Archives for category: On books

I was asked to write in Michael Rakowitz’s catalogue, for his show at the MCA Chicago (Sept 2017 – March 2018), entitled Backstroke of the West, curated by Omar Kholeif. Michael’s work encompasses errant history, near and far. He plays with time and matter. And so, here’s my short story inspired by his preoccupations*.

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A precious artifact separates them. It’s white, brittle looking, a real talking point. Dust falls onto the starring loan. Neither she nor he notices. It’s nearly midnight now. The museum is open late, for the public. We must educate the public. Guards are prone to daydream, but what do they dream of at night? Dust always falling, breeding, elsewhere in the building too. Tiny enemies. Dust falls between this woman and this man.

“I REMEMBER…,” she says.

“YOU REMEMBER…?” he shakes his head.

They have been visiting this popular museum since they first met, on the third floor, forty-five years ago. They sought shelter from the rain that day. From the fucking chaos of the world. Their eyes locked onto one another—through the missing gaps of a dinosaur skeleton. Love at first extinction, you might say. Small talk ensued. Were the dinosaur’s memories still trapped in the bones?

A tour guide passed by, arms flailing, and he shouted, “One day, humans will be artifacts in a museum like this.” It made our couple laugh, and, before long, they’d told each other their plain, familiar names.


“YOU REMEMBER NOWHERE,” Okada side-eyes.

Time in a museum is unlike time on a watch, on a screen, between atoms. Museum time is a relatively affordable luxury, a holiday away from habit. Time, here, is not narrative. Neither is it nonlinear. It is formed of crystals, according to a Sudanese painter whose work they saw on the ground floor of the museum, in rooms one through four. Women trapped in crystalline cages.



Riva and Okada have lost track of their route through the popular museum, the rooms they’ve visited, in their long, winding life together. Numbers are related to counting, and, after some years, when their marriage slowly turned into a private museum, they chose not to count anymore.



Earlier, in one of the museum’s other rooms, they read a caption that said, “Time, more than space, belongs to theologians, filmmakers, and shamans.” They made a note of this, in shorthand that the other would find impossible to ever read. Then they watched a film. Historical sites—thousands of years ancient, in a part of the world most associated with unending wars—were being blown up with old explosives. These statues, apparently, were sacrilegious. Shirk, the greatest sin of all. Shirk, attributing God’s greatness to something other than God. Destroying them was the duty of the devout?

But the videos played backward. Pulverized dust slowly congealed back into form and figure, poise and premonition. This is often how their marriage felt too.



Are we able to piece together their itinerary over the past three hours—or three decades, who’s to say—moving from curated room to didactic display? Is this an accurate checklist?


Doomed to repeat, cursed to repeat, shuffling the same playlist—this is what their grandchildren believe happens to civilization. Only technology changes. The nature of switches, dials, buttons. If humans are going to be artifacts in a museum like this, Riva wonders, could they pick me? She imagines a vitrine shaped like a crystal, like the one she saw Vladimir Lenin encased in, at his Red Square mausoleum. She envies the glory of his eternal rest. His pallor.



It is 11:59 pm, and the museum guards are rounding up people, politely asking them to make their way to the exit. The precious artifact separating Riva and Okada—white, brittle looking, a real talking point of today’s museum tweets—has puzzled them ever since they arrived.

The museum should provide theologians or shamans for moments like this, when the captions on the walls fall short. When you’re free-falling through meaning. When you look at the person you’ve spent almost your entire life with and— like that—you feel no love.


The chaos of the fucking world leads us here?

To a set of “keywords”?

The precious artifact—says the exhibition handout—is a new, three-dimensional printed copy. Very twenty- first century, apparently. However. Let’s be honest. This re-creation is more of a lewd ghost, composed entirely of digital dust, the wet dream of millennials, who have become the stupidly successful museum’s priority audience.

Riva and Okada fail to lock eyes with one another, missing the dinosaur skeleton maybe, missing whatever it is that makes the past something other than a grotesque animal. Their memories are trapped inside their bones. And at this moment, sadness falls between Riva and Okada for the last time.


“MY LOVE,” he cries, “I KNOW YOU DO.”


*The characters’ names are borrowed from the actors’ names in Hiroshima Mon Amouras is the contrapuntal affirmation and denial between the protagonists.


And here’s the cover of Michael’s catalogue:

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I miss doing nothing. Or I miss the idea of doing nothing. I spend a lot of time thinking about which, and whether there’s a real difference, or an unreal difference, and that too takes up more time. I describe time as a resource. Unlike crude oil, corn and quartz, it is infinite, but spending too much time thinking about infinity has lost me years of my life since I was a child. Children rarely do nothing. Except maybe young girls. I see them sit quietly at restaurants with their parents. They’re coloring in a unicorn drawing. They’re quietly lost in their own sense of colouring. Maybe this is not exactly nothing but boys of the same age are like hyperactive protons, agitated energy, vectors unable to conceive of stillness. Boys adhere to Brownian motion. Parents writhe over the vexed question “When do we give our baby their first iPad?” Because new parents, maybe more than anyone, miss doing nothing the most. They crave it. They are in an endless jetlag of the body. It’s in their eyes. I miss doing nothing. I ask novelists if they read less novels than they used to, before 4G. Most say yes, their brains have changed. Forever. (The others are lying.) I know one person — a novelist — who refused to get a mobile phone of any kind. He was a modern day Walden. He enjoyed the detachment from digital obligations the moment he stepped out of his apartment into the city. He said it made him see and hear the birds and the trees more vividly. This delinking, he claimed, was a balm for his writing brain. He protected this like a dragon might protect a unicorn. Then he caved. We made him cave because we are bad people. And now he is just as addicted as the rest of us. He has either joined the world as it really is, or he has abandoned the other world of which he was one of the last remaining survivors. Part of me is relieved. The other part of me is sad. Purity, another voluntary victim. But this debate too can take up time, that diminished resource, which I literally have less of the more knowledge I gain. Perhaps wisdom is understanding time’s unknowability. And with this comes less time. To do more or to do less. To worry about doing more or not doing less. You see the quandary. The swamp. Which is why I spend more time missing doing nothing. I miss the blank alps of my mind, the thinned air of inactivity. Because more and more I am time, not in an eschatological sense, but, in essence. The neuroscientists can’t help me. They’re nascent. They referred me to the theologians. Who in turn said, seek the technologists. All the minutes waiting for Uber to arrive add up to some fraction of eternity, which I refuse to acknowledge except here, speaking to you. Time accelerates. It stretches. It vanishes. Collapses. All these metaphors. What if time is really just language? Language never freed us, according to most philosophers.

1.0     We are born into language.

1.1     And it is the case.

1.2     And that case is the world.

1.21   [ :/ ]

I watch other people swipe right on dating apps and I decide that I’d prefer a mechanical finger that would do the swiping for me… So I can use that extra time… To figure out why I’m afraid of swiping right… Why the gaze of a stranger whose name is a string of symbols in a language I don’t understand, why she fills me with the dread I have for the end of time itself, the kind theologians proscribe. This girl on my screen, she’s pretty, she’s from Bulgaria. She doesn’t miss doing nothing. She was born into a Brownian world where frat boys have turned technology into theology, demagogues have preyed upon the free time of crisis ridden boys, those agitated protons so close to exploding far away, or next to me, depending where I’m writing this and reading this. Bored people crave war. The sweet girl suspended in the downloadable app, she’s afraid to be a feminist and not be a feminist, she doesn’t know where she stands on pornography (subject/object). And this takes up so much of her thumb time she’s starting to think her spirit animal is a thumb. Her therapist tells her this, and Jung told her therapist, through red coloured notebooks and visions of eternal time. Returning time. Myths of return. Archetypes as emojis. I would like to follow Freud and Jung as they walked around the making of the modern world and I would do nothing. They would do nothing.

1.3     We did nothing.

1.4     We were always doing nothing.

1.41   Weren’t we?

1.5     [Battery dead symbol]


From The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist (Penguin, 2015)

Originally published in Ingrid Hora’s book, JOMOHOMO, 2016, designed by Åbäke.


I’m enjoying the way The Age of Earthquakes is migrating across media. The BBC have, in particular, been generously receptive. So, when I was asked to go onto a World Service program, I’ll admit I got a little bit excited. Because it’s the radio station I listen to every day and admire both from afar and near. It is genuinely worldly. On another level, it’s also the radio station my father and his family listened to in Bangladesh when it was still part of India and then part of Pakistan onto Independence. BBC World Service is an institution that remains largely intact. That’s something to cherish.

Here I am on The Forum. The program is called, ‘How Long is Now?’ Time perception plays a big role in The Age of Earthquakes, and so it was a treat to be able to discuss this with experts from neuroscience (Virginie van Wassenhove) and musicology (Lawrence Zbikowski).

Of the three, I am the ardent generalist.

The host, Samira Ahmed, was enthusiastic and gracious and the entire team patient with my lack of studio panache. Radio remains at its best a bastion of slow thought. (Despite the fact our perception of the present has decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds today, a new study confirmed).

My theses come from simply noticing my own behaviour and how they’ve been changing. I can’t back it up with research — but I think that’s okay. Because it seems that neuroscience still doesn’t know many things about the brain — and there is even an argument to say it never can because: how can a subject analyse the object of its study with due objectivity and precision if that object is the subject?

Confused? Welcome to my world.

And so, again, without scientific fact to back me up, what I think I’m interested in and want to know more about is an ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE BRAIN.

PS. I make an extremely rogue connection between monotheism, eschatology and the 3 minute pop song that I literally came up with on the spot. As ludicrous as it sounds, I believe there is evidence for this conjecture. One day I will be shown it.


Here are the two cover designs for The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, both rendered and designed by Wayne Daly. The one on the left is the Penguin UK edition (echoed in the German edition), which sets the title in a bespoke captcha font. What are captcha?

Don’t pretend.

You all know.

They’re the ever primitive looking warped writing used by computers to determine if you are also a computer or a human. They’re the machine version of the Turing test on us.


