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Review Gaslight by Rhys Morgan


Gaslight by the local author Eloise Williams really appealed to me as soon as I heard about it, because although I’ve lived in Cardiff my entire life I had, up to that point, never read a novel which utilised this amazing city as its prime setting. I’m personally a big fan of novels set in dense urban cityscapes as I love the idea of the city itself becoming a character in its own right, almost like an overpowering monster that shapes and distorts the lives of the novel’s human inhabitants. And I wasn’t at all disappointed by Gaslight on this front; it managed to portray Cardiff as a city at once both beautiful and vile, whilst simultaneously offering a character-driven narrative replete with personal struggle.


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Eloise Williams


Set within and around the dingy backstreets of Victorian Cardiff, the plot of Gaslight centres on a young girl named Nansi and her desperate search for her mother who, as she’s been led to believe, abandoned her at a young age. Nansi has been taken in by a man named Sid, the owner of Cardiff’s Empire Theatre, who has provided her with a roof over her head in exchange for her working on the stage as well as performing burglaries for him. As the latter line of work may hint at, Sid is a rather villainous character, who treats Nansi and his other employees with complete contempt, and is only really concerned with profit and success, which are borne out of his own megalomaniacal derangements. However, Sid has made a promise to Nansi to help find her mother with the aid of a private detective once she has earned sufficient amounts of cash from her stage performances and burglaries, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, this offer isn’t quite what it seems on face value.


Gaslight really is an enjoyable read: it comprises short, sharp and clear sentences, but at the same time its use of local vernacular reminds you that it’s firmly situated within Cardiff, innit. This is only accentuated further with consistent references to Cardiff’s historic hallmarks, such as Temperance Town, Bute Park, Tiger Bay, and even the South Wales Echo. They’re all there! In addition, it weaves gritty descriptions of the city’s poorer classes into the narrative, for examples coal workers covered in black, thievery, murder, underage drinking and child homelessness. There are also some really nice descriptive metaphors within the prose; “[t]he dark is so thick you could chew it” and “[t]he silvery light makes the china-blue walls glacial”, for example, really stood out for me.


I found the character of Nansi to be a really endearing one; throughout the novel she faces many hardships, and there are times when it seems as if she’s hit rock bottom, but despite all of this, her determination and her willingness to do good for others never really leaves her. On the other hand (and without spoiling anything), I did find the final encounter (along with its plot twist) a little bit rushed; it seemed as if too many revelations were being presented all at once, and I thought these could have been spread more evenly throughout the novel. Moreover, I didn’t find myself all that convinced by the relationship between Nansi and her mother—it seemed a bit underwhelming and again, a bit rushed in terms of its writing.


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Gaslight’s cover


Eloise Williams certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel here, but she is drawing on that classic ‘coming-of-age’ format that will appeal to a lot of readers, particularly younger ones. Much like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I actually feel as if I would have enjoyed the novel more if I’d read it as a teenager, because I would have been able to identify with the central character a bit better, who is after all of that age herself. Overall, Gaslight is a solid novel which offers elements of comedy and tragedy in equal parts, and although it does have its flaws, it’s well written, entertaining, and very easy to read, so it’s probably worth your time.


By Rhys Morgan

Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay by Sian Thomas

I’ve recently finished The Witches of New York by Ami McKay. For quite some time, the book was the base of my “Big Pile of Books I Need to Read” – purely because it was the largest one. I thought it intimidating at first – I hadn’t expected it to be the size that it was. However, by the time I reached the end, I found myself wishing that it was longer. The book has potential, I do believe, but I’ll get to that later.

For a while now, stories with a strong aesthetic have appealed to me more than stories with some unfathomably-mind-blowing plot twist that I never asked to be on the other end of. This book, this style of writing, was right up my alley that it and I more or less lived in the same block of flats. It was so gorgeous – all this talk about a tea shop, girls, style, soft magic, attraction (straight and gay). Even the way littler things would be described; colour, cups, plants, glass, feathers on a bird, silk of a dress, the appearance of ghosts. All of it just seemed to constantly scream out for me, and it was what I enjoyed about the book the most. I have things that agree with me, the things I find pretty or such, and this book just seemed full of them. I love the way a tea shop exists; quiet and usually more than meets the eye (as was the case here). I love little glass bottles filled with things like glitter or seeds (as was, also, the case). I love small keys, things kept on a chain because of how important they are, I love different blends of teas that all, above having their own flavour, seem to also have their own meanings. There just seemed to be so much care and effort put into every little detail with this book, and I really loved that.

The characters and the story both I’ve decided not to go into very much. The characters, Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice, were all intrinsic, individualistic, and all in all, just quite lovable. I’d rather people went into the unravelling of both them and the plot blind, but I will say: I did enjoy it; the story was gripping and the characters were lovely. It touched on a lot of things I like (amongst the already incredible scenery and the like) and I relate to: the subtle fear of pushy men that every girl seems to know and knows how to combat, the camaraderie of women. While intriguing, it wasn’t too fast. It really was enjoyable. I think a lot of people all sorts of ages would enjoy this book.

Back to potential: the book has it. Ending happily, but with just enough of a nudge in some characters direction, I feel like I did certainly have closure, but just a tiny smidgen of it was withheld. I suppose I may have become fond of stories with a neat little bow wrapped around them and then encased behind glass for the rest of time. That’s on me, I do think, but you’d catch me picking up a copy of any book that would follow at the heels of this one, that’s for sure.

