Loom is an illustrated novella of psychotic architectures. It is a story about hidden wealth, identity, edges becoming centres and how our homes are a crowd of strangers.
‘…continuing to scrape away at the powdery plasterboard I reveal the end of a fine, barely perceptible, twenty-four carat gold thread. I tug at it with force and it ruptures a razor thin fissure right across the room, and I begin…’
EVEN BEFORE OPENING a copy of Matthew Turner’s Loom, which the publisher describes as a ‘novella of psychotic architectures’, the minimalist arthouse cover of oversized titular lettering and shiny gold rings hung on a Mallarméan white background declares itself to be a product of the contemporary art world, as if a literary annex and elaboration of the white cube aesthetic. Perhaps this eye-catching jacket design had been subliminally affected by the Christmas market, its über-cool credentials meant to attract a readership long since graduated from Penguin paperbacks? Cleverly though, by breaking down the usual demarcation between cover and contents, we are prepped in advance for an abnormal, slightly giddying experience: the perfect bound object both text and textile.
As a story though, Loom starts in the most humdrum way, as its main protagonist hovers on a kerb waiting for traffic to clear in order to cross the road. However, at this very moment his attention is caught by a single gold filament that’s become snagged by the weave of his own overcoat. This provides a thread to follow, as the writer/artist’s methodology unwinds, while the street in question turns out to be no ordinary thoroughfare, but The Bishops Avenue N2, said to be the wealthiest row of houses in London, and a nirvana for estate agents (according to Zoopla, the average price of property in December 2020 was £7.5 million). Employed as a caretaker, Loom’s unnamed narrator has privileged access to a run down Bauhaus-type family home, the kind of rectilinear modernist building of the 1930s (think Isokon flats), and clean-cut European architecture so vilified by John Betjeman, which must have looked like an oddity to the average Londoner of the period, so used to sooty Victorian terraces. Turner describes the road as
a Potemkin, glutted with overblown mockeries of Tudor, Classical and Modernist style architecture. Cheap plastic signs emblazoned with stately portraits of aggressive looking Alsatians are cable tied to the railings, warning of surveillance.
But the irony is that many of these grand houses are rotting away, derelict investment opportunities belonging to overseas owners too rich to care, hulks that loom over a hollowed-out London, resentfully living under unenforceable Tier 5 Covid-19 protocols. These are domestic ruins, posh addresses with flytipped bin bags, syringes, dried up fountains, where nature has come indoors, and Persian carpets act as grow bags for rare orchids. Identifiable plants such as vetch, charlock and ragged robin feature in the line drawings which are an integral part of Loom, along with manhole covers, telephone inputs, floral wallpaper, Italian marble, brickwork, cables, wire barbs, duct pipes, knots, parquet, keyholes etc., an inventory of stuff that gives the fiction a basis in the everyday, Turner’s flat writing a product of the digital age transposed onto blank paper: immaterial retro-fiction. This depthless quality is a manifestation of the psychosis on show here, the quiet mania of an avatar-like narrator unable to tell where his mirrored self ends and the world begins, or focused OCDstyle on minutiae, to cope with information overload. He haunts a wrecked space (a substrate of the house has been forensically examined for its elusive owner’s dirty money), looking for solace in
Those unknowable whispering cavities, between walls, under stairs, in the hollow of doors, intricate rococo warrens gnawed through concrete foundations.
In the process, the narrator, the house, and London itself (which features as an oblique presence) have all been made utterly strange, and Turner’s Loom, with its fluctuation from Swiftian close-up to chilly filmic overview, places him alongside other recent London topographical explorations of the capital city as uncanny per se, viz Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp (2012), Gareth E. Rees’s Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London (2013), and Marko Jobst’s A Ficto-Critical Theory of the London Underground (2017),1 where research-driven defamiliarization, or a ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’ as supercritic Arthur C. Danto put it, turns life into art, and, particularly in Turner’s case, curates decay.
Only an on-site security guard in a ‘creased Oxford shirt’ provides any social normality, a slacker who makes himself known by an occasional creaky floorboard or burst of unintelligible radio static, though interactions are off-hand and loaded with menace. And yet in a classic plot twist it becomes clear that the protagonist is not who he says he is, ie a casual handyman, but an undercover operative, a maniac who has returned to salvage a personal cache of gold concealed at the house, revealing too that the build was a design based on Adolf Loos’s functionalist Villa Müller in Prague (now a museum ̶ of itself! ̶ and behind Lucy McKenzie’s 2013 installation Loos House, described by Jonathan Griffin in Frieze as ‘an act of deliberate slippage, a provocative mistranslation’, words which could equally apply to Loom). So then, having found and tugged on a golden thread embedded in plasterboard, his treasure unravels completely in a glistening spool, and this phoney caretaker escapes with the sound of police car sirens in the background. Loom has all the hallmarks of a parable, a new take on the anxieties surrounding art as derivative form, and art as commodity, its maker’s right of droit-de-suite weakened in a post-Brexit market economy; concerns which Turner might well have to address in his role as Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts.
