It’s February, you guys. Here at BookThug HQ in Toronto, Canadian identity has been asserting itself (predictably) in the form of The Weather. All over North America, rodent-based fortune telling rituals have been performed and the inevitable has been announced: that winter will end and spring will come. Which means that an entire spring season of brand new BookThug books looms dramatically over us all. So dramatically, in fact, that we cannot wait to better acquaint you with our forthcoming titles.
#springpreviews start with a much-anticipated release from a hero of the Canadian avant-garde: Steve McCaffery. Prolific and influential for over forty years, McCaffery is perhaps best known as a poet, but also as a critic and theorist, a dynamic performer, and a gifted teacher.
Originally from the UK, McCaffery arrived in Toronto in 1968 at the age of twenty-one. He graduated with a masters degree from York University in 1969. In the summer of ’69, poet John Robert Colombo introduced McCaffery to bp Nichol, with whom McCaffery would collaborate until Nichol’s death in 1988. In 1972 Nichol and McCaffery formed the sound poetry collective the Four Horsemen with Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton.
In 1973, McCaffery and Nichol established the influential writing collective, the Toronto Research Group (See McCaffery and his collaborators at Sound and Syntax International Festival of Sound Poetry in 1978, here). In 1980, Nichol and McCaffery were the major force behind the Canadian ‘Pataphysics anthology—a collection of pseudo-scientific parodies in the manner of the French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry. In the same year McCaffery co-authored with Chalres Berstein, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, and Ray DiPalma the book LEGEND, a seminal work in the field of language poetry.
After a vibrant, decades-long career, McCaffery’s corpus of work truly defies categorization. But consistent throughout is his exploratory interest in the non-representational and abstract nature of language.
Alice in Plunderland (available March 5th from BookThug) represents the second foray into prose fiction by this notable Canadian poet. Alice in Plunderland is a radical recreation/antitype of the iconic children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll (1832–1898).
Recall: the story of a precocious little girl named Alice and her meandering adventures in an fantastical underground world. In Plunderland, though, Alice and her cohorts are infused with characteristics associated with the word “plunder”—a word that for McCaffery conveys notions of theft, drug addiction, looting, and civil disorder.
Wonderland’s coterie of anthropomorphised eccentrics appear here transformed into a band of sketchy addicts and street hustlers, their familiar songs and hijinks mired in drugged-out absurdity. The wonder has turned to plunder as the day-dreaming Alice from Carroll’s original—a thoughtful, precocious young girl, dubious of lessons, fond of cake—is recast in Plunderland as Alice, the day-tripping dope fiend: an “unrepentant crackhead” with the scabby resilience of a rock-bottom junkie with a habit the size of the GTA.
Citing as his inspiration “a rabid distaste of both Carroll’s Alice books and Carroll’s writing style,” McCaffery’s prose diligently pollutes the familiar beat’s of Carroll’s 1865 text. In the original, you may remember, we encounter Alice daydreaming on the river bank. In Plunderland, we come upon her in line with her sister at a Bank of Montreal in downtown “Tronna,” searching for an angry fix:
Alice was desperately coke broke and beginning to find life a bit of a drag standing in line with her dumb-ass sister in the local branch of BMO, faced with the bleak reality of being clean out of lettuce to score even a couple of lines of king’s habit: once or twice she had peeped into the open bank book her sister was checking, but it had zilch deposits or withdrawals in it, “and what the fu** use is a sister’s bank book,” thought Alice, “without any moolah in it to borrow?”
Much of Carroll’s original is identifiable behind McCaffery’s transfigurations: The white rabbit with a pocket watch and waistcoat that lures Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland is in Plunderland a prostitute with “shocking pink hair,” the pocket watch is a wad of hundreds, the Rabbit Hole a manhole cover, and Alice’s famous fall through the center of the earth a hideous crawl through a Toronto (“Tronna”) sewer. The Cheshire Cat is a junkie from Cheshire; the hookah-smoking caterpillar manifests as a “chronic burnout,” the King of Hearts as “an elegant old pederast … on special loan from the Vatican,” and the Queen of Hearts as Melinda, “a Gay Pride Drag Queen from Vancouver.” Everyone is constantly ingesting street drugs.
Interestingly, Alice’s crack-addled brain is an absurd encyclopedia of medical/pharmaceutical knowledge, history, literature, current events, Canadian geography, pop culture, and (especially) arcane street names for drugs and their myriad subclassifications.
