Review | Old Food by Ed Atkins & Dark Satellites by Clemens Meyer

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John Phipps


What’s the present, anyway?


Old Food,
Ed Atkins, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, pp. 114, £9.99 (paperback)

Dark Satellites, Clemens Meyer, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020, pp. 221, £12.99 (paperback)

Want to feel young? Fitzcarraldo Editions – whose small roster of authors includes two of the last five Nobel laureates for literature – is less than five years old. Its first book, Matthias Enard’s Zone, was published in August of 2015, which makes the independent publishing house exactly three months younger than Mad Max: Fury Road.

That this is surprising demonstrates the certainty and speed with which Fitzcarraldo has cemented itself in the literary world. Today, those blue matte covers and elegant serifs are simply a fact of readers’ lives, and to say that the two books under review here indicate the breadth and quality of their literary vision is simply to state what everyone knows: these people publish exciting books we would not otherwise know about. In the time that it takes for a coffee bush to come to maturity, we have come to expect nothing less than excellence.

Incidentally, it’s the growth, death and rebirth of humans and the food we eat – that makes up the bulk of Ed Atkins’ Old Food. This volume is a masterstroke of book creation. Atkins is a video artist, who makes most of his work on his laptop. His videos feature digitally-rendered humans giving surreal, often profane monologues, set against clichéd CGI backdrops of explosions. In their exploration of computerised humanity, cyborg hybridity and the deathly digital, they interrogate all the expected clichés of contemporary fine art. They are the digital-art equivalent of novels about adulterous English professors.

In book form however, Old Food slips its context with an easy felicity to become something rather strange. It would be incorrect to describe Old Food as ‘set’ anywhere, or to say it is ‘about’ anything. Technically speaking, it is a monologue to be spoken by someone who appears to be recalling how and what they ate in a more or less non-specific post-apocalyptic Britain. I can neither tell you what this book is about, nor claim to understand it. I admit this is a rather bad start.

Better for me to describe what it is like to read Old Food. It reads like a long, jumbled recollection of muck, chicken oysters, blunt knives, remembered summers and autocannibalism. It reads like a restaurant menu penned by a demented Geoffrey Hill. It is a poetic bleak comedy, in which all flesh is carrion and dinner is served, and I can’t help but admire it for its sheer insanity.

The book is printed with wide margins that properly distinguish its contents from conventional prose. Squinting at it, at arms-length, the writing looks like blank verse on the page. Elusive and contradictory, it brings to mind a work like Not I, Beckett’s breathless play, in its dogged refusal to give up the keys to its own secrets. It will help if I quote at length:

Those days we knew how to eat a
witch: with gloves on and in one go.
Other nights we’d torch a village
just to bake an apple. Wadded with
suet and cinnamon, grated nutmeg,
sherry-macerated sultanas
from the big har and two plugs of spongy bread.

Witches, cannibals and vampires come up occasionally, as does a ‘royal family’, who appear to be snakes. (They are seen to ‘unfold to their full shocking size … dislocate their jaws and / basically yammer a swan inside of a / remarkable silence.’) There is a character called ‘Hannah’, there is a mother, and the ‘we’ Atkins refers to often seem to be children or teenagers, though not always. None of this comes to anything in the end, and the book happily contradicts itself about events. No specific world is built, or needed. Characters are murdered and reappear, often somewhat absurdly:

Mother died far too early and
other people and animals also died
conspicuously early for our liking.
Countless billions, even. Each death
Differed from each one other tho there
were undeniable similarities in the
end.

Extinction and evil are on the brain: a fly-ridden piece of meat liquefies on the hook; the devil is packed ‘with a holy relish’ on an ‘unforgettable wet Wednesday.’ Stuff happens, mostly inexplicably, just for the hell of it. The book’s blurb describes it as, amongst other things, ‘a hard Brexit, wadded with historicity’, and contemporary politics does peek in now and again, whatever it happens to be ‘wadded with’.

