First Book of Frags by Dave Lordan: A Review

Writers have long been interested in the way words rule us –and rule through us. “My name is Legion,”, says the Gerasene demoniac under exorcism by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, “for we are many.”

Radical theologian Ched Myers tells us that in Mark’s social world, the Latinism ‘Legion’ ‘had only one meaning: a division of Roman soldiers. Hence the words that Mark’s Jesus exorcises from the demoniac are not just the violent expression of social, political and military domination, but also the act of naming them, of casting a radical distance between who we are and the thing that afflicts us.

But that was then. First Book of Frags, the new prose collection by Dave Lordan, wrestles with the problem of whether language can afford radical distance at a time at a time when demoniacs can envisage a ‘Billion-Year Reich’, a ‘new Omnipower based on the evolutionary synthesis of nano-technology, wireless computing and the built environment’, an ‘autonomous superconsciousness’, as in The Destruction of Europe is Hiring.

It is no longer just a matter of getting scourged or crucified: our language-borne demons are the product of ‘Troy, Waterloo, Ypres, Ebro, Kursk, the Bulge, Inchon, Khe Sanh, Beirut, Najaf- a calendar of horrors to the human way of seeing’. What First Book of Frags shows us, is that these days, our only exorcists are the demoniacs.

In the first frag, a priapic herald of this new age emerges from a Marks and Spencer Christmas Cracker, promptly kills his mother, and fucks off in search of hardcore thrills, (mis)quoting Blake. In Blake’s Songs of Experience, Blake’s Chimney Sweeper emerges as a ‘little black thing among the snow’, at a time when coal warmed the hearths of genteel religious hypocrites and fuelled the industrial growth that made them affluent. Here, Lordan’s narrator appears as snow itself: a little white thing in middle class Dublin, in the bleak despair of a home that never was, covered head to foot, not in soot, but in cocaine. Cocaine: the fuel of the age of finance capital, property booms, public houses listed on the stock exchange, Garda commissioners running multi-million euro drug rings to keep the peace of the rich, and atomised peri-urban fear.

The frags heave with a fraught awareness of how the symbolic and material worlds around us, and their ever-present potential for annihilating violence, cannot but shape whatever existence as conscious political subjects that we might be able to eke out for ourselves.  The place commonly referred to as Ireland is the starting point, or perhaps the ground zero, for most of the frags. When, in Street Party, chaos hits the ‘humdrum, pebble-dashed exurbs’ of a country full of ‘zombie politicians who died and came back from the dead’, the giddy euphoria of the little platoons who emerge, buoyed by a sense of community with their neighbours for the first time, descends into murderous paranoia and grandiose oedipal political delusion (I found myself wondering here if the writer had found inspiration in the debacle phase of the Occupy movement, though I’m sure this is entirely coincidental).

Several of their other narrators, in their composite epistles, job ads, prospectuses and brochures, are matter-of-fact enthusiasts for creative destruction: of human bodies, of the built environment, and the natural habitat. They speak as though ‘is’ and ‘ought’ had been fused together by a series of primal, market-propelled explosions. They speak amid catastrophe as if that is just the way it is. The lack of suicides in a local town, in A Bill, is looked upon by a denizen as a source of collective shame in a land where suicide is the norm.

What is a frag anyway? I found it hard to get away from this question as I was reading through the different pieces.  I found my own response prefigured by my own personal witnessing of something very much like a classic military fragging. Forgive the excursion into personal anecdote, but I hope this helps explain better what I think is so important about Dave Lordan’s book. Over 30 years ago whilst still something of an infant I was out on a Saturday night getting some ice cream with my parents. I can’t recall what time of year it was because Ireland is one of those places where you eat ice cream oblivious to the weather. We were sitting in the car outside the shop when there was an explosion, then the sound of gunfire. I was pulled out of the car by my mother and held face down on the pavement. As the gunfire continued, we crawled along the ground, some ten or fifteen yards, back into the shop.  I can’t recall my panic too well. What I recall is the stippled texture of the pavement slabs, the pathetic offering of a 2p lollipop from the shop owner to pacify me as he stood in front of boxes and boxes of the wildest confectionery delights from now extinct names such as Rowntree Mackintosh-I had just been shot at, for god’s sake- and the face of Ronnie Barker performing in drag, which had been on the television before we went out the door. I don’t recall the howls of the mutilated policemen who had been sitting in the police van when the blast bomb got thrown inside, and I have only the faintest recollection of bystanders shouting at the police, telling them to stop firing wild and indiscriminate shots down the street. And as for the man who was dying from a heart attack in the car behind ours, I only realised it some years later, when I was told about it.

I’ve recounted that story plenty of times this last couple of decades, but it only dawned on me recently, when someone pointed it out to me, that the details about Ronnie Barker, the miserable shopkeeper, and the pavement texture, were a means of coping with the trauma produced by the initial ‘fragging’. So, if the frag can be conceived of as the wielding of an improvised explosive literary device, we need to think of it not just in terms of the explosive, visceral sonic force with which Lordan attacks the historical, temporal, spatial, literary and political symbols and co-ordinates of our reigning power structures. The author also forces us to think about the way in which we ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves, which is usually the same thing, are assaulted, and what new –and often grotesque- creations we end up fashioning as a consequence.

From the bleak and catastrophic impact of the frag, things do not simply fall apart in some hopeless collapse of meaning: they lodge themselves with extreme violence in other things -and in our consciousness, creating new -and frequently, dreadful- hybrid objects to behold, and ways of seeing and making one’s way in the world. The frag is both a weapon, and a mirror on a Medusa of a world whose all-devouring logic threatens us with ‘dying out in disaster’, as the Hibernia-based Nazi operative in Dr Essler’s Cocaine puts it, where even local archetypes must be hawked for their market value as in The Cornerboy. But the frags show that it is not at all true, as the same Nazi claims, that ‘meaning, too, is a victor’s prerogative’: meaning is a conscious act of creation.

Anti-fascist poet of the Spanish Republic León Felipe once wrote a poem cursing stories: they were the tools used to drown shouts of anguish, to cover up sobbing, and to bury bodies. For this exile, stories were an anaesthetic and a soporific. It is against this conception of the story, and, more broadly, against the tethering of the social and political imagination -what Blake called the mind forg’d manacles- that the frag is deployed. Those who do not move, do not notice their chains, wrote Rosa Luxemburg. The First Book of Frags is intended to make us move with a jolt.

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