Curtains by John Briggs

[posted by Alice]

When I first looked at the photographs in John Briggs’ Curtains, the phrase “glimmers of irreality” came to mind immediately. Each of the photos in this book is a small introduction to the mysteries that we may find when we look carefully at the material world. The book also contains Briggs’ short essay on how he came to take the photos and then manipulate them so that they became “windows on the unreality we live in.”

In October of 2013 Briggs and his wife were walking near Westminster in London, and the curtains hanging in the windows of the Old British Admiralty building caught his eye. For him the cascading and rippling folds of these curtains exuded a “sumptuous, classically sensual feel.”  He photographed them until a policeman asked him to stop taking pictures of a government building.

When he got the photos home and examined them on his computer, Briggs was disappointed that the “glowing, gauzy folds” he had seen in the man-made fabric of the curtains now seemed more harsh than sensuous.  He tried some digital techniques to draw out the curtains’ sumptuous appearance once again, but it was not until 2015 when he experimented with solarization, inversion, and other techniques that he was able to find ways to reveal to us what he had seen on that October day. In this slim volume we are shown both the “normal views” of the curtains and the images in which the application of these techniques brought out true complexity and strangeness.

John Briggs is a Café Irreal contributor and author of Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos among other works, so we share with him an appreciation of the times our normal concept of reality is undermined. Impressed with the strangeness these photos convey, I carried Curtains with me to Prague and spent some time looking at it. Then last week while in London on our way back home, Greg and I made a special detour to the Old British Admiralty to see for ourselves the “puddled” curtains Briggs photographed.

After our visit to the Admiralty, I appreciated the images in Curtains even more. Though I often photograph architectural details and rich textures and I seek to convey in my own images the above-mentioned “glimmers of irreality,” I wouldn’t really have given the Admiralty curtains a second glance. The fact that Briggs chose to photograph them and then made his photos yield two dozen mysterious and complex images is a project that impresses me with its deceptive simplicity.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre described being-in-itself – the objects we encounter in the external world – as a plenitude of being, full of itself, and manifesting itself in an infinite number of aspects. When we really look at a physical object and are able to see, in Briggs’ words, “what’s hidden in plain sight all around us,” we begin to appreciate the true complexity of the in-itself. Briggs’ photos are beautiful works in their own right, but they also teach us how to stumble into strangeness and to find the “whimsical and profound” in the everyday.

Addiction to the God Drug: an Irreal Notion in China Miéville’s Embassytown

[posted by Alice]

China Miéville is a science fiction writer who frequently describes his own work as “weird fiction.” His 2011 novel Embassytown is a complex and unusual psychological science fiction novel that focuses on linguistics, and though it is not as irreal as his 2009 effort The City and the City, there is an irreal notion at Embassytown’s core. I’ll try not to include too many spoilers in this post, though you can find a full synopsis of the novel here, and there’s a thoughtful and well-written review of the whole book here. But I intend to limit myself to describing the particularly irreal notion that is at the heart of the novel, the idea that extraterrestrial beings become addicted to a type of speech, which is referred to at times as the God drug. To describe it, I will use Shimon Sandbank’s idea that some fictional notions, such as those in Franz Kafka’s work, present us with “so many pointers to an unknown meaning.” But first, though Embassytown is mostly (good) science fiction and not irreal fiction, I need to describe briefly the events that take place in the novel.

In the far future time that is the novel’s setting, humans have travelled out into the galaxy in a diaspora that has taken them to the edge of known space. The novel’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is a woman who was born and raised in Embassytown, a human colony on a farflung world called Arieka that is inhabited by an intelligent and unique species. Avice earlier left Arieka to became an Immerser (which means she has the skill to pilot starships as they pass through the Immer, which seems to refer to travel though hyperspace), and after a number of years of living as an Immerser she returned to Arieka with her linguist husband in time to experience the events depicted in the novel.

Embassytown is a place designed to give humans an appropriate environment (such as air to breathe) on an otherwise inhospitable planet, and it is the home of Ambassadors who can speak with the Ariekei in their own language. As a result of the Ambassadors’ efforts, humans can exchange technology and goods with the Ariekei, who are mostly treated respectfully by the colonists and referred to as the Hosts. The Hosts are never completely described, but they are large creatures with chitonous shells who have two wings, a number of legs, and multiple eyes. Their speech is referred to as Language, and Avice tells us that in her wide travels throughout the galaxy Language seems to be unique. It is especially difficult to speak because it requires the expression of two separate sounds or words from separate mouths at the same time. Because the Ariekei can only comprehend these sounds if they are emitted by a conscious being and not if they come from a recording, human Ambassadors are actually a pair of cloned humans who have a special empathic link that allows them to learn to speak two separate but necessary parts of Language simultaneously. In this way they can be understood (though imperfectly) by the Hosts.

