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Raising A Column Of Fire: On Simon Morris’s Autobiographies
Enrico Monacelli , February 6th, 2021 09:09

Amidst a glut of self-indulgent autofiction, Simon Morris's books stand out form the pack, finds Enrico Monacelli

Writing a gratuitous autobiography is a rare and truly perverse intellectual exercise. Splattering your own life on a blank page for such a prolonged amount of time must be a severe crime somewhere. Putting the most private parts of your existence on this planet in a book is a sickening abstract paraphilia. Probing one’s biographical cavities so much is revolting, and it gets worse and worse as the literary mediation is scratched from the text to leave only the author’s bare viscera. Fiction makes life bearable, for a while at least.

When we are confronted with such a horrid endeavour, we tend to ask why far more often than when we stumble upon a philosophical treatise or a novel. There must surely be something grand and inhuman – for better or for worse – about the author, which makes the reading of such a compact piece of evil worthwhile. The author must be a little mythological or demonological, an example of fulgid beauty or utter debasement, to warrant such an affront. They should be a River Phoenix or a Jean Genet, a figure so distorted by otherworldly fame or despicable mundanity as to be almost fully disparaged from the burden of being a human being, crucified, as we all are, to our very uneventful Maslow’s pyramid. Most of the times, autobiographical writing becomes a painful squeeze aimed at extracting some uniqueness, a figment of bliss or crime. Autobiographies are probably the axiomatic demonstration of Shirley Jackson’s quiet shriek: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”

Nonetheless, probably contrary to all sanity, our species is getting used to these sorts of discomforts, normalizing in micro-doses these foul consumptions through the planetary environments of imageboards, blogs, and social media. Through all the permutations of the be me formula posted daily without any rhyme or reason, we are getting more and more used to aimless self-narration, lowering, but clearly not abolishing, the levels of mediation and gloss we had to use to make the confessional tone justified, appealing, captivating and enjoyable.

We have, with the aid of many atavistic lures, fine-tuned our ability to endure the pointless recapitulation of human existence. We have learned to gleefully consume the afterglows of the hygge contrarianism of the Caroline Calloways of this world or the full-frontal confessions of one too many Jeffree Stars, with their vulgar displays of themselves and themselves only, just like we conned ourselves into enjoying, against our perceptive better judgement, the lovely unpleasures of spicy and sour tastes, signals of poison and rot. Future palaeontologists might witness the artificial extension of our capacity to stuff our faces not only with gossip and chatter – something which is probably hard-wired in our primarily sociable and communitarian species-being – but also with uneventful breakfasts and long, umbilical threads about lives lost to nothing in particular.

Setting aside the ethical or political qualms one could probably raise about these new hypernormal narrative stimuli, it is fascinating to see how the literary world has reacted to this epigenetic adaptation towards unhinged confessions. Of course, it has always been chock-full of ghostwritten tomes about celebrities of various strides, but these are surely the least interesting aspect of this micro-twist in our evolutionary history. Far more fascinating are all of those actually-existing authors who have embraced the kitsch depravity of the autobiographical tone, pushing towards their outer edges of self-referential verbosity. The most famous of all is surely the manic transcription of Karl Ove Knausgård’s life in My Struggle, a six-volume Leviathan of masterful and programmatic self-absorption, which was one of the biggest literary sensations of the first two decades of the 2000s.

The thing that strikes me the most about Knausgård’s six books, even in their respective heterogeneity and cooler than thou deadpan demeanour, is their autobiographical laissez-faire, a conscious aesthetic stance which takes life as something to be witnessed, glanced at and reported as sincerely as possible; an art in which the writer either talks as a passive ethical testimony of their suffering and joy or describes it as an almost inert object tending mechanically towards death. There is, in these confessional tomes, a certain passivity, a sense of being lived and a lack of any will to use the literary work as an intervention or a transformation. In these books, life is something to be merely reported, ordered, and not confronted. Treating life as something which happened passively to the author that now has to account for it, they read like true crime books written in the first person.

Clearly, there must be far more virulent ways to approach existence and surely there are some demented provinces of the contemporary autobiographical canon which bite the life that fed them. Few have incarnated these other, violent ways like Simon Morris.