Review: Gaslight by Eloise Williams by Sian Thomas

I read Gaslight by Eloise Williams recently. What pulled me to it was definitely the setting – I love a story set somewhere I was born, somewhere I continue to be (and probably will remain – I’m certainly happy for that to be the case). Cardiff has a history, it has looked so many different ways, been so many different things (which can continue to be true as we all trudge through time together). I really did enjoy experiencing it in the Victorian Era. Something about knowing my home completely differently while I also have the pleasure of following a story was lovely.

This may be a peculiar thing to lead off with, but I really liked the line under the title on the cover of the book: “Have you seen her?”. Sometimes words strike a chord with me; this did. I like the mood this seems to create from the very get-go. The book does have quite the atmospheric feel to it. From cover to cover, there’s something enchanting about the intricacies of the character and the setting she resides in. “Have you seen her?” makes me feel as if I should be looking; as if hints of the character (Nansi) or other characters or even of this version of Cardiff’s past are still all over the place, waiting for the kind of attention only I can give them, because I’m already where they were. Something about that, that co-existence, is pleasing.

The story itself I don’t want to spoil, but the allure of a theatre story (definitely with some other things thrown in) in this era was a good combination. It was nice to imagine, and it was just as nice to be led into imagining it and down the path of the story. There was a moment I liked in particular; Nansi steals a piece of sea glass for a show, and during the show that piece of sea glass is used to really sell an act. The way the audience’s rapture is described, and the way the ploy plays out and the anxiety and nerves of Nansi’s surrounding it, was always a scene that had me hooked because of how easy it was to get lost in it, to become enraptured myself.

I think the book is good for a lot of ages. I enjoyed it, and I’m sure that relatives my age or younger (or older!) would, too. There is something about a young person’s endeavours (in this case, Nansi discovering the truth of her mother’s disappearance and her family in general) and watching them grow from their starting point of “clueless” to a stronger character with an ending to be proud of. It’s nice in a sense, to watch someone grow like this. To watch a character stand up for people who can’t, to stand up against people she hadn’t dreamt of standing up to before. I am immensely pleased to hear that Gaslight won the Wales Arts Review Young People’s Book of the Year 2017 award. Being good for all sorts of ages, and a story of fair intrigue, I’d say it did deserve it – and the four stars I give it.

A Season in Hell (Arthur Rimbaud) Revisited by Rhys Morgan

As soon as I got round to reading this poem I knew I was in for a treat. And I wasn’t disappointed; it most certainly was a treat. It’s the classic journey into hell—a pilgrimage for the damned, the rebellious, and the lecherous. Although unlike Dante’s Inferno, where hell is described in all its horrible glory, A Season in Hell offers only a short sojourn into the underworld, a little taster. Within the poem it’s the author himself, Arthur Rimbaud, who has consigned himself to this often-tread passage into the fiery pits, but near the end he does something which no other mortal soul has managed to do: he comes back. Exactly as the title suggests, it’s about a season in hell, and in much the same way that all seasons must pass, so too does Rimbaud’s torment, as he’s momentarily offered a small glimpse of hope.


In being a true libertine in every sense of the word, Rimbaud was the most rebellious of artists. He also has one of the most mispronounced names in all of literature (for an accurate pronunciation, think Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rambo’, and you’re practically there). His rebellious streak was borne out of his distain for late nineteenth century bourgeois convention, and his poetry perfectly encapsulates this defiant attitude, which is, more often than not, maniacal, savage, exotic, and utterly imposing. And like any Bohemian artist worth his salt, the content of his poetry spilled out into his everyday life, which was filled to the brim with sex, drugs and whatever the nineteenth century version of rock-and-roll was. Through his poetry he also changed the face of literature for good, effectively dragging it against its will into a new era defined by modernism, symbolism and surrealism. But the most astonishing aspect of his genius was the fact that he did all of this whilst in his late teens, before retiring as a poet at the ripe old of age of 21 (depressing, huh?). He then went on to become, of all things, an arms dealer in Colonial Africa.



Arthur Rimbaud at 17 years of age


Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell in the middle of 1873 at his family’s farmstead just outside Charleville. He was 18 years old at the time, which in a way shows throughout the poem, as it’s replete with the kinds of personal struggles and feelings of alienation that we today would associate with teenage angst. It begins almost in the style of a suicide note, with Rimbaud exclaiming that he’s about to spill his guts about the sins he’s committed throughout his short yet eventful life thus far. This is then followed by him addressing Satan directly, with the chilling line “I pass you these few foul pages from the diary of a Damned Soul.” What comes after this is an astonishing journey into Rimbaud’s psyche. He decries his Gaulish ancestry, seeing himself as being part of an inferior race whose mores are entirely at odds with the world of Christian faith and French, Bourgeois principles. He described the thought processes behind his unique style of writing, and how he felt as if he ultimately failed in his poetic endeavours as his “mind turned sour.” At one point he even alludes to swallowing vast amount of psychoactive drugs (his “poison”), before going off on a surreal reverie about his impending descent into the hellfire, where he goads Satan into burning him alive.


