Richard Makin - Owing much to Nouveau Roman particularity and the decadence of fin-de-siècle prose, privileging arcane objecthood over organized personhood, MOURNING is richly dark and thick with corporeal and writerly materialities
Richard Makin, Work, Great Works, 2003-06.
We're not going to forget it, the opening screen: poultry, jack or tin and paper case, ditto section. You have to move in close to read all this, using negatives, saying what is not—torn in a seacup, eye full of clipse. First the green line. One thing I am certain about: the language filched from passers by. Immaculate simplicity of narrative. It's a method known to stop anything in its tracks. She is born with her head wrapped around a name, a big chunk of it. (Opening moves of St Leonards, Chapter 6)
For the last few years Richard Makin (the "A" seems to be optional) has been publishing in monthly instalments on the Great Works site run by Peter Philpott. Work in Process began publication in 2004. It was supposed to run for a year, but in the event it carried on for more than two, so the complete text runs to 30 parts, separated by photographic images. St Leonards followed immediately and is, as I write, on its seventh instalment: not too late to get with it and to enjoy - if that is the right word - the curiously compulsive exercise of waiting for the next episode and its surprising turns (which are always a surprise) and its revelations (which never materialize). Right now, this is one of my favourite books.
The two works are not entirely discrete, so that for example "a rust chute emptying into the sea" in SL2 repeats an image that first showed up as far back as WiP2; "the great arterial trunk that carries blood from the pump" varies a definition of aorta first seen in WiP29; longstanding motifs such as the descent and the hexagon continue to outcrop; the "young man with an ashplant" of WiP30 returns fragmentarily in SL3, part of a narrow thread of references to the Telemachia of Ulysses that still makes a remote rumble in SL7 when "She loses her implant".
Serial publication posits an active relationship with a public; it recalls, perhaps, the popular frenzy whipped up by Dickens' early novels, the anguished letters and the tearful crowds waiting for news of Little Nell. Or the ill-fated serialization of Ulysses in Pound's Little Review, which finally foundered on the Nausicaa episode. Makin's serialization bears only an ironic or parodic relation to those analogues ("What she misses is that he has silenced the crowd"): what invisible audience there may be is subjected to a continuous mockery of its expectations and motives: "I am so grateful to listen in on all sorts of people thinking aloud" (SL2).
Still, there are certain analogies that bear investigation. Reading a serial work as it comes out, we know that the book is still being written; we are involved in a narrative about the author's progress - something that Makin self-referentially feeds into the text. We receive the text in a series of timed releases, each advancing and not advancing our conception of the book that does not yet exist, resembling and not resembling the parts that came before. When the book is published complete, if it ever seems complete, this particular aspect of its generation of radical indecipherability will disappear, only to be replaced, however, by the ironic suggestion of indecipherability proposed by book-spines along a shelf.
We also know that the book title has been made up in advance of composition; we tend to assume that it provides an insecure and provisional marker (like the material on which this note bases itself) to how the book will actually pan out. St Leonards refers casually to where the author now lives, but the book is not about the place in a simple way (it is not a simple place, except in Thomas Campbell's poem). Very occasionally, almost with a joke-like effect, a local reference crackles into view: "castle nowhere near camber, swift running flame" (SL6).
And finally, Makin's serial works, like The Old Curiosity Shop, are illustrated. Illustrations for St Leonards have yet to emerge; this one is from early in Work in Process and has the caption "RX12+?".
What relation the images bear to the text is a question. Perhaps a few of the recurring motifs, the pyramid and the rust chute for example, owe their origin to the images. What the text tends to emphasize about the images is how much you can't understand about them; a radical indecipherability of our surroundings, not at all diminished by me supposing this to be Dungeness and knowing that RX12 specifies a boat registered in the port of Rye. Topography, both in and of the text, is stretching; reading it tugs at our patterned conception of our surroundings.
Serial publication is an invitation to read; Makin's work is an experimental prose that connects, at its extremes, with both the novel and the installation - I would call it, in our present state of incompetence, partially readable. In some of his earlier work that meant reading a few words here and there. The work I'm writing about here accommodates - yes, invites, - a reading-through somewhat as a book of reflective essays or even a novel, but it does not resolve into characters, action or locale, and in fact it's impossible to hold the non-sequential material sufficiently in the mind to perform the mental exercise that we normally think of as reading.
