Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Catching Dreams with a Trumpet & a Briefcase

“There are good reasons why we don’t want our eyes to be open, what does the world mean ‘How come I am a huge participant in this huge enterprise known as reality?’” 

That quote is from existentialist/debbie downer, Søren Kierkegaard, who believed that the majority of us sleepwalk through our lives. And he has a point really, some days you just do what you have to and internally replay Seinfeld quotes until its finally time you can head home and read your book (my life truly is gripping at the moment).

Then there’s French Philosopher/big-ol’ dandy, René Descartes’ how do you know you’re not just dreaming argument for Dualism (which to me will always sound like a really good name for a belief that duelling is the best form of conflict resolution); this suggests that there are instances where dreams feel so real that when you wake up, for a second you question whether it really happened, and therefore all reality is questionable.

And he has a point too really! Regularly when I’m sleeping in for five more minutes, I’ll dream that I’m not a dropkick and I’ve already made my way out of bed and I’m on the tram, and then I’ll wake up extra shitty with myself that I still have to psych myself out of my comfy-comfy bed.

Because dreams can be all lucid and weird, their origins and meanings – as well as their connection to our reality – is a theme that’s always ripe for fictional exploration. Whether you’re fond of the idea of the BFG roaming the streets of a night and sending nice dreams your way via trumpet. Or you’re re-watching Twin Peaks and you think Dale Cooper’s theory that “dreams come from acetylcholine neurons fire high-voltage impulses into the forebrain, these impulses become pictures, the pictures become dreams – but, no one knows why we choose these particular pictures” has some good points; seeing dreams as representing more than simply something your brain does to entertain itself for several hours of inactivity, makes life seem a bit more mysterious and almost magical.

So let’s talk dreams in literature and then leave feeling slightly jaded that so far your dreams haven’t shown strong signs that they have the power to shift reality or read the future!! I do feel a little ripped off, at the most my dreams are occasionally a laugh.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)

I learnt a fun-fact a few weeks back, apparently Kurt Vonnegut managed a SAAB dealership in his day; SAAB’s were a underrated car, I respect Vonnegut more knowing he sold a babe magnet car then went home and wrote some classics of 20th century American literature, and he could also draw a tasteful a-hole – what a triple threat that man was!

For a while I didn’t want to read Slaughterhouse Five because the only thing I knew about it was that it references David Irving – a Holocaust denying ‘historian’/all round shithead whose research on the Dresden bombings has since been discredited. And its hard because at the time Slaughterhouse Five was written/published there was no way for Vonnegut to know that Irving would later be best known as a notorious Holocaust denier who exaggerated the death toll of Dresden to militarise historical memory. But it still isn’t great though that new editions don’t point this out to readers.

Anyway I’m side-tracking, I did eventually read Slaughterhouse Five and as a work of fiction it is really good aside from that one thing. In particular I love before the story begins how Vonnegut talks about the promise he made to the wife of an old war buddy that the story he would ultimately write would not glamourize war as the wife felt that books and movies sold a lie to young people by romanticising war.

Based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who witnessed the Dresden bombings and it’s aftermath, the main character, Billy Pilgram, is too an American POW who witnesses the destruction of Dresden. Yet cause this is a Vonnegut book, Billy has this unique problem where he’s become ‘unstuck in time’, and occasionally when he feels asleep he’ll wake up at various different points in his life.

Billy’s presence in his past and future never alters his fate, it’s just something he can do, and I respect Billy for going with it and never really analysing why it is he has this gift.

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972)

I’ve written about Watership Down in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Basically Fiver is the sensitive member of team. He’s a bit psychic and when he tells you he’s had a dream that the whole warren is in danger and every rabbit needs to leave now, he’s know what he talking about so don’t laugh at him just because he’s a wee bit eccentric.

The Dreams in the Witch House (H.P Lovecraft, 1933)

This one’s a short story belonging to the Cthulhu Mythos (a fictional satanic god who kinda looks like the every villain is lemons bit in Spongebob).

In this tale, a student of mathematics and folklore, Walter Gilman, decides to rent out a very cheap and very cursed attic room in a house known to locals as ‘the witch’s house’ (if the locals say don’t stay somewhere listen to them you fool!!).

As Walter is a fan of both maths and folklore (how convenient) he is interested in staying in this house because it once belonged to a woman trialled for witchcraft in Salem for her belief that she knew of lines and curve patterns which could allow one to travel across dimensions. Also as you’d except, the majority of this room’s previous occupants have died in mysterious circumstances.

Every night in this room Walter has strange feverish dreams (and props for Walter for even managing to fall asleep in a room he knows has a two century trend of dead tenants). In these dreams he shifts through ‘inexplicably coloured twilight’ vortexes, and envisions the witch moving closer.