But at the heart of this struggle lies Rimbaud’s tumultuous, on-and-off-again relationship with his fellow poet Paul Verlaine, a relationship which forms a major part of A Season in Hell. Rimbaud first met Verlaine in 1871, and despite being a mere 16-year-old kid at the time, he managed to seduce Verlaine both intellectually and sexually. This sparked off an intense, drug- and alcohol-fuelled love affair which very often descended into violence, particularly in the form of knife fights (think Pete Doherty vs. Carl Barat, but far more extreme…). Eventually Verlaine, in a drunken fit of rage, shot Rimbaud in the wrist, thus ending their brief dalliance. I mean, you just couldn’t make this stuff up; it’s the greatest romantic fling ever told! Rimbaud’s feelings towards Verlaine are told in excruciating detail within the poem’s aptly titled fourth part, “Delirium 1: The Foolish Virgin – The Infernal Spouse.”


Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud


The poem ends with a shift in the seasons, and Rimbaud’s resultant return from hell. He imagines a kind of Brave New World, one stripped of the torments that had previously held him back, one without Christ or political tyrants. This can effectively be seen as his farewell to poetry, and he needed to go to hell and back in order make this adieu. This was a trip filled with maniacally surreal imagery and some of the most profound symbolism you’ll probably ever read.


If you’re a fan of poetry, the chances are you’ve already read A Season in Hell, and that you probably know more about it than I do; I am after all a relative newbie to poetry in general, let alone that of the French flavour. But if not, then it may very well serve as your gateway drug (pun most certainly intended) into the realm of all things poetic, so it’s definitely worth your time.


by Rhys Morgan

Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon) Revisited by Rhys Morgan

Paranoid—this is perhaps the best word with which to describe Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, both in terms of the world that it depicts and the way that it makes the reader feel throughout its (many!) pages. Much like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this novel has us confronted with a society which owes its stability and its survival to forces of paranoid control that dictate the lives of all its inhabitants. But unlike in Orwell’s masterpiece, where these ominous forces live on to the very end of the book, Gravity’s Rainbow asks the question, ‘what happens when a society such as this one collapses?’ Well, the results are completely insane…


Thomas Pynchon is widely regarded as one the seminal postmodern writers of the twentieth century, and as a result his works are often dense, complicated, even maddeningly inscrutable. Gravity’s Rainbow is most certainly his most famous work of fiction. You could even say it’s his most notorious—it was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 on the basis that its content was too vulgar (the panel were particularly concerned with a scene in which ‘coprophagia’ is performed, but I won’t go into that…). In being an extremely reclusive figure, nobody really knows who Pynchon is, or even what he looks like—he gives no interviews, attends no book signings or award ceremonies, and he certainly doesn’t allow any photographs of himself to be shared with the public. In fact, the latest available photograph of Pynchon dates to around the 1950s when he was in the U.S. navy. This is a man who makes even J.D. Salinger seem like a raving socialite.


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Thomas Pynchon in the navy


In a similar vain to pretty much all of Pynchon’s writing, Gravity’s Rainbow has no clear structure, is written in a highly experimental prose, and is utterly surreal. If you’re looking for a moving, character-driven story, then this ain’t it; it’s probably the least character-driven novel I’ve ever read. Its characters seem to have very little free will, and a lot of the time they find themselves participating in events or actions without really knowing why. Overall, they’re mere pawns in a game that Pynchon has created for them, and are being thrown in and out of environments and situations that are well beyond their control. And you never really get to know them either. Whilst you could argue that there are only a handful of protagonists and antagonists, in total there are literally hundreds of characters, some of which are mentioned briefly, only to reoccur several hundred pages later, in which case you find yourself asking, ‘who is that guy again?’ But that’s kind of the point: this is a novel that’s designed to confuse. Or more specifically it’s written in such a way as to make you feel as paranoid as its characters are. Yet having said all that, Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had, mainly because it caused me to think about reality in ways that no other novel has. In short, when reading Gravity’s Rainbow, the lines that separate the world of the novel from the world in which you yourself live become blurred and confused, and that deserves praise in itself. And despite the rather depressing subject matter that it deals with, it’s still a very entertaining and funny novel, although its humour is often vile, grotesque, and certainly not for the faint-hearted!


The plot begins near the end of the Second World War, in the Christmas of 1944. We follow Tyrone Slothrop, an employee of an intelligence unit based in London, whose various sexual exploits across the city are being investigated by a psychological warfare agency. Basically, wherever Slothrop has sex, a Nazi V-2 rocket lands in that exact location a couple of days later, almost as if his own penis is causing these attacks to happen. As a result of the investigations being conducted on him, Slothrop is subjected to a plethora of psychological tests, some of which include the use of psychoactive drugs. These tests are bizarre to say the least, and even lead to an extended scene where Slothrop journeys into the depths of a toilet (think Trainspotting, but weirder). After this, and for reasons that aren’t very clear at all, either to the reader or for that matter the characters themselves, Slothrop is sent to Continental Europe to investigate a new form of Nazi rocket known simply by its serial number ‘00000’. And it’s during this trip that something very drastic happens: the Second World War comes to an end. This causes the forces that had previously kept the world in balance to disintegrate entirely, and it’s as if the whole of reality explodes into multiple particles that are now hanging around in the ether, waiting for someone or something to provide them again with some semblance of order.