What kind of a serial is this?
I have heard Makin's work described as "non-generic prose" and I like that description, which emphasizes the freedom of the reader, the potential for pioneering into land that neither author nor reader may recognize. But I know it's not so easy as all that to be truly non-generic. Makin knows it too. Programmatically self-referential, the text constantly implies descriptions of itself, as an essay ("Let's start with some basics"), lecture ("whether you might be persuaded to say a few words"), novel ("no story although a great many things happen"), automatic writing ("This is an underthread"), travelogue ("we're heading off to the opening sea"), anthology ("A selection is given"), residue ("charred leaves go up the flume"), apology ("He's reduced to justification"). Those are all in the first section of St Leonards. In the second, there's others; a trunk in the attic ("This is where I put things I reject but wish to keep"), and a crime fiction ("They believe his motive was revenge..."). That last one keeps nagging at us: coroner's reports and post mortems, archaeological pathology, provide a sinister undercurrent. Without fixed characters or locations it's going to be a tough case to crack.
Where the "non-generic" tag really falls down is that it doesn't suggest the definite character of the writing, which I suppose is in this case the thing that makes anticipation (and therefore serialization) possible.
This, for contrast, is a stretch of one of Makin's earlier works:
the list of loss ashen graille sunk low in the minute past participles of braun sand. pin umbrella tube epic horrorscope pictures worlds for collapse in monte de pietá of wergild. an equivalence of chunnel hoping. kufa kef impulse alienated from the bable televisionary progrom twighlights of the idle of the tribe the den the cave the forum the theatre the fumes from music rising verdigris. (from Forword)
This is fantastically inventive, but it's a bombardment. The tempo of the serial works is less frantic. Space, silence and nervous tension have crept out to the surface of the text.
Animals are box office. The first impression is recovered. Box of fire. Box of ash. Words stuck to the concrete redeem the evening — ground and delivered, with screed pull to deep background square, collided. What if one of us expires on route. The ghoulest thing is the image of her face at the fourth floor window. He is conscious of, but cannot apprehend, its wayfare and flickerbook existence.
Tell them the general needs you, he allows you to breathe in the sea tonight. I break away. First train back. He goes to search in his pack. Now you must away too. Carry with you this common place book. Utilize primary methods of sensation, the quality of being limited by a condition, like rising earth each side of a furrow, the ineluctable etcetera. I don't have time for this now. (from SL3)
Perhaps the right question to ask is not about the meaning but about how the text was made. Some is arrived at by direct transmutation: "Box of fire" a typo variant of "box office", for example. Some responds to a particular groove within the chapter: in this case, a recurrent sequence of transformed cricketing terms ("pull to deep background square").
Then there are unmarked quotations and allusions: "breathe in the sea tonight" inevitably induces a spectral hint of that pained Phil Collins ballad In the Air Tonight. "The ineluctable etcetera" alludes to the start of the Proteus section of Ulysses. Other sentences look like they could be quotations but are possibly invented ("Carry with you this common place book"), like those epigraphs in the Waverley novels that are attributed to Old Play. No reader is going to know them all: the text's materials are unlimitedly various (it was by the merest accident that on second or third reading of a sentence elsewhere, "the madness in my area", I remotely recalled a Fall B-Side from 1979).
Almost as tricky, if you like difficult games, is the use of dictionary defnitions that are detached from their headwords; as here, "the quality of being limited by a condition", which I am still trying to work out. Sometimes the headword may show up in due course, as happens elsewhere with distal and bearings. Often the definition is mutated, like "the part of a cartel that receives pollen" (SL7) - which would have defined stigma, when the fifth word was "carpel".
