Taxonomy for the masses

The pornographic allure of looking at things organised neatly.

A book arrived in the office last week which seemed to have been inspired by a current fashion on the internet. Things Come Apart, by the Canadian photographer Todd McLellan, is a showcase of objects, old and new, disassembled and laid out on clean surfaces like anatomical diagrams. It is divided into small, medium, large and extra large objects: from pens, clocks and electronic gadgets to a large metal snow blower, an upright piano and an aluminium two-seater light aircraft.

There are interesting juxtapositions. A second generation iPod is placed beside a Sony Walkman, the latter boasting 370 individual components, by comparison with the iPod’s slick 80. A mark of progressive design? Elsewhere the trend is reversed. An Asahi Pentax SLR camera from the 1970s - which I was delighted to see, having inherited the same model from a friend’s father after he died - appears next to a 2012 Sony Digital SLR, which has retained roughly the same number of parts (580 to the Asahi's 576), despite having made the transition from film to digital.

Digital SLR Camera, 2012, Sony. Component count: 580. All images copyright: Todd McLellan 2013

For McLellan, there exists a danger in our “locked out” culture. We have become alienated from the objects in our homes. In his introductory essay, “We all have ADHD these days...”, McLellan expresses dissatisfaction with the “exasperating” waste and expense of having to replace everything we buy after a few years' use. It was not always thus, he writes:

It fascinates me that older objects were so well built, and were most likely put together by hand. These items were repaired when broken, not discarded like our devices today.

There is no mention of the word “neat” anywhere in the book. I find this strange because the most arresting thing about the images is the way they impose order upon a large number of connected yet disparate parts. The inner elements of everyday items are grouped and arranged with almost fanatical, geometrical precision. Yet McLellan does not make mention of the aesthetic impact of looking at a piano with all its hammers, pegs, pedals and keys lined up - or a typewriter, its cipher-tipped metal arms and levers arranged to create diametric patterns that leap off the page like a William Morris print.

The effect is both satisfying and superficial. Similar images have appeared online over the last five years, particularly on blogs such as FFFFound! and Things Organized Neatly (perhaps another reason to avoid the word “neat”, though I have no idea who precipitated the movement). At university, I became addicted to scrolling through these sites, feeding my obsessive compulsiveness by forcing an industrial degree of orderliness upon what would otherwise have been an unrecognisable mess. I spent hours clicking from one post to the next in search of the most grand - or minute - or unlikely - disassembly. Technology, matches, motorbikes - even families. The desire to seek out form and meaning in the world is a primary human urge, and the maximalist stratification of deconstructed household objects provides an instant hit that pleases intensely for a second, but is soon forgotten.

Things Come Apart - a slightly clunky adaptation of Yeats’s line in “The Second Coming” - claims to be working against the finished, holistic and pristine. If you look at enough of these kind of images online, their contrivance begins to feel restrictive. Unlike those images of calculated destruction which circulate fairly rapidly following the release of a new must-have gadget, there is no anarchy here. Rather we are witnessing the curatorial effort and surgical design that put the finished product on the shelves to begin with - and they are always products: buyable items. One issue I have with Things Organised Neatly is that its materialism can get to be a little much. The things take over. The most common submission seems to be a sort of Brooklynite starter-kit of leather shoes, stationary, clothes from Urban Outfitters, Apple devices and some kind of weighty SLR camera. It starts to be less art and more “look at all the things that I own”.

A recent post from Things Organized Neatly

Perhaps Wes Anderson is to blame. The miniaturisation and artificiality fundamental to his films makes them at once symbolic and materialistic. He has created doll’s house replicas of mansions, tenements, tents, trains and perhaps most memorably, the research vessel Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2009). The American novelist Michael Chabon has noted the uncanny effect of seeing recognisable human events play out amid the palpable fakeness of Anderson’s toybox universe:

That is the paradoxical power of the scale model; a child holding a globe has a more direct, more intuitive grasp of the earth’s scope and variety, of its local vastness and its cosmic tininess, than a man who spends a year in circumnavigation ... When he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.

The research vessel Belafonte from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Image: Touchstone Pictures

Anderson mirrors common experiences in an undeniably contrived way, yet somehow manages to move beyond the artifice and point to something true. But as with TON, there is no denying that aspiration plays an important role in creating the effect. His characters tend to belong to the 1 per cent. They have the money to buy nice things and pursue their eccentricities. The beautiful boxes inside which Anderson frames people and places free us from the ugliness that is the norm. The mess remains off-screen.

Like Todd McLellan, Anderson utilises grids and boundaries in order to make us realise something profound: in presenting order we are confronted by its absense. It becomes a kind of boasting - one which has infected social media. People tend not to post pictures of a half-eaten plate of food or the damp behind the bed on Instagram. It's a version of reality, and in that way a little shallow. A bit like overexposure to pornography: if you keep clicking through it, sooner or later you become aware of the absence of real, fleshy people. Porn is not like people, it is a presentation. Life is not neat. Nor will we ever stop arranging it.

Things Come Apart is published on 3 June by Thames & Hudson (£19.95)

Like a hipster Art Attack: an image from the blog "Things Organized Neatly".

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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