The arrival of McCaffery’s Alice in Plunderland is apt, as last week, January 27th, marked the 183rd birthday of Lewis Carroll (the nom de plume of the English mathematician and Anglican clergyman Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of the original Alice stories), while this year (2015) the book that made him famous celebrates the 150th anniversary of it’s publication in 1865.
Carroll/Alice anniversary celebrations are already in full swing around the world, including art exhibitions, stage productions, operas and ballets, and no small amount of discussion.You can read more about what people have to say about Alice’s legacy a century and a half later, here, and here.
According to McCaffery, the idea of rewriting past texts arose from the research and writing of his latest critical book Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism and the Anomaly (University of Alabama Press, 2012) in which he theorizes a concept of “palindromic time” by which “the past is contemporized and the present historicized,” with the unacknowledged past perpetually leaping into an “already belated” now.
From these ideas sprang a plan for larger work, “CHIASMUS“, in which McCaffery plans to “queer the classics: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante.” But it’s all starting with Alice. Steve McCaffery on the process of writing this book:
I required of myself a formal constraint and so chose the law of the approximate homonym which formed the basis for [French writer] Raymond Roussel’s “procedure” in such novels as “Impressions of Africa” and “Locus Solus.”
This is the “special method” of linguistic gamesmanship Roussel revealed in a short volume published after his death entitled How I Wrote Certain of My Books: a near-mechanic, proto-Oulipean technique of writing. It was a method of generating creative texts by uniting near-homonyms, such as billiard and pillard (pill and looter), and allowing a narrative arise from their juxtaposition.
Talking the title of Carroll’s book I searched for a close-sounding work that would serve to deflect the work into a new narrative content … “Wonderland” suggested “Plunderland” which suggested theft, drugs, gang warfare and an underworld which rhymed felicitously with Alice plunge down into Wonderland. I’ve written a sequel Alice through the Working Class that rewrites Alice through the Looking Glass transposing the action to Russia and Europe during the Bolshevik Revolution.
Accompanying McCaffery’s plunderful reworking of the Alice story are Clelia Scala’s translated collages: gorgeous variations on John Tenniel’s originals, pairing perfectly with McCaffery’s cracked-out de-disneyfication of Alice and her famous adventures.
EXCLUSIVE FIRST LOOK at Steve McCaffery’s Alice in Plunderland (BookThug, 2015)
From Chapter 2: The Pool of Wet Dreams
Wasted and more wasted!” averred Alice (she was now so chalked-up from blowout, that for the moment she was quite incapable of speaking good English); “now I’m feeling as if I’m as turned on as the first monkey launched into space! Good-bye, gee, man, I’m whacky a-boot to the max !” (for when she looked down at her feet, through her now enormously dilated pupils, they seemed to be tiny moving colonies of ants, she was getting so charged up by the c-dust). “Oh, my poor little ants, I wonder who will feed you now, dears? I’m sure I shan’t be able with my increased blood pressure, constricted peripheral blood vessels, increasing abdominal pain and general nausea! I shall be a great deal too baked to trouble myself about you poor little assholes: you must manage the best way you can; — but I must be kind to them,” cogitated Alice, “or perhaps they won’t crawl the way I want them to crawl into my sister’s underwear! Let me see: I’ll give them a pony pack of cactus buttons for Christmas. Oh dear, what sweet, f*ck*ng nonsense I’m talking!” She giggled before swallowing a couple of amyl nitrites conveniently present on the crate.
Now she was around the turn, she ran with all speed back to the little door: but, alas! the little door was shut again, and the house key was lying on the wooden crate as before. Alice tried to face her return to sobriety with heroic fortitude but alas was finding that life sucks when you’re clean “and things are frigging worse than ever,” concluded the pathetic, ebriated child, sliding into a panic “for I never was so in need of a fix as this before, never! And I do declare it’s too bad, that it is!”
Just as she had uttered these American-style phrases her foot slipped on yet another classic banana skin, and in another moment, splash! she was up to her chin in laudanum. Her first idea was that she had somehow fallen into one of the Great Lakes, “and in that case I can bum a ride on a freighter, connect up to the CN railway and hop a freight train, like a genuine beatnik” she calculated to herself. (Alice had been to the seaside once in her life on a family trip to England where she had tried to score some amyl nitrite, and had come to the general conclusion, that wherever you go to on the English coast you find a number of surfers in the sea, some insufferable, spotty children wearing Mickey Mouse ears digging in the sand with plastic spades, then a row of bed and breakfasts in front of a street of lodging houses, and behind them a railway station where all the runners, peddlers and hookers hang out.) Then she remembered reading with pleasure and avidity her papa’s copy of Charles Kingsley’s eminently readable Glaucus, Or, the Wonders of the Sea Shore and so she found it somewhat dispiriting to discover the pool so empty. Where were the shrubberies of pink coralline, the arborets of jointed stone, the grottoes of madrepores and waving tessellations of kelp? However, she soon ascertained that she was in the Pool of Wet Dreams made from the very tincture of opium which she herself had bought from a late-Victorian crooked apothecary (known as Uncle Ben) before this story started, to ease her arthritic, widowed grandmother’s pain and which she dropped and broke after her latest fix.