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The V-2 rocket


Europe has now become a wasteland referred to as ‘the Zone’. It is a place of chaos where everything—whether it be nation states, races of people or animals—is in a state of becoming something else. Some of the more memorable elements of the Zone include a village that is now inhabited solely by dogs trained to kill everyone except their former masters; an army of Hereros known as the ‘Schwartzkommando’ who are determined to eradicate themselves in some form of racial suicide; and the ‘Raketen-Stadt’, a highly advanced yet surreal Fascist dystopia. The Zone is also dictated by surely one of the most terrifying antagonists in all of fiction, Captain Blicero—a former high-ranking Nazi obsessed with sex-slavery, human sacrifice and, well, death.


In order to understand Gravity’s Rainbow you have to keep in mind the year in which it was written, which was 1973, at the heart of the Cold War. This was a period dominated by paranoia, as nuclear war was a seemingly ever-present threat to the whole of humanity. And I think what Pynchon is trying to do with this novel is to show the reader that what he’s describing isn’t a surreal world that he himself has made up, but the world in which the reader already lives, which is itself paranoid and highly unstable. And even today, thanks to such things as technological advancement, scientific discovery, political struggle and war, our world is changing all the time, and so are the ways that we relate to it. I suppose that’s where the novel’s real plot twist comes in—it’s not about the struggles of any particular character, it’s about you, the reader, and the reality that you inhabit. You’ve been the main character in this story the whole time, and you didn’t even realise it.


Despite how thought-provoking it is, I can’t really see myself reading this book again, mainly due to the way that it’s written. A great writer is somebody who has total command over a text, as if he or she were a conductor directing a musical performance. But in Gravity’s Rainbow, it seems like Pynchon is weaving his way in and out of the orchestra, slapping his musicians across the face and giving them wedgies. There are parts of it that I just didn’t get at all, and I’m convinced that I wasn’t meant to get them in the first place, that they were never intended to make sense.  On the other hand, even in those instances the novel is still very funny, although, again, it’s humour does come from the gutter! This is one of the most famous—and certainly most influential—novels ever written, and I’ve never read anything like it, so on that basis it’s probably worth giving it a read at some point in your lifetime.


by Rhys Morgan

Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry) Revisited by Rhys Morgan

Under the Volcano, first published in 1947, is the second novel by the English writer Malcolm Lowry, and is perhaps one of the most fascinating—as well as exhausting—novels I’ve ever come across. By today it’s regularly considered a classic text, and is routinely placed within many of the most esteemed ‘Best Of’ lists of modern literature. It’s also one of those books that seems to be referenced by many popular artists as being a huge influence on their own life and work. Bob Dylan, for example, seems to go on about it quite a lot, while Stephen Fry has named it as one of his favourite novels of all time. When I describe this novel as ‘exhausting’, I really do mean it; it’s at once complex, heavily symbolised, and utterly insane, and very often its prose diverges into near-maddening reveries that are replete with references to historical, literary and philosophical thought. I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, it just means that it takes a little while to acclimatise to the way the novel is written and what it’s trying to do. But once you really get into it, you quickly begin to realise why it’s considered such a classic.


It’s almost impossible to discuss Under the Volcano without going into the background of the author beforehand, because the novel is essentially about Malcolm Lowry himself, and it’s almost as if the process of writing it was for him a form of therapy. Lowry, to say the very least, was the most raging of raging alcoholics, and his severe alcoholism penetrates every aspect of the text. Lowry apparently began drinking at the age of 14, and from thereon his alcohol consumption became steadily more severe, eventually culminating in his mental breakdown and subsequent admittance into a psychiatric hospital around ten years before the publication of Under the Volcano. The prose used throughout this novel mirrors Lowry’s alcoholic delirium remarkably well; there are large parts of the novel where it even seems as if the third-person narrator himself is, well, completely off his tits. Overall, Under the Volcano is undeniably one of the definitive texts on alcoholism in all of literary fiction.


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Malcolm Lowry


The novel takes place within a single day (the 2nd of November, 1938), primarily within the small Mexican town of (ahem) Quauhnahuac, during Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead festival. The central character of the story is a man named Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British diplomat who to the locals is known simply as ‘the Consul’. The Consul is a man whose alcoholism has become so extreme that he’s no longer able to perform basic, daily tasks such as putting his socks on. The consumption of alcohol is, for him, no longer a purely pleasurable activity; he drinks to function, and without alcohol he is, quite simply, a quivering wreck. It should come as no surprise then that the Consul is based almost wholly on Lowry, and that the novel represents a largely fictionalised account of his own experiences whilst living in Mexico. Anyway, on the morning of the Day of the Dead, while the Consul is drinking whisky at a local bar, his estranged wife Yvonne meets up with him, having just returned to Mexico with the aim of seeing whether there’s anything left of their marriage to salvage or rekindle. This sparks off the events that are about to follow, and the relationship between the Consul and Yvonne, with all its tumultuousness, plays a central role in the novel’s plot.