Avice has a special relationship to Language in that she was made a simile by the Ariekei when she was a child. The Ariekei are fascinated by the human ability to speak something different from the realities they think and see, and unlike humans they find it nearly impossible to lie. After they come into contact with humans they periodically hold Festivals of Lies at which they make feeble attempts at lying and seem to find the experience oddly stimulating. The Ariekei also create similes to enable them to speak in ways that are not strictly true, and they sometimes recruit humans to undergo various experiences which are then used in a type of figurative speech. Among segments of the community of humans in Embassytown there is a cult of celebrity honoring those who have been made similes — these include “the boy who swims with the fishes” and “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what she was given.” The latter is the simile Avice has helped to make possible.

When the Bremen authorities send a new Ambassador, Ez/Ra, who is unusual in that the two humans involved are not clones of each other, the Hosts are so overwhelmingly affected by Ez/Ra’s speech that they become addicted to it. This addiction leads to violence and conflicts that have never before been experienced on Arieka, but it’s not necessary to talk any more about the novel’s plot (which would frankly involve a number of spoilers) in order to say that it is the nature of addiction to Ez/Ra and their way of speaking Language that gives us the irreal element in this novel. This addictive speech is sometimes referred to in the novel as “the God drug.”

When the Hosts hear Ez/Ra speak, they are thrilled and overwhelmed, and after a short time they so desperately need to hear more that they are unable to carry on the normal business of their lives. And so of course the first notion that the idea of Ez/Ra and addictive speech points to is an obvious meaning related to the consequences of addiction in the lives of the addicts. Because Embassytown is a colony this addiction can be seen as part of a manipulative ploy on the part of the colonial administrators to get what they want on Arieka. Despite the frequency of German references and words (for example, Bremen is the name of the administrative center to which the Ambassadors and their staffs must answer; the word immer, which refers to space travel that collapses distances the way wormholes do, is the German word for always), the story implies the kinds of colonial relations that sprung up during the British Empire. (Miéville is British after all, and the colonists in Embassytown do speak Anglo-Ubiq.) The addiction to Ez/Ra and subsequent warfare therefore remind me of the Opium Wars, during which Britain and China fought over the fact that the British were illegally importing and selling opium and wanted to force China to open its markets to foreign goods. Ez/Ra’s speech and the notion of the God drug can be seen as an unethical way for colonizers to manipulate the indigenous inhabitants of an important colony, but many other concepts are implied. I can think of at least five other meanings that Ez/Ra’s speech or the God drug points toward, without actually being fully explained by any of them:

  1. The two voices needed to speak Language and the almost supernatural power of Ez/Ra’s speech bring to mind Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In this book Jaynes put forth the notion that ancient peoples, the Greeks among others, experienced a divided consciousness in which one of the “voices” that seemed to speak to them inside their own minds was interpreted as the voice of the gods. (Note that the name Ezra is Biblical in origin, and the Ra half of the name makes reference to the ancient Egyptian god of the sun.)
  2. The two voices needed to speak Language and the addictive nature of Ez/Ra’s speech also remind us that the voice of the writer is speaking inside the reader’s head. Depending on the reader’s opinion of the writer, this can sometimes become nearly addictive. Perhaps Miéville himself has experienced irrational loyalty and a clamoring for more output from his fans (remember that the word fan is a shortened version of fanatic).
  3. The language of the novel itself is compelling and propels us forward because we want to find out what will happen. Such is the nature of storytelling, which is a kind of lie. When the Ariekei learn to lie and use figurative speech, they also become capable of telling stories. Which reminds us in turn that Embassytown itself is a story.
  4. The hints of German language in the novel make us think about the effect that Adolf Hitler’s speech had on the German people — a kind of hypnotic and extremely enthralling influence that is part of the reason why people followed his lead into the unspeakable horrors of World War II.
  5. Language is inevitably spoken by all Ariekei before the events described in the novel, but after Ez/Ra comes some Ariekei mutilate themselves so they cannot hear and cannot be addicted to Ez/Ra’s speech. Yet these mutilated Ariekei are able to communicate with each other, which leads to the realization that Language is not the only language.

The notion of two humans known as Ez/Ra speaking an extraterrestrial language in such a way that addiction and chaos result is truly a weird notion, and it gives Embassytown glimmers of irreality. However, in my opinion, the Ariekei themselves are not actually irreal. They are speakers of a language that can be spoken by and understood by humans. Much more alien are the aliens created by Stanislaw Lem in Fiasco or the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic, who are so different from and/or advanced beyond humans that they can scarcely be comprehended.

