug, who have "abiding faith in all things pre-digital" as if that is supposed to make one immune to the real problem, which is nothing to do with digital and everything to do with a proliferation of open communication networks ripe for interception (and assumed available to the ancient Egyptians via their black Osiris bug). Of course, there is the internet: however that is implemented, we all are (or should be) aware of its vulnerability to interception and spoofing. But that predates the proliferation of digital technology into the analog world. There is a significant difference between the computers of the 1960s and 70s and the computers of today. When I first worked GPS in 1981, GPS receivers were large devices that did the bulk of their processing using analog components to down-convert the incoming signal to an intermediate frequency and apply analog phase-locked loops to track the signal, produce the pseudorange measurements and demodulate the carrier. Eventually the receivers shrunk when computer processors shrunk and speeded up enough to convert the incoming (analog electromagnetic) signal to a digital representation before down-conversion to baseband and operate on that signal with computer implementations of the formerly analog phase-locked loops and demodulator. But even then the processing was tenuous given that co-processors that ran fast enough to keep up in real time were not available, requiring in many cases to approximate real numbers with integers directly instead of using floating point representations. The difference in processing is akin to a CD player versus a record player. Nothing sinister. In fact, there has been a move to miniaturize analog components because they operate faster in real-time without using as much power and generating as much heat as digital signal processors, for use where the algorithmic flexibility gained from digital processing is moot. At any rate, the idea of keeping to land lines and avoiding computers connected to the internet, while recognizing the true danger of these communication nets, has nothing to do with digital. Cell phones are two-way radios that broadcast openly to repeaters that send the analog signal along, ripe for interception by anyone intelligent enough to operate a receiver designed to demodulate the signal. The same is true of radios like Bluetooth and Wifi. Anything broadcast over a cell phone, Bluetooth or Wifi is public information, its analog signal readily intercepted. As is any data stored on a computer connected to the internet. Does it help to have a device like a phone connected only via landline? Maybe. Intercepting landline signals in the old days required a physical device be connected. That would be true with fiber optic cables as well, except that it seems those laid by US companies are designed to provide ready access for interception, one reason why Brazil has chosen to lay its own fiber optic cables for communication inside and outside the country. But what if the landline is connected to a cell phone, so that at some point it must be broadcast on a radio frequency from a repeater to that radio called a cell phone? How safe is the landline that travels entirely over fiber optic cable, given the designed access for snooping? Or worse, if uplinked via radio frequency to a receiving device for transmission along other cable?
At any rate, it is not an issue of digital versus analog, but of interconnection via publicly open communication networks. And it seems that the black Osiris is a means of bugging the brain. Is the black Osiris analog or digital? Is that relevant?
The issue that troubles me in all this is the idea that somehow corporations will be forced to trap people physically. "'The corporations. Began as enclaves. High-rise wage ghettos. In the end, people couldn't leave. Debt-bound. Nowhere to leave to. Outside the Dome, nothing survives for long. Unless it's underground. Or up in space. But the Dome economy was always virtual. Nothing but an oversized bubble waiting to burst. Only the Dome itself, what you see when you're up there instead of the sky, that's real.'"
This is where I begin to feel queasy. Why do you need a dome? I am sure it must be related to the pyramids. The debt-bound trap of high-rise ghettos has always been the direction of the twentieth century, nascent in the industrial revolution since the beginning, a new form of feudalism in which people are bound to corporations through debt. Ever since humans left the confines of subsistence agriculture for modern societies in which almost everyone is removed from providing the basic necessities, society that goes back to the ancient Egyptians. The paradox is that humans have prospered under this form of feudalism, with more security rather than less. How many people starve to death in advanced societies? When it does happen, as it did in Darjeeling in India, it is not due to lack of necessities but to a means of distribution that cuts out certain people, causing an outcry that forces societies to amend the distribution, though that is one of the things the US extreme right in the form of "libertarianism" (a misnomer if ever there were one) would like to be done with (they have a superstition that says that distribution untouched by government, i.e. society, is somehow natural). This is illustrated by the cheers at a Ron Paul rally for letting people without health insurance die. More likely today is that humans die of overeating and lack of exercise, with diabetes predicted to become epidemic. But in any case, minus the dome this is nothing more than the latter twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. With the bubbles. Which are commonplace (since before the founding of modern society; Isaac Newton was burned in such a bubble and they go back beyond that one, perhaps also to ancient Egypt). Which have not brought down society (which itself is likely a manifestation of human instinct).
It is almost a bit of Tea Party paranoia, this fear of collapse and starvation predicated on a "virtual economy," whatever is meant by an economy. Societies exist by providing the humans who inhabit them with the goods necessary to survive, but that was always tenuous for those on the bottom, more so when the "economy" was less "virtual" than now. I suppose humans can be frightened by not seeing the roots of the stuff they need to survive: food, water, shelter. I remember that when Lehmann Brothers collapsed, I was told by a progressive that we didn't need these new fangled investment banks anyway, that we needed to get back to those basic companies with long historical roots like GM. I pointed out that Lehmann Brothers had been founded before the US Civil War to provide brokerage services to cotton farmers, a form of insurance (options). This is an example of the "virtual economy" that has moved modern humans farther from starvation, at least in the so-called developed world.
In that the novel trades on fear of this development that goes back hundreds of years, I find it hard to swallow. I suggest the experiment of trying to grow enough food to keep from going to a grocery store; try it for a year. If there is a collapse of modern society, it will be a result more of environmental calamity brought about by humans changing the ecosystem than by some virtual-digital calamity. Perhaps abetted by superstition of the sort coming from the US Republican right-wing (i.e. gold bugs, libertarians, tea partiers) or New-Age remnants of hippy culture which infects both right and the "progressive" left, much like the paranoia reflected here. It isn't terrifying; it's silly.
But that is a quibble with the author's philosophical bent. The novel itself is a new genre, a sort of horror that I believe might be called pseudoscience fiction, this one rooted in alien technology and ancient astronaut beliefs linked to ancient Egypt. I bet Ed Sanders and David Icke would like it.
Jim Chaffee


Let's try to get things off to an upbeat start. Louis Armand's Cairo is an ambitious book. It has multiple narratives set over dozens of locations where time is fluid, human biology and computer technology are intertwined and everyone has weird names like Joblard, Shinwah and Johnny Fluoride. It is unflinching in its portrayal of human greed, urban decay and nasty rats. It attempts to put forward complicated ideas about technology, about space-time and about the fact that our own present is looking ever more like a dystopian future.
Armand is also admirably unwilling to make things easy. Those disparate narratives appear (as one reviewer on the Not the Booker voting page put it) to be "hyperlinked" – and there are strong hints at an over-arching conspiracy theory centred around a boy called Momo. But there are never any clear connections, easy answers or simplistic explanations. Armand is brave enough to challenge his readers. For that at least, we should salute him. Part of me is glad that someone should attempt to write a book like this one and that a small press like Armand's publisher Equus should have the courage to put it out.
Another part of me, however, has seen it all before. I've read Ballard and Burroughs and William Gibson, and even if I hadn't I imagine most of Cairo would still feel like so much old hat. One of the reviews recommending Armand for the Not the Booker suggested that the book is:
"A riotous exploitation sci-fi noir whose action shifts from London to New York to the Australian outback, Prague and a post-apocalyptic Cairo. This novel has it all, conmen, evil doctors, rats, Egyptian artifacts, meteors, time-traveling kung-fu assassins, dwarfs, exploding heads, soy vindaloo and a long list of other extraordinary renditions."
Does any of that seem fresh to you? Me neither. You probably won't be surprised that the novel also contains an albino and an attractive female assassin. And yes, regarding the latter, the inevitable happens. To his partial credit, Armand manages to hold off involving his female lead in a lesbian clinch until page 256 – although he starts dropping heavy-breathing hints as early as page 113. While I'm scrabbling for positives here, I could also note that at least the author doesn't indulge himself with too many salacious details about his Sapphic moment. But in spite of this rare touch of restraint there's always the faint clack of one-handed typing about Cairo. It's crammed with violence, puking, drugs, wounds and women without any clothes on. It's all too redolent of a certain type of male writing.
There are other problems. Armand's ambitious multi-part structure generally overwhelms him. Huge chunks of the book are given over to scene-setting as Armand feels obliged to explain where we are and what has been happening each time he picks up the various narrative batons. Here's an all too typical chapter opening:
"An intersection at the west end of Canal Street. Night. Traffic backed out of Holland Tunnel, jamming into the river, the distant lights of Battery Park Annex oozing down it. Wind And Rain. Osborne huddled against a lampost in a worn brown leather trenchcoat … "
It would be easy enough to argue that this is part of a deliberately disorienting effect, with the fractured narrative reflecting the broken reality of the novel. But it's even easier to say that it is boring. An unhealthy proportion of the book reads like the "how was your journey?" conversation, bolstered by lengthy digressions about traffic snarl-ups. In fact, the descriptions in Cairo feel especially monotonous and repetitive because they're all part of that tired, dirty, cliche-ridden dystopia. I'm actually more interested in the roadworks on the A11 than in this insubstantial nowhere.
That chapter opening I just quoted also highlights Cairo's other major defect: bad prose. Those one and two-word sentences quickly grow tiresome. Armand elsewhere has other devices that suggest a straining after portent, but produce instead discontent. Especially irritating is his repeated use of elliptical half-sentences: "The remains of the old railhead, where Afghan camel trains had once set out across a desert half a continent wide." Main verbs may be conventional - but they are useful.
There's plenty more to moan about elsewhere. There's verbiage. Characters can't just read headlines on front of the New York Times, they have to be: "the morning's headline blazoned in two-inch serif across the front page". There's cloth-eared dialogue. I particularly winced at the way people in the London section of the book keep on referring to each other as "old chum". There's malapropism – although I did enjoy "emphaticness" in the place of "emphasis". There are dead-in-the-water metaphors – here's a painfully literal example: "Millennium Plaza was a post-communist horror jutting up from the expanse of water that was now northern Prague, like a floating glass ziggurat." Is it not, in fact, actually a floating glass ziggurat? Or does it just look as though it's floating? In which case, to which other floating glass ziggurats am I supposed to be comparing the building? Either way, it doesn't work. There are also simple mistakes: "She wondered where Margarita's people where."
At this point I know that I'm complaining about relatively minor niggles – but the trouble is that there are so many of them they dominate the reading experience. The result is painful. Armand should be applauded for aiming high in this book . But it would have been far less tedious to read if he'd taken more care of the basics. - 

In college, certain professors often accosted me for reading "too much" international literature, as they feared it would take away my ability to really learn about various American voices. I still (stubbornly) often gravitate toward international literature, though, especially after having fallen into a deep love with works in translation. And I am thinking here about how reading international literature gave me certain ideas, about things like plot and momentum and structure.
As a junior in college, I befriended a young woman who was studying comparative literature at The University of Chicago. And though we were at different schools, studying different things and reading different authors, we found it fun to trade authors' names, and even the books we thought each other might like. I'm still into trading names, of authors I would never have even heard of without doing so. So when a good friend of mine recommended Cairo by Louis Armand, I felt the need to take a look, at a book whose only real possibility of reaching me was through the grapevine.
Cairo, published by Equus Press (based in Paris, London, and Prague), seems to be a reflection not only of the current independent European publishing scene, but also of literature's ability to globalize. The book, which traverses New York, Prague, London, Cairo itself, and the Australian desert, might be at once magical realism and science fiction, but what's easier to think about when classifying the book is examining the way it bridges story and geography.
Genre distinctions aside, Armand gives us a text that allows us to escape not only geographical and temporal positions, but also gives us many ideas with which to grapple, as we become familiar with multiple narrators who carry the story at their own, disparate paces. If one has seen a time-traveling X-Men film, or perhaps Blade Runner or even Sin City, they'll find themselves easily prepared for Armand's Cairo.
"A series of major floods had earned Prague its moniker as the Venice of Inland Europe," Armand writes. "The whole north-side, above the old city, had been rezoned into a network of canals and waterways. Barges, cruise boats and gondolas crowded the quays. Nightlights glimmered everywhere on black water." Whether through personal experience or Google Images, we can compare this particular vision of a very real city with the one that exists through examples of contemporary photography, or, with some of us, the one that exists in memory. Or, perhaps compare is the wrong word to use here, and we should instead replace it with reimagine -- Armand's text, in essence, asks that we reimagine certain places in order for them to fit his narrative. Plenty of sci-fi makes the same demands, sure, but does or should this change the way we prepare ourselves to enter a unique text? Television's Defiance, for example, has us reimagine the city of St. Louis, but I'm not at all certain that the leg work we do here as audience members hinders the effectiveness of the medium itself. Reimagining isn't a bad generic requisite, as we come to appreciate having added a new paint to the pictures we already know.
Additionally, Armand shows no ignorance of the cultures about which he writes, even if the versions of these cultures exist in Cairo far differently from the way(s) we know them. With phrases like "the yanks have gone completely off the beam about it" or calling North London "the armpit of mediocrity," there's a willingness here to bridge what's already known (or perhaps experienced by Armand himself) with what's created as part of the text. If there's a way to show off one's cosmopolitanism in a text, it can be seen in Cairo, as it's easy to get the feeling that Armand has more than just research on his side. If "write what you know" was advice once given to Armand as a young writer, from reading Cairo you'd never know whether or not he took it.