Eventually the dreams reach a point where Walter has signed a mysterious book and he’s trying to stop the witch from abducting a child, and he wakes up in the morning to hear that a child’s actually gone missing.

Long story short the landlord abandons the house and years later, when workmen are demolishing the roof they find the space above the creepy attic is filled with children’s bones and the bone’s of the witch. Basically the moral of the story is never take an interest in maths.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick, 1968)

This is the book Bladerunner is based on. In this dystopia (set in San Francisco, 2021), the earth’s atmosphere is riddled with radioactive dust and the majority of people have relocated to a Mars colony. What’s more as radiation caused mass extinction of animals. protecting what little life remains has become the centre of society’s spiritual beliefs and owning pets has become so fashionable that mechanical animals are commonplace.

An incentive government offers for people willing to move to the mars colony are android servants. These androids are physically identical to humans, and the job of the main character, Richard Deckhard, is to ‘retire’ androids who escape the colony and try to disguise themselves as humans.

Despite having dream in the title, dreams are not a big part of this book’s plot. However, the religion the last earth dwellers follow, Mercerism, does involve plugging your mind into a box and fusing thought in a sleep-like trance, with a character who’s slowly trekking up a mountain to his death; the point being to encourage shared empathy.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971)

A bit like The Butterfly Effect but with aliens; the main character, George’s dreams have the ability to shift reality to the point where the past can be restructured overnight to fit what George dreamt about.

George however hates this overwhelming responsibility his sub-conscious has, and goes to see a sleep therapist, Dr William Haber. Haber is sceptical at first but with the help of Haber’s trusty dream machine he’s been working on, Haber suggests things for George to dream about and becomes the only person who remembers what the reality was like before George fell asleep and changed everything.

The general gist is Haber gets too into having this level of power and attempts to sculpt a Utopian society, while George feels like he’s being used and tries to find a lawyer who’ll believe him. What I like about this book is that while suggestions can be made to George as to what he’ll dream about next, it’s realistic in that he has no control as to what form that idea will take as a dream.

Oh Sigmund you lovable perv.

This is a very obscure reference, but there’s an episode of Red Dwarf (a BBC sci-fi comedy from the early 90s) where they all get trapped in a physical representation of one of the character’s psyche – kind of like a way darker version of Inside-Out. It’s an interesting concept, and it makes me wonder what my own brain-world would look like as an actual place, and just how strange/fucked my Id, Ego and Super -Ego would be as tiny little people with their own personalities.

Plus I wonder whether they get into adorable, tiny little fist fights while I’m in the middle of making a decision sometimes (like if I’m about to send a risky text, is my Super-Ego screaming ‘think of your dignity!!!’ while trying to overpower my Id who’s throwing chairs?)

According to Freud our psyche consists of three parts:

  • The Id (or unconscious) is concerned with desire
  • The Ego is about negotiation with the real world and is driven with instinct to protect itself
  • The Super-Ego is the self-critical component of the Ego.

Our unconscious mind is sculpted by past experiences and repressed impulses. It is highly influential on our behaviour, beliefs, feelings and such, yet it is inaccessible to the conscious mind. However, these thoughts can be revealed through methods such as interpreting dreams, or ‘parapraxis’ (aka Freudian slips).

Interpretation of dreams is significant in psychoanalysis because when we are sleeping our conscious resistance is down (fuck knows what that dream I had the other night where my friend was dating a talking beach-ball with no face means). Specifically, in relation to reading, Freud believed that books and paper were female symbols, and that reading had the ‘unconscious significance of taking knowledge from the mother’s body’.

Our neuroses are the product of unconscious and conscious dishonesty, and then there’s the Oedipus complex side of psychoanalysis, which theorises that as children we go through developmental stages which include fancying the parent of the opposite sex (I love the idea of Freud pitching this theory and being like ‘we’ve all been there right guys? It’s not just me?’).

Basically according to Freud what our brain-world would look like a deep, possibly terrifying jungle with talking trees hurling your mamma jokes constantly (*side note: I do believe that Freud’s your mamma comebacks would have been second to none).

But if you do want to have a good stare into the unconscious (or as I’ve dubbed mine the heart of darkness), maybe don’t discuss your deepest fears and feelings with Freud himself. His theory of transference suggested that strong feeling, particularly sexual ones, which were focused towards others, frequently become redirected towards the doctor during the process of analysis (oh Freud, you gorgeous thing, thinking you’re so darn irresistible).

From a literature perspective, one particularly fascinating thing about Freudian theory is when literature references are utilised to explain concepts. For instance, the story of Tancred and Clorinda (from an epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered) is used to describe ‘traumatic neurosis’. Tancred accidentally stabs Clorinda and does not hear her voice until the second wounding, which Freud used as an example of how a survivor will replay traumatic experiences and be especially haunted by that which was unknowable to them during the incident.