Quirky Narrators and Occasional Irrealism in George Saunders’ Tenth of December

[posted by Alice]

At the Café Irreal we often receive stories which the author considers to be irreal because they feature a strange or unexpected narrative style. Sometimes the narrator of these stories uses unusual language or the narrator may have a psychiatric problem or is delusional because of illness. But the story itself depicts events that can actually be explained by the narrator’s mental or physical state (or unusual manner of speaking). To us these stories, though they might be entertaining and well written, are not irreal at all — we want to see reality itself, not an individual’s consciousness, being undermined in some way.

As I read George Saunders’ most recent short story collection, Tenth of December, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every story in the collection features a first person or third person subjective narrative style. In most cases the narrator also uses odd colloquial language and may also be mentally or physically impaired. Many writers in the United States — from Mark Twain onward — have shown a strong preference for quirky and colloquial narration. Examples would include Alice Walker in The Color Purple and J. D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye. Like both Walker and Salinger, Saunders crafts memorable narrators and often makes serious points about the nature of our society, how it is going awry, and how social problems affect the lives of ordinary people. But even when he is writing stories that could clearly be called science fiction, Saunders’ stories are not particularly irreal.

Tenth of December gives us quite a range of quirky narrators, and Saunders uses their narrative quirks to show us, in the space of a short story, what their lives are like and how they relate to others. In “Puppy” we feel a sense of revulsion toward both the woman taking her children to look at a puppy and the woman whose puppy is at the center of the story. We see into these women’s lives, know their thoughts, and are given their rationalizations even as they do ugly things. This is not always pleasant, but despite an odd incident in the puppy owner’s yard, the story is not irreal. In the science-fiction-inspired “Escape from the Spiderhead” we come to see the narrator from a more sympathetic point of view, despite what we know to be true about him. This story takes Stanley Milgram’s experiments to a new level, as managers psyche themselves and others up to do unspeakable things. (Milgram’s 1965 study on obedient behavior saw “teachers” giving electrical shocks to “learners” despite the pain the learners seemed to endure.) But though the setting of this story is near future and the narrator’s language and explanations are constantly altered by the administration of drugs, the story is sadly plausible and again is not irreal.

In my opinion the only story in the collection that has a truly irreal aspect is “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” This is not because of the narrative style, which reminds me of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, nor because of the near future or alternative universe setting in which most things are very much like our own world. It is instead because of the existence of an irreal phenomenon that is never fully explained, in much the same way that Kafka never tells us why Gregor Samsa turns into a very large insect. In this story the narrator is a father trying to keep a daily diary for benefit of future readers (a nice device that lets the reader know why he explains things so completely) and worrying that his family is not able to enjoy a high enough standard of living. He describes his life in a frequently annoying yet likeable way and says, for example, that he doesn’t like rich people because they make poor people feel “dopey and inadequate,” but he also wants what rich people have. We know that he is not well off — his bumper falls off at the beginning of the story, he says that people at work only ever see him wearing a a blue shirt or a yellow shirt, and his credit cards are nearly maxed out. When he comes into a small windfall in the form of a $10,000 “Scratch-Off win,” he consults with his wife and they decide to upgrade their landscaping so their daughter can have a birthday party at home and feel comfortable inviting her better-off friends to her house. The investment works well, the party is a success, but one of the upgrades the family has made — the installation of four SGs — upsets the family’s other daughter, a sensitive girl who worries about the pain and suffering SGs might experience.

We don’t learn very much about these SGs (Semplica Girls), but we are told that they are women from economically and politically challenged societies. They are brought to people’s homes by a landscaping company that also sees to their physical needs while they are engaged in the service they are being paid to perform. This involves dressing in white smocks and being hoisted into the air, attached to each other by “microfilament” that joins them brain-to-brain, so that they float above people’s backyards. And because of interviews done by one of the daughters, we even learn some “fun facts” about the narrator’s SGs, including their names and that they hail from the Philippines, Somalia, Moldava, and Laos. But I think that this odd notion of the SGs, which is at the heart of an otherwise only slightly nonrealistic story, has more depth and resonance than the illustration at the New Yorker site implies when it shows the white skirt hems of four brown-skinned women float-flying above a koi pond. Nor do I think it is accurate to describe them as “third-world women strung up as bourgeois lawn ornaments” as Gregory Cowles did in his February 1, 2013 review of Tenth of December in the New York Times. I think that the SGs are truly an irreal notion, every bit as much as Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’s been turned into a very large insect. The idea that young, mostly dark-skinned and dark-haired women would be hung so thoughtlessly in people’s backyards calls to mind the wide range of suffering inflicted on dark-skinned people, such as lynching and the mistreatment of undocumented workers. The surgeries they must undergo also call to mind the surgeries women endure to participate in the sex trade (breast enhancement, etc.). SGs wear white, float above the ground and are often described as singing, bringing to mind an image of angels; yet, several times in the story we see a tethered dog suffer at the end of its chain so we can also see SGs in terms of the sad life of a yard dog. In many ways the SGs point to an unknown meaning, even as they also more obviously show us the irrational spending that fads can induce and the suffering of deprived and impoverished humans in our world. And finally, as the diary ends abruptly, we are also left feeling that the fate of the SGs will affect the lives of the narrator’s family who are running the race to the bottom themselves, their two daughters perhaps more vulnerable than they know. The irreal plight of the SGs is inexplicable yet surprisingly meaningful.