From issues of geography to those of caste systems and race, both in real and imagined contexts, Cairo certainly takes the reader on a tour, bringing them into a universe all its own. And though learning to navigate new universes in fiction can sometimes be a chore, at other times it acts as a relief, allowing us to add to a growing knowledge bank of invented people and places and things. This is to suggest, perhaps, that being familiar with characters like Luke Skywalker or places like Hogwarts can be good for our health, and reading the books that force us to learn about new and foreign atmospheres, like Cairo, shouldn't be brushed off just because of the work it asks us to do. The work of this literature, international or not, intergalactic or not, gives us the gift of being able to carry our thoughts to enriching, untrodden places. Micah McCrary

This book tells of the goings-on of five people and it tells them separately for they are in different places and different times. They may be connected but this is not entirely clear - like much in this book, it is left to the reader to figure out.
The first chapter opens with someone running; he does not know why or where to. Indeed, he cannot remember who he is, where he is, or what he was doing; all he knows is that he is injured and he needs to get to somewhere safer. To start with he feels he has a voice in his head telling him what to do, as if he has done this many times before, but that fades into silence (perhaps as if each iteration takes a different direction).
The second chapter introduces us to Joblard, whose various 'employments' include being a sort of minder/fixer for the dubious Mr. Bludhorn, a man whose 'financial interests' include making low-grade porn movies. In chapter three we meet Lawson, an Australian of mixed Aborigine-American parentage. Chapter four brings us to Osborne, a man of apparently little fixed abode and who runs errands for the mysterious Doctor Suliman. The next chapter brings us to Shinwah, who seems to be some sort of agent or operative from the future.
From here, the individual stories start to emerge as the book cycles through sets of five chapters as each story progresses. The individual progress is slow as each chapter is short, usually between two and six pages. This moves the individual stories along in an interesting way but the shortness of each chapter, whilst providing a tension, is also frustrating.
Joblard rides about London on his BSA Gold Star, performing the various tasks and chasing ups required of him. He is physically large and strong, and probably not very pretty, and is clearly quite persuasive where a little “persuasion” is required. At Bludhorn's request, he recently acquired a set of “interesting” photos from Johnny Fluoride, though his next visit to said gentleman results in the latter falling in the river. He is a little surprised, though, when the body is fished out a while later and found to be headless, it having been blown off by a shot gun! From there on, Joblard rides round 'investigating' and discovers more beheaded bodies (including one on his own sofa) and a number of dwarves (as in small people from the circus).
Lawson is asked to do a job by her old friend Dix, ostensibly a climate modeller but mostly a computer hacker. His monitoring of 'intelligence' reports indicates that maybe a meteor hit what was probably a communications satellite and bits have fallen to Earth. No-one seems to know who it belongs to but everyone wants to find it. He has plotted the trajectory of a large fragment and it has landed in the Outback, near Woomera, not too far from where they are. If she is quick, Lawson can retrieve it for him. Unfortunately, other folks are quicker than expected and this time Dix's hacking has been noticed.
On a snowy winter's night in New York, Ground Zero has been hit by what may have been a meteor. Even as Doctor Suliman casts doubt that this could be any sort of coincidence, he gives Osborne an errand to run - simply collect an item and drop off a case in payment. The item, though, is more like an infection, and Osborne finds himself running through the streets chased by, well, he is not sure what. And then it gets weirder for him, almost hallucinogenic.
So far everything has happened in our time period, or thereabouts. However, Shinwah and her boss de Laurentiis come from somewhere in the future and perform clandestine operations in their past, presumably for commercial gain. There are several such organisations and, like all such agencies, they have no mercy for each other. Their latest operation had been in Cairo, a Cairo somewhere in their past but our future. Declaring it a trap, de Laurentiis had shot their contact and they had escaped. As a result, they are now on another mission, just a little later than our time and again things are not going right. She finds herself back in Cairo and her new contact explains that the geo-time system for monitoring agents has somehow failed and, with luck, she can escape the agency that controls her. As with Osborne, things for Shinwah just get weirder.
It transpires that our running man is also in Cairo, but one further in the future where the city is under a vast dome to protect it from the ravages of the outside world. It seems that he might have been the one shot by de Laurentiis but, like everything in this book, it is not certain. He finds himself being helped by an albino woman who seems to know who he is, or maybe what he is worth, and she leads him to someone who has been waiting to see him. His host tells him an ancient tale of a traveller searching for knowledge and of possible futures. And yes, it just gets weirder for him as well.
After lots of to-ing and fro-ing, and lots of incidental detail, suddenly I was at the end of the book. Nobody's story had reached a meaningful end; they just continued as before (or worse) or else everything had gone really weird for them. Perhaps I have missed something, or maybe I am supposed to work it all out for myself. Perhaps the author has figured it all out and assumes that we will as well, or maybe he just has some ideas and is presenting them to us so that we can make what we will out of them. Do you remember watching Lost? The writers of that had all sorts of ideas to make the plane crash and the island very mysterious but in the end it transpired that they themselves had never really figured out what it was all about … just lots of ideas and leave it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps it is the same with this, or maybe the author is just trying to say that there are many possibilities and that each decision can lead to a different future. To be honest, I am not sure what he meant.
Throughout the writing is very good. The individual stories tick along well and interestingly though the choppy nature of the short chapters hides the fact that often nothing much happens to move the story along despite the number of pages that are turning. There is lots of good detail and description and each story line has its own consistent feel and atmosphere. I enjoyed reading it but, in the end, felt disappointed and let down about the way it sort of petered out and left everything to the reader to resolve.
I am reminded of an occasion during my school days. My homework had been to write an essay on what we had learnt in that day's history lesson (something to do with Parliament as I recall); I regurgitated the facts and got an average mark - and the comment 'So?' written in red ink. I was perplexed so I asked the teacher what he meant. "So?" he said, "You repeated the facts but what did it mean, what was the significance?" I did not know. At the end of school that day I was invited into the Staff Room and spent a fascinating hour as he explained and discussed the history leading up to the event, the whys and wherefores of the situation, the outcome and why it mattered to us today. Until then, to me history had been just a list of boring dates but from then on I realised that history is composed of events, of happenings, of one thing leading to another, and they all combined to make the world we live in today: it is all relevant. I owe a lot to that teacher for he made me think about things in a way I had not before, about interconnectivity.
This book has reminded me of that occasion. It is well written and the text carried me along, but when I got to the end I found myself repeating my teacher's question – 'So?' - Peter Tyers



Louis Armand, Canicule, Equus Press, 2013.
excerpt

The dog days of 1983. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov, dancing into the sunset. Hess, Ascher and Wolf are orphans chance has brought together in a small Baltic seaside town. Twenty years on, the long hot summer of the Israel-Lebanon War. Hess, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, finds himself in the Mediterranean, drinking to forget a wasted marriage. Wolf, haunted by his father's murder, is drawn into the nebulous world of international terrorism. When Ascher, a failed artist, commits suicide, all the stakes are changed. Or are they? With the Cold War, sex and punk rock throbbing in the background, Hess must confront his past, seeking to salvage dignity from defeat.

"A homage to 70s New German Cinema, Baader-Meinhof, and the Man Without Qualities... undercut with the bitter irony of a History that does nothing but repeat, like an orphaned Oedipus Complex on Zoloft." Goodreads

Sometimes life is just a long farewell. That’s when we know the flesh is sadder than all the books. Rimbaud thought he’d acquired supernatural powers and then in disgust buried his imagination, pagan words and memories in his belly. He discovered rapture in destruction and rejuvenation in malevolence. Dying, he ‘summoned executioners to bite the butts of their guns’ and plagues to ‘smother him in sand, and blood.’ Armand’s characters are always intense, shedding more tears than God demanded. What begins as research ends in silences, nights, a vertigo tied down by an excess of misunderstood sympathies in which, through everything, but especially words, or besides them, they lose their lives like empires at the fag end of their own and other’s decadence, and all done in a minor key.
By the late eighties the problem of how to write serious meditational fiction without being a counterfeit, avoiding the triple death of Neiman-Marcus nihilism, Catatonic realism and Workshop hermeticism was pressing. It remains as ever an urgent thing: ‘serious, real, conscientious, aware, ambitious art is not a grey thing. It has never been a grey thing and it is not a grey thing now’ wrote David Foster Wallace at the time. But it’s tough not to end up grey even with the best of intentions. Armand’s latest offers an interesting solution to the problem, and though not perfect it’s a damn fine thing. He picks up the lush wintery style of noir, its sense of ennui twisting like blue cigarette smoke through dark passages of light and sound, a music, sensuality and rhythm that overrides the need for sense and gives but the intense calando of the last framing moments of Casablanca, all done in brachylogy – those brief, concise phrases, speeches and images that mean less than what they convey, like Ossessione’s Clara Calamai’s sleeveless undergarment worn under a sheer blouse. His characters, as in the finest pulp noir, are all living to Paul Verlaine’s lines; ‘A vast black sleep/falls over my life/sleep, all hope/sleep, all desire’. They are infected by ‘an infinite resignedness’ which can’t think of any type of beauty in which there isn’t melancholy and self-understanding which they can’t know, save by bad luck.
Armand’s book and Casablanca are not only connected via their moody atmospherics but also with the idea that the work keeps saying more than it can. Armand’s book is a brisk, pacy read. He uses ideas and images as vehicles to convey the regrets, anger, sadness and ennui of his characters. The range of emotions covered is basically covered by those. There is nothing flash or startling about the images and ideas. He makes them do a job and that’s all. There is no stylistic vaunt in this performance. So like Michael Kurtiz’s Casablanca it’s all pretty unexceptional at that first level. But then you stop worrying about those things and you realize that for all the immanent politics in the background and the themes of sex and death and love in the foreground what Armand is really writing about is a matrix of puzzling arbitrariness that quite forcefully resists any perspective of immanence in fact. In this respect Armand is fugitively returning us to the world of Petrarch, Alberti, Valla, Politian, Ariosto and Tasso and the ‘occult pre-history’, as Giuseppe Mazzotta puts it, of ‘… the torn fabric of modernity and modernity’s self-inscription within a cult of power.’ Perhaps like Vico, the secret in both Armand’s little book and Curtiz’s little film is how they both transcended their formulas and have a visionary aspect, which is a sort of dark. The characters in both the film and the book have a quality of the stranger about them, as if they are all travelers arriving unexpectedly for a brief time, like Ulysses to the shore of Nausicaa. They hide in themselves and from themselves – and others – a kind of oracular daemon. In the surfaces of the film and the book are the invisible passions, phantasmagorias, utopias and dystopias that are foundations of what continues to be our modern times.
‘Canicule’ is the hot period between early July and early September; a period of inactivity. It is the spirit of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’where everything happens in the stillness of a long wait. But Armand is slick and gives us characters whose intense self-betrayals work like sentinels stationed in advance of an outpost, or perhaps after the outpost has been abandoned. It’s almost too easy to read, and what’s hard, unfathomable and devastating is kept away from us. Armand works here in Miravaux’s recoiled state of a subtle vaporous ‘warmth of spirit’ where the ‘leaf’ contrasts with the ‘volume’. It is a novel that proposes a subtle expectation of nothing too much, perhaps a distraction, something in passing to be read at a good pace in between port’s of call. It is a feuille best read with only a fugitive attention is how it adverts. It’s labour is invisible and turns up as a kind of lucky break, something found, an unplanned event, serendipity conflated with existential instability just as the Bogart/Bergman showpiece is offered as a sugary confection that winds down despite itself (or up) into the equivalence of a huge ash tree holding together earth, heaven and hell. It’s form works itself out from the clutches of the immediate surface which is saturated with the easy charms of desperate lives going to hell. It’s the very meat and two veg of the slick melodramatic plot doing what it always does: using entertainment like a yashmak in order to keep the secrets well hidden.

Here’s a long excerpt: ‘The legend of Wolf’s father began during a plane hijacking, in the Autumn of 1977. The botched execution appeared live on network news. Shot in the neck and left on the tarmac to bleed to death, framed in close-up by a cameraman’s telephoto lens. Wolf’s mother, an actress in a TV drama, never recovered from the experience of seeing her husband murdered between commercial breaks. Later she attempted suicide. Wolf was five when it happened, but he still remembered what’d been playing in the background on the imported Vistavision TV set (Hitparade), what his mother had been wearing (a white Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit), and what brand of rat poison (Neudorff).
The three of us – me, Ascher, Wolf – were sitting under the pine trees one May afternoon, watching the tide reddening in the sunset, when a sombre mood crept over us and Wolf, gaze fixed on the horizon, told us about it. His mother had called him into the kitchen. She’d mixed the rat poison into two glasses of milk, drank one herself, then put the other down in front of him and told him to drink it too. He’d tried, but the taste was so bad he couldn’t. His mother became angry. She poured sugar into the glass and ordered him to drink. When he gagged, she got so irritated she snatched the glass from his hand and drank it herself. Then she went to the bathroom, came out a few minutes later with makeup on, started to cry and ran out of the house. The next thing he was at the hospital. Orderlies rushing past. Someone who might’ve been his mother vomiting spasmodically.
Wolf went to live with relatives in Aachen. Later, when his mother returned from the clinic, they sent him back. Somehow she’d botched it too. It didn’t bother the rels that maybe the old girl wasn’t fit for the job. The kid was a burden. Like a pair of fugitives in a 1940s movie, they fled north to an old run-down summer house near the sea.
And that’s how we all came to meet, in the unreality of the long summer of ’83. The year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. The year of the phoney Strategic Defence Initiative some genius dubbed “Star Wars.” We still made-believe in Superman, kryptonite, fast-breeder nuclear reactors and critical mass. Missile silos and coolingstacks populated the distant exotic landscapes of our imagination. Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov danced into the sunset of a world with no future. We cranked up the fat lady’s anthem to the closing credits, till the batteries ran flat. Glasnost was half a lifetime away.’
It’s soundtrack is ‘Wild Is The Wind’, and I’m guessing the Bowie version where vanity is at the mercy of a gust of wind. From way-back, the historical figure of Miraveux summarises a fist-full of sideways-on meanings for Bowie’s weird turbulance. Armand surreptitiously slips this in to signal his novels’ texture and its random elements: a whole creation consigned to vanishing. In ‘Lettres sur les habitants de Paris’ Miraveux writes: ‘… winds and lightenings hold constant sway; the ship sails on unawares: storms are familiar to it, lightening sometimes strikes, but it is such a natural outgrowth of the storm that the ship tries to repair itself without a shudder.’ His summary assessment of the situation draws us to the intriguingly perversity of the fluid hydraulic quality of the troubled, troubling soul that Bowie expresses and Armand both recognizes and releases into his own work : ‘Setting aside the obsession with etiquette, choppy seas seem to me preferable to calm seas.’
Armand writes about characters and situations that are in a sort of limbo. Huge political events shake elsewhere but his character Hess is away from that, acknowledging a kind of primacy of space and discontinuous topology that requires a distracted abandonment and reiteration rather than meticulous ‘esprit de suite’ understood as intellectual consistency – the last refuge of the unimaginative. As a reader Armand requests that we become accustomed to changing subjects on practically every page whilst switching without notice to dwelling for a long time on just one. Again, the influence of Miraveaux is clear. The effect is a kind of scattering. The surprises are not in observations that are expected to add up. There is a random fate operating as a kind of emergency of imagination. Ephemeral constellations are moments of distraction, fragments that fleetingly cohere and are opportune but then dissipate into a constant genesis. Miraveux writes: ‘I live only in the passing moment; then comes another one that is already gone, which I have lived through, it is true, but in which I no longer am, and it is as if I have never existed. Could I not thus say that my life does not last, that it is constantly beginning.’
Armand captures this mood in every inflection. Chapter ten ‘Morte Aux Tiedes!’ begins with ‘There’ll be no hope for man till he returns to the caves.’ There’s the phrase ‘suggestively incomplete’ that seems to embody everything. Armand takes up the image of the leaf that Miraveaux developed, where mortality floats like a leaf on misty but graveful intellect. In a wonderful economy of light and dark familiar from gorgeous noir, Armand has exchanges that are picked up in the images he uses, ‘ … the sky, that particular sky, like a canvas on which Time cast itself in bold figurations…’ or;
“‘Tell me about him,’ Ada said.
‘Who?’
‘You know who.’
‘There’s nothing to say.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
‘We knew each other that’s all.’
‘I mean before.’
‘We were children.’”
Armand has his character muse on how ‘ the human condition’s like an audience whose members are always surprised when they’re required to become actors’ but he is precise that Bogart is the actor who inhabits these gaps between the words and their silences, whilst mute on calling out the name. There is a cloak of misery in all this, and a sense of writing as existential trance. Armand is an unusually painterly writer, where he uses quick, light brush strokes to suggest the fleeting wonder of the fragile vanitas of his characters’ lives and hauntings. Rene Demoris writes of the painter Chardin as producing in his art ‘ fleeting wonder’ and ‘flying bubbles.’ The effects are its subject matter. In his day Chardin was mysteriously capable of producing his uncanny lightness without anyone recalling seeing him actually work.Chardin made the solid certainty of the immanent world shimmer and float off. Armand quotes Jose Ortega y Gaset who might have been discussing Chardin here: ‘The question isn’t to paint something altogether different from a man, a house, a mountain, but to paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible – a house that preserves of a house exactly what’s needed to reveal the metamorphosis – a cone miraculously emerging – as a snake from his slough – from what used to be a mountain.’
Armand uses abbreviated resemblances throughout. The economy and fragmentary nature of these images seem delicate and intermediary, so ‘it looks as if a mist has been breathed on the canvas, and elsewhere, a light froth cast upon it’ as Diderot says of ‘Girl with a Shuttlecock.’ Armand uses images each as a fixed motif of a kind of idle time. It is a great light dark noir film that he imagines he is writing. Or rather, he places his characters in such a film so Hess, right at the beginning, comes on set to the Bowie soundtrack and scripted directions: ‘ Between opening credits, fade in on: A flashing orange light. A street-cleaning truck late at night in a city. Neon sign over the entrance to a bar. The name doesn’t matter…’ Armand suspends everything, not just his characters, in an eerie repose that is of the lightest air and yet the colour of whinstone, a hard, dark basalt and chert stone. He gives us an empty time giving the impression of infinite durations where characters are paradoxically engaged in their detachments.