Born in Blackpool, a city which he elevated in his own accounts as a legendary seaside kingdom of post-industrial debauchery, and mostly known for being the man behind Ceramic Hobs’ chaosfuck no-fi galore, Morris is a more-than-marginal figure in contemporary literature, inhabiting such a dark and abysmal aesthetic fringe that it ought to be described as an underworld, rather than an underground. His books, recently reissued by Amphetamine Sulphate, are gnarly, blunt, bare, malign objects. Their jackets are rid of barcodes, alluring back-cover descriptions, or any sign of civility. They are small patches of scorched earth. They are venom.

What these books conceal is a ferocious autobiographist, a man who incessantly wrote about himself and his world. All of Morris’ works, in fact, are slivers of his life, forcefully dragged under the sun to be transformed by this unruly exposition. Contrary to any cool autobiographical laissez-faire, Morris is an indefatigable interventionist, who attacks every event which had any relation to him to make them into something utterly different and far more splendid – albeit in sordid and ill ways.

While reading these books and descending into their bowels, I felt sick most of the time. I was unsure if it was ethical or safe to stand so close to someone who was so willing to tell me all about himself just to disfigure everything that he had to do with, turning all his existence – without exceptions – into a desperate work of total art, looking for an ultimate and fatal existential intensity. Once I flipped the last page, I felt like I was standing in front of a dirtbag Gesamtkunstwerk, a work in which someone tried to derange and exhaust all human expressivity with just a handful of tools and in only one lifetime.

The method to this total assault on human existence is epitomised most clearly by three of his books, three works in which this absurd quest and the means to achieve it reach such a perfection as to exude sheer sickness and euphoria. Civil War, a commentary on the whole Guns N’ Roses’ discography, and Personal Ads, an anonymous lurid book, published, again, by Amphetamine Sulphate and penned supposedly by Simon Morris himself and Gabrielle Losoncy. Watching the Wheels, a Dick-esque novel, in which fiction continually collapses onto the narration of Morris’ own life and his morbid fascinations, encapsulated in a weird, Pynchonian reconstruction of Queen’s album The Game and, occultly, John Lennon’s murder. And, lastly, Desire for a Holy War, his last e-mails written before his death, little flashes of commentary on a life on the brink and pop culture seen for its darkened edges.

Even from these brief descriptions, the methodology deployed seems clear and apparent. Morris’s style is a conscious but, nonetheless, utterly irresponsible blend of direct, unfiltered confessions rolling from a burning tongue and occult pop criticism, which blurs the line of sound journalism and mad conspiracy theory. His books fuse, in the most daring and irrational exercise in apophenia, fragments of Axl Rose’s hagiography, described as a creature larger than life emerging from the swamps of a secret global history, and lovesick, diaristic comments such as: “Actions do have consequences, as Grace Zabriskie says in Inland Empire. I know you love David Lynch. Sex is an especially physically and psychologically dangerous action, and casual sex does not really exist. It’s only a broken heart. It’s only a blood test. Only an abortion” which are so rabid, livid and true that, were they not written in English, I would swear that they were spoken in tongues.

This unholy matrimony lets Morris act on his life to make it a work of art, conspiring, in an impossible one-man plot, to make each and every one of his days an integral part of a menacing concealed history he himself is forging in his furnace, despite – and openly against – everyone’s common sense. Rather than letting existence roll over him, he diverts it towards an unreality more ecstatic and totalising than any life could ever be. He intervenes in his own biography with utmost cruelty, making himself the narrator of something he must make from scratch, populating the hidden corners of world history and experiencing through writing its most intense contractions. Because of this absurd goal of renewing life mercilessly, all his books bear the cross of being impossible tasks. They are small, they end abruptly and they strut around as the epitome of lunacy. All they shout about is the need to revolt aimlessly. Citing his very last published words, they are an invitation to “take a deep breath and burn it all fucking down,” refusing all acceptance and compliance.

As irresponsible as this may sound, these books are necessary. They are real epiphanies, waiting for someone to feel them. They are a challenge everyone should undergo to test how far literature can venture in impossible territories, behind the enemy’s line. They are improbable signals from the last frontier of language, books from the thresholds of reason’s fatal fever.

Watching the Wheels and other titles by Simon Morris are published by Amphetamine Sulphate