A Review of The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry

[posted by Greg]

We want here to make note of an important book published late last year, The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry. A copy was kindly sent to us by its publisher, Wakefield Press, upon the request of the work’s distinguished translator, Edward Gauvin (we’ve previously published his translations of The Pavilion and the Lime Tree by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, The Wrinkle Maker by Marcel Béalu and, indeed, one of the stories that appears in this volume, Kafka, or the Secret Society.

The book immediately stands out because of its elegant appearance. It is printed in a format I’m mainly familiar with in Europe – a matte (not glossy) paperback cover with a folded over leaf – that is largely reserved for literary works with a smallish print run. This sense of the literary was reinforced by the abundance of compelling black and white collages by Claude Bellaré. Indeed, seeing a small literary work so distinctively and lovingly put together in an American context served as a reminder of how rare that experience is here, and for reasons that are not entirely clear: the graphic work done on our mass produced trade paperbacks can certainly be of high quality, but the graphics and illustrations are generally limited to the front and back covers, leaving the rest of the book almost indistinguishable from any other book of its type, while the small press literary works also generally fall into the same standard trade paperback format with the disadvantage that they do not have such a large budget for the cover art. As every single story in this volume is illustrated by one of Bellaré’s surrealistic collages, that is not a problem here.

And the stories themselves are quite brilliant. As this is but a short review, I will attempt to describe Ferry’s stories succinctly but imperfectly by stating that they present a reality being pushed by the circumstances described in the story and the narrator’s reflections on those circumstances to the breaking point and then, inevitably, past it. As in the story “Rapa Nui,” in which the narrator finds himself at long last on Easter Island after 30 years of literally dreaming, time and again, that he was finally on Easter Island except that, at the end of the story’s two pages, we learn that “not a line of the above is true, except that for 30 years I’ve wanted to go to Easter Island, where something awaits me…” The same is true in the story of Ferry’s that we published, “Kafka, or the Secret Society,” in regard to the the mysterious, but flexible and expansive (perhaps endlessly expansive) membership parameters of the society mentioned in the title. Indeed, the stories generally share the quality of the island on which the narrator is stranded in “Letter to a Stranger,” whose reality causes him to ask the reader, “Haven’t you, in the dark, ever reached out with your foot for the final step of a staircase, only to find there wasn’t one? Do you remember the utter disarray you felt for a moment? … Well, this land is always like that.”

Indeed, this work reinforces for me the sense that we in the English-speaking world are not sufficiently familiar with the strong, and unique, tradition of the fantastic that exists in the Francophone world. Like many, I’ve been aware of and even read occasional works by such authors as Alfred Jarry and iconic names such as Baudleaire and Rimbaud. But that these are only the most famous names of what is a very deep tradition has been brought home to me from three sources in the course of my work with The Cafe Irreal: the translations that Mr. Gauvin has sent us (see above), the translations that Michael Shreve has sent us (Morphiel the Demiurge by Marcel Schwob, Hell by Remy de Gourmont, and  Where Are the Plans? by Jean-Marc Agrati) and, in the course of my own translating and reading of the work of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz, his mention in an essay (which I read several years ago) that the author who has had the greatest influence on him was Raymond Roussel.

This was a surprise to me as I didn’t have at that time the slightest idea who Raymond Roussel was. I have since corrected this by reading Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. It is true that it is not at all my favorite work from amongst what I have read of this group of authors, but perhaps to correct this I need to read a bit more of Ferry’s work. For it turns out that Ferry wrote no less than three works about Roussel. Indeed, André Breton, who called Roussel the “greatest mesmerizer of our times,” admitted in a letter to Ferry that “without you, I would probably still not see anything in him.”