The political backdrop is essential if Armand’s effects are to be appreciated. The book blurb summarises everything deftly: ‘The dog days of 1983. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov dancing into the sunset. Hess, Ascher and Wolf are orphans chance has brought together in a small Baltic seaside town. Twenty years on, the long hot summer of the Israel-Lebanon War. Hess, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, finds himself in the Mediterranean, drinking to forget a wasted marriage. Wolf, haunted by his father’s murder, is drawn into the nebulous world of international terrorism. When Ascher, a failed artist, commits suicide, all the stakes are changed. Or are they? With the Cold War, sex and punk rock throbbing in the background, Hess must confront his past, seeking to salvage dignity from defeat.’ The precarious thoughts and inconsistent gravitational force of the characters, their ephemeral suspension in an autonomous self-absorption that is the opposite of the catastrophies threatening the world on its public, political stages is what Armand constructs his disquietude out of. A sense of distraction stirs the characters to a profoundly unsettling state that seems, like someone surrounded by unused objects, to signify a contemplation that belies consequences. Armand shows us vigilance pursued as a kind of boredom, a laziness that doesn’t exactly reject labour and decisive action but is rather, as Cochin says of Chardin, ‘ its transfiguration into a mastery of time.’ The moments in the novel are all moments of suspension and the characters seem confined into the silence of objects.
The pursuit of the artist Derain appears throughout the novel. Derain is ‘Unrepentant in red and green. A blue-black sail. A raw band of sky. Some secret chemical that fuelled the mind’s panoptican like an aphrodisiac. Only the chemical had run out, the artist depleted of his vision. Washed-up. A name penciled in the margins. What’d it matter if he was a genius, a fool, or simply a man who’d seen the world with his own eyes in all its naked derangement?’ Even in this cry of despair and failure we hear a negative strength being revealed, something capable of converting even the most uninteresting things of life into a miracle of lazy and random gesture, into something to live off.
Chardin is the painter of chemicals. His engraving ‘Enfant au toton’ is accompanied by the verse: ‘ In the hands of Caprice, to whom he gives himself,/Man is but a top forever turning;/ His fate often depends on one touch/ Of fortune as it sets him spinning.’ Michel Serres in his ‘Birth of Physics’ analyses the spinning top in terms of stability and unstability combined. The still top is circumstance. The link between Armand’s orgy-defeated Derain and this Chardin, both ‘painters of chemistry’, is this; they are the painters of circumstances, characters that are, as Proust says of Chardin, ‘fully armed for the night.’
Painting haunts Armand’s cineaste’s eye (and Chardin is merely an after-image I’m imposing, like entropy running to a desert): ‘Boats at Collioure’ stirs up in his character a recollection of Modigliani’s death by TB and the suicide of a pregnant lover. Armand’s technique is to constantly expose his characters through vignettes in someone else’s eyes, who then turns out to be another version of themselves. The mixture of the personal and the political and the spiritual is of course the territory of Dante, the poet of the desert Giuseppe Mazzotta has written about. He says, ‘… for Dante the metaphor of exile was neither simply a theoretical construction for the poem nor a narrow theme or even less a narrative technique. It was his vital experience, which allowed him to grasp the sense of his life as the re—enactment of the Biblical Exodus. But there is more to it. For Dante the sense of his exile resides in an uncertain future. To be sure, the poem he writes tells the story of his journey to the beatific vision, which he, as a poet, however, cannot describe or remember. In reality, his poetic telling of it turns into the imaginative, metaphorical extension of his journey, a journey of writing.
It follows that when we read the poem we are at sea, displaced, and we re-enact the pilgrim’s experience of exile: we “find” ourselves in a “place” where signs are confused. In doing this, Dante revives an established Medieval tradition of the art of exegesis, one that casts reading as an existential quest for the Absolute.’
The novel mimics the hallucinatory effect of entertainments that replace our everyday farm activities. So drawn are the characters into their immobility that they recognizably become readers. The effect Armand conjures up throughout is the spooky experience of watching someone reading. The idleness, the secret contemplation and intensity of concentration, the immobility of the industrious reader is like a mirror held up before us to present us with what we can never see, the direct sight of ourselves reading. We can never directly, in real time, see ourselves in such a state because to do so would require us to stop reading to look. And watching ourselves read, perhaps in a film, is an uncanny event, where all the activity is of course hidden and interior, caught up in an external, materialistic body of surfaces which to the eye seems to be some sculptured erasure, all silent and unmoving. The mad desuetude of the reader and her strictly interior volatility, energy and concentration is what Armand is interested in: readers, painters, cineastes are all created in his inferno of disillusionment. Hence his reiterated concern with the look of the thing, the captured image, the sense that these were revelations that kept something necessary hidden.
Characters look, and look like. Wolf, for example, ‘… looked like Jack Palance in Bagdad Café. Or the way Palance looked in all his films.’ Which isn’t the same thing, of course, but is a kind of generic Palance released from any specified and unstable performance, a self that avoids linearity, uniformity and the exactitude of succession. It is akin to the moment in Rousseau when he throws away his watch and because of that won’t need to know what time it is. Armand’s characters are all caught up in that attempt to retreat from the flow of time. The great histories that are the backdrop to his narrative and the characters’ lives are the looming presences of life that requires we keep track of time, because it is always getting late there, and the urgency of the timetable is felt here as that of a doomsday clock. The tension in the novel is between a kind of vita otiose, understood as an impatient disappearance from life and from history, on the one hand, and epiphanies of death and history and time on the other. It is a tension that for each of the characters in their different ways becomes a process of undoing and dissolution, a threatened negligence from often self-imposed states of suspension.
These are characters confronting their abandonment of civilization. Which is, of course, our civilization too, the very material and cultural and historical condition that lets us read his book. But the advantages of civilization are offset by the way people profit from them. Historical moments lie in the background as sorts of life with various kinds of appeal or repulsion, but all of them prove to Armand’s characters that we can’t love the world to the point of death without first showing it’s true colours as something like a crime against inertia. Kierkegaard said that what looks like politics unmasks itself as a religious movement. Worlds that can’t be loved to death are worlds where only self-interest and work and profit are left. Sade suggests that the only way to maintain courage is to commit many crimes.
Armand’s continual revisiting of the idea of the image and the picture, single frames of tightly formed points of contact, and his expression of them, is part of the complex texture and meaning of his book. Stanley Cavell in ‘The World Viewed’ writes about the material base of film as ‘a succession of automatic world projections’ where ‘that the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality. (There is no feature, or set of features, in which it differs. Existence is not a predicate.’ Armand piles up image and image as a belied series. It is as if Bresson were making something: Bresson denied that images were anything but meaningless units that only came to life and meaning afterwards, when scrutinized through the interpretive laws of an external force. Armand writes out the thoughts of his characters in the same way, as projected images. Separate and isolated, it might be thought that they will not and cannot be transformed by contact with other images. But then, in the logic of film, such an image would be useless. Cinema requires that images accumulate into meaning. They necessitate the emptiness of each singly framed image so that contact with others can be transformational.
Armand’s novel works only when meaning is found from elsewhere, from something that he isn’t able to directly present. What we must understand, and what his character’s are continually wrestling with, is that life can’t be represented in mimesis, it can’t be copied and therefore rendered by images or thoughts. Rather than that, then, Armand is suggesting that his characters move in conformity to narrative rules or a project – a genre such as noir – and it is these rules that bring meaning to the lives. Once the genre is understood then characters straight away are moving around in the middle of the significances given via its rules. This makes his use of image ironical. Each one seems at first to be an attempt to enhance the meanings, to comment on what is being said and thought by the characters and their actions. But this is the opposite of what is the case: they drain away meaning by becoming a succession of empty recepticles. Rather than their being vehicles for the transparent immediacy of disclosure, they instead are actually the means of withdrawal and secrecy where only later, seen as responsive to the external powers of the genre, can sense be made out of them.
The capacity and richness of the genre is important. Armand is skillful in enabling his noir to signify more than a single meaning. The isolation and despair of the characters derives from noir’s uncanny ability to reproduce a sense of religious drama, a sort of fraternal communication. The characters exist in both solitude and communion and struggle to find a solution where there only exists enigma. The characters are inordinately full of ideas and where ideas are hidden from them, they find them. Yet Armand is clear that, as in the great prototypes such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’, the most important ideas remain hidden from them, and from us too. There is a sense that the more the characters seem to be able to articulate their fates the truth of the whole situation becomes increasingly invisible. The spectacle of ideas and just poeticized images that Armand strings together is an insistence of the impossibility of such a series to prevent the meaning from being forever hidden, in particular from his characters.
Although we have to believe the genre is omnipotent, there’s no reason to feel that any of the characters have a clue as to what is really going on. I don’t think any of the characters really know why some of their acquaintances had to die, or why relationships failed, or why anything happened like it did. The style of the novel requires shadows and yet the characters are not right for such a genre. They don’t fit. Armand deliberately shows us characters that are in a genre for which they were not made. The genre is almost erased by this; only a certain style admits anything. The text continually struggles to reify its images, in a parallel with what the characters are all trying to do, and so the text is never just a simple commentary on the images, nor the images in the text a simple illustration of the text. The images and thoughts work as disjunction rather than illustration or duplication.
Armand’s vast and well documented historicized backdrop serves to mislead and invade the private shapes of the character’s musings and actions. They mislead and contradict. The use of the painter Derain is a good point in case where the dismissal of the painter’s importance throughout by one of the protagonists is belied by the novel’s insistence on returning to contemplate some aspect of what Derain is. The novel is also written in a way that further complicates our understanding. ‘One day I woke up with my entire existence amputed’; says one character. Later a character thinks of ‘… [w]here we used to hang out all those years before, watching Claudia Cardinale and Klaus Kinski on a doomed riverboat, while Rolf screwed his girls and the smell of grilled dorade wafted through the door…’ What Armand continually gives us is the mood of transitions between actions and events and times. His characters speak so that we may read them. He asks us to read them with suspicion so that we may discover how their existential selves get caught up with ours.
Despite all the images and the characters’ inner voices that work like narrative voice-overs, what we’re left with is a strangeness, as if despite the perfect clarity of what is being said we’re actually only getting prepositions and conjunctions, a montage maximizing our sense of discontinuity. As Mallarme pointed out, a roll of the dice will never abolish chance. This is a brilliant and sustained effect, which runs through the whole novel as a series of dissolves and abrupt transitions. Armand never falls back on the use of gestures of mimicry done with gestures and intonations of the voices. Rather, he daringly builds a seething hive of relational images that will go back and forth from the narrative voice-overs to visual images as proof, and leave us entitled to doubt what we are being told. The true sense is not in any individual image or voice-over. There is no absolute value in any image and so, paradoxically, the very idea of the image as an image is abandoned, as we noted before. But along with it, daringly, is abandoned the idea of characters as characters too. Armand doesn’t have characters, or plots, or anything. The profusion is flattened and everything is merely an obligation to the genre and its laws. The characters are fixed into that, and they are unable to be understood outside of it. They are therefore not characters. They are effectively not there. Armand presents us with strange absences pitched into actions and signs of a genre that recover the automatism of life. Armand’s characters seem to hover on the brink of the aura of characters always found in the genre, but vanishing. And who will distinguish, in the end, one from the other?
The world outside mocks their individuality and their intellectualisation. The Reaganite anti-intellectualisation of culture is part of Armand’s scenario. He offers a continual self revelation of probing consciousness that substitutes the acquisitiveness of Reagan and his times for concentrated inquisitiveness that is, in the end, all that we’ve got. This is the daring premise of Armand’s approach, one where the instinctive curiosity and watchfulness of the book and the characters nevertheless leaves us with just glimpses of strangers who will remain strangers. Oddly, for a novel with so many internal voices, there is an absence of psychology in it. Rather, there are fabulous rapprochements instead that are found in the mechanics of his genre. Here we say that the unknown is discovered and simultaneously not found.

Armand sticks to his novelistic perspective rigorously and so the way he achieves intensity is through the way he abstracts and extends his narrative. Intellectual despair results in violence. Rape, suicide, murderous feelings – disconnection and dislocation are the ground and the substance of the novel. It’s hard not to think of Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece ‘In A Lonely Place’ where Bogart’s tenderness and perversity – his character’s uncontrollable violent streak where, in Anselmo Ballester’s poster design, his relationship with sympathetic neighbour Gloria Grahame casts, according to Dave Kehr, a ‘noirish shadow that fades into a tattered valentine’ – is both a tragic threat and a source of inner torment. Glen Ford, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando, Rita Hayworth also of course, but most of all Bogart and Bergman in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca where the longing, tenderness and emotional confusion are in faces that have seen war, and recently, you imagine them playing the roles, speaking the lines, moving around in the background, always doomed to be playing their parts forever after. These are the faces of people who, like of Armand’s crew, we can say ‘It’s too late… Everything’s gone. There’s no reason to come back here…’ and where a character can say, ‘It’s good to see you… You’ve been away too long. You need to see how things have changed. It has a sobering effect, I feel. It’s important to be reminded we’re not children anymore. All of humanity’s lost its innocence. Even us.’ The sea, in this novel, is the genre that ‘like an unbodied intelligence’ fixes everything in place. The heightened clichéd atmosphere that relentlessly traps the narrative in its groove is how Armand handles the idea of being serious and intellectual in a post-Reaganite culture that prefers to cast both seriousness and intellectualism as being no less impossible and inauthentic as anything else.
Armand presses into service the dynamic that requires that a genre formula be imposed on any reading whilst at the same time recognizing that the genre is one that knows, like Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew, that ‘you don’t suspect how little the method and the rules matter to me. The man who must have a manual won’t go far.’ It is Beckett on Bach, the ‘divine typewriter.’ ‘Nothing is so dull as a succession of common chords. There must be something arresting to break up the beam of light, and separate it into rays’ says the Diderot character. This is the jazzy botanical mode of the onion, the rhizomatic discomposition that Deleuze and Guattari discuss. Armand finds this through imposing on his readers the strict formalism of a genre, often derided as a half asleep (if not dead) spiritual room where the furniture is dreaming, and then, as in those crazy noir films, having the clockwork characters and emotions rush back to life with a cry, ‘live, doomed soul.’
Armand’s characters are written as if they never were. Their thoughts work like epicurean maxims, that is, they aren’t read as maxims but as spurs to the moment of their anxious absences. The novel isn’t perfect, but works out a type of intellectualization that isn’t combative but more a series of encounters with intense feelings imagined as desperate journeys of traumatized souls. It’s all a bit like Mallarme who says ‘the world exists to end up in a book’ and who would approve of Armand’s sharp, small novel’s ability to create ‘silences around things’.