These contemporary resonances sometimes feel clumsy or de rigeur: ‘There used to be innumerable / chock of paled plastics dammed the / shoreline.’ If Old Food makes an effective intervention, it is in its matter-of-fact approach to living in the midst of ruin. This means that banality co-exists happily and hilariously alongside the unthinkable (a pattern of life that is familiar to those of us living in 2020):

Autocannibalism seemed more
virtuous and somehow easier, also,
especially when given the choice
between a really personable infant or
one of your own limbs.

Describing the child you are considering eating as ‘really personable’ is, to my ears at least, a stroke of comic genius. And right at the end of the book, as the digestive babbling comes to a close, is a joke that rightfully belongs in the repertoire of a ‘70s British stand up: ‘We / wanted for nothing we didn’t even / have that.’

There is an insistent past tense to this writing, a sense that this all happened a long time ago. The same is true of many of the short stories in Clemens Meyer’s collection Dark Satellites. Where Atkins’ speaker inhabits a post-post-apocalyptic viewpoint, a point in time that postdates the end of days, Meyer’s characters speak from the silence that comes after the event, the aftermath of their own lives.

The satellites of the title, which in its original German means something closer to ‘silent satellites’, are the anonymous satellite towns that sprout like mushrooms in the shadows of major cities.

These are the worlds that Meyer’s protagonists inhabit, scratching out a living as the world accelerates around them. The first story, ‘One’, concerns construction workers building a road, who discover a young refugee, dead in the arms of his mother. Not knowing what to do, they stand around, unable to communicate with the boy’s family.

Less than two pages long, the story strikes the keynote of Dark Satellites, where, time and again, physical proximity fails in the face of a deeper, inhuman distance. Meyers’ world is full of walls, locked doors and empty rooms. A refugee camp guard has a sexual relationship with an interned woman, which mostly takes place through a chain-link fence. An tenuous half-friendship emerges between an ex-jockey and a nameless narrator. A German emigré writer becomes a tool for Soviet propaganda, scribbling novels alone in a library basement.

These are not exactly realist stories – or if they are, it is the realism of modernists and impressionists, that distorts an image to show us more clearly how we see. In ‘The Distance’, a man appears on a set of railway tracks and laughs in the face of the oncoming train that kills him. The train’s driver becomes obsessed with determining his identity. The story flicks from place to place, from past to present, without announcing the fact. Here as elsewhere, the writing is dreamlike in the true sense of the word – not because the prose is dreamy or fanciful (it isn’t) – but because its elided logic and insistent momentum recall the experience of dreaming.

The world has passed these characters by. ‘We’re a clean, quiet, well-run business,’ a hairdresser says, before going on to disapprove of her modern competitor: ‘That place over there is nothing but chaos.’ Another reads the newspapers with dismay: ‘It was a strange mixture, what he read. The lunacy of the world.’

This ruminative melancholy can be wearying at times. In ‘The Beach Railway’s Last Run’, an old man reminisces about a seaside town’s past. He is asked if it was bombed in the war. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘Apart from that one hit…’ Ending dialogue with a pregnant, wistful ellipsis is forgivable once. Meyers does it ten times in the following five pages.

He invokes a sense of loss more successfully in the title story, in which the narrator falls in love with the German wife of his neighbour Hamed, an Islamic migrant. ‘It’s all a while ago now,’ the narrator begins, then corrects himself. ‘What’s the present, anyway? Nothing. We’re in a whole different place now.’

Past and present have a habit of getting tangled up in Meyer’s stories. The narrator has long, imaginary conversations with a friend he used to work with. The woman goes to see her family, about whom dark things are hinted. Afterwards, she turns up steaming drunk on the narrator’s doorstep. He puts her quietly to bed. Somehow, and very quickly, the moment passes, and like many of the protagonists in this bleakly beautiful collection, he is left alone with his routine, his job and whatever he remembers of his life.

Words by John Phipps.

For more information, visit Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London.

 


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