Perhaps most crucially, the text develops from its own foundations. Take the penultimate sentence from the passage above; this, three chapters later, is what sprouts from it:
She stands in a timely passage: the inenarrable modality of the invisible. There is a clerical boundary, the quality of being limited by a condition (law). In the middle of the compass a kidnap, a net: feldspar whose tissues are not at the right angles—all that bite, any mixture of them—oblique fractures, crosswise of mouth like sharks and rays, crosswise returning with transverse slit on underside of head. Vouchsafe, the walk is round the back of myself. Climb the ascent and back on to the road. Use any of the primary methods. His tendons are crushed. Classify the sensations as to whether true, false, necessary, possible or impossible (log).
It's a method of progressing that makes one persistently aware of vague recognition; it suggests the illusory idea that if you could only hold the whole text in your mind at once, you'd learn something. At least, I think it's an illusory idea, but maybe it's only impractical.
If that long-distance grasp of the material seems difficult for readers with the vital thread of fixed text to work with, it seems nothing short of astounding in the writer. A method there must be, or it would be impossible to bring this book together, page after implacable page. Though one category of favoured words witnesses to where Makin begins from in British writing (revenant, simulacra, mephitic....), yet he utterly transcends that point of origin through the vast scope of his content/allusions, his multi-threaded scenae, eye-opening wordplay, most audibly perhaps through such casually skilled sentences as these (all drawn from the same page):
He touches his cheek. It's dry, but still the sting of cold spray, the taste of salt.
Glister on beaded rubble, a collapse of boulders.
His knuckles knock against the uneven surface of the table like dice.
Erosion and sand-drift, the itinerant pebble.
One flies towards him with a live coal and purifies his lips.
Bringing these together (they are not adjacent in the text) reveals them as more or less closely connected; they ignite each other. The elegance too is not there for its own sake, just part of the procedure. - Michael Peverett intercapillaryspace.blogspot.hr/2007/04/richard-makin-st-leonards.html
Richard Makin, Dwelling, Reality Street, 2011.
Dwelling, like many a 19th-century three-decker, started life as a serial publication - online, under a working title. Now it has emerged in print, this immense work, without recognizable characters or plot, can be seen to offer a radical and contemporary take on the function of the novel in history: giving a fractured panorama of the conditions of living now.
Dwelling was serialised electronically by Great Works (2006-09) under the working title of ‘St Leonards’. It is the second in a trilogy of books.
Download and read an extract from Dwelling (pdf)
Video of launch reading of Dwelling
A film by Lucy Clarke and Andy Moore with words by Richard Makin from Dwelling
An interview with Richard Makin by Michael Peverett
Context is everything when it comes to reading Richard Makin’s dwelling. To do as I did and approach the text with no knowledge of its background will almost certainly result in hours of tedium peppered with bewilderment. The book as an object is inoffensive enough, being the size of a solid doorstep and suggesting to the enthusiastic reader that it will last them comfortably through the next two months. However, before bending back the front cover it is useful to know that dwelling is a piece of non-generic prose, published by Reality Street as a part of their ongoing promotion of experimental writing. It follows that you must be ready to indulge in this experiment and actively work with it, a process which begins with the opening lines:
Exit one London. Wandering into the root of to dwell. I will not provoke. I will not provide. Let us through. The first big test is to dig a ditch. In guerrilla warfare it’s said you use your strengths as weaknesses.
Do not, as I did, spend the next fifty pages waiting for a plot to emerge and characters to be sustained. Makin continues in this fragmentary and challenging manner for six-hundred and seventy pages, stopping for chapter breaks but nothing else. It is not that his writing is bad (a glance at the quote above should show that this is not the case) only that there is so much of it. At first I considered the meaning of every line and tried to uncover the connecting threads between each one, but after twenty pages or so I entered into a passive, semi-hypnotic state and had to take a nap. Richard Makin’s writing would perhaps be easier to accept if he didn’t seem so self-conscious about his style. He seems to acknowledge that his work isn’t entirely reader-friendly, going as far as to occasionally coax you onwards. At one point he promises, ‘If you can make it beyond this chapter things start to get a lot easier on the eye,’ and after being buoyed up by this statement you race forward, ploughing through one chapter and into the next, only to find that he lied.