If it’s not Bowie’s 1976 version of Tiomkin and Washington’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’ that he released as a single in 1981 then it could be Nina Simone’s ‘Town Hall’ album version or the 1966 ‘Wild Is The Wind’ one that we hear. I can’t imagine it as being Johnny Mathis although George Cukor’s Anna Amagnani, Anthony Quinn melodrama of 1957, about a rancher who after the death of his wife marries his Italian sister-in-law who tragically falls in love with a young ranch-hand, is about the insatiable thirst for everything which lies beyond. It’s Baudelaire’s mellow ‘living proof of our immortality’ done in the high pulp style.- Richard Marshall

Canicule, the newest novel from writer and critic Louis Armand, opens with a scene of self-immolation. The suicide is a man named Ascher, friend to the novel’s central character and sometimes narrator, a failing screenwriter named Hess. The novel tells two stories: the story of Hess and Ascher and their third friend, Wolf, as children, spending much of their time on the beach during the summer of 1983 where, whether they know it or not, they await the end of childhood, and the awakening of sexual desire; and the story of Hess, twenty-two years later, himself waiting, for the return of his mysterious friend Wolf. From the beginning Hess is shown struggling to represent Ascher’s death in the stripped-down language of film treatment, trying to represent his own struggles with his own film through that same discourse. But those struggles seem to stop him in his tracks. In the novel’s early pages he wonders:
But why not tell it like it really is? Keep in the margins, let the story speak for itself. The two full reels’ worth. […] All I’ve got are images, I try to crack them open and see if anything’s living inside.
And this sentiment, to try to let things speak for themselves, seems almost to guide the book’s narrative, which switches from Hess’s first person narration to limited third person perspectives, usually centering on Hess’s point of view, but at times filtering through Hess’s wife, Louise (whom he calls “Luce”), or her lover, Ada. The narrative voice throughout adopts that same stripped-down treatment language, affecting a kind of hardboiled pastiche that acts as a cordoning off, a distancing from the messy truth of Ascher’s death. For all of Hess’s stated desire at the beginning to get somehow nearer to Ascher’s suicide, he spends much of the novel numbing himself to it, holding it at arm’s length, with alcohol, or through a seemingly put on macho, cynical rhetoric.
In many ways, Canicule is a meditation on failure. There is Hess’s failed film, one in a string of them. Though we don’t see much of Wolf until the very end, when he arrives from Beirut, the book seems to draw a ghostly aura around him, a kind of modern political nomad, going from hotspot to hotspot, aiding and fostering revolution wherever he goes. But Wolf represents a kind of failure as well. A failure of ideology. What Wolf stands for is always shifting. During the Cold War his rhetoric seems to have a Marxist cast to it; when the Cold War becomes the Global War on Terror, he adopts a hodge-podge of post-structuralist positionings. The only thing that remains consistent for Wolf seems to be what he is against: Capitalism, American Consumerism, Corporatism. But in 2005 when the book takes place (and in 2014 for that matter) these things are still as strong as ever.
Louise, Hess’s wife—though theirs is not a happy marriage—spends much of the book struggling to write a monograph on the fauvist painter André Derain. In fact, the reason that she and Hess are at the beach at Collioure in the first place is because Louise has gone there to see the landscape that stood as the inspiration for so much of Derain’s work. Her book is past due to her publishers, but for all she writes and writes, she, like Hess trying to get at the words for Ascher’s death, cannot get at what she wanted to say about Derain in the first place. It’s interesting calling up Derain’s paintings from Collioure, and noting the vividness, the almost hallucinatory intensity of the color palate he used to paint the seascape, when so often the beaches in Canicule are described as washed out, a blurred a horizon barely separating it from the gray sky:
You can tell from the waterline the tide’s coming in. A dull sheet of grey water conceals almost the entire stretch of black sand fanning out from the breach.
And perhaps this is the reason why Louise has trouble writing her book: Derain was painting a world that is gone, a modernist world, a world still potentially alive, a world not yet overrun by the ravenous –isms that Wolf so despises.
There are many ways that this novel is frustrating to read, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Louise’s story is perhaps the most frustrating of all. The second chapter of the book describes Louise being gang raped. Not surprisingly, in a novel that at every turn frustrates easy moves toward closure, toward answers, this storyline does not result in any sort of “coming to terms.” Certainly (and unfortunately) this very lack of resolution, and the numbness with which Louise responds to her attack, is truer than any of the readerly expectations that we might bring to the book, and which the book is probably even setting out to frustrate. Still, the narrative’s cool response to her ordeal will probably prove testing for many readers.
For all the failure in this book, there is, perhaps, by a certain way of looking at it, one success. Ascher. When still a boy, Ascher becomes a kind of primitivist painter/collagist. He takes over an abandoned building, turns it into a studio where he builds enormous constructions out of the refuse he finds on the beach, and what industrial paints he can filch from the docks.
He composed intuitively, layering and gouging to produce weird archeological forms. Half cave painting, half urban graffiti. The same motifs recurred. Swirling eyes and suns. Lending coherence to what might’ve seemed random.
Commercially he is a failure: the gallery owners in the little seaside town laugh at him, and in the end he is destitute. But that failure, in a book where capital, exchange, and consumption are seen as such destructive forces, could almost be read as an affirmation that what Ascher was doing was ultimately worthwhile, was art. Of course, Ascher is also the one who kills himself, and that seems almost to be the central tragedy of the book: the one character who actually makes something, and one of the only characters who does not relent to cynicism in some way, one of the only who allows himself to feel, who does not numb himself against his pain, is ultimately destroyed for it.

In French, canicule means “heat wave,” and certainly this reflects the novel’s overall atmosphere. There is a sweaty languidness that permeates everything in it. But canicule can also mean something like “scorching,” and this too seems apt. Ascher’s scorched remains come to mind here, but beyond that, so much of the book seems to describe what remains after a fire. A scorched earth. Again, the descriptions of the beach, with all their graytones, like ashes, but the people too, the living, seem somehow to be burnt husks. In Canicule we might think of Louis Armand as carrying out a Ballardian critique of modernity, where the beach is a wasteland and the balconied hotel rooms are ruins, and the people who go about amongst them are dazed and shell-shocked survivors who do not yet know that everything around them has been destroyed. - Bayard Godsave


“Close-up of the plaid bathing suit above a double exposure of a fish,” writes Lorca, in “Trip to the Moon,” a cinematographic poem, a poem not only written under the sign of cinema, but mimicking the tactics thereof, such that we get
  • Motion (“With a greatly accelerated rhythm, the camera descends the stairs...”)
  • Visual staging (“The circulatory system is drawn on his naked body”)
  • Literal renderings of imagery (“A guitar appears, and a hand quickly cuts the string with scissors.”)
  • Nods to noir, pulp mystery (“They wear their collars turned up.”)
  • Self-referentiality, the wink of kitsch or wilted shrug of nonetheless effective cliché (“Shot of a vulgar cinematic kiss”)
  • And, finally, montage: (“These words fade out into faucets violently gushing water.”)1
Eisenstein, quoted in this novel, Canicule, the name of a film and the name for that stretch of long and hot days as summer peaks: “Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage,” he says. Montage gives us surrealism, something Lorca appreciates, but cinematic montage is super-realism, thing linked to thing, a suturing of images undeniable on the big screen, illuminated.
This novel offers a meditation on the image, alone and in progression. It, too, is written under the sign of cinema, mimicking the tactics thereof, narrative interspersed with stills from films, or those images intercut with narrative pieces, assembled out of order but in their own insistent order. Montage / Juxtaposition / Shock. Suicide-by-petrol, a bathing suit, the sun, Black September, Sarajevo:
Like being locked in an editing room with a pile of random out-cuts I’m supposed to splice together into sequence. To establish some sort of continuity my any means possible. With the added constraint that I’m only allowed to see each of the frames once.
I start with the sea, citation, marine life on the beach and in the water, both because Lorca offers an uncanny echo to this entrancing novel but also because so much comes back to the sea, its motions, its force, its mystery and smells and possibilities and uses as flat but richly associative landscape. The shape of the so-called jellyfish matters here, to Armand, a creature which inflates like a burn mark across celluloid, pulsing, its own engine, and named in French for the Gorgon Medusa, she who cast things as images via her gaze: freeze-frame. Scenes of beaches repeat: a girl in a red bikini, a man kneeling in a suit, a crowd examining some sort of creature... Juxtaposition / Montage / Shock. History as a string of fragments, spliced together, characters overlapping and then gone...
Black sand stretches away as far as the humid mind’s eye can see. Branching, in the middle distance, an inky channel flows north to the sea, flanked by tidal flats. Sheets of greasy water in which heron stand, thin, grey, calligraphic. The longer you look, the greyer they become, drawn shapes bleeding at the edges, contrast dialled to zero. To the left, a strip of shaly beach slopes into the water, fringed with pines, grassed dunes where the broken ends of stormwater drains vent their discard. A saturated, estuarine smell lingers in hot unshifting air like sex or effluent. Reminding of wet concrete floors in public shower blocks. Grey-white flowers loll above reeds and spear grass, casting no shadows. Across the sandbar, seagulls swoop at a carcass exposed by the surf, chased away by a yapping mutt.
A tracking shot, to establish the sort of chops Armand brings to this game. Writing, ladies and gentlemen. Armand may pay tribute to filmmaking, to the medium that is film, but he knows from writing and he writes, even speaking of and to cinema in a way that cinema itself, locked in images, cannot:
I went alone to cinemas and watched the same films over and over again, absorbing the lives of others, trying to divine the secret of the tortured soul. But my conscience would never be pure. Staring into the screen the way a man stares at a mirror.
Having established a narrative voice, a narrator, Armand flashes back and forth, a memory of rosemary, the Paris heat wave, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, George W. on Iraq, corporate capitalism as the only true revolutionary force in the world, 1983 and the US embassy bombing in Beirut, the trajectories of our main characters overlapping. An encounter, in memory and imagination, fanning out to events, global and intimate. All in an image:
I wait facing the dead Indian outside Wenzel’s concession. The old chief always seemed bigger when I was a kid. Perhaps he just shriveled up as the world got smaller. I want to ask him if humanity can ever be content, but it’s an idiotic question. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s last letters, when he wrote how he’d go around the streets tapping strangers on the shoulder, and shout at them: Are you happy? I’m God, I made this caricature.
One character is an explicit, which is to say self-identified, revolutionary, for whom “politics . . . was and always has been a sadistic little boy’s adventure. An endless erotic struggle with death.” Film in the French tradition, titles of Freud and Marx, assigned in one case as arrows pointing to the head and crotch, respectively, of a nude girl on the beach, or one that in any case seemed nude, as the image flashed by, was perceived and remembered as such. Entertainment or enlightenment? Art and capitalism. A cigar store Indian, icon of the New World and genocide, addiction, expansion, the fable of the ever-West. Stills in shot and countershot. Shock / Juxtaposition / Montage.
Is there any good reason for blowing someone else up? This is another question Armand wants to ponder, in slow-motion, a botched execution on some tarmac somewhere temporary. History: “Like a film driven by internal tensions only incidentally related to the characters and plot. Is history just 24-hour news fed on a loop?” Wolf, the revolutionary character, says that history doesn’t exist. Only memory and dream. And in this book, the mechanics of which follow those of film, this is expressed by a character proposing an image, on Reinaldo Arenas: “He was a Cuban writer. He committed suicide in New York, where he was dying of AIDS. Before he killed himself, he wrote that an exile is a person who, having lost a loved one, keeps searching for the face he loves in every new face. And forever deceiving himself, thinks he’s found it.” The image as an image of an other, which is another way of saying the image as ineluctable, irreplaceable, though even when presented in endless waves, seemingly the same, crashing and crashing, eroding everything else, such that self and time or politics and history are so much powdered glass swallowed and spread, a shifting horizon visible only in extreme time-lapse.
But do images have meanings? This, to me, seems key to Armand project, or, rather, a recurring question in the book, predicated on an answer, a dynamic, which is key to the project. Our narrator keeps a notebook, no longer for the purposes of building a film but now as something like a source for potential divination, “a repository—for scraps, pieces of evidence to prove the inner life hadn’t yet completely withered away.” This is beyond politics, resisting the category of production, work. Rather than splicing such images into chronological order, forcing them to become a piece, the images are appreciated for their own innate quality, which is like that of being alive, flickering with association:
The tiniest fragment breathes forth its connection to everything else. The unknown under the surface of the water. A suppressed thought about to return, threatening to return, having already returned.