“I wish I hadn’t bought so frigging much!” reflected Alice, as she swam about, in a manner reminiscent of one of the three Rhine-maidens immortalized in Wagner’s ecumenically acclaimed four-epic-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, occasionally sipping the very cool tincture and experiencing as a consequence a most pleasant vacillating equilibrium of her labia. “I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my grandma’s laudanum! That will be a fricking insane thing, to be sure! However, everything is insane to- day.”
from Chapter 8: The Queen’s Crackhouse
Imagine this scene dear readers: A dense clump of cannabis plants near the entrance of the place: all of the plants looked healthy (promising a bounteous harvest of acapulco gold) and were so arranged as to form a colonnade of cooling, crepuscular majesty. However, there were three rustic avant-gardeners at it, busily replanting them. Accoutered in the manner of three Italian fascist Carabinieri with crumpled three-quarter length black capes over their shabby silver-buttoned tunics, they looked like triplets from the Risorgimento. On their heads were tricorne hats with blue and red ostrich plumes. Alice thought both their equipage and their demenour were geeky to say the least and she moved nearer to watch them then, just as she approached one of them, she heard one say, “Look out now, Indica! Don’t go bending those stalks like that!”
“I couldn’t help it,” confessed Indica, in a morose tone, “Sativa jogged my elbow.”
On which Sativa looked up and commented, “That’s right, Indica! Always lay the blame on others!”
“You’d better not talk!” announced Indica with pronounced indignation. “I heard the Queen say only yesterday you deserved to be beheaded!”
“What for this time?” inquired the one who had spoken first.
“That’s none of your goddam business, Ruderalis!” expleted Sativa.
“Yes, it is his goddam business, dick head!” affirmed Indica, “and I’ll tell him — it was for digging up the wrong variety.”
Sativa flung down his hash pipe and had just begun a speech commencing “Well, of all the unjust things –” when his eye chanced to fall upon Alice, mindlessly adjusting her breasts in her bra as she stood watching them and he checked himself, suddenly embarrassed by his voyeuristic proclivity: the others looked round also and all of them bowed obsequiously low.
“Would you tell me,” Alice requested, with more than a morsel of timidity, “why are you replanting those zombie weeds?” Indica and Sativa said nada, but looked at Ruderalis who began to spill the beans in a low voice, “Why the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a Cannabis indica, and we planted a Cannabis sativa by mistake, there’s a qualitative difference in the potency of the respective cannaboids you know, and if the Queen was to find it out we’d all be well and truly up Pshytte Creek, in fact we should all have our heads cut off, de-capitated you know. So you see, Miss, we’re doing our best, afore she comes, to –” At this moment Indica, who had been anxiously looking across the garden, called out “The Queen! The Queen!” and the three avant-gardeners instantly threw themselves flat upon their faces. There was a sound of many footsteps, and Alice looked round, eager to see the Queen.
BookThug launches Steve McCaffery’s Alice in Plunderland Wednesday March 18, 2015 @ Videofag in Toronto (187 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, ON) @ 7:30 pm.
Border Blur Reading Series and BookThug will be teaming up to present a very special book launch for Alice in Plunderland at the Niagara Arts Centre (354 St. Paul Street East) in St. Catharines, ON, Thursday March 19, 2015.
Steve will be reading alongside Karen Mac Cormack, with an art installation by Clelia Scala. The event starts at 8:00 PM and will be free. Refreshments will be served.
SPRING PREVIEWS continue next week with a sneak peak at One Hundred Days of Rain by Carellin Brooks.
Also: tomorrow, Thursday February 5, 2015 the great Julie Joosten, author of Light Light (BookThug, 2013) will be performing at the Lay Your Word Down Reading Series at The Human Bean in Cobourg, ON (80 King St W., Cobourg, ON) at 7:30 PM For more information please visit https://www.facebook.com/events/414269372073700/?ref_newsfeed_story_type=regular&pnref=story
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