Psychoanalysis was also used by Marie Bonaparte (a friend of Freud’s) to analyse Edgar Allan Poe’s psyche through his stories (apparently if you marry your cousin, you get a rep as being a bit weird).

Roald Dahl baddies ranked in order of evilness

8. Mr & Mrs Twit – The Twits 

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In comparison to the rest of this list they’re fairly harmless. Their main crimes were torturing each other, looking gross, and attempting to make a bird pie. They weren’t the brightest given they managed to get themselves glued head first to the floor, and lost the battle between man versus bird; but you have to admire their elaborate prank ideas – the funny stick is pure genius and would take commitment.

This was my second favourite Roald Dahl book growing up, mainly for the bit where Mr Twit ties Mrs Twit to some balloons to get rid of her.

7. Boggis, Bunce, & Bean – Fantastic Mr Fox  

In fairness, even though they do look gross, they’re just trying to protect their farms.

6. The Enormous Crocodile

In fairness kids can be annoying sometimes

5.  The Evil Giants – The BFG

The BFG was my favourite; and as an adult I like the idea that my weird dreams are simply the result of a giant outside the window with a trumpet (as opposed to reflecting a very odd sub-conscious). Anyway, the evil giants ate humans every night and bullied the BFG for being nice. I didn’t put them higher up on the evil scale though cause they’re all living in a pit now, forced to eat snozzcumber – they’ve suffered for their crimes.

4. Mr & Mrs Wormwood – Matilda 

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Mr and Mrs Wormwood are horrible people and neglectful parents who don’t even like their daughter. Mr Wormwood runs a crooked car dealership – and as a bookworm, Mrs Wormwood’s line “you chose books, I chose looks” cuts me to the core . The only ‘nice’ thing they did for Matilda was let Miss Honey adopt her, and its pretty cold that they weren’t phased by giving her away.

3. Grand High Witch – The Witches

When I first read this book as a child it scared me so much. Dead-set, for a while I was on the lookout for the signals (wearing gloves? I’m on to you!!!). The Grand High Witch, and Witches in general, go out in disguise and steal and kill children. And their motive is just that kids piss them off. I mean at least the Enormous Crocodile didn’t try and disguise himself, he was all ‘what you get is what you see’.

2. Aunt Spiker & Aunt Sponge – James & the Giant Peach

Poor James has to live with these two for three years before they’re thankfully left ‘as flat & thin & lifeless as a couple of paper dolls’ after a peach accident. They’ve made second place because James isn’t allowed off the hill to talk to anyone else, they abuse him and they threaten to lock him in the cellar for a week.

1. Mrs Trunchbull – Matilda

Even as a child, I remember first reading Matilda and thinking, I don’t think that’s legal, have they tried calling child welfare?

How did Mrs Trunchbull get a job in teaching in the first place? She has such a raw hatred for children, I would’ve loved to see her try and bluff her way through that job interview. Or was she originally really nice then teaching broke her spirit?

Her list of evil doings throughout Matilda include: grabbing children by the hair, and swinging a little girl by her pigtails because she hates pigtails, force-feeding Bruce Bogtrotter cake in front of an assembly, throwing children out the window for eating in class, locking children in a narrow cupboard called ‘the chokey’, most likely killing Miss Honey’s Dad, was a terrible guardian to Miss Honey after her parents died and stole all Miss Honey’s inheritance.

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(say what you will about Agatha though, but its nice in this picture to see a teacher feeling enriched by their job)

BONUS ROUND!

Ranking of who were the shittiest parents in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory 

5. Mr & Mrs Bucket

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They’re good parents and all, who are trying their best even though they don’t have a lot. But am I the only one who questioned their choice of guardian for this day long trip to the chocolate factory? Grandpa Joe  has been bedridden for years, and he’s not even taking a cane on this trip which will involve a lot of walking.

4. Mr & Mrs Gloop

Mrs Gloop has a very poor understanding of nutrition, seen in this quote ‘Its all vitamins anyway’.

3. Mr & Mrs Teevee

I can’t get too judgy, I binge watch a lot of shows. Mike is an obnoxious shit though, and it probably wasn’t the best idea to just stand around while he shrunk himself.

2. Mr & Mrs Salt

I’m sure spoiling Veruca came from a place of love but it has gotten a bit out of hand, nobody needs that many pets. And Veruca is a shit name to give your child.

1. Mr & Mrs  Beauregarde

I don’t have kids so I don’t want to get too preachy here, but if your child has been chewing on the same bit of gum for three months straight, you should really encourage them to throw out that bit of gum. Also Mr & Mrs Beauregarde heard Mr Wonka repeatedly say the his gum wasn’t ready before Violet tried it.