Review| The Letters Page Vol.2 published by Book Ex Machina

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To pick up a book, writes Ioanna Mavrou, is ‘as if stepping out of the world for a beat and taking a much needed breath.’ Mavrou runs the independent publishers Book Ex Machina, responsible for the exquisite collection of epistolary reflections: The Letters Page Vol. 2. Edited by author Jon McGregor (If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things), the volume features twelve excellent contemporary writers. Each writer gives us their letter on the theme of ‘copies’.

Mavrou, an author in her own right, writes to Dear Reader: ‘I sit here, outside the world for a beat, writing a letter to a complete stranger’. It’s a beautiful, engaging start to the volume, and invites us to consider the tradition of letter-writing. For whom are these published letters really written? Each letter, of course, only being a copy of that writer’s world: a copy relayed to us through the slippery tools of words. For a beat, or a breath, the reader joins that world.

As Mavrou writes ‘it’s still March… And the fig tree outside the house just sprouted new leaves and we are thinking a lot about copies… Almost everything written comes to us via the act of making copies.’ She references The Epic of Gilgamesh written on clay tablets, and how technology has radicalised the format, if not the concept, of copies: digital e-books and MP3s in music. Now we have copies that both transcend time and no longer tangibly exist.

Mavrou takes us yet deeper still on the theme: ‘Human life itself is copies’, she writes. ‘Copies are in your cells, in your DNA.’ I was reminded of how a theory of epigenetics suggests music, and presumably writing, may follow the code of your cells. Finally, she writes in a (very) short story: ‘if you make enough copies of worlds, a copy of a copy of a copy enough times, maybe you’ll make it all the way home.’ A thought-provoking beginning, on solipsistic ontology.

In Joe Dunthorne’s letter, the writer is imprisoned by ‘well-dressed gentlemen’ but ‘the slender trees lend the ten-metre fence serene resplendence.’ They have helped him see ‘the less speech the better’. Later, we are informed that the letter is a univocal homage to Georges Perec, using only words with the letter ‘e’. ‘By constraining language,’ he writes, ‘the jailers constrain the prisoner’s ability to understand the world and to imagine other, better worlds.’

Kit Caless takes us to the world(s) of social media in ‘Who Knows The Origin Of Anything?’ He records a correspondence sent via Instagram Messenger: from ‘the guy who runs the Wetherspoon’s Carpets Tumblr’, to somebody who has set up a copycat Instagram account. It’s Vice-like humorous, tragic, and vaguely existential. Caless’ passive-aggressive tone is clever and classically British: ‘You seem to have gained a lot of followers… Almost as many as me.’

Nicole Flattery writes of the two families she was ‘farmed out to’ growing up, as both her mother and father worked. She adopts their mannerisms: ‘it’s rare to find a teenage girl with a fixed, definable personality. Most just plagiarise from whatever is available to them.’ The voice is wry and poignant, with an ache of humour. Flattery’s plagiarism leads her to study drama, followed by film, where she discovers homage: ‘it didn’t feel nasty or cheap. It felt like a secret.’

‘We’re All Plagiarists Of Each Other’ is poet Andrew McMillan’s letter, addressed to editor Jon McGregor, on his relationship with his father (poet Ian McMillan). McMillan, author of the universally lauded Physical, is understandably cagey: ‘other industries seem fine with inheritance of interest… Only in writing does it seem that people have a real issue with it.’ Yet McMillan surmises that all DNA is a plagiarism of our parents: ‘our great tragedy/triumph.’

In fact, he concludes: ‘you magpie from the world to build your own way of looking at it.’ Here, we link back to Mavrou and Dunthorne’s examination of writing creating copies of worlds.

Writing from New York, Chimene Suleyman begins her letter: ‘I don’t know where home is.’ But her Turkish mother is from Nicosia, Cyprus, where Book Ex Machina itself is based. ‘Here, you may see what war looks like, frozen in time.’ Divided between the Greeks and Turks, two young men share magazines of naked girls, and are joined: ‘simply, they are boys.’ Suleyman is a deep, evocative writer, although her human ‘purpose’ of boys is not sexually diverse.

Darren Chetty provides an illuminating take on hip-hop, education and originality. ‘It can be more difficult and rewarding to produce something that combines existing work into something new,’ he writes. Educator Pie Corbett is invoked next to hip-hop legends MC Grandmaster Caz and Mos Def in a powerful dissection of creativity: ‘Good rappers listen to rappers. Good writers read. You don’t develop a sense of ‘self’ in isolation from others.’

The standout letter in this collection is bittersweet, heartbreaking and hilarious. Rowena Macdonald writes about a real letter she finds in an old cookery book, dated 5th June 1982. ‘A letter from Jason to Kim… Kim is more alluring than the ‘young lady’ who keeps calling [Jason] up and ‘getting too close.’ Kim, though, has written a recipe for a pavlova on the back of Jason’s letter and casually used it as a bookmark.’ The reprint of Jason’s letter is full of pathos.

Sarah Dale addresses her letter to ‘anyone who has suffered from a urinary tract infection.’ Writing from a cycling holiday in Ėvian-les-Bains, Dale is in agony from acute cystitis. She discovers that in 1789, ‘Count Jean-Charles de Laizer came here to take the waters for his kidney stones… I drink another glass-full and wonder whether the women with him are silently in ‘maladie’ sans antibiotics.’ Dale’s writing is funny and refreshing (excuse the pun).

The Letters Page Vol. 2 achieves particular emotional truth in Jonathan Ellis’ ‘I’m Not Sure Who This Is Addressed To’. He recounts his Dad’s sudden death in his sleep, although immediately invokes epistemological doubt: ‘I don’t really know if it was sudden or in his sleep.’ All that is true, is that his Dad has died. Ellis captures the sense of displacement after a parent’s death. His description of his father’s last ‘letters’, written on yellow post-it notes, brought tears.

Matthew Welton’s ‘Five Pieces of 250 Words: A Bibliography’ is big and entrancing. The postmodern themes of ontology – in worlds, writing and copies – are bold in the text. Musicians and formats are referenced throughout: Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, ‘footage’, ‘album’, ‘record’, ‘download’, ‘DVD’. ‘As I write this,’ he says, in a recurrent motif of temporality, ‘the breeze… Is ruffling the pencil sharpenings on my desk.’

Finally, the last letter in the collection is by Jon McGregor himself. And it is the only letter that replies to one of the other letters: answering Andrew McMillan. ‘“I don’t mind talking my relationship with my dad,” you said; “what’s yours?”’ writes McGregor. ‘Well. It’s funny you should ask.’ He recounts how his father was a vicar – ‘my work revolves around words; his, The Word’ – but he ‘never wanted to follow in his footsteps’. Yet he looks and sounds like him.

McGregor lulls us – both Andrew and we, his public readers – into a false sense of security, as he writes about his father in the present tense: ‘we have both ended up in a role…’ This intensifies the impact of his father’s death, when revealed. ‘He died nearly two years ago… It turns out that the human brain – or this human brain, at least – takes quite a while to comprehend what ‘gone’ really means.’ There is a tart sense of anger at the unfairness of loss.

Overall, The Letters Page Vol. 2 is an immaculately presented and edited book. Each world of its letters gives us that much needed breath, that Mavrou cites in the beginning. An oxygen not of the body, but of truth. The writers might give us worded copies of their worlds, but they are clad in electric clarity; commensurate to their talent. By diving into these letters, we can step outside of our fake news, social media and advertising for a beat, and find a gamut of life.

by Patrick Cash


The Letters Page Vol. 2, edited by Jon McGregor, Book Ex Machina, September 2017