The image, received always as alive. Film stills as anything but—vibrating, rather, or, in Armand’s phrasing, “breathing forth.” Film as revolution, the array of images, their flickering projection. Marx here, Freud here: and in between, that ocean of the organic, just beneath the concrete; the beach, just below the pavement.
- Spencer Dew

Canicule opens with the clipped language of a film treatment: a man, setting himself on fire. Just cinema? No, it’s really happening – this man is the protagonist’s childhood friend, and this shocking beginning is the catalyst for a dizzying, painful reflection on failure and film.
We first meet our hero, failed filmmaker Hess, when he gets a phone call learning of his friend’s death. Ascher, a struggling painter, was burdened by an unfaithful wife and deep doubts about his own artistic talents. Hess may also be similarly afflicted, but he’s chosen alcohol instead of self-immolation as his own punishment and/or escape. The third member of their childhood trio, Wolf, has become a shadowy figure on the fringes of the law. They’ve been dancing around each other for more than twenty years but, as the violent opening scene tells you, this is no sweet tale of enduring friendship.
Canicule is made up of 3 layered stories: Hess’s less-than-idyllic childhood in the Baltic beach town of Laboe, Germany, during the tumultuous final decade of the Cold War; a flash-forward in time to Hess and Wolf laying Ascher to rest; and an in-between narrative of Hess’s doomed marriage finally falling apart after his wife is brutally raped in a French resort town against the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian conflict of 2005.
The word canicule is French for the dog days of summer, the hottest July and August nights. When considering Canicule the novel, what with the obscure title and even more obscure Czech painting on the cover, you might get the impression that this is a difficult, frustrating work – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But Canicule is deserving of far more attention than it’s gotten since its release last summer. Erudite and experimental, Louis Armand’s prose is also lush and haunting, from the sumptuous descriptions of the hot summers at the beach, to the bleak realities of Hess’s marriage:
“It’d become a habit for Hess to think of his wife as a type of enigma with whom he happened at times to live… The true nature of their relationship was complicated, though he was vaguely aware he himself was the source of that complication.”
And to the pitch-perfect turmoil of the era:
“’83. The year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. The year of the phoney Strategic Defense Initiative some genius dubbed ‘Star Wars.’ We still made-believe in Superman, kryptonite, fast-breeder nuclear reactors and critical mass. Missile silos and coolingstacks populated the distant exotic landscape of our imagination. Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov danced into the sunset of a world with no future. We cranked up the fat lady’s anthem to the closing credits, till the batteries ran flat. Glasnost was half a lifetime away.”
Armand uses language to paint a picture just as vividly as if we were watching this unfold on screen. This is a gruff coming-of-age story that masterfully avoids sentiment altogether, instead reminiscing with a bitter understanding that history is nothing but a broken record, and we – both as readers and as people – are nothing but captive audiences. This is a highly recommended read. - Kristen Valentine


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Louis Armand, Breakfast at Midnight, Equus Press, 2012.
excerpt

 “An elegy in E-flat for the other Prague.”

Kafkaville. Blake is a pornographer who photographs corpses. Ten years ago, a young man becomes a fugitive when a redhead disappears on a bridge in the rain. Now, at the turn of the millennium, another redhead has turned up in the morgue, and the fugitive can’t get the dead girl’s image out of his head. For Blake, it’s all a game – a funhouse where denial is the currency, deceit is the grand prize, and all doors lead to one destination: murder. In the psychological noir-scape of Kafkaville, the rain never stops, and redemption is just another betrayal away…
Longlisted for the 2012 Guardian Newspaper “Not the Booker” Prize


“Armand has done to Prague what Genet achieves in Our Lady of the Flowers. Breakfast at Midnight is the most savage book I’ve read in years.” - Jim Ruland

“A debauched, hallucinogenic noir… If Georges Simenon had smoked angel dust he might have come up with a style like this.” - Prague Post

“Armand has achieved a dazzling level of literary expression.” - Ladislav Nagy

“Mickey Spillane meets Georges Bataille on speed.” - Goodreads

“The sort of thing Iain Sinclair might write if he’d morphed with Chris Petit…” - Stewart Home

“An impressionistic noir which teeters on the edge of being a thriller… Pitch-perfect.” - Robert Kiely

“A strange mixture of realism and almost schizophrenic fantasy, reloaded into a late 20th century context of border town bordellos, dysfunctional families, psychotic reactions and perverse sexuality.” - Phil Shoenfelt

Armand has written a perfect modern noir, presenting Kafka’s Prague as a bleak, monochrome singularity of darkness, despair and edgy, dry existentialist hardboil. From the off it reeks with sour milk, bad Turkish coffee, grim suits, rain, sadistic sex, corpses and a melancholic weariness that provokes philosophizing of hard won ennui and grainy angst.
Armand’s novel is a reprise for a coven of readers and cineastes, a way of reminding us of the permanent aura and atmosphere that noir styles into the imagination, that prolonged anti-meditation of souls going to hell in a hand cart. The book has that kind of plaintive wakefulness, where along with all the other noirs we know and love we recede into the same distance. And this is a book to be read measuring the distance, a distance that is for each individual the period between now and the first time you watched or read your first noir and knew there and then that it defined a sensibility that would continue to process and create you forever as a victorious corruption.
This is literature for the damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And it also takes your measure of that receding distance between the first time you read Kafka and became one of his Prague’s impossible characters, hurled into an insane quest for meanings that drop away each time they’re grasped and leave you half ridiculous and half bereft, a character evaded by her own plot. In Kafka noir becomes an epistemological puzzle that defeats all strategies.
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We are familiar with the strange paradoxes that a self-referential sentence like ‘this sentence is false’ or ‘this sentence is a lie’ can spandrel into the works. Nodding to acquiesce, we seem to commit ourselves to therefore denying our assertion. And that in turn seems to imply that we are committed to our initial assertion, which in turn… The threatened infinite regression is transformed by Kafka into the endless labyrinth of shadowy streets and rooms, where each protagonist seems to be progessing and getting ever closer to his goal – the Castle, the Trial and so on – and yet as he moves forwards somehow the goal recedes.
But perhaps the strangeness is made too clear and straightforward in this analogy. The ‘liar’ sentence can be made stranger. Try this: ‘this sentence is true.’ We don’t seem to be in the same universe as the liar with this sentence. Asserting it seems to commit us to no such turmoil as the first one. The analogy seems to break down. However, there is a secret horror attached. Borges asks us to consider the Coin of Odin in one of his stories. This material coin is strange because it has only one side. And return now to the sentence: ‘This sentence is true.’ There is no other side to it. It asserts a one sided proposition. It is a malfunctioning assertion and though its secret nightmare is not the obvious paradox of self reference of the liar’s ‘This sentence is false’, the weird payload is there nevertheless, hovering in the corner of your mind like a stranger in a long coat always just edging into your vision. But things can be stranger.
Consider this list.
1. ‘The narrator killed his father for what he did to Regen.’
2. The second sentence in this list is circular.
3. If the third sentence in this list is true, then every sentence is true.
4. The list comprises of exactly four sentences.
Well, here is a formula that embeds a paradoxical nightmare in its third sentence, even though the list itself seems innocuous. This is a structure to the noir, to Kafka, to Armand’s little dark gem. Each move forward through the list seems hooked to a commitment that the narrator cannot release without having then to continue. Rather than movement towards completion, the narrator is condemned to endless bouts of guilt, fear, defeat, the pressure of an existence that refuses to release him from repeats, perhaps in a different tenor but after a while, merely in a change of clothes or backdrops. It all blurs into the horror. What horror? The defective truth of every sentence. This is precisely the horror of Conrad’s Mr Kurz as the last century sloped towards Jerusalem. The list is a version of Curry’s paradox. The third sentence in the list is the key. A conditional that if supposed true commits us to every sentence being true. So too the noir sentences, and Kafka’s parables, if true, condemn the narrator. Round and round we go, endlessly. There is no redemption possible. No stepping off the roundabout. Armand’s male narrator seeks redemption in a woman, as in all noirs, but all the characters are in their own private hell and so this is hardly true. It’s just enough, though, to complete the sense of harrowing anguish at the novel’s core.
A kind of infallibility lurks in genre writing. Genre requires a special sort of reading. We go wrong when this isn’t understood. Infallible, the only rational kind of reader is one who broods on interpretation. There should be no question of interrogating whether the genre is not omniscient. Yet again, noir, as a genre, and Kafka’s noir parables, invite us to discover their truths, not retreat to accusations of failures in the formula genre offers. That’s why someone (maybe John Wayne) once said of a different genre, but the thought generalises, ‘There are no bad Westerns. There are just Westerns and great Westerns.’ And again, in this lies a structure of the epistemic defeat embedded in noir. The novel and the parables claim they know that the characters cannot ever know their own existence and what it means, no matter how hard they try. The puzzle then becomes another level of horror and catastrophe: the narrators know that they don’t know. But then, we have a contradiction. Knowing nothing, they know something (ie that they know nothing) and yet know nothing (knowledge implying the truth). All that’s ever left is a version of Dietrich’s line at the end of A Touch of Evil – ‘he was some kind of a man’ which, when you take it literally, was something we already knew, and is really a confession that frankly we don’t know a damn.
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Other horrors loom. Not knowing the answer, how would you know it even were it given to you? Which seems to imply that only first knowing the answer to a question are you in a position to recognize the right answer. But then, of course, if we already know the answer, why would we even ask? One way is to dimly know, to partially know, to have a shadow of what the truth might look like. A dictionary, for example, is useful, but only to those who aren’t perfect spellers or totally ignorant of spelling.
How best to think of this ‘partial’ knowing? Perhaps not as a definition but as conditional. ‘If the rain begins again, and your hands are bloody, then you’ve killed your father.’ Consulting the weather and the state of his hands, the narrator gains knowledge of the antecedent. Here then, might be a smooth way of resisting the impossibility of bottoming out the existential questions in the novel. But there’s no guarantee. But if knowledge closes enquiry, then believing something to be the truth licenses closing down any counter-evidence. This justified intransigent dogmatism carries a deadly threat that is always tangled up in this genre. The fears of guilt, of paranoia, of the endless sense of doom become fixed points, unassailable by any new evidence. No girl, not even the sweetness of a disjointed love, will be able to break through. The dogmatism is an error, being mistaken about how new evidence can change things. New evidence helps us change what we know. The horror is the way the novel fixes the knower so that this flexibility is never granted to him. New knowledge here never undermines old knowledge.
Armand has Blake, one of his characters, say this: ‘… there was Pavel Tichy – 1995- you probably never heard of him. A philosopher. Before the revolution, he wrote a thesis about the vicious circle of definitions. Suicidal algorithms of pure logic. …’ A novelistic flourish, combining a vague handwave in the direction of Tichy’s work as a philosopher and a hooded reference to Tichy’s mysterious suicide. But what Tichy was concerned about was truthlikeness.
‘Some false statements are truer than others’ is the sort of idea being labeled here. We might say that some statements have more truth in them than another, even though both are false. But let’s say that Blake has a theory that is false. However, let’s say that his false theory entails a true sentence. And assume that Regen’s lover has a false theory that doesn’t entail this true sentence. Then we might say that Blake’s theory is truer than the other character’s, even though they are both false, because it entails more true sentences. But Tichy showed why this kind of thinking fails. Blakes’s theory entails both the true sentence and all its entailed false sentences. This makes the true sentence and all the false ones a conjunction entailed by Blake’s false theory. And the conjunction is a falsehood, and so increases the falsehood entailed by Blake’s sentence. Given that the sentence entailed by Blake isn’t entailed by the lover of Regen’s theory, it cannot increase the falsity of this alternative. So it is only through increasing the falsity of Blake’s content that we can increase the truth.
Tichy is important for Armand’s character Blake because he speaks through Blake to the quest nature of the story, the journey into the dark heart of the lost soul. Issues arising in the literature of falsehoods, where one falsehood is closer to the truth than another falsehood, raise questions about why just reducing the content of a false proposition doesn’t make it truer. And similarly, in the other direction, why increasing its content doesn’t either. More relevantly for the novel, Tichy moved away from pure syntactic analysis of logical form to considering a semantic, meaning and content range of propositions for an answer to whether some falsehoods are more truthlike than others.
Verisimilitude is a wobbly, cunning trade. Novelists are liars in some harsh worlds, but their lies are truer, in great novels, than straight truths. Armand uses lists of place-names as placeholders for his propositional range. We know where we are through the likeness given in assumed associations inferred from the lists. Kafkaville, for example, becomes a tense sequence of names that conjure areas of Prague that straight away remove us from the semi-hospitable tourist sections of the city and take us elsewhere, to where dreams are suffused with dread. This is not fine-grained, but perhaps fine-grained enough. And besides, it’s the way noir works, giving us an insider internal dialogue that flatters us with its narrative contract to give us the inside track, though much of this dark world remains hidden, secretive and forever out of bounds.
Think of the dartboard and its bullseye. The bullseye is the actual world. Imagine it nested inside a sphere which in turn is nested inside another. And so on. Each sphere represents propositions about the world. The sphere closest to the bullseye is the one with propositions that match the actual world exactly. The spheres further away from the bullseye contain propositions carving out worlds increasingly optional in the actual world. But this supposes that similarity relations on worlds are primitive. Tichy provides ways of working out hierarchies of similarity. Blake photographs the line between sex, death and the camera. A proposition expressing the proposition that Blake photographs the line between sex, death and the shadow is closer to the truth, though in fact false, than a proposition expressing the proposition that Blake photographs the line between platonic love, life and the camera. Truthlikeness is for Tichy as much part of what we assume as is our concept of truth. And so we read the novel in terms of truthlikeness, queued up by Armand via Blake.
The mystique of Kafka and noir is perhaps this: what we want is the meaning of our own catastrophe. What is this catastrophe? It isn’t an accidental feature of our experience, something bad that happened today, or yesterday, or something anticipated that will possibly happen in the future. No, the catastrophe is, to use a term of metaphysics, a power. The power is our own uniqueness, a sentence that carves out our essence, which is available only to the possessor of the power but which is unknowable to that individual. When K stumbles around in the shadows of his own sentences, he is in a crisis of wondering even what his own sentences might mean. And so his movement, his quest, the clarity, orderliness and well-managed processes that K uses only emphasise the totalizing catastrophe of the existential situation where all sentences are puzzles that are only for him and yet as such are absolutely indecipherable by him.
Armand’s novel continues down the same bleak road of puzzlement and despair, loaded with the glam sex and death tropes of a Marlene Dietrich film or the coves of a bad night in the fleshpots of any cramped urban space. The issue is not merely meaning, however. The questions about every word in this space are not merely ‘what am I trying to say? and am I making sense? and what sense is that? and finally, what sense then does that make of me?’ but reach further into the dark, gloomy prism of despair with ‘Can I, being in such a state of catastrophe, be sincere?’ The sincerity question posed is this: though this is what I say, and this is what I mean, how could I ever be sincere, given the pervasive ignorance that now, through these terrible states, tries me?
The automatic nature of noir, it’s mechanicals of genre that allow writing to confabulate and sketch without effort, allow for meanings to coagulate and become exposed as mere routine. They do so as prisms of the genre rather than of any personality, of either characterization or authorial intent. And so the author chooses the trap of the norms of the genre and writes to escape, fearing that this is quite impossible but perhaps not quite believing the message delivered by all previous attempts: it really is. This is the fierce and queer power of noir (perhaps of all genre writing) and Armand is spot on in identifying this as being, at its heart, the very haecceity of Kafka’s world.
To escape from meanings that run themselves in order to become exposed rather than hidden, this is the quest within the noir where the plot is secondary to the force of the revelation, but revelation is nothing but a plot device. Nothing, as explained above, is really exposed. Yet in the refusal of clear dénouement, are we supposed to ask if in that, is anything revealed? How are we to know? Sincerity in the face of the seemingly ineluctable traction and inevitability of meaning given by the norms of the genre threaten to shroud every attempt to escape. Kafka’s characters are forever closing in on their meaning and purpose, and closure is forever withheld in strict sync with this.
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Armand brings to his darkness a sexy underground Prague of severe violation. Although just shorthand, it is quick and to the point to say that in this book we’re nearer Sin City than Camus or Chandler. Blake is a pornographer, so it says on the blurb, but this ascription is just a cover story, for the point is we don’t know if that is, sincerely, the best that can be said of Blake. It’s a shortcut to this: we ask where are the severest violations, the deepest cuts, made to escape the ferocious violence of the language and its sinewy, bleak grip. Prague is a maze, a labyrinth of hellish charms, windows of dusk-lit souls drowning perilously close to oblivion, and so is the metaphor for the prison of language that binds us up in conventions, morbid habit and rules that are autonomous of the will. Prague is the threat of language: it means what it means without our willing it. The great conceit is of language as Frankenstein, or maybe better, the Golem, a monstrous trick that frees itself from people believing that they have it controlled, that it will be their plaything. As Beckett, as Kafka, as Sterne all expose, this is the pernicious lie, the terrible mistake. A curse of hubris.
What would expose this? What if we could have a sentence, or a whole stack of them, one after the other, a story say, and as we read it we become aware, without any further enquiry necessary, that this is insincere. Perhaps the novel of Armand is a way of showing that this is indeed the telling of a story but nevertheless is not an act of storytelling. The telling is one that denies the norms and conventions that ought to hold. There is no conflict here with the idea that a story is indeed being told – so yes, we can rehearse the plot ‘Blake is a pornographer who photographs corpses. Ten years ago, a young man becomes a fugitive when a redhead disappears on a bridge in the rain…’ and on we go. Brilliant, intriguing, a story that hooks us in its delicious atmospherics and stylish hyper-descriptions that bend and swallow us up in a narrative vim. But for all practical purposes, the plot is uninhabited.
As with Kafka, Armand takes us further into his plotted specifics as if he wishes to erase them, or rather, to show that the sincere meaning, the one that passes through this long night of chaos and desolation, is actually running on a different track, running in the opposite direction. What noir has always done is fixed us in a world that is both degenerating but also fixed, so it seems it will never stop raining and it’s always 3am. It is this world, more a state of mind than any world, that hooks us into the recognition of the violation that noir enacts.
In the statement of simultaneous change and fixity a grotesque absurdity at the heart of the genre, of genre itself, is exposed. Assertions purport to show beliefs. But what of an assertion of something impossible to know, and not believable? If an assertion is sincere it shows the belief. How does this occur? The assertion just is the evidence that the speaker believes what she says. Yet the Kafkaesque novelist – and Armand is that – understands that assertions are controlled by their own linguistic forces. These are independent of his will. So he must assert what he must also deny. And so the novel shows a belief that must also be denied. Yet ‘show’ is a success verb, and so in asserting a belief that you also deny, we are confronted with a perverse error.
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The error, like Blake’s dead image of a girl in a morgue, like the train journey that was as if it’d never end – ‘… Zerutky, Moravske, Budejovice, Lukov, Bohusice, Popovice, Lesunky, Horni Ujezd, Kotitice, Cechocovice, Hvezdononovice, Okrisky, Pribyslavic, Cichov, Bransouze, Dolni Smrcne, Primelkov, Bitovcice, Prebor, Petrovice,Bradlo, Maly Beranov, Hruskove Dvory, Jihlava…’ succeeds in violating the norms that bind us, and therefore intimate at a way out to sincerity. Or else they purport to show something that you don’t actually believe, and so show insincerity. Like variations of G.E. Moore’s Kafkaesque sentence, we might dream, or silently assert ‘My girl has gone but I won’t believe that until the end of this coming night.’ If we assume that assertion distributes over conjunction then we have both asserted I believe my girl is gone and also asserted that I don’t believe she has. So either it is a sincere assertion or not, but without having to enquire further we can see the violation of the norm. Armand’s novel tracks such a violation, Prague itself the setting for both asserting Prague and denying it in the same breathe. A fissure opens up between what appears to be storytelling and the telling of a story.
And deeper, Armand’s story takes, in the past life of the characters, a South American hellish region that charts the territory brilliantly limned by Malcolm Lowry in his masterpiece of existential collapse Under the Volcano. Again here in Armand, Latino America is a sketched out backdrop for disintegration, for everything in ruins, a horrendous geography of the dark night of the soul. We read and remind ourselves of Chomsky’s thesis that the focus on the Iron Curtain and the Cold war was a ploy to stop us looking at the US terror politics in the latin quarter. The personal becomes the political and Marquez’s magisterial 100 Years of Solitude becomes attached again to its central European hellhole. So now not only is the absurdity a personal catastrophe, but the geography of the novel develops a political signature too. The unleashed catastrophe of US interventions destroying civil governments south of Matamoras becomes another strand of geo-political and literary resonance here. Armand connects where the US state department would like to disconnect. Prague’s Kafkaville becomes a suburb of the Latin death politics of US anti-democracy interventions throughout the last century and more. In a subtle way the connection reinforces the rottenness that refuses to be just an individual collapse, but becomes a world of consciousness that makes political considerations inevitable. In this, the models of Camus, Sartre, Kundera, Llosa and Marquez are always giving the novel its perspectives, whereas oddly Kafka alone might resist this. But perspectival self consciousness moves in various ways, and nothing stays too intuitive.
The book ends – and there’s no need for a spoiler alert here – nothing is given away – ‘At the river bend, the long narrow fingers of the docklands stretched out of the early morning haze. Beyond, a vista of tenements and tower blocks spread across the horizon. We looked down at the grape vines clinging to the earth so tenuously, and wondered what they were doing there.’ There’s a sense in this that the demons have been laid to rest for a while. The hinted pastoral is, as the narrator sees it, a tenuous feature of this ending, and so this shouldn’t be set aside. But the vista in not pastoral with its tenements and tower blocks – and the question is whether they are assimilated into the tenuousness of the grapes or whether they are reasserting themselves. The novel has shown this vista as any kind of Kafkaville, and so implies a reassertion of that lowering threat, and dread.
Perhaps then, he’s Marlowe on his river brooding on the darkness visible in Mr Kurtz: ‘I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.’ Armand has written this again. - Richard Marshall

