A Reading of Justin Isis’ Welcome to the Arms Race

I like the vibrant fuchsia of the cover with the simply centred, majuscule title, fractured to suit meaning – Welcome to the Arms Race – and the simplicity of title and author – Justin Isis – on the spine.  I’m less sure of the pneumatic blonde, reminiscent of a girl I’ve met, in full armature on the back cover with what looks like a plugged-in iron on metallic stilts and another jewelled weapon but I like that the weight of the design’s on the back.  Nimit Malavia’s the artist.

The publisher primes us to like the book by two quotations, one by Jeremy Reed on its predecessor, the other by Mark Samuels on the author himself.  What I liked about Justin was after my critical analysis of his writing in his last book and beyond I read something else by him that completely undermined it.  I laughed in delight at his development.  That might qualify him as the genius Mark is not afraid to repeat he is, that is as possessing an exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability or tendency.

The book title’s taken from that of the first story.  The spelling’s inconsistent, neither British like the publisher, Chômu, nor American, possibly Australian since the story’s set there but probably from indifference.  It’s inventive, imaginative, easy to read and amusing, with junkies licking walls.  The characters are pretty well junkies themselves having engineered the drug they’re taking and feeding to a squid they subsequently eat on specious reasoning.  The drug-taking involves sex, equating sperm with life as more demonstrably so than a receptive ovum I suspect though a grabbing gesture is made toward the latter.  I had to wonder if they were up to engineering this drug but the protagonist is reflective enough to make that he is acceptable.  The dialogue’s plausible.  I had no idea what the abbreviation VB stood for but settled for vodka bottle and passed on but not out.  The protagonist and his companions are skilfully described physically in relation to a meeting with alterpeople, corporate-made synthetics that make him feel inferior.  Being superior they are not interested in the drug, already enabled to do what it induces.  He’s disappointed when they leave but ‘he didn’t blame them either’, an expression I find interesting, unless all he means is they wouldn’t find him interesting enough to stay, because why think in terms of blame?  It’s a past tense narrative but not free indirect style because only the protagonist’s thoughts are indicated and without any separation from the writer’s to let the reader think differently.

The narration becomes increasingly funny as I chortled along, first at his designed T-shirt.  He keeps in touch with texts, a whole virtually real world of banality is being created in quotes and lists, which I did read, looking for purpose, coherence over and above etc and, having finally found out who Ryan Gosling is, was interested in why he should be of significance to people but all I got was the word, ‘Ryan’, twice.  The Reagan quote made me chuckle.

Now, an alterperson refers to his sculptures I wasn’t aware of, and he says it’s mostly those two, making me think his friends were sculpted, but he goes on that he’s only the technician, so it may mean his friends did the basic sculpting.  At any rate, I reverted to taking them as human.

He admits the drug-taking provides experience only, no communication is taking place.  He tells a story from his life I found funny to explain how he got the idea though it doesn’t.  I’ve no idea what the drug called bud might be but the ritual is enough like chasing the dragon or smoking crack for me simply to accept it’s something such and press on.  He naturally has difficulty following what the synthetic’s saying and – I had to exclaim at this, with an ! in the margin – offers her the specifications for making the new drug he’d come up with.  He is not of the brightest.

I chuckled at, ‘Well there you go,’ mistakenly taking it as our hero’s line, though subsequently realising it’s not.

Why do heterosexuals adopt the worst from lowlife homos?  It’s come! as is evident from the meaning of the word.  Cum means with.  The vulgarity is, however, excusable in the context.

Our hero is finding the artificial more beautiful and more useless than the natural.  It’s pointed out to him he doesn’t want to help humanity and puts effort into doing what’s pointless.  On that basis, and to my amusement, a synthetic explains he’s been designed to sharpen hatred among humans by means of built-in empathy, and to my even greater amusement wants to know what our hapless hero thinks.  Thinks?  This guy is a druggie and even in thoughtful repose has a drink to hand if not already in it.  Gets out of bed, sees a bottle of vodka on the table and decides to keep on drinking.  He smokes too.  A synthetic over the ether taunts the human race there’s nothing it can do to stop him.  Our hero’s death obsession is raised lightly and amusingly.  He’s disgusted with those in favour of death overcoming civilisation’s morals but not its aesthetic conventions.  Isis springs to mind.  Also that it applies to him, who’s akin to a lapsed catholic who can’t rid himself of the upbringing.

