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Given the choice to kiss, kill, or steal from, a famous artist, what would you do? Our writers decided to share their picks. Today, the large cheese: Mathew Mackie.
The challenge is thus: name three writers who provoke three predominant responses – kiss, kill and steal.
The kiss response is intended for writers whose work you love. The kill response is for writers whose work is distinctly underwhelming, so dreadful that the fact that it was accepted for publication in the first place is gobsmackingly mystifying.
The steal response is the hardest, because there are some authors whose writing is so masterful it simply takes your breath away. Those are the writers whose work you might like to “steal”. Not in a plagiaristic sense, I hasten to add; more in an achey, longing, wish-I-could-write-like-that kind of way.
So here goes.
Since my verbal Yoda, Loretta Barnard, eloped with my verbal French target, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), in her Kiss, kill, steal instalment, the backup waiting at the altar is American author Joseph Heller (1923-1999).
Heller’s prose in Catch-22 is brilliantly unique. It’s a kind of meta-language where we, the readers, are thrust into the same pickle as the protagonist, who is trying to decipher meaning from a meaningless set of words. Yossarian is a WWII bombardier, who is fighting against the people who want to kill him, and the system of bureaucracy which will see him killed, with the eponymous “Catch-22” at the forefront; a paradoxical ruling where the squadron doctors will ground you if you say you are mentally unfit to fly, the catch being that by applying to stop flying, such a rational concern for wellbeing indicates enough mental wellbeing to render you fit enough – and forced, therefore – to fly.
This narrative problem runs hand-in-hand with Heller’s verbal pomp, and it is a thing of beauty, as his twisted fragmental sentences often undercut their own first halves, fighting themselves for their place on the page:
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.
Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.
The later pages are covered in callous lyrical cul-de-sacs, which reveal the truth, before covering it in an official lie.
Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.
But they’re also interspersed with vast scenes of vicious nonsensical violence (e.g., the racketeering cook who bombs his own airfield to drive the prices of his eggs up, or the man who gleefully dum-dums his bullets to gruesomely kill mice, and the extremely important death of Snowden), of all which is gratingly normal to everyone except for Yossarian, who dismissed as “crazy”, because he’s sane.
To achieve such a negative sense in the reader, that of frustration, and using that same frustration to bind the reader with the protagonist against the book, is an extremely difficult things to accomplish. The book itself can be irritating, irrelevant and inaccessible, but that’s exactly what Yossarian faces. His escape is our escape. Yossarian lives – inside us.
Heller. 10/10, would bang.
This actually pains me to type, but my kill response is to clip someone I truly admire: Jim Morrison (1943-1971). Painful for several reasons; I’m a massive fanboy of his music, and his steadfast devotion to artistic self-destruction. Plus he had great hair. And lastly, because he’s already dead.
As much as I admire Jim, his poetry is God-awful. I originally mistook it as me not understanding it, which happens often in the world of poetry as it is so subjective, a snapshot of a moment in time, but I’ve since realised that Jim’s poetry is the type of writing I despise most: esoteric waffle.
For example, here’s a stanza from Horse Latitudes:
France is 1st, Nogales round-up
Cross over the border-
land of eternal adolescence
quality of despair unmatched
anywhere on the perimeter
Message from the outskirts
calling us home
This is the private space of a
new order. We need saviors
To help us survive the journey.
Now who will come
Now hear this
We have started the crossing
Who knows? it may end badly
Jim, what the fuck are you on about?
It hurts, because he wanted, above all, to be remembered as a poet. Which he is, but sort of isn’t.
Sorry, Jim. Please haunt me, we’ll hit the town.
I’ve often marvelled at the works of leggy beauty that are born from the hips of utter desolation. Be it a life ruined by heroin (William Burroughs), burnt by the flame of institutional racism (James Baldwin), or being a victim of one’s own self-destruction, and the harm it sears into those who love you the most (Charles Bukowski). But above that, the sentences I’ve coveted most are those etched by lives split in the shifting spitting chasm of trench warfare. I’m amazed how the psyche is able to turn the bayonet into the pen, and chart the horrors so eloquently. Erich Remarque (1898 – 1970) is on the podium for All Quiet on the Western Front (which is still wonderfully ugly), but the great granddaddy of wartime prose is Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), a man of immense talent, who achieved posthumous fame, as his pages lay scattered over the battlefield he would never leave – which, incidentally, is a career goal of mine.
A great example of his work and his obvious talent (in particular, his ability to bring life to inanimate objects purely engineered to remove life) is his poem Dulce et Decorum Est (It is Sweet and fitting to die for one’s country), which recounts a gas attack, and the stripping away of the glorious, honourable veneer of warfare it reveals, as all that Wilfred is left with is the truth – that war is a series of visceral inescapable moments of watching a friend die horribly. A truth revealed in fiction, which claimed the man who wrote it.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumblingFitting the clumsy helmets just in time,But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.In all my dreams before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.If in some smothering dreams, you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.