Thursday, July 22, 2010

Smelling (and seeing) rats

After I posted the enigmatic image that graces the front cover of Mike Johnson's forthcoming novel Travesty, I received a series of messages, some of them straightforward and some of them enigmatic, about proper and improper ways of looking at said image. I had seen a large, playful bear on the cover of Travesty, rather than the sinister 'super-rat' which the book's illustrator Darren Sheehan claimed to have placed there. Other, equally puzzled viewers reported a 'good-looking labrador', a 'grey man', and a 'traitor named Vosko'.

It was Hamish Dewe who was able to locate Darren's rat: after studying the image on the cover of Travesty with his customary rigour, he announced that it consisted of 'two horizontal portraits of the same rat, arranged vertically'. To recognise the creatures we simply had to 'disengage the rat, or rather rats, and rearrange them in their original horizontal pose'. There is the odd viewer who has been unable to see the rat, or rats, even after attempting to follow Hamish's directions.

The enigmatic nature of the cover of Travesty is not necessarily a problem, of course: many of the most memorable works of visual art have been ambiguous. People with nothing better to do still argue about whether Mona Lisa is really smiling, or whether the Sphinx's serenity has a hint of arrogance. In a comment on this blog, Jack Ross reported being haunted by the mysteries of Darren Sheehan's creation:

The real trouble with that "super rat" image is that once you've seen it, you can't unsee it - which I suppose was the original intention. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this troubling work, I must say...

In a contribution to the same discussion thread, Richard Taylor stated that 'Some of the most fascinating chess struggles are draws'. I choose to believe that Richard's words were a cryptic response to the 'super-rat' image, rather than a departure from the topic being discussed.

Titus Books has evidently been undisturbed by all the discussion about the cover of Travesty, because it has used Darren Sheehan's 'super-rat' image on the poster being circulated to advertise the launch of the book, which promises to be a good night out, complete with free booze and a reading by Mike (click on the poster to read all the details). I haven't yet been able to find the rat on the cover of Travesty, but my failure may have less to do with the subtlety of Darren Sheehan than with what some philosophers of science like to call the theory-dependence of observation. A morbid fear of rats saw me regularly humiliated during my childhood in a leaky, nineteenth century farmhouse, and these days sees me retreating in sudden jerky movements from the television every time one of those awful pest control advertisements defeats Skyler's channel-surfing talents. Like Orwell, whose description of the pair of murderous, barely restrained 'grandfathers of the sewers' who wait for Winston Smith in Room 101 of the Ministry of Truth gives Ninety Eighty-Four its most coruscating pages, I regard rats not only as vehicles of disease but as symbols of evil. I've tried to analyse the creatures - to break them down into a series of physical attributes, movements, and habitats - in the hope of finding the root of the terror they cause me, but it is not so much the individual rat-traits I have observed - the old pink-grey face uplifting, as its scabbed nostrils fiercely sniff the breeze, or the tail trailing across a cracked linoleum floor where stale milk has pooled, or the babies suckling their mother's tiny diseased tit at the edge of the barn, on hay the colour of leprous flesh, or the elaborate death of a black Norwegian monster strong enough to lift the steel trap off the kitchen floor with its broken back - as the sheer continuity of rat-life that terrifies me. The thought of them scavenging and feasting and breeding and birthing, night after night, in hay-lofts and cellars and abandoned cars, multiplying and waiting on the margins of human existence, waiting for some terminal increase in human folly, like a global thermonuclear war, or a pandemic escaped from some lab, that will hand them the best parts of the earth: waiting like some infinitely evil, because infinitely patient, army...

Given all this, I'm wondering whether I should be personally offended by the fact that my friend Ted Jenner seems to have gone out of his way to honour my enemies on the back cover of the fortieth, and latest, issue of brief, New Zealand's most consistently avant-garde literary journal. Ted, who threw the issue together with such efficiency and rigour that he threatens to embarrass certain previous, rather less enthusiastic editors, has adorned his front cover with photographs of apparently human skulls. Ted's choice of decoration might seem slightly eccentric, but it is at least in keeping with the front of Writers in Residence, the 2009 collection of his verse and prose. The photo on the cover of Writers in Residence was taken atop Mount Zomba, one of the highest points in Malawi, the country where Ted taught and wrote for a decade, but it does not, contrary to what certain over-excited Titus readers have claimed, furnish evidence of comrade Jenner's cannibalistic urges. Ted's grin may remind you of Hannibal Lecter after a few whiskies, but he is showing the camera the skull of a long-dead monkey, not some unlucky African baby.

I find the rats Ted has placed on the back cover of the latest brief more suspicious than his skulls. Since I rang him up a couple of years ago pretending to a police officer, and demanded that he report to the local station to explain his heavy consumption of whiskey and the obscene passages in the book he was assembling for Titus, Ted has attempted a series of revenge jokes on me. I have two texts in the latest brief - a record of my adventures on Hamlins Hill last year, and my convoluted CROSTOPI Manifesto - and so Ted could be reasonably sure that I would read his issue, vain creature than I am. Are his rats supposed to make me jump off the couch and pour myself a stiff drink, in the same terrified, involuntary way that my call from the Balmoral Police Station made him jump off his couch and pour his glass of whiskey down the sink? You might think me paranoid for raising this possibility, but what other reason could Ted have for adding rats to his issue of brief? You're not going to tell me that the drawing, which came from the pencil of Ted himself, warranted inclusion on aesthetic grounds, are you? I smell a rat or two, I tell you...

3 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Of course draws in chess are deeply relevant to rats and all other things. '1984' by Orwell is clearly a game of chess - today I was in the local library playing over the well known game where (former World Champion many times) Botvinnik basically introduced the "wedge" formation into the Black side of the Closed Sicilian against Smyslov in their match for the title in 1954 (game 15), now this is clearly deeply relevant as, as I was looking at my own game when I faced (last night) an English - King's English with an early B fianchetto var - I managed to draw. Now, my opponent wasn't a rat but quite strong player. I had failed to appreciate the significance of d3 (erroneously I took on c3 doubling White's pawns but this only improved his "wedge") and e4 on move 5 or simply e4 in what is basically reversed Sicilian as everyone knows... I had not been "onto" that fact as I had wrongly only studied lines I wished to play myself (as White) and had somehow "overlooked" that line or "system" - despite playing it myself in 3 0 (3 minutes each, no time increment) games...

Now, a handsome young Chinese fellow came by (we had a table in the Chinese section); and asked us about the chess (he mentioned Chinese chess) - I explained all the above and more to him...he seemed very switched on (if slightly bemused or amused if not confused) and I asked him what he was studying... He was dressed (very sauvly) in one of those very nice dark jackets which are mainly only obtainable in China I beleive) - maybe they are called Mao jackets? - he , very sauvly said: "Automotive Engineering."

Now that really means: "To be or become a mechanic."

So it was then (with rat certainty (I wasn't fooled for a rodent minute)) that I instantly realized (it was one of those vividly intense flashes of insight) that Communism was impossible to achieve, ever.

So I went back to analyzing the chess games.

6:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Impersonating a police officer is illegal.

Ted Jenner may well want to phone his lawyer.

6:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dylan Horrocks will be at the launch!

12:47 am  

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