My own bias must be in favour of life because I took it at first it was his grubby female friend people were taking as real and not the synthetic he was meeting.  I was reminded of, as a child, watching a young woman acting as if she were attractive and men being attracted, an illusion I went on to wonder how long sustainable before reality kicked in.

He has a passage on god, presuming there is one and that he’s a creator, that’s well integrated but like the story carries the whiff of being put in because the writer wants it included somehow.

He takes the drug with the synthetic and experiences an encyclopaedic dribble that doesn’t cohere and gives him a headache.  She gets more out of it than he does.  The deepest part of the writing ensues as if he realises there’s more than consciousness but such is its conceit of self – he goes all Platonic at this point – he can’t get beyond it, unsurprisingly considering his hedonistic proclivities.  No wonder despair lurks.  If it’s any consolation, without the drugs and drink he’d still get nowhere.  Because he can’t, the narrative falters a little.  The conclusion is surprising and good, just a little too consciously put on.  It doesn’t satisfactorily explain why he’s important to the synths.

The story affected my unconscious.  I dreamt a power plant was belching out bleach and ammonia into the air and the authorities were doing nothing about it because only humans would die; it suited the aliens.  There was human resistance, personified by a man and a woman, guns slung from the shoulder, who were at odds.  I liked her room underground I shouldn’t be in, her clutter piled comfortably against the walls with a clear central passage.  Coming out the way I went in, I dropped money I didn’t want to leave behind so was hurriedly picking up when surprised.  She was bantering: possession was nine-tenths of the law and since he’d caught her, she’d go along with what he wanted.  They’d better hurry up before we all die but, despite the odds, the humans would win, call me a facile optimist if you will.

I’ve read the second story, Some Notes on the Artwork of Chris Wilhelm, before.  It’s probably the one put paid to my critical analysis of Justin’s oeuvre based on earlier stories.  It has an intrinsic rationale for use of the third person past as a quasi-academic treatment, with scholarly footnotes, of the purported effects of the artefact on people’s lives, a clue given in the sixth footnote, though the effects vary.  Although a name was mentioned in a footnote, because not previously in the text, I misinterpreted it initially as that of an investigating detective and not a journalist.  The style reminded me of Quentin S Crisp’s.

I have cavils: how the writer came into possession of a doctor’s confidential file on another character and perhaps also of the artist’s journal.  Though the latter how is readily deducible, I’m not sure an explanation should be supplied if the writer didn’t give one for the former.  The artist’s motive for his work is given towards the end of the story and the assumption has to be he achieved this.  I doubt it because that is not how one acquires consciousness of, say, a future time and the acquisition depends on much more than consciousness itself, but I do like the story.  Who wouldn’t want to make an artefact that altered people’s lives for good – or ill?

I’ve also read the third story, probably twice, in Dadaoism.  I lived by Queen’s Park and Glasgow was lacking in funk, clouds obscuring the sun, a depressed people two shots of whisky below par, the men dancing with one foot nailed to the floorboards while I danced ‘can’t get no satisfaction’ as Betty went off to get what little satisfaction was to be got from Tom Wright who had the shakes.  So far, so realistic but no amount of funkiness can excuse the misspelling of ‘descendant’.  Not even Americans do that.  There was a lot of bowling on greens all over Scotland, not just Glasgow.  I appreciate the reference to Christo (de Wet) while puzzled since the relationship didn’t stretch to Queen’s Park, a small error on the part of the author.  Bigger is his excoriation of Bulgarian folk music as antifunk.  I deny that, on the basis of personal experience.  I walked into a vast proletarian restaurant in Sofia to the sound of a band which inspired me to dance ever faster in friendly competition with the accordionist, challenging him to keep up.  The audience – I mean eaters – went wild and as I passed through the throng I was pulled by the most beautiful Bulgar, Peter, by being pulled onto his lap.  They are not called Bulgars for nothing.  I can vouch for their utter funkiness.  The author is committing a most calumnious libel of these highly funked people.  He is, however, amusing in his definition of anti-funk, which may have affected me: I too have imbibed at the Turk’s Head where Dennis Waterman thought of chancing his …arm and I thought to him or picked up his self-reflection, ‘You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for,’ at which he desisted.  The author’s postulation of telepathising by machine is quite unrealistic.  Think about it: the machine would simply be another and indirect consciousness for the unconscious to slow down to in order to communicate through whereas by bypassing consciousness and communicating one unconscious to another the communication can be infinitely fast and thus slow time to a stop, useful when you want to impress a psychopath for example.  Oh, and there’s that vulgar misspelling of ‘come’ again to try me and excuse on the basis of context.  This story is another attempt by the author to dominate through art but specious, since the story ends with an order to do what one inevitably would be doing and another to which the only answer has to be no – I don’t take orders, except in sex as I’ve discovered, if I’m able to comply that is – and was about to watch tele.