Mixed up in all of this is the Consul’s half brother Hugh, who is temporarily staying at the Consul’s house in preparation for taking a long trip elsewhere on the very day that the novel is set. Jacques Laruelle, an old friend of the Consul’s who also finds residence in Quauhnahuac, is another prominent figure in the story. Both Hugh and Jacques previously had love affairs with Yvonne during the periods in which her marriage was going downhill, and in many ways their presence at Quauhnahuac throws a spanner in the works for the Consul, who, despite his personal struggles and erratic behaviour, is desperate to get back with his wife, who he still loves dearly. The latent tensions that exist between these characters deeply interweave themselves throughout the narrative, and as the novel goes on we begin to dig deeper and deeper into their histories and biographies, and the ways in which they are each connected are revealed to us. Yet all these connections revolve around one thing: the relationship between the Consul and Yvonne, and whether it’s even possible, despite their love and respect for one another, to get their marriage back on track. We finally get an answer to this impending question in the final chapter of the novel, which, without spoiling anything, culminates in a series of events that are profound, even heart breaking. The looming presence of (ahem!) Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl—a pair of enormous, unpronounceable volcanoes situated on the outskirts of Quauhnahuac—is constant throughout (hence the novel’s title), which provides the novel with an almost hellishly brooding backdrop. And whilst Iztaccihuatl lies dormant on the horizon, Popocatepetl is still very much active, and these two volcanoes can therefore be seen as a haunting and ever-present symbol of the Consul’s and Yvonne’s marriage.


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Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, Mexico


The style that Under the Volcano utilises has clear links to the kinds of literary modernism previously employed by authors such as Joyce, particularly within Ulysses (which also takes place within a single day). Although whilst Ulysses’ heavy stream of consciousness narrative gives off an almost dream-like quality, the narrative style of Under the Volcano resembles more of a nightmare—a drunken nightmare, to be more exact. In many ways the novel causes the reader to feel trapped within the same vicious circle that the Consul finds himself in, and this is due in large part to its cyclical form, where it seems as if the Consul is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. In amongst all of this are many references to other works of fiction, including those of Shakespeare, Faust and Marlowe, which sit alongside allusions to some dense Greek mythology and the Kabbalah (including many others that I’m sure went straight over my head). I mean it’s all there—Lowry was certainly never one for simplicity!


While Under the Volcano is far from a simple read, it’s nonetheless a really powerfully written and truly fascinating novel. It often feels like a Rubik’s cube that needs constant care and attention in order to unlock, and almost certainly requires more than one reading in order to fully comprehend it. Yet the most interesting aspect of Under the Volcano, for me, is the way in which it takes you on a hellish journey that is constantly tossing and turning you in directions that are surprising and unexpected. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who’s yearning for a different, perhaps even challenging reading experience. So just pick it up and go along for the ride!


by Rhys Morgan

Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) Revisited by Rhys Morgan

I don’t necessarily have a favourite novel of all time, but if I were ever pressed to choose a work of fiction that has captivated and has brought me the most joy whilst reading it I would probably opt for Infinite Jest by the late American author David Foster Wallace. It sometimes feels like a bit of a cop out saying this, or a bit cliché, because it seems as if many readers of my generation—well, in America anyway—would arrive at the same decision. Much like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Infinite Jest carved its way into the cultural milieu of the 1990s with such force that it almost goes without saying that it’s one of the greatest artistic endeavours of the decade—and perhaps even the century—within which it was produced. And in tandem with the music of Nirvana, its legacy owes much to (and is intricately wrapped up in) the counterculture of its time—or more specifically, a category of young people known colloquially as ‘Generation X’. By the end of 1996 (the year it was published), Infinite Jest had sold well in excess of 40,000 copies, and as of today its sales have exceeded one million, making it an enormous commercial success.


Yet when we analyse the success and popularity of Infinite Jest a bizarre paradox can be seen: loads of people bought it, but very few actually read it! This may have been in part down to its reputation as a complex and impenetrable novel, but its size was certainly a determining factor too. In appearance it’s practically a modern day War and Peace; a weighty tome coming in at over a thousand, densely written pages in length. Perhaps the reason that so many people bought it (particularly male college students) without ever reading it was so they could display it on their dormitory bookshelves as a symbol of the alternative, intellectual lives that they led, possibly in the hope of getting laid. But in my opinion, these two points are mere illusions. Yes the book is complex, but certainly not impenetrable, even with its often experimental and mutable prose: its contents are beautiful, moving, funny and thoroughly entertaining. And while it does take you on an intricately textured journey into the nature of humanity and society at large, it’s written in such a way as to make its philosophical meaning instantly perceptible, by striking at the heart of your own experiences as a human being. Referring to its size, superficially it does look daunting: I was most definitely intimidated by its heft to begin with. But because it’s such an entertaining novel it never feels like a chore to read; you become so invested in the story it has to tell that you just want to keep on reading and reading and reading. At one point I can remember noticing that I was just over halfway through, and this realisation disheartened me in a way because I simply didn’t want the novel to end.


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David Foster Wallace


I suppose the main reason I’m writing this piece is due to the fact that in the UK Infinite Jest doesn’t seem all that famous, even among avid readers. I’d never heard of it until a close friend of mine recommended it to me, and to this day she’s the only person I know who’s read it and who I can discuss it with. This is such a shame, as I see Infinite Jest as one of those novels that every reader, regardless of age, sex or background, should consume at some point in their lives.


