It has been a busy week where I, dear reader, have not been reading enough. This is bracket week, where I tell you things between brackets instead of a proper close reading/jolly jaunt into literary wheat fields.
I am currently working through the Tor.com book (which is excellent, I am particularly enjoying The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu — a story about a future/world where it rains on you from nowhere when you don’t tell the truth. The joy of that story isn’t that it’s a great conceit, but how it’s used by people in a terribly real way, for example, expressing an opinion in a way which is true to you means you can demonstrate how dry you are to the person you’re arguing with) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (which is an absolutely gripping rural noir whose William Blake influence is a joy to see threaded through. It’s got something of a-real-novel about it that feels really refreshing to me at the moment, I am ready to be dragged along with the plow).
But neither are finished enough for you. Olga is out next week, so I hope to have her solved by then.
So, because I have so little of other people’s writing for you this week, you can have some of mine. Enjoy one of my slightly polished-up warm-up-exercise pieces. This one is a bit of a farce written in high spirits. I remember being snowed in when writing it, and I was a little giddy for that.
The Superior Form
They’d found it. They’d found the words, finally. They slipped together like the teeth of a zip, the hands of lovers or another metaphor that we don’t really need any more because we have the words. They were perfect, and only a few lines.
It was a small statement.
For years they had tried. They tried getting children to do it. After all, they were on the lip of the snowy hill of language with their sledges ready to careen down and splash into the mucky pile of bodies in the slush. Like the rest of us already have.
For years they had tried prose, very long prose. They thought the more there was of it, the more powerful it might be. That didn’t work, and people died making it. Tragic, really, as those people never read the words in the right order.
The scientists, who do this sort of thing with ink-splotches on their lab coats, worn with contentedness — un-ironed and un-ironic — would try all sorts of form. Third person, naturally, then first, then second — and everyone thought it could be second for a long time, so they wrote another long prose attempt in second person and it sold very well, but really it was a complete failure except in the fact that it makes a satisfying sound to drop.
They tried just using very short words, just long ones, just Latin roots, just Anglo-Saxon roots, they did a lot of rooting and didn’t really get anywhere with it. Everyone had already decided it would be in English as that would be most convenient.
They should have known from the start. It would be a couple of lines of poetry.
It was funny really; they tried all those different languages, weird attempts at providing tension in a line through complex weaving of metaphor, rhyme, assonance. Someone even started talking about strophes, but everyone else thought that even this didn’t need to involve a discussion about strophes.
They had tried poetry. They tried with children, as mentioned, and they tried with very old people, thinking that somehow someone so soaked in language for all those years would be able to give them the words they needed. This soaking wasn’t the reason for wrinkles in the end.
Maybe it was still about liminality, they thought, and they had a conference about it where they invited all sorts of clever people — like linguists, philosophers, architects. It was good fun by all accounts, but they didn’t find it over that long, expensive weekend.
They asked the dead — they asked Hemingway what he thought through the Ouija board and he just asked for another drink, which shouldn’t have a been a surprise, but as it was on television with millions of people watching it felt very dramatic. Many people wondered why they thought he would know. Why not ask someone who has been dead for a very long time? And more importantly didn’t use a loaded shotgun like a couple of drinking straws to get the last slurp of milkshake from the bottom of the cup.
Obviously they asked women, eventually.
When they found it, bliss spread. The government started printing it on everything. On the sides of buses, on receipts, beer mats, the tag in your underwear.
The words fixed it — pure peace and grace and love in the soul of the reader.
The first week was chaos; the bumper stickers caused a few crashes. Mostly amicable except for the few who died swerving under a lorry’s wheels while trying to read the words in giant white type on father-Christmas red, on the tarpaulined side of the vehicle.
Still, there were words now that would make everything feel better.
Soon people became accustomed to it, and you would hear people mumbling the lines under their breath as they waited in a frustrated queue for something awful. They sang it from the terraces — and then realised that maybe peace kills a bit of the competitive edge required for Premier League football, and as such, they’d either have to stop saying the lines or stop football.
As the words spread across the world people agreed to stop killing each other quite so much and read some poetry instead. Although, of course, there was really only one poem worth reading now.
The scientists had a very long party and went back to work trying to grow a heart inside an animal that had room for an extra one. Someone commented that this was kind of the same thing, in their national newspaper column, which now ran full-page reproductions of the words with sponsor’s logos in the corner instead of adverts.
It was decided in the end that it had been a very good thing to have discovered these words, but that the world wasn’t actually that much better for it. People continued to die, go mad, and lose a hand at the mince processing factory that wasn’t caught in time and so, maybe, somewhere, someone ate a little bit of that hand in their spag-bol. The world wasn’t better on any fundamental level, but they felt better about it.
Some were disappointed in this, that it didn’t really fix anything material, but as one of the very clever people said on Newsnight, “what did you expect? It’s just poetry.”
This week’s song is Stand Up by Hindi Zahra. I’ve no idea where this came from, but here it is 🙂
Thank you for continuing to read Etch To Their Own. Normal programming should resume shortly ❤