Prague. Cold rain on black leather jackets. City bridges looming over an icy river. Hard alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, prostitutes, men who look like corpses, men who look at corpses. Decay both physical and psychological. Violence. Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight is an unsettling read, even when held conceptually at a distance with the somehow-softening title of “modern noir.”
Despite this genre tag, Breakfast at Midnight is not a book to romanticize into some nostalgic noir category, even if at times it seems to be reaching for this itself. The novel contains allusions to various types of noir, scenes that echo the hardboiled detective novel and many wonderful cinematographic hat tips to film noir, all superbly carried off — the woman on the bridge in the rain, for example, an image we are given in several different ways, is one such echo:
But halfway across the bridge she was there again, leaning against a concrete railing with the city lights behind her. She was wearing a black coat — the same coat she’d worn the night we left the Ace of Spades. It drooped under the weight of the rain soaking it, slipping down. Her hair clung to bare pale shoulders.
Or this end-of-scene, done in a way that Armand favors, with a close-up of one element of the decaying city:
Inessa whispers something in my ear and slips away among the shadows. Footsteps lost in the gloom. A moment later the lights of the carousel flicker and come on. Cracked gilt mirrors and rusting candy-striped poles shine in the wet. Then the lions and unicorns and horses start going around. Accordion music at half-speed belches from a megaphone, sounding weirdly in the big empty night.
But besides these nods to an earlier style of noir, Breakfast at Midnight is a modern and violent neo-noir. Gritty and disturbing, it details some of the deepest darknesses of the human psyche. The novel shelters a decrepit world of humans, all of whom have only a tenuous grasp on some last shred of their humanity.
Overall, plot does not so much matter in this book — the mood, the style, the imagery and emotion are really at the heart of the work; also, Armand is experimenting with depression and psychosis, how to describe them, how they are experienced — but for the sake of review, here is a bare bones that will suffice: a young man in Prague relives a past relationship when the body of a young redheaded woman surfaces in the river and he goes with his friend (if that’s really the word to describe their connection), Blake, to photograph the body. Blake is a pornographer of women’s bodies, both dead and alive, although he seems to prefer them dead. Our narrator is a fugitive, having exchanged his life (via swapped passport in a South American jungle) for a dying man’s ten years before. The reason for his shadowy existence is slowly and circuitously revealed and has everything to do with the body of a young red headed woman. Not the corpse we meet in chapter two, but that body from his past, a powerful physical presence that hovers throughout the entire book.
I use that word “body” on purpose because what happens to the narrator of Breakfast at Midnight isn’t so much because of his relationship with a young woman named Regen, a childhood companion and teenage love who disappears some ten years before the book opens, but because of certain actions taken out on her body. We don’t really know what happens to her as a person; Armand doesn’t ever move far enough away from the confines of his narrator’s crumbling reality for us to do more than guess at Regen’s experiences as a person. While that tight focus on the narrator’s consciousness is one of the book’s great successes, it is also one of the reasons for the unease the book provokes. The novel’s past tense story contains two sides of a narrative: on the one side is a set of actors, including the narrator, and on the other, is this woman’s (inert, inactive) body. That isn’t a balanced equation, and no matter the streamlined quality of the book’s noir aesthetic, no matter the vivid layers of cinematographic scene, no matter the narrator’s self-revulsion, there is something very disconcerting about that imbalance, something that makes some of the violence in the novel appear to be for pleasure, for titillation.
The other aesthetic working throughout Breakfast at Midnight is a wonderfully executed nod to Kafka’s special brand of disorienting surrealism. The narrator’s Prague is a dark labyrinth of small streets, bridges, and bars, and as the present-tense part of the story gains momentum, and especially as the narrator succumbs to reliving his traumatic past, it becomes difficult to differentiate between what is dream/hallucination/alcoholic delusion and what is reality. That blend of delirium and truth is intricately tied up with the narrator’s revelation of his personal hell.
Or what matters is that there’s always more than just one path to the truth. The truth as it seems to be and the truth yet to come.
The narrator is working toward a confession — however, we’re also told that, “Every confession is a lie.” So whatever the narrator wants to confess, he’s also got several layers of story wrapped around it. And unreliable memory, and the inescapable alterations that begin to build up around any event that has happened in the past. Not to mention the consusions and twistings of the present story, this new dead redhead and what her relationship to Blake may or may not be.
The book also contains several, however indirect, references to Kafka, his writing and his life — the jackdaw, the monstrous father, subtle echoes of the story “The Judgment” with its mixture of drowning and sex.
Ultimately, despite my discomfort with the way the sexual violence of Breakfast at Midnight is handled, discovering a writer like Armand (not to mention this publisher — the Prague-based, English-language Equus Press) is really exciting. I almost would have preferred a deeper familiarity with Armand’s work — he has three other novels and seven poetry collections — before reading and writing about Breakfast at Midnight, yet this book most definitely persuades me to read further into Armand’s literary vision, both stylistic and moral, and to delight in a publisher with such provocative, well-written, avant-garde literature on offer. - Michelle Bailat-Jones

Louis Armand’s Breakfast at Midnight crackles across the page like a cloaked drummer keeping time on a hi-hat cymbal in some broken down, forgotten nightclub on the wrong side of the tracks. A darkly radiant ode to the underbelly of Prague, the novel is a pinball fever dream, sopping with sweat, booze, and sex, that bathes its confines in an unsettling atmosphere of grime while breathing unexpected life into the modern noir.
Armand’s Prague is rechristened Kafkaville, a rainy nest where the air smells sour and the buildings are little more than rubble. Trapped in a decade long tragedy that has left him existing in the shadows, a nameless fugitive communicates with lost souls through ritualistic means and buoys his quest to find a vanished love with alcohol and mind-altering drugs—the latter mostly provided by his lone friend, a pornographer named Blake. But things take a turn when a dead girl washes ashore. Staring at her carved body in the morgue, Armand’s protagonist spirals:
Regen’s lying there, watching me. Red hair and jade eyes like an oriental fetish. A blur of stage-light on porcelain. Too naked. And then she’s gone again. Where she lay, there’s a corpse. Like a Janus figure. They might’ve been twins, but not quite. Two images reflecting one another through a gap in time.
A cryptic mystery follows, one that unfurls in a staccato, gumshoe voice, as our corrupt hero stumbles into the day, imbibing and cavorting with strangers and wondering if there’s a connection between this dead girl and his lost companion. His stream-of-consciousness meanderings—at one point confessing, “Sometimes I have trouble remembering things the way they happen. Or else I remember too well and reality palls”—splinter his narrative timeline into shards where past and present comingle, where reality blurs (“Sometimes I wonder if Blake really exists, or if I really exist, or if we made each other up as alibis”), and where answers exist as opaque, slippery creatures. And though several mainstays of the noir genre—the tortured anti-hero, a death or two, revenge, a conniving confidant—find their way into the novel, the typical thriller template gets dropped into a blender. The result is an intoxicating narrative as much about reliving past grief as it is about the truth of life.
While the residents of Kafkaville would find solace with those creations of the master writer to which their city’s name pays tribute—whether it’s the shared quality of isolationism, the brutality of family, or the existential tangents—it isn’t hard to find comparisons for these men and women in the characters of the great Jim Thompson as well. Thompson’s prose was similarly stuffed with alcoholic haze and bouts of violent insanity and nihilism, the kind of stories that make the reader want to take a shower after reading. With Breakfast at Midnight, Armand has matched Thompson blow-for-blow, crafting a faultless, convincingly hard-boiled world that welcomes the downtrodden, the depraved, and the damaged—not to mention those casual visitors who watch it all fall down from beyond the page. - Benjamin Woodard