In trying to sum up the plot of Infinite Jest, I find it helpful to draw on the TV show The Wire as a useful point of comparison: it’s made up of several stories which at first appear separate but which eventually come together to form a cohesive whole. And much like in The Wire, each narrative and story builds up to an astonishingly rich view of the fictional world within which the novel is set, where every little detail counts. This fictional world is set in the not-too-distant future, where the USA, Canada and Mexico have formed a political union and which now exist as a kind of superstate known officially as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). In addition to that of political space, the concept of time has also changed quite drastically, and is now governed by something called ‘Subsidized Time’, where each year is both subsidized and named after a certain corporate sponsor. We have, for example, the ‘Year of the Whopper’, the ‘Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar’, and the ‘Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland’, which all lead up to the ‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’, in which the majority of the novel takes place. Indeed, the world of O.N.A.N. is completely dominated by corporate advertising, which impinges unrelentingly on the lives of its inhabitants and which seems to affect every aspect of their daily routines. The central hub of the novel’s plot is the city of Boston, Massachusetts and its immediate environs. Set within and around the city are three focal locations: the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) where young, aspiring tennis prodigies are sent to develop their skills in the aim of becoming professional players; Ennet House, a rehabilitation centre in which drug addicts and alcoholics recover from their illness; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), from which a prominent radio show is aired. A significant chunk of the novel also takes place within the mountains of Tuscon, Arizona, where a politically- and philosophically-charged conversation between two characters ensues, which encompasses some of the main themes and messages that the novel attempts to express.


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Modern day Boston, Massachusetts


Thematically speaking, it would be impossible for me to even scratch the surface of Infinite Jest’s ideas and motifs within a short online article, such as this is. But I will briefly discuss two of the most important ones. Addiction, both as an illness and a concept, represents an all-pervading presence within the novel; several key characters are battling their dependency to hard drugs like crack and heroin, principally those who end up as residents at Ennet House. As an ex-addict myself, I found this all very poignant, mainly because the ways in which David Foster Wallace deals with this topic are so utterly realistic and identifiable. A life of drug addiction is simple and manageable, while the alternative—the recovery—is almost unimaginably complicated as it runs the risk of leaving oneself open to feeling emotions that desperately need suppressing. Yet Infinite Jest shows us that drug and alcohol dependency are only a small facet of addiction, and that potentially harmful addictive tendencies penetrate each of our lives, whether we realise it or not. The inhabitants of O.N.A.N., for example, have access to a form of digital media known as ‘InterLace’, which allows them to watch any TV show or film or sports event (and so on) ever recorded whenever they want. In this sense, when reading Infinite Jest we are confronted with an entire nation addicted to watching TV, and anyone who binge-watches Netflix content today will find this hauntingly familiar. The acronym ‘O.N.A.N.’ is deliberately chosen here: it’s a reference to onanism, and it’s basically telling us that this fictional nation is consumed by addiction and hedonistic behaviour to such an extent that it might as well be continually masturbating all day, everyday. I guess what David Foster Wallace is saying here is that addiction forms a fundamental and inescapable aspect of human life, and that freedom from addiction (paradoxically) comes in the form of choosing what we may or may not be addicted to.


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The addict’s perception of self


Another of the novel’s key themes is communication, or more specifically the transferal of thoughts and ideas from one person to another. This is represented primarily through the character of James Incandenza: a seminal filmmaker who becomes disillusioned with the avant-gardism of his earlier work and who later tries to communicate his ideas in a more accessible way through the medium of action movies. This obsession drives him to a life of chronic alcoholism and he ends up committing suicide by cooking his own head inside a microwave, which happens shortly before the novel is set. Later on, James Incandenza takes on an almost god-like presence in his ability to affect the lives and decisions of the novel’s characters, even from beyond the grave, and he may therefore be seen as an extension of the author himself. David Foster Wallace came from a strong postmodernist tradition (a movement known for its complex and often incoherent content), and it’s possible that within Infinite Jest he is desperately trying to drag postmodernism kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but in a far more accessible and entertaining form. In other words, it seems as if his yearning to communicate his ideas more coherently forms the entire basis of this novel, and that an inability to do so was a consistent source of fear for him. Yet this fear moves well beyond the realm of artistic expression; it encroaches into our own daily lives and thought processes, as a person’s failure to communicate their thoughts clearly to another person is surely a sign of their own insanity.


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James Incandenza’s suicide


I’m not saying that Infinite Jest is one of the greatest novels ever written—I feel like there are very few people sufficiently qualified to draw that conclusion, and I’m certainly not one of them. I’m not even saying that Infinite Jest is perfectly written: there are parts that seem pretentious, even intellectually ostentatious. The insistent use of endnotes is a key example, which aren’t really endnotes at all but are actually integral elements of the novel itself, packaged in an academic way. But for me, one of the amazing things about Infinite Jest is that its story and its characters are so compelling, so thoroughly well written, that I’m able to forgive all of its shortcomings. And who knows, maybe upon rereading it I may even grow to love them. Once I finally finished reading this novel, I had the instant realisation that David Foster Wallace quite literally poured everything he had into it. It can be seen as a mirror to his own psyche—a near-perfect reflection of it. His passions, his fears, his intellect, even his own mental illness—which eventually led to his suicide in 2008 and which caused him to do some questionable things throughout his life beforehand—can all be picked out within the text. And upon researching the history of Infinite Jest, it’s easy to see why this is. The writer Mark Costello (who is David Foster Wallace’s former housemate), once intimated that the process of working on this novel kept David Foster Wallace from killing himself in the early 90s; he said that while he was writing it he, temporarily at least, stopped feeling bad about himself.


