by Oli Johns
Eight Cuts Gallery Press
Review by Bill Kirton
I won’t be able to do this justice. Not because it’s difficult or obscure, but because it’s so rich and asks so many questions. I found many parts of it exciting – not the Bruce Willis Die Hard exciting, but the excitement of ideas, questions and yes, that frightening word, philosophy. The narrator is fascinating, complex, troubled, both in need of help and beyond it. So, as you read my words, remember that I’m only scratching its surface and that the truths or puzzles that you find if/when you read the book may be different from the ones I found there.
I need to be selective, to chart one path through the many possibles, so I’ll necessarily need to simplify. Charcoal is a monologue, a long prose poem – or thought-poem. I say ‘long’ but, at the surface level, it’s quick and easy to read. It’s also funny. And tragic. The central character, who shares the author’s name, is externalising his thoughts on depression, death, suicide, the absurd nature of his own existence and existence itself. I say that character and author share a name but that implied separation may be misleading. Perhaps this is non-fiction, a confessional. But if it is, it’s conveyed by a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing and who’s using his awareness of style and language to create his effects – so I’ll stick to the idea of separateness because, for all the intensity and potential fragmentation of the character’s experiences, there’s a controlling intellect using structure to shape the shapeless.
Depression, suicide and the elusiveness of experience and thought are the constant themes, but they swirl around a real person who catches the bus to work, where he teaches students in ways that make him sound the sort of inspirational teacher that provokes students to think as well as learn. He dwells very little on these daily realities, being drawn instead to ponder the contradictions of life, the elusiveness of the present, the inescapability of self, the impossibility of experiencing duration, the impermanence of thought.
His depression is sometimes expressed through self disgust and manifests itself in panic attacks, especially on the bus, surrounded by others and driving into the darkness of a tunnel with no sign of light at either end. It’s the ideal metaphor for how he lives – no past, no present, simply a succession of instants which refuse to endure and which elude understanding. Claustrophobia, nausea, paranoia are all there; the oppression of the gaze of ‘others’, the inescapable intensity of self. In fact, the book is a debate with himself, each line cancelling out the others then reiterating them. But the result isn’t the emptiness which that implies but the positive energy of a mind at work. In moments of clarity there’s laughter and he confesses that he loves life, but the questions keep on coming and depth and triviality are constantly juxtaposed. As he puts it himself ‘The words throw chairs at the walls in my head’.
In terms of structure, Johns gives us a powerful, entertaining opening, featuring an actual TV documentary presented by a former UK politician, Michael Portillo. Having established the old romantic fascination with death, he then tries to relate it to the various philosophers he’s read – Deleuze, Bergson, Proust and others. After a cursory affair (too grand a word for a relationship he tries – and fails – to define) with a 17-year-old Chinese girl, he conducts more research on suicide and learns of a hotel where people go with a bag of charcoal, seal themselves in a room, light the charcoal and die of asphyxiation as the oxygen is burned away.
But that’s a scenario which, in the end, is funny, because anyone seeing a person making their way to such a place with a bag of charcoal knows exactly what they’re intending to do and for someone with his awareness of the tyranny of the gaze of others, that’s excruciating. He visits, buys charcoal, tells those who look askance at him that it’s for a barbecue and, in the end … well, I won’t spoil it for you.
Halfway through the book comes the seminal moment at which he reads of the suicide of a Korean model. She hanged herself in a room in Paris. It’s the perfect symbol of the (again) romantic ecstasy which equates death with beauty. The woman was beautiful, talented, successful, intelligent, had a future full of promise. And she’s dead. It makes no sense whatsoever. Indeed, it confirms everything he’s been thinking about his own possible suicide, the weight of living, the unrealisable potential of the future.
And for most of the rest of the book he dreams and reflects on how he could have saved her, because he understands her. The dreams become real as he describes being with her, taking her on a weird, genuinely funny journey. They get on a train in Paris. Then … ‘The train stops in Croatia and we get off. There are some taxis waiting on the other side of the platform and we get in. “Hong Kong,” I tell the driver, who looks Chinese. He says, fine, and starts the meter.’
These absurd situations and snapshots of reality and dreaming are carefully orchestrated. The impossibility of duration, which continues to puzzle him, is reflected in the constant present of the narration. Causality consists not of historical sequences of events but of word associations, the persistence of images and symbols, the repetition of questions. There are echoes of the ‘emptiness’ Beckett explores in his paradoxical claim that ‘Nothing is enough’. Camus’ insistence that suicide is the only real philosophical question is a constant, as are other intuitions of existential absurdity. But there are also less esoteric references – to artists and writers who succeed and reach an apparent peak in a particular work and then seem to ask questions such as ‘Is that it? Is that all there is?’ and realise that the only way left is down.
He obsesses about the model’s inexplicable death but it also becomes part of how he structures his work and a demonstration of the aptness of his perpetual questioning. Her death is obviously in the past – but she becomes part of his present. By thinking of her, he brings her back to life. She is once again. But of course, she also isn’t, so all his understanding of her, the potential love between them – it’s all speculative, false, and yet true. Because he’s thinking it.
He’s aware of the oppression of personal freedom, the notion that, despite the continual gaze of others, we have control of ourselves but the responsibility for that control is too great to bear. The future is all potential but, in Johns’ words ‘The potential future you create is inescapable until the actual present takes over and relieves you from your thoughts … In the potential future, you are God. You control yourself, the stage, the audience, the method, everything.’
This is an extraordinary, haunting book. It’s not flawless, but it asks questions and turns the abstractions of philosophical musing into true, visceral experience.