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.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear