Monday, December 29, 2008

Notes on a New Novel

Tallyho, Cornelius! is a pastiche of two of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy cycles: Jerry Cornelius and the Second Ether. Many contributors to the avant-garde magazine New Worlds wrote Jerry Cornelius stories in the 60s and 70s, and what I offer is a 21st century adaptation. I was very fortunate to gain Mr. Moorcock’s support in this project. As well, he has contributed a lengthy blurb for the back cover.

In this latest interpretation, Jerry Cornelius—the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Cornelius—is an Anglican theologian promoting the New World Order. In keeping with Moorcock’s Jerry, his interests include physics and computer programming. Jerry’s opportunistic brother Frank is Bishop Francis Cornelius. The plot of the novel is driven by the Reverend Dr. Cornelius's "contact" with the Second Ether, which disrupts his theology of globalization. I’ve integrated some of Ray Kurzweil’s ideas into my adaptation of Moorcock’s Second Ether. Set in New York (where I live part of the year), the novel speaks to both sides of the Atlantic.

Michael Moorcok has said that Jerry Cornelius is as much technique as he is character. Jerry Cornelius has been called the first cyberpunk hero and this is probably correct. Jerry Cornelius also anticipated the contemporary “slipstream” movement in experimental fiction which author Bruce Sterling (who coined the phrase) describes as ". . . a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility” (SF Eye #5, July 1989). It is easy to say that this sensibility is simply a continuation of the sixties psychedelic “franchise,” and as such there are many ways to create such effects, but I think at bottom of the slipstream movement is a unique treatment of history that is something else entirely.

Go back and look at the original Cornelius novels and we see there is a lot of the first half of the 20th century in there--the persistence of a culture even as the psychic infrastructure supporting that culture breaks apart. . . and is JC an exponent of this process? Both as a character and as a technique?

And isn’t it wonderful how this culture and this character persist as consistent and recognizable ontological reference points even as the centripetal forces of history draw it (and him) apart?

In Tally-Ho, Cornelius! a balance was struck, uneven perhaps, among three concerns: 1) the JC material as it stood before I made my contribution, 2) the mythographic patterns and templates I identified in the Second Ether (outlined in the chapter I wrote for Clyde Wilcox and Mack Hassler’s New Boundaries in Politics and Science Fiction), and 3) the sorts of things I had to do to satisfy my own “artistic” quirks and agenda. Many of these dynamics work themselves out in the colloquy between the Reverend Dr. Cornelius and Little Capricorn; where the former is the “secret superhero” behind a thousand masks of social respectability; while the latter, being a “real superhero,” is the unrestrained genius that acts out superhero impulses unfettered by the mitigating masks of social personae. I think it is interesting to note here that in African-American slang, “to trip” means to slip out of control and act-out the quirky emotions of our eternal dialogues.

To me the key difference between the Rev. Dr. C. and Jerry’s other avatars is found in his psychic continuity and the persistence of his persona. In his introduction to The Cornelius Chronicles John Clute writes, “The presentation of the self in everyday life in the inner city is a form of theatre where identity is a role and where entropy is high...” This presentation and the level of entropy can be adjusted by the author, who can figuratively “set the dials” and increase or decrease the persistence of identity or the level of entropy. In transplanting Jerry out of the inner city, it seems to me the secure and privileged high-church Anglican JC should have a higher level of apparent continuity, moreover as his professional training pointedly cultivates such continuity because it is central to the job of priest, and, eventually, central to the post of cathedral dean. But the reality of human theatre--choosing roles, wearing masks, playing with and against each other--remains the same at all levels. And likewise, entropy—a physical as well as social constant—remains a consistent a force that shifts the landscape and drives the actions that the players chose, or chose not to chose. As a well-connected authority of the high church, the Reverend Dr. Cornelius both represents and enforces the continuity of the individual and collective personae of everyone in society. His job is to keep us glued together because our cohesiveness—the integrity of our individual personae and the social interactions these personae make possible—are necessary to advance the integrity and the power of his friends at the top of the social pyramid; or indeed, are necessary for our collective survival. His little friend Capricorn, however, being a “superhero,” or, indeed, being an exponent of that very top of society that the Reverend Dr. Cornelius serves, is thus Jerry’s friend and his foil, his counterpoint, the model of the freedoms he seeks, and his master. JC’s encounter with Cappy is an encounter with the freedoms he has been aspiring to his whole life. In meeting Cappy, JC encounters the “billionaire masters” of our emerging global civilization; alternatively, in this encounter JC is the middle class fulfilling of its aspirations. In befriending Capricorn, JC meets up with the myth of his own liberation. But considering what Cappy really is, at the end of the day JC’s achievement and his success becomes the dissolution of the same rigid patterns of personality that have allowed him to ascend in the first place. Ironically, he has worked his whole life in order to achieve the dissolution of the most important tool—his persona—that he needed to get to the top. People today seem to have two avenues to achieve this kind of success: the first is to be extremely rich; the second is to give it up and drop out of the system entirely, and I think all of us are familiar with the strange aura of dissolution radiated by both the very lowest and the very highest strata of society—it’s something that very often frightens us middle class folk. Interestingly enough, however, little forays into this dissolute realm in the form of novels, church worship, music, film, TV and travel define the underlying character of our middle class “recreation.” Now while all this is going on it’s important to keep in mind the Rev Dr C’s religious vocation, moreover his position near the very top of the religious-political complex. Perhaps it all comes down to Michael Moorcock's line in The Entropy Circuit where Jerry says, “To the fearful all things are chaotic. That's how you get religion (and its bastard child, politics).”

To me the great fun is in the mythographic possibilities that open up when JC and the Second Ether interpenetrate. At this point of intersection the shamanistic doors swing wide apart. Michael Moorcok's In Lighter Vein: A note on the Jerry Cornelius Tetralogy, neatly describes the system of “referentiality” that is represented in the JC material, and which is key to my understanding of mythographic poetry, be it Blake, Milton, or what have you:
Part of my original intention with the Jerry Cornelius stories was to 'liberate' the narrative; to leave it open to the reader's interpretation as much as possible - to involve the reader in such a way as to bring their own imagination into play. This impulse was probably a result of my interest in Brecht - an interest I'd had since the mid-fifties.

Although the structure of the tetralogy is very strict (some might think over-mechanical) the scope for interpretation is hopefully much wider than the conventional novel. The underlying logic is also very disciplined, particularly in the last three volumes. It's my view that a work of fiction should contain nothing which does not contribute to the overall scheme. The whimsicalities to be found in all the books are, in fact, not random, not mere conceits, but make internal references. That is to say, while I strive for the effect of randomness on one level, the effect is achieved by a tightly controlled system of internal reference, puns, ironies, logic-jumps which no single reader may fairly be expected to follow.

Thus far the responses to the novel have been very positive. In correspondence, Steve Aylett has suggested to me that the Reverend Dr. Cornelius does not “feel” like Jerry Cornelius, and I agree (but do not sympathize) with his impression. They are different characters, but they are also the same person. The basic thematic elements, issues of technique and “band name” referents are all there. The corporate logo is in place and just how far does (or can) Jerry Cornelius transcends his corporate logo? Moreover, the Reverend Dr. Cornelius feels like Jerry to me. This all gets into the nature of human identity, too, and this is a crucial philosophical theme in Moorcock’s original vision. Another reader, John Neffay, has suggested that in my presentation of Oona I rely too much on past incarnations of Una Persson. My Oona certainly could have been developed further. The question I had while writing the novel, however, was what a more-developed-Oona would have contributed to the overall scheme of the novel? That is, beyond a minor foil and a “tool” that he cynically uses, how relevant is she to the Reverend Dr. Cornelius? Perhaps she might play a greater role in a possible sequel if she can contribute to the diffuse field of internal reflections and epiphenomena that make up a Jerry Cornelius novel. Meantime, the Reverend Dr. Cornelius is what the novel is about, just as he is what he is about. This novel is in many ways an interior monologue. And for that matter, does Little Capricorn, the "Devil Boy” as Francis calls him, even exist? Or is he a figment of the Reverend Dr. Cornelius’s imagination, or the representative principle of imagination that drives him toward his success, or is it toward his dissolution?

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