At their very best — or worst — it does feel like only another computer could decipher certain captchas, leaving us effectively locked outside our own existential homestead.

impossible captcha

We assume that captchas belong to Web 1.0, to a clunkier, Netscapey era of the Internet. But they’re around just as much — in more or less sophisticated forms. In fact, they illustrate the way in which the Internet is ‘chronochaotic,’ suffering olde bits of technology in tandem with the swooshiest HTML 1000 PRO (I made that up. I think). During the design process for AOE, we therefore liked the idea that our cover would effectively be this machine-Turing test for the reader, as well as another kind of test whereby some people will recognise the allusion to captcha, and others, simply will not.

The cover on the right is for the US edition, published by Blue Rider (also part of the Penguin Random House Group). Here, an illustration entitled Luxury Melted Earth by Alex Mackin Dolan, originally sent in as black and white:

ALEX MACKIN DOLAN melted luxury earth

has been artfully colourised and then even more artfully placed on top of a holographic foil.

Luxury Melted Earth _ Alex Mackin Dolan

We always imagined the front cover of the book — a paperback with an identity crisis — to be a kind of screen, so, it was thrilling to be given the go ahead with the holographic foil by our American colleagues. The insides of AOE are strictly black and white, following the example set by Quentin Fiore in The Medium is the Massage:


so, it’s important that the exterior has a chromatic, even tactile quality. The holo-foil is again both contemporary and also quaintly 60s or 70s, as if lasers and space travel have just been invented, and express the frontier of now. A time when Carl Sagan was our guide through the universe:

Carl SaganNotice the name at the bottom. Jerome Agel. Oft forgotten genius svengali who gave birth to some of the most important experimental paperbacks of the later 60s and early 70s, including the McLuhan/Fiore The Medium is the Massage:

Medium is the Massage

Outrageously, Agel’s name was not included on the original Penguin cover from 1967, but, the current re-print amends this, and says, “Co-ordinated by Jerome Agel,” which goes some of the way — but arguably not far enough. For that, I recommend the brilliant The Electric Information Age Book which restores Agel’s cultural and intellectual significance. It’s because of Agel that I’ve come to think of the paperback as a piece of always-new technology. A Papeback OS, as it were.

Doug’s simple request to Wayne was that the cover should “feel like a classic Penguin paperback.” And this time-travel logic continued in the brief for the insides, too: “Wayne, the reader should be able to open our book somewhere and it feels like 1967. Then open it elsewhere and it’s 2015.” Just like the bumpy contours of the Internet itself.


We hope we’ve succeeded.


Came across this in an artist’s studio in Vancouver. She was using it as a tea pot holder, to prevent the wooden table top from scarring. She had clearly been doing this for a million years because the copy of October is now a fossil. It’s brittle and congealed and very very beautiful. It’s what we might look like in the future, that is if we had the longevity of paper. Of course we don’t. We are more like e-books, whose future form is no different to its current form: inessential, on loan, proprietary, ungiftworthy. Read me?

Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 39, Jorge Luis Borges.


Then a book like the little volume called Everness would be a good book for someone to read about your work?


I think it is. Besides, the lady who wrote it is a close friend of mine. I found that word inRoget’s Thesaurus. Then I thought that word was invented by Bishop Wilkins, who invented an artificial language.


You’ve written about that.


Yes, I wrote about Wilkins. But he also invented a wonderful word that strangely enough has never been used by English poets—an awful word, really, a terrible word. Everness, of course, is better than eternity because eternity is rather worn now. Ever-r-ness is far better than the German Ewigkeit, the same word. But he also created a beautiful word, a word that’s a poem in itself, full of hopelessness, sadness, and despair: the word neverness. A beautiful word, no? He invented it, and I don’t know why the poets left it lying about and never used it.


Have you used it?


No, no, never. I used everness, but neverness is very beautiful. There is something hopeless about it, no? And there is no word with the same meaning in any other language, or in English. You might say impossibility, but that’s very tame for neverness: the Saxon ending in –ness. Neverness. Keats uses nothingness: “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink”; but nothingness, I think, is weaker than neverness. You have in Spanish nadería—many similar words—but nothing like neverness. So if you’re a poet, you should use that word. It’s a pity for that word to be lost in the pages of a dictionary. I don’t think it’s ever been used. It may have been used by some theologian; it might. I suppose Jonathan Edwards would have enjoyed that kind of word or Sir Thomas Browne, perhaps, and Shakespeare, of course, because he was very fond of words.

Page long sentences that sort of rivulet and regress the way thinking does; the way a tape recorder placed on the inside of your head might very well sound after just 30 seconds of live capture. I want to call it ‘Beckettian’ but that would be a) pretentious and b) just plain wrong, because Beckett’s interior monologues shield themselves away from life-lived into life-told-to-oneself. DFW on the other hand places characters, therefore us, and himself, in the jaggedy, jumpy, dumb poetics of information overload and meaning underload. Here is Jonathan Raban saying it much better than I can and taking up a lot more digital ink with it.

Phew! That was a very a) pretentious way of saying that I am liking The Pale King the way I liked Padgett Powell’s wonderful novel, The Interrogative Mood?

Damn mistaken obviating obfuscation. Oh.