But here we have entered the realm of the translator’s excellent introduction, and these and other aspects of Ferry, Jarry, Roussel, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique (of which Ferry was a leading member — “pataphysique” is “the science of imaginary solutions”), the Oulipo (a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique) and other such matters are concisely and nicely explicated by Gauvin. Which is yet another reason to purchase this book, and/or recommend that your local library does the same.




Sun Ra’s 100th Birthday and Irrealism

[posted by Greg]

It might be going a bit far for us, as irrealists, to claim the great jazz musician, bandleader and Afro-futurist Sun Ra as one of our own. But I can certainly report having my sense of reality undermined anytime that I saw Ra and his Solar Jet Set Arkestra. Certainly one does not expect to go to a jazz concert and, after the band sans leader has warmed the audience up with a tune or two, to see the band’s singer get up and start singing the lyric “When the world was in darkness, and darkness was ignorance, along came Ra,” and then, as the rest of the band repeated the refrain “Along came Ra,” to see Sun Ra himself, dressed in a kind of futurist-Egyptian garb, coming onstage. Nor did one expect, as happened at a concert at Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1980, to hear a long monologue from Ra, detailing how he had once been the pharaoh of Egypt but had given up his kingdom for immortality. And beyond the unexpected theatrical juxtapositions there were the musical ones, as the band effortlessly moved back and forth between playing with the raw energy and deceptive simplicity of a 1920s or 1930s jazz territorial band and with the sophistication and boundary-breaking sensibilities of the cutting-edge avant-garde group that they also were.

Some of the sense of strangeness of these performances came from not appreciating the musical and cultural roots of Sun Ra, who in his youth played with the great 1920s bandleader Fletcher Henderson and whose stage sensibilities lay in the more theatrical jazz of, e.g., Cab Calloway, which preceded the sanitizing of big band jazz that occurred in the course of the 1930s and 1940s. In that sense, he was both a throwback to a previous era and yet an exemplar of the avant-garde. But it also flowed from the personality of Sun Ra himself, aided by his brilliant musicians, including vocalist June Tyson, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, and the whole tradition of the touring big band, which the Arkestra exemplified.

In 1985 Alice and I were living at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago when the Arkestra had a two-week engagement at the Jazz Showcase, which was located in a room off the lobby of the hotel. The whole of the fifteen or so member Arkestra stayed at the hotel as well, and so for that two weeks we would frequently encounter its members as they came and went from rehearsals, ate at the diner downstairs, and so on. Like any touring band they lived in a world of their own, but this was obviously a very unique world, influenced as it was by the singular vision of Sun Ra. And here, perhaps, we could make a leap to some of the icons of irrealism, for if exceptionally distinct visions of the world, with brilliant art flowing from them, characterized figures such as Kafka and Borges, then the same can certainly also be said of Sun Ra.

The Cafe Irreal Gets a New Look

[posted by Alice]

Having a web-based magazine means doing a certain amount of web design, but we’ve always tried to keep the design of The Cafe Irreal simple so the focus is on the stories. When the first issue of Cafe Irreal went online in February of 1999, it had a somewhat stark black-and-white design, and for the first few years the “cover” of each issue featured an animated gif collage. Those were the days of font tags and the other messy building blocks of early html.

With the February 2014 issue we’re rolling out a new design for which we’re using html 5 and a CSS framework, Pure, to make a responsive site. Pure is available at We used a couple of their common layouts  and customized them. The resulting site reminds us a little of the original, black-and-white Cafe Irreal design, and it’s nearly as light-weight. Let us know what you think.

After 15 Years, the Virtual Becomes Physical

It must count as an unusual experience in the annals of literature: putting out a publication for fifteen years that has never taken a physical form. In fact, before the advent of the internet it would have been impossible. And yet, that is exactly what we at The Cafe Irreal have done. Or, we should say, had done until a UPS shipment arrived Friday evening and, for the first time, we could actually hold The Cafe Irreal (in anthology form as The Irreal Reader) in our hands. Of course, as its editors our first concern was that everything had turned out okay: that the cover came out okay (it looks great), that something didn’t go wrong at the printers (the text portion is all in order, and also looks great), etc. But then, as we state in the title of this blog post, the virtual became the physical and we could actually hold it in our hands, leaf through its pages, show it to friends and family. Now we don’t claim this experience to be unique to us, as anybody involved in publishing an internet journal shares it. But among the established internet journals it seems that we have waited longer than most to come out with an anthology (and without gentle prodding from the good folks at Guide Dog Books, it would have been even longer). We can then, perhaps, appreciate even more the power of having our publication in physical form at long last, even though we would be the last to diminish its value in virtual form.