Overall, Infinite Jest is a truly incredible novel, and despite its reputation I believe it’s one that anyone can pick up and enjoy. It’s also a rather unique experience; I can’t really think of any other novel I’ve read that manages to create a fictional world that is both gargantuan in scope and encyclopaedic in detail, but which simultaneously revolves around an intensely character-driven plot. Thinking back on it, I really cherish the time I spent reading Infinite Jest, and I’m actually saddened by the idea that I’ll probably never read anything like it again.


by Rhys Morgan

Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) Revisited by Rhys Morgan

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is one of those novels that has stuck with me for pretty much my entire life. Its content—the story, the themes and the prose—have been etched into my mind ever since reading it for the first time as a teenager, and because of this (along with its miniscule size—you could easily read it in a single afternoon) it’s a novel that I go back to time and time again.


Joseph Conrad’s legacy within the modern Western canon is clear, and need not be discussed or regurgitated at length here. But it’ll suffice to say that it would be a hard task finding any author of fiction writing in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries who doesn’t owe at least something to his work. This is remarkable considering that Conrad himself wasn’t a fluent English speaker until he reached his twenties (he was born and raised within the Russian Empire in the mid-nineteenth century and emigrated to Britain later on).


Heart of Darkness is easily Conrad’s most well known novel. This may be in part down to the popularity of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, which serves as a loose adaptation of the novel. Actually, this film acted for me as a gateway to Heart of Darkness—I had no idea the novel even existed before watching Apocalypse Now. This really is testament to the power of Conrad’s writing, because even though Apocalypse Now takes place almost a century after the novel does, and is therefore set within entirely different historical settings, its themes still translate with near-perfect precision.


Poster for the film Apocalypse Now (1979)


From reading its very first page you get the instant impression that Heart of Darkness is written in quite a unique way. It employs a first person narrative, yet the narrator is a nameless nobody—we learn next to nothing about him throughout the course of the story. The only thing we ever really learn about the narrator is that he is an idealistic young mariner working on board a cruising yawl (the Nellie) set to depart from London. Heart of Darkness employs a frame narrative, so the purpose of the narrator is to detail the experiences of the novel’s true main character (Charles Marlow) who is telling a story of his expeditions through the Congo Free State to the mariners aboard the Nellie. The telling of this story encompasses the entirety of the novel.


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Illustration of a steamboat traveling along the Congo River


Fundamentally, Heart of Darkness is about Western colonialism, and Marlow’s story brilliantly encapsulates all the horrors associated with this movement. He recounts his journey along the Congo River within what was then a Belgian occupied territory, with the prime objective of meeting an ivory trader known as Mr. Kurtz (the novel’s antagonist). Throughout his journey, Marlow discovers that Mr. Kurtz has adopted an almost legendary status as the finest Western agent within all of the Congo. Marlow even obtains a report written by Mr. Kurtz explaining how it is the White Man’s duty to spread civilization across the imperial frontiers of Africa, and we learn at this point that this is exactly what Mr. Kurtz has tried to achieve along the Congo River. Yet upon finally meeting him near the end of the novel, we are confronted with a man who has quite literally lost his mind. He has amassed an almost religious following among the natives who venerate him as a God-like being, whilst surrounding his house are wooden palisades with decaying human heads affixed to their tops (which presumably once belonged to his former prisoners). We also learn that he has begun raiding nearby villages for ivory, creating havoc among the natives. It seems that in his effort to spread civilization into the darkness of Africa, he himself has become darker, more savage, as a result.


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Illustration of Mr. Kurtz


In many ways Mr. Kurtz acts as the perfect embodiment of Western colonialism, as he asks us to consider how it’s even possible for us to civilize non-Western peoples when we are not civilized ourselves. This certainly rings true today, particularly when we think of the recent Iraq and Afghan wars, along with the ways in which we’re currently dealing with the so-called Islamic State. Yet in my experience, no two readings of Heart of Darkness are ever quite the same. The parallels drawn between Belgium’s colonization of the Congo and the Roman’s conquest of the Thames, for example, are there perhaps to reminds us that colonialism represents an all-pervading aspect of the reality within which we live, and has played a major role in shaping humanity’s history. The fictionalised setting within the Congo, on the other hand, may also be seen as a playground in which moral virtues evaporate and where those who are most hungry for power come out on top. Indeed, it’s the moral standoffishness with which this novel was written that means it avoids being interpreted in any singular way. Rather, it forces you to think for yourself.


Despite its tiny size, Heart of Darkness is a dense and richly textured novel which makes use of some excellent prose and symbolic undertones. It really is a fantastic novel, and definitely worth a read.


by Rhys Morgan

Dubliners (James Joyce) Revisited by Rhys Morgan

James Joyce is regarded by many as one of the most significant writers in the history of the novel. He is most famous for his contributions to a form of prose fiction known as literary modernism; a style of storytelling which emphasises, among other things, a stream of consciousness technique, which allows the reader to quite literally get inside the heads of characters and to experience their world through their own psyches. However, due to the convoluted style that Joyce often employs, he is regularly seen as a rather ‘difficult’ author to get into, one whose work sometimes borders on the incomprehensible. Ulysses, for example, constantly flicks back and forth between first- and third-person narratives, while Finnegans Wake is, let’s be honest, barely written in English.

James Joyce c. 1918

This simply isn’t the case with his first novel, and it is this novel which I consider (perhaps controversially) to be his true masterpiece. The work I’m referring to here is of course Dubliners, first published in 1914. While technically not a novel per se—it’s actually a collection of short stories—Dubliners certainly reads as if it were a singular novel because all the stories within are tightly interwoven and constantly overlap. The clarity of the writing is astonishing: even by today’s standards it often reads as fresh as paint. Throughout, Joyce employs a very straightforward style of narrative which makes use of some brilliant poetic prose and is replete with striking metaphoric imagery. On this basis alone it really is a joy to read.