Another misspelling was so solecistically bad, it couldn’t but be deliberate, part of the 18th century patina of the author’s prose on antifunk as personified by Boswell whose Life I have read but entirely forgotten except for recognising several of this author’s sciolistic allusions to quotations one of which I was impelled to look up in my dictionary of quotations, faster than you can say google, and which was from Edwards, quoted by Boswell in the Life.

The next story was verbal froth liquefying in my hand and draining through interstices.  I grasped nothing but a subliming wetness.  The fanciful rationale of the story in the author’s mind was insufficiently disclosed.  I pencilled beside this: ‘Msa and Ama moved through each other, their souls and attitudes biting, tasting, resonant in argument,’ as an inkling of what that rationale might be.  If they moved through each other, they’re noncorporeal entities if they can demerge.  They’re living, which is what the designation ‘soul’ means.  And if they also have attitudes as well, it isn’t the attitudes of their souls but of their characters or minds perhaps.  Both souls and characteristic or individual mental attitudes figuratively bite and taste, since being non-corporeal they can’t physically.  It would have to be souls that resonate, souls considered as entities in themselves like the skin of drums or as a bowl shape of the soul at the back of the mind.  The only other passage I pencilled was ‘half-consumed heroine of an endlessly delayed wedding,’ which reminded me of Miss Havisham and her cake.

The Heart of a Man was a relief, a conventional third person past narrative without any rationale, that made me laugh at the ‘innovations in terrible prose’, ‘a bourgeois dog, of course, good with children and all that’, ‘he might have written a heretical tract just to risk being burnt at the stake’ and ‘Kolesnikov remembered that this character had been particularly unconvincing.’  Kolesnikov finds him supremely unpleasant in reality, an encounter which preceded my heart’s sinking – more an ‘oh, oh’ – at the mention of dialectic immaterialism, at which the story turned, from one fiction to another inverted one that involved a room like a tardis.

I liked Brent Beckford vs Writing, about ‘people’ determined by writing.  I am myself writing this with Jim Smyllie ever in mind.  It reminded me of Denise, a colleague when I was supply teaching and who’d just answered a call confirming a job in Brussels.  I waited behind to tell her not to go, she’d die in a fire there.  I was expecting disbelief but was surprised by her acceptance of her fate.  The word fate isn’t mentioned in Justin’s story.  When I came to include the story of Denise in a book I was writing, I stopped and went out, coming across Joan, another colleague back then, on the pavement opposite the top of my street.  “Have you heard about Denise?” she asked, “She died in a fire in Brussels.”  I went back and finished the story.

I liked The Portrayed Man more.  In British English paralysed is never spelt with a z.  The last line is less portentous than that of the previous story and horrible.

The Willow is a nice conceit.  In the last story sentences didn’t make sense so I went for the sound until I came upon the proclivity of the writer for bad puns if that’s what having two ‘characters’ whose names together make another.  There’s nothing inadvertent about this writer’s incorrect use of words.  The story is called Defence/Prosecution.  The prosecution is of a woman’s treatment for a post-partum psychosis, the defence of which is that it’s an effect of dark matter, if the story isn’t simply two welded together.  I stumbled at a disparity in time.  When time stops it stops throughout the universe.  The story also seems inconclusive.  The first story, which affected my unconscious, is the best.  That’s the sign of a good writer, one whose unconscious uses the cursor of his consciousness to reach through the cursor of the reader’s to unconscious effect, to engage the whole person with his art.

There’s a publishing history, acknowledgments and the publisher’s recommendations for further reading.  The reference to Jim Smyllie was a total irrelevance I don’t want you worrying about.


About johnbrucecairns

I'm a retired history teacher who's written for most of his life with a book readied for publication.
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