Louis Armand's Breakfast at Midnight flows from the page, a prose poem in fragmented pointillism of sensory input, short strings more the neoimpressionism of pointed images than the hyphenated expressionistic gripes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
"Blake exits stage left followed by yours truly. We stumble from the Orient Express and weave our way across freight yards. Labyrinths of drunken shipping containers stacked up into canyons. Rivers of slurried rainwater. Backwash. Ziggurats of scrapped steel. The drizzle once again peters out. A flair of grey light briefly in the east. At our backs. Unheeded epiphany. We stoop towards our shadows' blotted compass-point. Gravity. Footfall. Our echoes precede us."
The darkness comes of the technique of chiaroscuro applied to characters contrasted against events and scenes no more beyond the pale than those of Céline but without the lightening of humor. The mood is pervasive gloom, a tone set by a protagonist whose impressions dab out the fragments against which the story stretches. The story is no darker than a realist ought expect of a human primate, certainly no outlier given the range of behavior of humans as reported by the nightly news and well within one standard deviation of the behavioral characteristics of the typical human. (When I lived in the French Quarter in the 1970s while teaching at Tulane, I used to tell my statistics students that in my neighborhood the standard deviation was fellatio; they duly wrote it down and eventually asked if it would be on the exam.)
This approach to narration applies a barrier of complexity unwelcome to US readers given their cultural imperative of one-dimensional comic book views of everything, especially in fiction. Of course, there are those who think the pseudo-angst of soap-operatic "complexity" like the dark Batman or the Punisher are multidimensional, but they wouldn't grasp honest portrayal of human behavior in all its ambiguity were it to bite them on the ass. Here the story spins out of the background, bedeviling speed-readers who miss forest for trees except when presented in artless straightforward narrative of the elementary school student. Here looming plot lines form from the surrounding aura, transformed from ambient background and gelling on the bones of sensory input with only requisite observability to output the barest of denouement.
As the protagonist reveals himself and his crime unfolds, he remains sympathetic even while we perceive that perhaps he rationalizes, the wont of the human primate, its most prevalent application of language. It seems maybe he was mistaken in motive for the killing, his attempts to calm by restraint misguided as well. Certainly the character is a villain if judged from an outside recording of facts as for a jury in a court of law. But we are not without, thanks to prose drawing the reader in before allowing the details to settle of their own accord within the story, not told but played out in events. That is the proper way to spin a tale, but as much as literary agents and editors and teachers counsel "show, don't tell," they seldom understand what they are saying.
There will be those obtuse enough to compare Armand to Jim Thompson, just as there exist sciolists who would compare Thompson to Dostoevsky, but neither comparison is apt, at least with respect to this work. While Thompson, overrated as he became after his death, provides inside views of the workings of intentional petty criminals, Armand gives us an inner view (note the difference) of someone not following such a path. The tool of his well crafted prose, necessary here to forge the events out of ambient background, is at odds with the ham-fisted telling of Thompson. Armand's story worms its way out of an infested history beyond the control of the protagonist, wriggling unbidden like an ascaris from an anus. I would suggest that a more apt comparison might be Djuna Barnes.
It is of note that the Australian Armand resides in Prague. If this work is any indication of his other novels, his approach is as revolutionary as was the Czech New Wave Cinema of the Prague Spring that brought to life a plethora of exuberant innovation in open rebellion against the oppression of the Soviet regime. The need at the present for tanks in the west is obviated by corporatist semiofficial US mass media indoctrinating and receiving feedback from a miseducated, functionally-illiterate populace marginalizing anything outside the quasi-official box. This leaves little hope that Armand will play here in the US, his shades of gray intellectually inaccessible. Here it is either good or evil, no in-between, incertitude disallowed. Villains must demonstrate their evil clearly. This is, after all, the freedom loving nation that ran Thomas Paine out for telling them the truth that the God they worship is a monster, a gangster of gangsters, a homicidal and genocidal maniac. It is little wonder that the nation itself is insane, that it must continually up the ante of evil in its official villains in order to not see itself in them. Michael Myers of the Hollywood slasher-film franchise Halloween may be the best representative of the national character.
I am haunted by a Czech film directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos that I saw in the early 1970s, released internationally as Something Is in the Water but which I recall with the title Adrift. Not so famous as The Shop on Main Street, I preferred it. This novel reminds me of it for some reason I do not rationally grasp. I meantime strive to emulate an infinite-state automaton of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds tensored with Serb director Dušan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism, though I would settle for his Montenegro. His The Coca Cola Kid was set in Australia and was brown and bubbly. - Jim Chaffee


Louis Armand, Indirect Objects, Vagabond Press, 2014.

Indirect Objects is Prague-based Australian author Louis Armand’s eighth collection, an exploration of physical, psychological and linguistic topographies forming a poetic grammar. The indirect objects of the title are emergent states of experience, perception as language, the unarticulated “real” we encounter as strange and remote in even the most familiar forms of saying. The volume is divided into five sections – “Realism,” “Dark Mingus,” “Broadcast Graffiti,” “Zapata Retrospect,” and “Tür zum Nichts” – each concerned with an exploration of landscapes of fact. Armand’s poetry is populated by places, people, things whose existence describes a potential contained in language as singular and vital as they are.

"Armand's extreme gesture of deteritorialisation moves beyond the radical dislocations performed on their respective languages by both Kafka and Tsvetaeva." - Vadim Erent

"Armand is the international conduit for much of the dialogue that’s developing today. he is an internationalist, an innovator … he’s genre busting & on an “open” passport." - John Kinsella

"The language of ‘internally fissured realities’ is dense, sound-driven, and erudite. The territory being mined is somewhere between language and geography, but there is a stubborn (and tenaciously coherent) essay on the modern here, particularly modern art. The equally tenacious reader will be rewarded by a sober sensibility." - Andrei Codrescu

Louis Armand is one of the most productive writers I know. He's seemingly irrepressible. He has, so far,  published eleven collections of poetry,  sixteen critical books and four novels. He is also the publisher of Litteraria Pragensia and founding editor of the extraordinary VLAK magazine, which is a big fat international omnibus of incisive articles on happening culture, wonderful post-punk graphics and terrific poetry. Louis, although born and growing up in Australia, has lived in Prague in the Czech Republic for twenty years. He works there at Charles University. He has also been a James Joyce scholar. Louis is also a visual artist, and this is reflected in many of the poems in Indirect Objects.
Louis' ekphrasis is not made from any critical distance - it's an immersion - he gets in to a painting like an all-night drug tripper gets in to the dawn. For instance, the bluesy punk impressionism of the opening poem 'Acid Comedown & John Olsen's Five Bells'
Call it topographic, eyeball to eyeball with invisible fidget wheels, the whole blueprint in acid-dissolve.

Intelligence reports arrive from remote space colonies dot-dash-dot on tree-branch telegraph wires,

meteorites and pool hall metaphysics.
This is John Olsen's painting 'Five Bells' - a tribute to Sydney Harbour and the famous Kenneth Slessor poem. The poem's associated with venues around the inner harbour  - the Opera House and the NSW Art Gallery make their appearance. Jorn Utzon's Opera House is seen as 'cranes/stooping/over the quays' - where, for me anyway, the cranes can be both the birds as the so-called  'Opera House sails' and literal construction cranes about to alter another tiny bit of Harbour. And the party's over, coming down in the tickertape detritus, like a starry New Years Eve under the fig trees, Louis offers a televisual, possibly-empathetic, political gesture to what's happened to cities in this country  -
                                            Slow-motion videos of a city
       in mid-construct - Wandjina Man drunk under a wall

       dreaming of blonde missionary ancestor spirits
       turned to coruscated glass and steel
then everything goes grey and rainy and a little grim as dawn arrives.
So from the start, this is an atmospheric, moody set of poems. And that's just the beginning.
This book is loaded with attempts to build something different out of a kind of destruction or destroyed world (this one) and it shares with the reader the proposition that some new thing can be made. But not without regard for the past.
Snake Bay is a bay in the Tiwi Islands, up north, past Darwin. Fifty-five years ago Russell Drysdale painted indigenous figures in his 'Snake Bay at Night.' In Louis' poem about this painting
                   ...occasionally memory creeps in,
      like an irrational return to a point we started from.
and the 'great montage' in the painting might have been made by
                          ...some demon of history like a mind gone astray
      in the night, mad with visions of sexual punishment.
There's a fabulous aggregate of extraordinary, iconic Australianisms in this book—a northern river meeting a night sea in a kind of dreamy humid methadone metaphor, the tropical erotic-exotica of Donald Friend's Balinese pen drawings, Richard Lowenstein's classic-80s rock film Dogs in Space alongside a junkie Darlinghurst Gauguin selling his drawings to get money to score in a poem for John Kinsella that proceeds by a seedy Sydney-urban philosophising and aspires to a better life, 'Patrick White as a Headland',  Charles Blackman, Francis Webb, and in Melbourne - a monologue from an Aboriginal boxer in Fitzroy,  freeze frames at St Kilda Beach, Swanston Street, Brunswick Street and so on.
A critic * speaking about Louis' novel 'Canicule' recently, said "Armand uses language to paint a picture just as vividly as if we were watching this unfold on screen...." which is a good way of putting it.  Some of these paintings-in-poems are in the first section of the book called 'Realism', which, in my view, is an odd heading for a collection of poems definitely located in Australia. 'Realism' in some ways seems a sombre tag to the book's title 'Indirect Objects'.
Indirect objects can be rare. You can sometimes read for pages before you encounter one. Everyone can recognize a direct object when they see one, but
an 'indirect object' is an odd grammatical concept. I'm not an expert but the term seems stretched enough here to mingle with the melange of allusions, similes, descriptions and metaphors that contribute to these vivid, image-rich, hyper-real poems.
One poem here, 'Realism', had an especially powerful effect for me. It's the extraordinary title poem that ends the first section - a poem comprising four preludes three in couplets, and one in quintets (or five line stanzas). It begins with a quote from William Carlos Williams that says in part - 'The only realism in art is of the imagination'. I'd say, in Louis' case that it's also art's relationship to emancipation that registers strongly. This remarkable poem moves in its preludes through an initial anxious energy as an exhausted persona/the poet travels through harsh sheep country where alcohol and over the-counter-drugs smother the numbness and anomie a young jackeroo or farmhand, say, might feel in the face of slaughter yards and endless plains' horizons broken by occasional silos and surreal sunsets that eventually seem conventional,  leading to a sense of desperation –
    A hundred pages on
    through plotless outcountry
There's a turn in this road trip in arriving at the east coast's 'flat edge of pacific breakers'. Then the collision of the ocean and urbanity reminds the jetlagged-yet still-thinking prodigal of lost political causes
        We could've been the children
         of Whitlam and Coca-Cola.
which is an Aussie remark on Jean Luc Godard's intertitle between chapters in  his 1960s film 'Masculin-Feminin' - "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola"
One of the challenges of minimalism is finding a way to gouge relatable connotation from simplicity and Louis is really good at doing that.  The poem traverses grinding hard yakka and the tedium of distance - hauling along through the dead of night between outback mining towns and salt flats pushing past 'a punchline without a joke' until daybreak reveals 'barbiturate cloud patterns' and 'unfamiliar / regions of cross-sectional debris'. Attempting to get a grip on this place, he asks the question - is 'the scene ironic or insincere?'  The reply  -
     An ambiguous terrain, its objectivity
     is a thing of the mind, una cosa mentale.
In the second prelude the prodigal poet returns to, in a way, the foci of his journey. In a kind of monumental segment of five stanzas of five lines each, he is in Sydney, addressing the Road Builders’ Obelisk and colonial history, or mis-history. It's the oldest true obelisk in Sydney, built in 1818. It's located in tiny Macquarie Place on Bridge Street and was designed by Francis Greenaway. This elongated sandstone pyramid's purpose was as the geographical milestone for the measurement of road lengths in New South Wales. Especially apposite to this circuitous road poem.
As you might expect, soon enough, yet cautiously, the poem heads out again and the third prelude recounts 'The Effect of Travelling in Distant Places' where some experiential resolution or 'answer' is sought and
     the sick man groans,
     dragging his sack of instruments

      on into the immeasurable -
      beckoned by its fool's glimmer
the problems of religion, greed, capital, false gods are all encountered in eight couplets then  'the eye too, is a product/of history'. Or you could say 'seeing isn't believing' as the poems' slightly abstracted ecological predicaments, like brackish bore water contaminated by alkaline salinity, are reduced -- 'Being/ so much dreck and signage'. The body suffers in parallel with the land and, finally, there's a 'Reprise' –
     we reached the next turning point
     and came to a standstill:

     from centre dead up against periphery
     (no things but in relations).
The reprise is of the times - briefly.  It's a sleaze reprise, back in Sydney, a place once nicknamed 'Tinsel Town', - at the harbour –
                                             A bridge to the
promised land in perpetual
strip-tease slung above the 100,000

expiring light bulbs of LUNA P RK.
undressing the blacked out scar of

decommissioned navy yards, dry
docks ... Our hungers for elsewhere

were free to enlarge, conscripted
to the Big Idea - not by ballot but by
lottery -
In the final twenty-or-so couplets the poem briefly laments American influence in Australia, revisits the outback journey, remembers earlier times - 'the halo formed/around the analogue dial/ wandjina like, and electric as/spirit medium shot at high speed.' There is no actual conclusion to 'Realism' but  'Escape was a sad parody of a film/ that's been running for a century' and the prodigal, back on the western highway, checks out the rearview mirror - 'testing the stringency/of what it means to be invisible - /though drawing no conclusion from it.'           
There's a big complicated mind driving the imaginary in these poems. Louis' analytical and motile thinking upsets conventional expectations. He arranges a kind of sur-or hyper-reality and fashions something new as images and metaphors tumble over each other and extensive transcultural classical and popular cultures combine to make poems that are often reminiscent of large colourful, layered, goopy oil paintings or stacked banks of video screens simultaneously playing different images. 
I've only talked about a small part of this book and it might seem a bit exiguous after the time I spent on the great poem 'Realism'. So I'll end by offering a couple of sets of lists to give clues to what extraordinary congeries of ideas and things are to be found here: the poems embrace innumerable literary, philosophical, mythological and artistic figures like Arcimboldo, Rachmaninov, Aristotle, De Kooning, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Mingus and many others and they roam through many places, considering them as both actual and imagined -- a sample includes Las Vegas, Cittavecchia, Manhattan, Paris, Bolzano, Rapallo, Ravenna and, of course, Prague.
The dedicatees in this collection are as various as the poems' influences, themes and associations comprising a transnational ars poeisis - some of them are Gwendolyn Albert, Anselm Berrigan, Ali Alizadeh, the late Amiri Baraka, Karen Mac Cormack, David Vichnar, Kenneth Koch, Howard Barker, the late Mahmoud Darwish, David Malouf, John Kinsella, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, the late Cy Twombly and many others. This book pays its dues to a veritable pantheon of cultural figures -- poetically, it's totally in the black.
* Kristen Valentin 
- Pam Brown

Louis Armand, Helixtrolysis: Cyberology & the Joycean "Tyrondynamon Machine", Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2014.

It is an intriguing feature of cybernetics, cognitive science, psychoanalysis, critical theory & particle physics that at key moments in their recent evolution their major practitioners have turned to the work of one particular "experimentalist" writer, James Joyce, in whose key works -- Ulysses & Finnegans Wake -- they have sought an articulation of the emergent virtuo-real universe which since the mid-20th century we have increasingly come to inhabit. From these two books have directly been drawn the name for the fundamental constituent of the nucleon (Murray Gell-Mann's quark), a new model of cognition (Daniel Dennett's Joycean machine), a radical cybernetic conception of language (Jacques Derrida's Joyceware), a psycho-analytical paradigm (Jacques Lacan's sinthome), & the foundations of post-War media theory (Marshall McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy, originally called The Road to Finnegans Wake).

This volume examines a series of counter arguments to the conventional account of literary cybernetics in light of developments which have accompanied the encounter between critical theory and cultural studies, namely 'hypertextuality' and 'posthumanism.' In each instance, the continuing legacy of Joyce's works is examined in detail.

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Louis Armand, Clair Obscur, Equus Press, 2011.