Each story revolves around a very simple plot. For example, Eveline is about a woman torn between staying in Dublin and fleeing with her lover to Argentina; Two Gallants deals with a pair of criminals in their attempt to steal from a young woman’s employer; whilst Ivy Day in the Committee Room focuses on the failures of Irish nationalist politics in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. And in true modernist fashion, each story begins by throwing us straight into the middle of its characters’ environment and circumstances. There’s no messing around with developing the story’s background or context beforehand; instead, both background and context emerge as the story unfolds.

Yet despite the simplicity of the narrative you are always aware that there’s something incredibly complex going on underneath, and this really strikes at the heart of why Dubliners is so masterfully written. The individual fine details contained within the text eventually build up to reveal a strikingly detailed picture of Dublin and its inhabitants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Deep-seated religious tensions, economic hardships, social mobility, even the Catholic Church’s implicit acceptance of paedophilia—all of these themes are dealt with, and many more. As you read Dubliners, Dublin becomes your entire world, and the sheer levels of detail you encounter about this city are almost ethnographic in scope. You can pick up this novel feeling like you know nothing about Dublin, and once you’ve finished you can walk away feeling like you know everything there is to know.

On the other hand, in amongst all of this social complexity are characters that are instantly identifiable and which conjure in us a mixture of different feelings and emotions ranging from admiration to downright pity. The character of Maria in the story Clay is that of a woman who is trying her best to be as kind and as helpful to those around her as possible, despite the fact that the circumstances within which she lives are frustrating and monotonous. The old man in the story An Encounter, however, is a character whose sexual promiscuity is so great that at one point he indulges himself in a spot of public masturbation. When referring to the work of Shakespeare, the rapper Akala once said that the power inherent in plays such as Hamlet or Macbeth lies in their ability to portray ways of being human that transcend the time and place within which they were written. I believe that this certainly applies to the work of Joyce as well, and particularly to Dubliners. Whether we like it or not, we can see a little bit of ourselves in each of Joyce’s characters, and as a result they each force us to think about our own human character and the ways that we conduct ourselves.

Grafton Street, Dublin, at the turn of the twentieth century

Overall, Dubliners is one of those ‘classic’ novels that really has stood the test of time and is absolutely still relevant today. I believe the reason that not many people have read this novel is because they’re perhaps put off by the avant-gardism of Joyce’s later work. But I recommend Dubliners to anyone who is a fan of literature, and I think it has the capacity to surprise you, so it’s well worth having a go.

By Rhys Morgan

Review: Wax by Gina Damico by Sian Thomas

Even though I’ve read a lot of books this year (we’re into the 20s, I think), and even though I have a lot more books to read (I have 21 in my room, but reading all the books out there would be stellar, too), I think I’ve found the best one this year. My favourite one for this year. My favourite one, possibly overall? The first book that might have just overtaken all the others that I love. Wax by Gina Damico swept me off my feet, and I couldn’t be happier.

One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it’s so funny. There were so many times that I genuinely laughed at what was happening – and that was new for me. I’ve smirked or smiled while reading before, sure, but I’ve never had to take a step back, put the book down, and have a right giggle before building myself back up and carrying on. The main characters Poppy and Dud erupted the most laughter from me, but a close second being the character ‘Jesus’.

All the characters were remarkable. My favourites no doubt being the main, Poppy Palladino and Dud. I can’t get into the relationship or their dynamic too much without spoiling it, but I did love the outspoken female who acts sort of like a role model or confidant, and harmless boy whose loyal to her. They felt like best friends, and reading their interactions were always great.

I love stories lately where most (if not most, then all) of the characters end up okay, with a happy ending. I got so tired of studying Shakespeare plays and watching all the characters die in the last few scenes, I got so tired of tv shows that were “going there” and killing off main characters, I got tired of books with “twists” that just kind of stung, and didn’t impress. In truth, I got real sick of characters dying, and it isn’t like I can reach the authors I’ve read lately, shake their shoulders, and tell them there are other things that can happen in life, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel this way at all with this book. The ending reminded me a little of Big Hero 6. Bittersweet, but still ultimately happy. With and without death, I suppose. You have to read it, to know what I mean, and so I don’t spoil everything horrendously.

I remember looking at this book and thinking it was a horror. I don’t remember why, it was a long time ago, and it sat in my Amazon wish-list for a really long time before it came into my hands. I think I noted the idea of spooky wax figures and was sold, because at that time I was super interested in getting spooked by a book. Even if that was my initial reaction, and was not the outcome, I’m glad of both. I’m glad I (somehow, even if the memory of how is blurry) found the book, and that I read it. I read one chapter yesterday, and the rest of the book today. I blitzed through it immensely fast because it was just so immeasurably enjoyable.  I’ve read the last two chapters a couple more times, now. I just love it so much. I am not sure anything else I read will come as close to how highly I think of this book. Which is both good (I found a new really great book!) and bad (I have so many other books to read and I am worried that they will not be able to come as close to how good Wax was). But nonetheless I give it five stars and recommend it wholeheartedly. It was so good. I don’t even have the words. I want to read it all over again.