I came to realise that dwelling is like a dictionary or encyclopaedia, being enlightening in small doses but punishing when read from start to finish. Context is again useful for understanding why this might be. The text was originally produced electronically by Great Works, being published as it was written, and serialized over a period of two years. Knowing this, it is possible to argue that the book was never meant to be read as a singular whole, but in sections over a very long period. I cannot help thinking that the original dwelling must have been a less intimidating text, as the readers would have had no notion of its length, not knowing exactly when it would end. The online version must have also had a less definite and more organic feel, having been written as the reader moved through it and easily accessible at any moment in a busy day. The paperback prescribes a different reading experience, being too heavy to carry around and read spontaneously, it requires designated timeslots in comfortable armchairs or quiet libraries. It is a shame that a text which is filled with images of movement and activity must be read in situ, and often away from the chaotic world that inspired it.
As the title of the book suggests, dwelling is a meditation on the activity of habitation. This includes the way we inhabit and practice being, and those nests we create out of custom, culture and instinct. Makin explores those dwellings generated in time, place, language, myth, tradition, body and text, and draws them out in all their complexity. His rendering of different landscapes and environments is consistently vibrant and original, combining candid portraits with personal musings and abstract diversions. His writing is interwoven with allusions to the work of previous authors and literary movements, as well as to the grammatical particulars of language and traditional narrative tropes. This creates a narrative which is seemingly self aware, one which acknowledges (and is thus composed of) its debt to linguistics and literary tradition. Take, for example, the following extract:
An elegy in a dusty boneyard, with solitary beast. I say break it for me. I break speech for you. It is a master-slave relationship: the men in question. She comes with dog (the third person).
Makin’s reference to Thomas Gray’s canonical elegy is typical of the way he both emphasises and deconstructs established methods and trends. The same goes for language; he doesn’t obliterate the components of speech in his effort to ‘break’ it, instead he rearranges the fragments in a way that questions their meaning and use. In this sense dwelling is an exploration of literary representation, providing insight into textual convention while dismissing it in the same move. It is Makin’s playfulness with language and narrative that make this book worthwhile, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to unsettle their literary preconceptions. - Karina Jakubowicz
Everything is abolished. I walk out through the international exit. All the signs indicate a sidereal thing—earthshock—an incomplete mechanism in butterflies and moths. I am at home in whatever abandoned shell I can find. This zone is the much talked of buffer zone. Here, sedation triumphs over malfeasance, love too. In the first vision of this chapter he writes less provocatively. Shell tracers crisscross the sky. A probe is tracking a nerve. We are the rare doing of not. He leads me out of and into myself, away from the ghost we call things. It is dark, not light. He turns against me, attains and touches. He compasses me. Glimpsed in the darkness are creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion. (One counterfeits my death.) A projectile leaves a smoke trail. Greengold lichen or moss clings to the hull of our vessel. Likewise he cordons me about. We have triggered a chain reaction. Crew force broken glass into their mouths, between their lips. It’s a kind of game. A chemical substance is used to mark the course followed by the process. He forges a chain for me. . . . Mouths stretched taut by shafts of glass. . . . There are bodies in the water, quick and not, living or dead. Pictures rise up out of the words: I am shout. My voice is shuttered. I gather. No, my voice is gathering. I shout something white rears up out of the water, breaking the surface by the gunwale like a hand. It raises a cloud of sparks. These form a pattern in the air. My path is closed by boulders, felled trees and flytipped mattresses—looming planet at event horizon, at peripheral vision. He is a walking encyclopaedia, recently incorporated within the town museum. I am pulled to pieces. (from Dwelling, pp.180-81)
Michael Peverett: When I discovered Work in Process [Dwelling’s predecessor] being serialized on the Great Works site, it was like a bolt from the blue, I'd never really read anything like it. But is that because I don't know the experimental prose scene at all? Is there an experimental prose scene in the UK, and are you part of it? Or should I be looking elsewhere for an artistic context, maybe something that transgresses writing and "prose"?
Richard Makin, Mourning, Equus Press, 2015.
MOURNING is the final part of a trilogy by writer, poet and artist Richard Makin, following Work (Great Works) and Dwelling (Reality Street).