Set against the backdrop of the 1990s war in former-Yugoslavia, Clair Obscur presents a sustained reflection on memory, guilt, fantasy and desire in late twentieth-century Europe. Its cinematic prose ranges between forensic realism and poetic psychology, like the films of Resnais and Bertolucci its language frequently evokes. Written from a screenplay that won honourable mention at the 2009 Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival.

“Using the potential threat posed by the camera’s presence, Armand implicates the reader, demonstrating how constant surveillance can undercut our understanding of what is real and what is not. He asks us how we can ‘take responsibility for things which don’t exist’ if we are awake or asleep, and if we ‘know anything about objects, what causes them?'” - Barbara Bridger

“This is a poet’s novel, when it is not a filmmaker’s or a painter’s, and should be enjoyed as a multimedia, multilinguistic experience.” - Erik Martiny

“…explores the relations between cinematic and literary writing as containers of, and vehicles for, memory. Reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ or Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s and Samuel Beckett’s fiction—though in no way reducible to any one of them—Armand’s novel reads history, both personal and general, as a palimpsest of place-bound traumas, as a ghost-story of ever-eluding loss in which ‘only the dead return.'” - London Student

“This lyric, open-ended novel spans several years in the early 1990s and ranges from Prague to Trieste and Bosnia in a meditation on time, loss and recovery” - The Prague Post


EXCERPT
The voice was familiar. It was the actress from the studio. Meret, she called herself, like the Egyptian goddess of the eighth hour. They’d spoken together at the Villa Veneziani after Van’s screening. They’d both been drinking. It was obvious, Chiara had thought, that something was going on between the two of them (her and Van). There was no denying the actress was beautiful, she herself had felt affected by it (her beauty) the first time she’d seen her on the screen. Chiara! She turned. Meret was leaning now against the wall, laughing, pulling Chiara towards her, into her arms. Suddenly she kissed her. Her mouth was slack and somehow shapeless and tasted of gin, vermouth and cigarettes. Disgust made Chiara recoil from the embrace and immediately Meret slid down the wall into a crooked sitting position, her silhouette now visible at the edge of the lamplight. Her bare feet jutted from beneath the torn hem of her dress as she laughed, helplessly. Can’t you even stand up? Chiara’s voice was slightly mocking, tense. She didn’t care about the answer. The foreknowledge of what was to come galled her. I prefer it down here. It makes me feel smaller. That laughter again. A high-pitched, birdlike laughter. And then a hissing sound, and a rush of water on the flagstones. Meret lifted the hem of her dress for Chiara to see how she’d pissed herself, looking up in childish astonishment. A pool of urine had gathered between her feet and was slowly spreading, the dull reflection of the lamplight shimmering across it like paracelene. And then, quite ridiculously, she tried to stand back up, sliding to one side and eventually falling flat on her face…

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Louis Armand, Menudo, Antigen, 2006.

Set in Mexico, Menudo is a radical montage of overlapping accounts of a crime. Details multiply, repeat, segue into one another, but do not "add up." These include laboratory transcripts; the diary of a drug addict in Mexico City; the testimony of a malaria patient in a sanatorium; an escapee and a catholic priest in a village near Tapachula; an archaeologist at Yaxchillan...


Louis Armand, The Garden, Salt, 2001.


“Cool, postmodern,” in the words of Kevin Hart. Armand’s first published volume of prose explores – by means of a rigorous experimentation – the relations between “psycho-geography” and “geo-psychology”; between the stability and instability of place, personality and perception. In the verbal setting of The Garden (with its echoes of Bosch, Eden, the classical “forbidden garden” or the Perfumed Garden of Arabian literature), figures mesh in a half-light of memory and desire. The text moves fluidly between the exotic and the banal, the archetypally general and the minutely specific. Sometimes compared to the work of Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Armand’s “unpunctuated” prose is less about the construction of imagistic or verbal ambiguity, than it is a way of writing with the ambiguities that exist already in the world, by virtue of the fact that the world is something “experienced.” It is for this reason that Armand’s language always remains “concrete,” the language “tangible” – it is not about experiences but the experience itself.

Louis Armand’s The Garden, exemplies more bold trends in the internationalization of Australian literature. Written in an experimental form borrowing from the French recit as practiced by the likes of Maurice Blanchot, this work consists of a cascade of unpunctuated disorienting prose drifting between subject and object, traversing spatial and temporal warpings as well as boundaries of imagination and reality.” —Sebastian Gurciullo Colloquy

“The atmosphere of The Garden reminds me a lot of the work of the French fiction writer and theorist Maurice Blanchot – sparsely described interiors, characters who remain effectively faceless, an atmosphere of cold yet sometimes desperate alienation. It’s an utterly European Modernism.” —Keith Jebb Poetry 

Louis Armand, Letters from Ausland, Vagabond, 2011. 

excerpt

Louis Armand,  Solicitations: Essays on Criticism & amp; Culture, Litteraria, 2008.

The topics addressed in these essays range from laissez-faire economics and the state of contemporary culture, to the foundations of ethical philosophy. Commencing with an analysis of the rhetoric of "crisis," Armand poses questions of central concern to the future of criticism and the institutions of knowledge. Focusing upon the role of technology in re-shaping the structures of human experience, language and cultural practice, this collection of essays offers a broad, yet focused and sustained, critique of the legacies of modernity and beyond.
Adopting the critical paradigm of solicitation, Armand demonstrates how structure is perceived through an incidence of crisis, and that these crises are pervasive in human experience.
The essays included in this volume address the work of writers, philosophers, artists, as well as broader issues of history, futurity and the digital age. Jacques Derrida, James Joyce, Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin, Karl Jaspers are read alongside Buckminster Fuller, Julia Kristeva, Rosalind Krauss, Marshal McLuhan, John Dewey, as well as recent and contemporary artists like John Cage, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Brett Whiteley, Michael Dransfield, John Kinsella and Pierre Daguin.

Louis Armand, Inexorable Weather, Arc, 2001. 

Armand, an exciting and risk-taking young Australian poet who delights in stretching language and technique in uncharted directions to electrifying effect.. The critic Susan Schultz writs: Armand is a landscape poet with a difference - he knows the 'fundamental questions' are those of locality, and he poses them with an intellectual acuity and integrity, and in singular language(s) that assert pluralism and always refuse the 'seductions of amnesia'

“… a poetry filled with guest appearances by the languages we normally delegate authority to; which knows more than all of them put together.” — Rod Mengham

“Louis Armand is a landscape poet with a difference. His landscapes are replete with ‘anti-constructs’ … He marks ‘the remoteness between signifier & amp; land-/scape,’ rather than its conventional conflation. Armand … knows the ‘fundamental questions’ are those of locality; he poses them with intellectual acuity, integrity, & in singular language(s) that assert pluralism & always refuse the ‘seductions of amnesia.’” — Susan M. Schultz

Louis Armand, Strange Attractors, Salt, 2003.

Bringing together poetry published during the last six years, Strange Attractors is the most recent and extensive collection by the Prague-based award winning writer Louis Armand. Armand's themes shift between New York cityscapes and the Moroccan desert; from dissections of contemporary aesthetics, philosophy and politics, to reflections on human intimacy, the sympathetic faculty and violence. Among the most prolific and widely received poets of his generation, Armand's work has been described by Miroslav Holub as luminous with verbal innovation and critical insight. As the editor firstly of the Prague Revue and later of the PLR (Prague Literary Review) - Armand has participated in, and often presided over, many of the literary transformations and reformations of the decade since communism's collapse in central Europe. At the same time, Armand's work has remained strongly internationalist, eschewing the facile temptations of literary nationalism This volume confirms Armand's standing as a major figure of the Prague renaissance and the post-fin-de-siecle of English-language poetry internationally.


Louis Armand, Event States: Discourse, Time, Medialit, Litteraria Pragensia, 2007.

Following from an earlier study of literate technologies, the present volume seeks to examine a number of questions that inevitably come to surround any discussion of signification and dynamic systems; questions which concern the relationship between what is variously meant by the terms event and state, and which tend to coalesce around a number of problems to do with relativity and the discursive character of time or temporalisation, mediality, representation and the techno-logisation of presence. Such questions ultimately travel far afield, between ontology and classical epistemology, cybernetics and quantum physics, aesthetics and political science. Essays in this volume treat the work of Alain Badiou, Bernard Stiegler, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Jose Delgado, Friedrich Kittler. "Ripping through this work, with its cybernetic preoccupations and post-structuralist rigor, is a strong countercurrent that leaves room for the human, even as it disenchants humanism. [...] The result is a book that brings us to the edge and leaves us there to enjoy the breathtaking view." --Davin Heckman, Rhizomes Louis Armand is director of the InterCultural Studies programme in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, Prague. His books include Solicitations: Essays on Criticism & Culture; Techne: James Joyce, Hypertext & Technology; and Incendiary Devices: Discourses of the Other.


Louis Armand & John Kinsella, Synopticon: A Collaborative Poetics, Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2012. 
A collaborative poetics by Louis Armand & amp; John Kinsella, with an Introduction by Pierre Joris.

Synopticon was composed as a collaborative project during the course of an extended email exchange between 1998 and 2008. Part poetics of collaboration, part cultural archaeology, part textual collage, this book records an investigation into authorship and authenticity in the construction of social texts and cultural artefacts. Collaborative praxis is not defined here solely as a method, but as a condition of discourse; a poiesis.
Collaboration is a word with a long political history. It defines a relationship with one's adversaries, a befriending and a 'working together' for mutual advantage. It is a form of opportunism. At times, necessity informs collaboration as a strategy for survival. It defines an uneasy negotiation of terms between unequal parties. Today, in Australia and elsewhere in the world, indigenous communities are required to collaborate with the successor governments of colonial regimes, in order to reach 'settlement' of the indigenous problem. Issues of civil rights and native title. The institution of the law provides the necessary pretence that such things are not merely discretionary--residual forms of colonial largesse.
In one sense or another, all writing, all forms of cultural 'production,' is necessarily a type of collaboration. But the active solicitation of a method, even a 'technique,' of collaboration, remains political. The politics of proprietorship underwrites so-called Western culture from its outset. The extension and proliferation of forms of copyright today, by way of the new media, are the logical consequences of an ideology that decrees paternity--authorship--over language and meaning. Intentions, words, actions, have evolved a legal status that places collaboration, as a working method, on the side of subversion. Undisclosed or obscured authorship has political, implying also economic, consequences. In the final instance, collaboration threatens the principle of corporate ownership, through the evocation of collective custodianship--the principle of a 'creative commons.'
Collaboration as a technique of invention and reinvention--as the detournement of the political and the politics of detournement. Collaboration as the disputation of existing hegemonies 


"Who but John Kinsella and Louis Armand could have invented and laid out the 21st Century protocols that govern the intriguing collaborative poems in Synopticon? Encyclopedic, witty, packed with knowledge about arcane subjects, this is a book to sample and reread with ever-increasing knowledge, pleasure, and admiration." --Marjorie Perloff

Armand & Kinsella’s choice of the name Synopticon, without doubt, is accurate. A collaborative project composed during extended email exchange, Synopticon is a mix of poetics, cultural archaeology, and textual collage. The project records the authors’ investigation into authorship and authenticity in the construction of social texts and cultural artifacts. From the Author’s Note:
The term “synopticon” was intended to suggest, also, a type of generative textual synchronicity-machine, at work on the universal archive—questions of power and surveillance are implicit and their structures are matter, herein, for synoptic détournement and deconstruction.
If you were not convinced the project was drenched in academia and theoretical concerns from the title and Marjorie Perloff’s blurb on the back cover, that first page will clearly prepare you for the experience of reading the poems. Or, if you are one of the many people who are not in need (or want) of this proximity to the poetic avant-garde, you can at least stop yourself from reading any further.
The book is definitely not one for the casual poetry reader. The look of pained thoughtfulness as some of my friends picked up the book on a random page was humorous, although I cannot be sure the looks I saw did not mirror my own while reading the densely encyclopedic and arcane language found within the poems. Even with the introductory material, I felt as though I had been dropped in the middle of a sea of words with a broken paddle. There is very little in the text to ground a reader—no discernable environment, no persona or visible characters, only language on a specific topic as far as your eye can see. Some poems were more accessible than the rest. Poems such as “A Symposium,” “Refractions,” and “Protologistic Poem” felt cohesive enough for me to read in their entirety without having too many literary spurts and sputters. But I must admit, for the first time since leaving graduate school I wholeheartedly wished that I had access to an entire classroom of intellectual minds and opinions to discuss a book. I wanted to discuss what I had read so badly with others that I yearned to hijack an upper level poetic theory course for a couple of weeks to flesh out what this book was saying, what it was doing, how it was accomplishing it, and whether or not readers find it successful in its intentions.
There is no question that the work is poetic, witty, and engaging. The language choices throughout Synopticon are lyrical and rhythmic as well as educated. For example, in “Triptych: Diseases of the Eye part 2. self/portrait (solarisation):”           
a priori – through morbid reflexes, geothermal, pedantic,
in the virulence of its own phantasms – splitting hairs,
the gauche protest belies the take my point
of it, the internally focused eye of a mise-en-abyme
where the temples & amp; forehead (bold as heraldry)
have received the electric power of recti-
fication…
Reading this passage on the page may not show the clever sound play that becomes all too apparent when reading aloud.
The expertise of the authors’ use of line and segment throughout the project is enviable. There are several poems created using such long lines the poems are printed vertically and to read them easily you must move either the book or the angle of your head. This visceral and tactile experience of the poems mimics the interaction of the reader to the book as a whole. One must change perspectives and expectations to delve fully into the text.
While Synopticon does not lend itself to an embracement by the literate masses, I found the project to be engaging, thought provoking, and complex. Well worth the multiple readings and research time spent. If nothing else, the book deserves an award for being the most highbrow poetry book to include the words “slapstick poodle puffs” and “poop scoops” within one of its poems. - Shauna Osborn 


Louis Armand, The Organ Grinder's Monkey: Culture After the Avant-Garde, Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2012.


Armand is unafraid to ask the most basic questions, to go beyond the zone in which most cultural discussions operate in order to ask what underlies our capacity for thought, for imaging, for communication. Time and again he takes his reader to the edge of what is thinkable, subjecting familiar concepts to stringent analysis and casting an original light on old debates.”–Derek Attridge
Theorising the “poetic turn” in cultural discourse from the 1950s to the present, The Organ Grinder’s Monkey examines the post-avant-garde condition mapped out in the work of an international roster of artists, writers, philosophers and film-makers, from Neo-Dada to the New Media, including Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard, Cy Twombly, Jacques Derrida, Rosalind Krauss, Samuel Beckett, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Alain Badiou, Dusan Makavejev, Marjorie Perloff, Michael Dransfield, Charles Olson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Veronique Vassiliou, Guy Debord, Joshua Cohen, Pierre Joris, Philippe Sollers, Karen Mac Cormack, Marshall McLuhan, Lukas Tomin, John Kinsella, and Vincent Farnsworth.


Louis Armand is a writer and visual artist who has lived in Prague since 1994. He has worked as an editor and publisher, and as a subtitles technician at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and is an editor of VLAK magazine. 

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