Yet it is as a re-writer of London that Turner is most effective, joining the crowd of post-Sinclair names cited above who are re-imagining the city, a cross between Urbex trespassers and sober archivists, equipped with proprioceptive sensitivities that can tune into both ancient resonances as well as stand witness to traumatic contemporary change. In Loom so-called ‘Internal Edgelands’ emerge, pockets of dark space inside the metropolitan area which the virus has nullified. For as the administrative centre and Canary Wharf are purged of tourists and commuters, once again the cluster of villages which were slowly fused together in the nineteenth and twentieth century as Greater London, postcodes from Barnes to Walthamstow, Hampstead to Gypsy Hill, start to look more and more vital as local life hubs. But Loom as its name implies, builds up surface patterns — line upon line — woven into Paisley arabesques, expressing the creeping horror of the haunted house idiom. - Michael Hampton
I don’t react and continue scrutinising the dining room. The lucidity and minimalism it radiates starts chaotically doubling up in the ambiguities of onyx melting into transparent and semi-transparent glass, chrome clad columns mirroring themselves and dissolving in light, veins of marble blending with rippling reflections off parquet flooring, appearing as curtains blowing in the wind. When I entered this morning, the sun came in through the south-facing window against the fireplace, and up until now it had been tracking across the floor and creeping slowly towards the centre of the room. When I entered this morning, the windows were obscured with thick condensation, now it is quickly dissipating out towards their deep wooden frames. When I entered this morning water droplets crawled along the glass, pulled into spheres by the equalising forces of surface tension.
The guard disrupts my reverie again: ‘That jacket of yours is strange’. Confused, I look across at him and he continues: ‘it’s so frayed around the cuffs and wearing out at the elbows, but there is something that shines in the lining.’
‘Ah, yes,’ I reply, still dazed, ‘the lining is sewn in with gold thread. Where I come from we sew our money into our clothes for safe keeping.’
A mouse unmoors itself from the skirting boards, skitters to the main body of the room, looks up, panics, then runs back again.
Matthew Turner, Other Rooms, Hesterglock
excerpt (Google Books)
excerpts (minor literatures)
Other Rooms is the debut short story collection by Matthew Turner. It comprises three spectacular and uncanny stories set in storage units, thresholds, passages, geographic points and the mental spaces we occupy online. Originally published by Hesterglock in paperback, Turner's critically acclaimed collection has been released for the first time as an ebook by Dodo Ink. Other Rooms has attracted considerable praise, lauded by Will Wiles as 'I feel like 'ballardian' is an overused description, but- this is it, specifically JGB's own short stories', by Ruby Cowling as containing 'all the visual games and intellectual highs of a Tom McCarthy novel’ and M. John Harrison as placing us ‘accurately in the ideological volumes that shape us’.
“Other Rooms is a thing of unparalleled beauty. It tore me down and reordered me in constituent parts, and it aches and breaks in ways I don’t know how to capture”
- Emma Miles for Minor Literature(s), on Other Rooms read mor here (pdf)
"This is tiny, so you've really got no excuse - three polished little tales linked by architecture and disturbing in-between spaces. I feel like "ballardian" is an overused descriptor, but - this is it, specifically JGB's own short stories." - Will Wiles
"These stories are a series of stretched and compressed thresholds between contradictory states. Told through architecture, they explore the luxury of being able to compartmentalise parts of our lives and the violence at the junction between them when they finally collide again. Although expressed through a specific sequence of architectural spaces, the psychological phenomenon is ubiquitous whether the spatial confines are there or not. The narratives consequently attempt to reveal the disquieting strangeness of making the syncopation of the digital world into a physical construct." -- lulu.com.
Other Rooms by Matthew Turner is a book about rooms, spaces, passages, geographic points and the mental spaces we occupy online.
It’s also about how we interface (or “buffer” as it’s so nicely put in the book) with the physical space around us, toggling as we do between our phones and the real world.
This book reminded me of La Jalousie (particularly the first section).
Isolation is another theme here and it’s hard not to see a subtle critique of the gentle self quarantine of social media.