"Opening with a necessary forgetting, this beautiful and disturbing book works through an accumulation of faltering incipits which force us, quoting Gertrude Stein, to 'begin again and again and again.' Owing much to Nouveau Roman particularity and the decadence of fin-de-siècle prose, privileging arcane objecthood over organized personhood, MOURNING is richly dark and thick with corporeal and writerly materialities. It is also, as it recognises only partly with tongue-in-rectum, 'screamingly funny in its own way.'"—Jeff Hilson
It’s now something of a convention for a writer to complain about the inadequacy of language. How difficult it is to apprehend the world by way of sentences. I can’t help thinking that it isn’t language that is inadequate, but our use of it, our insubstantial grasp. We seem to flicker in and out. Some days I am so articulate; other days I can barely form a sentence. Language can certainly be inadequate, I think, when you cast it away from you, which some writers do, like throwing dice.
Richard Makin is a writer with a tempestuous relationship to language. His writing, whatever else it happens to be about, also has, at all times, itself as its subject. He writes urgently about the negligibility of language, of literature. His novels communicate hopelessness as to the possibility of effectively communicating. He writes sentences about how nonsensical sentences necessarily are. “Consider the arrangement of vowels and consonants that compose any random sequence,” he writes in his most recent novel, Mourning. And so I have been. And as I have, I’ve also strayed further away from any sympathy I might once have had with Richard Makin and his linguistic despair.
Most days, I’d like to have been a musician. I’d like to play the saxophone. I’ve never even touched a saxophone. I’d like to think that music is somehow more immediate than language is. But this is such an easy complaint for a writer to make, and it is so frequently made.
Langston Hughes famously described James Baldwin as being able to use words “as the sea uses waves.” How appealing to think of language as tangible, as tactile, mercurial, and palpable as water. Or to think that it could be.
Baldwin himself told the Paris Review that when writing, “you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had.” Baldwin’s model is a paradigm of raw, brutal honesty. “You want to write sentences,” he said, “as clean as a bone.”
I was reminded of this as I read Makin’s Mourning. Richard Makin is a writer of many talents, but he does not write sentences as clean as a bone. Nor has he stripped himself of his own disguises, or delusions; in fact, he sometimes seems swaddled with them.
Mourning is the third of a trilogy; it follows Work and Dwelling. Mourning deals, in part, with the various limits and failures of language. It is a piece of fiction about the impossibility of making fiction, a narrative about the violence that narrative-making must necessarily wreak. There are characters and there is dialogue in Mourning, but we are not really told who the characters are, and when someone is speaking, it is often hard to tell who that is. The narrative, such as it is, does not proceed chronologically, or along any other linear route we might find familiar.
The first line is: “I can’t remember.” Flip, impertinent, to begin this way. It’s difficult to convey Makin’s disparate, cut-up style without quoting rather extensively from it and so, to give you a taste, the rest of this paragraph continues: “We’re just below the hospitality hoax at the riverend. By then I was sold: low ebb of gravity hence had already the vision. The things that hatched out of the eggs resembled lizards.”
They certainly did! I can’t help being reminded of Naked Lunch. Makin seems to share with Burroughs his distrust of straightforward narrative. “I cannot recall a single detail,” his narrator announces. “There are characters, then the dilemma forms its own solution.”
Occasionally, Makin will mimic the conventions of storytelling before undermining the validity of those conventions. Midway through the first page, he writes, expansively, “It was a warm night in July. Picture me.” Then comes the subversion: “I once was named, now I go about the earth uncalled for; I’m one of the thirty-six.”
Makin’s little subversions can be tart, ironic, and smart. Unfortunately, he can also fall into a kind of juvenile pathos, as in this same passage, which continues: “No one seems to care or notice. I’m the past dug up and lost again, forbidden archaeology.” Or, a bit later: “I began my philosophical career under the influence.” Or, yet again: “Self-loathing gets you everywhere.”
He is occasionally prone to hopeless grandiosity: “I encompass the need for your discontinuance,” he—or his narrator—says, early on. “Origin is a kind of fatality.” “[C]haos is a dying art, it needs reviving.” These statements become tiresome rather quickly. We’ve all, I think, met, or observed, or been, the boy in the basement, widening his eyes, pondering the Big Questions, speculating wildly. For all his subversiveness, I don’t see a great deal in Makin’s work that I haven’t seen before. His observations—about self-loathing, or chaos, or time, or language—don’t seem as original, as groundbreaking, as he might have expected, as we might have hoped.
“Every word lacks consequence,” he writes, on his very first page: “There’s an inexplicable clouding of the clarity, followed by a long period of quietude.” Here and elsewhere, Makin seems to pursue alliteration to his own detriment. Meaning seems occasionally to spiral away from the music of a line, rather than to be bound up in it. The sentence quoted above, for example, clacks along delightfully, even devastatingly, through its hard “c”s: in “lacks,” “consequence,” “clouding,” “clarity,” “quietude,” and twice in “inexplicable” (the “x” and the “c”). But is the clouding of clarity really all that inexplicable? A non-linear narrative, indistinct attribution of pronouns, associative logic, a private frame of reference—these all seem to contribute rather explicably to a clouded clarity.
Makin bewails the distances that separate us, one from another. Language does nothing to bridge those distances: “Impossibility of communication – to bring one’s partner across a dangerous situation, i.e. a creeper bridge. The former had moved back and awaited instructions (risk of greenstick fracture, dissolving hull integrity).” We are, each of us, left stranded. Not only can we not communicate, we can’t even think on our own, individually: “He dare not dream of identifying himself, quite the contrary: that word may well not exist.” We have no way of recognizing ourselves; we haven’t the language to do so.
If our inability to communicate with ourselves and each other leaves us in a kind of desert of insignificance, it also leaves time in that desert. “Other insignificances,” the narrator says wearily, listlessly: “chronicles of wasted time, lost seasons.” Without language, we can’t track time. “Objects and events were entering me from all directions at once,” somebody—who knows who?—says at some point.
The logic here is circular. Makin inhabits a world in which time sweeps past without meaning or significance; in which our lives, therefore, lack all significance; in which we do not even hold significance for each other—in which we can’t—lacking as we do any effective means of communication. There’s no helping each other across any bridges. Or, as he says a few pages later, “we can’t do anything for one another.”
As he circles through these questions, Makin—or his narrator, or his nameless characters—continually undercuts his own method of questioning. “Is this writing?” he asks. “Once hatched they”—who?—“promptly chewed their way through every volume of the dictionary.” Did the chewing help? “There was literally nothing to write about.” Ah, cruel fate! “Stop me if I say something stupid.” “Some people read it and scream wordplay.” What’s the alternative? “Simply avoid hearing about it or speaking about it or thinking about it or being affected by it in any way.” What is “it”?
Occasionally, Makin is unabashedly solipsistic. “You need not answer back,” he says: “I can readily resume the dialogue.” And yet he is quick to lash out at the overly earnest, the self-involved, anyone else he finds deserving of contempt. “What people really love,” he says, ferociously, “is that they hear their own sound being scored, within these already familiar patterns.” Indeed! Sharp and sarcastic as he frequently is, Makin seems entirely unironic when it comes to himself. For all his undercutting, undermining, etc., he takes himself dead seriously.
What I’d like more than anything is to see him strip away his own disguises. How badly I craved a sentence stripped clean as a bone. But maybe Makin did anticipate this response. I couldn’t always tell when he was in earnest and when he wasn’t. “Believe me,” he writes: “I would rather not be here.” - Natalia Holtzman con-text.co/post/126353773982/the-hospitality-hoax
Richard Makin is a writer, poet and artist. His novel Dwelling (2011) was published by Reality Street, the second book in a trilogy. The first novel was titled Work, and was published by Great Works (2009). The third book, MOURNING, was published with Equus Press (2015). Chapters of this have been published in VLAK, the anthology In Conversation With Stuart Sutcliffe, and by Golden Handcuffs Review. Other publications include Forword and Universlipre (both Equipage Press), and the anthologies FOIL: DEFINING POETRY 1985-2000 (etruscan books, 2002) and The Reality Street Book Of Sonnets. He lives in St. Leonards on the south coast of England.