Airports and hotels also get a debriefing :
I liked hotel rooms for their liminality, for their ability to facilitate the inhabitation of a realm between reality and fantasy. They also existed in a weird place between order and chaos; you can mess around with them as much as you like, move the furniture, leave your underwear strewn all over the floor, stain the sheets, and still, when you return at the end of the day everything will be back in its place. The legs of the sofa, for example, will have migrated safely back to the indentions in the carpet they have been cultivating for years. If only people were a similarly self-reordering system.
The whole time I was reading the first section I couldn’t get this game out of my head.
On a sentence level turners writing can startle take this example :
Oil is millions of years of Earth’s activity and energy rendered down into a slick darkly iridescent information archive. All the Sun’s energy, all the plant and animal life that had been and gone is contained within the acrid substance. It averages out the colour of the world’s history, and that average is dark. The oil disturbed me, like white noise did, because it facilitated a confrontation with too much information. - Judson Hamilton
The Poetics of Non-Space: An interview with Matthew Turner
Matthew Turner interviewed by Andrew Gallix.
3:AM: Matthew, last year you were Visiting Professor of Architecture and Visual Theory at the University of Bergen, and are currently a Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, as well as an editor at an architectural magazine (LOBBY), so it seems quite natural that both your non-fiction (I’m thinking of your superb piece for frieze on the ‘architecture of fascism’ in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina) and fiction should revolve around architecture, as the title of your first collection of short stories — Other Rooms (Hesterglock Press, 2019/ Dodo Ink, 2020) — attests. Your fiction, in particular, delineates a poetics of space — an architecture of the mind — that often focuses, as we shall see, on the liminal or uncanny.
You seem to be exploring very similar themes — the intersection between built and mental space — through your academic work, criticism and creative writing: could you tell us a little about these different approaches?
MT: I could answer this by describing how they all relate, and they do, but the real reason is pragmatic. It’s difficult to have the time and funding to think and develop new work, and working across these different areas allows for that. The needs of the students and readers come first of course, and unpacking books which have triggered something for me, but a by-product is that the academic work and criticism are a kind of test site for what filters into the fiction. I don’t have the Nevada Desert to experiment in, however, these more immaterial locations work well at the moment.
The precursor to Loom was an essay on what I called ‘Interior Edgelands’ for Icon Magazine (Icon 196: The London Issue), where I showed how the traditional edgelands, those strange areas on the outskirts of cities where the urban met rural, were migrating inwards because of properties bought for investment and left vacant, and all the buildings sites that pollute the small fragments of nature in the city with toxic dust and other detritus. And that was what I initially proposed to Emma Bolland at Gordian Projects.
It was a bizarre proposition really but I set it as a kind of thought problem to myself and hoped someone else might be intrigued. I essentially wrote a proposal describing this perennially exchanging urban condition, and asked whether someone who was on the run could evade capture by using it. And that happens in Loom, an urban myth of a persona called Olian who is on the run and there are rumours of hidden money that apparently nobody can find.
At the time I was thinking about other crime fiction based on changing urban conditions, such as Chinatown (1974) with its backdrop of changing water landscapes, the California water wars, as well as Scarface (1983) which is supposedly set in Miami, though more often the locations are simulated with these brilliantly grotesque wallpapers and plastic palm trees which really capture the unreality of that city, and, how anything is permissible.
These two examples really capture what I’m interested in when it comes to space, something I explored in the Bachmann piece. There is lots of discussion about how spaces can express personalities and dogmas, while I think they are more effective as incubators that create personas. J. G. Ballard usually described his ‘psychic landscapes’ as emanations from his characters’ minds, but really I think his brutal environments are incubators for these characters. They are made by it and for me that makes them more powerful, because they are real and not fitful projections. You can also see it in Patricia Highsmith’s writing, who was well aware of how spaces can be used to uncover disassociated psychological states. Remember that her first protagonist in Strangers on a Train is an architect who becomes paranoid that his guilt will somehow be shown in the buildings he is designing, yet when they are reviewed his peers see only ‘serenity’. Again, Tom, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, people know he’s evil, however, he gains some kind of redemption because of his exquisite taste in clothes, furniture and painting — which is most likely Highsmith toying with the shallow morals of the reader. All this stuff is not an emanation of his good taste at all, rather the environment is Tom Ripley because he has no solid personality of his own. The intense opulence of this incubator he creates for himself only underscores his lack of psyche. Similarly in Loom I wanted to explore how a corrupt built environment can affect the minds of the people who inhabit it. What kind of person does corruption carve out?