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Jonathan Bowden’s Al-Qa’eda MOTH

1,033 words

Jonathan Bowden
Al-Qa’eda MOTH
London: The Spinning Top Club, 2008

This picaresque novel was published in August 2008 by the Spinning Top Club in England. The novel is a slightly unusual departure for Bowden in that it is a Western — albeit of a spectral or ghoulish sort. It could be best described as a supernatural western crossed with an intellectual treatise.

It is interesting to note that the literary Western is customarily despised, and, unlike its film variant, there is very little ‘serious’ criticism devoted to it. Although some of the most famous practitioners of this area — Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Elmore Leonard — are obviously well-known (Grey’s total sales exceed 250 million copies) the area as a whole receives scant respect. Whether or not this is because Francis Parker Yockey’s the hero of the Second World War’s favorite author was Zane Grey in translation is a moot point.

To date, Bowden has only written one Western, and the title itself is intriguing. From what I can work out having read the book several times it appears to mean exploding moths or insects — it definitely has nothing to do with Islamism whatsoever. On reflection, the title may relate to his old friend the anti-humanist intellectual Bill Hopkins. In an interview between them in the late ‘nineties, Hopkins confirmed that he was writing a play called Phosphorescent Insects about animal liberation. I think it was to be the sine qua non of misanthropy — the insects in question, entropically, being Mankind — but Hopkins never finished it to his satisfaction after three drafts. My belief is that Bowden has always specialized in insects — A Ballet of Wasps, et cetera — and he wanted to use the idea of Lepidoptera speeding rapidly around their extinguishment, in fire, as his motif.

The book itself involves three distinct story-lines which overlap with each other in a way that takes the Western into undeveloped territory. Bowden’s thesis is why not use a form some consider hackneyed to analyze the West, the Occident, or the remains of the civilization we could be said to be living in. To this end, and in a manner that’s confirmed by the book’s blurb, volumes like Lawrence R. Brown’s The Might of the West and William Gayley Simpson’s Which Way Western Man? are used as templates or sounding-boards for the narrative. Bowden wants to discuss whether Western culture has a future, and he does so by assessing five centuries of Western painting since the Renaissance. This happens amid the dream-landscape of the main characters who populate this narrative. The fable (with this exception) is otherwise representational and narrative-driven in its scope. I think that Mister Bowden has chosen the West in an idealized European sense having never been there himself. California has doubtless changed out of all recognition, but, way back at the beginning of the last century in Robinson Jeffers’ poetry, this pellucid West is crying out for tragedy. This happens to be one of the reasons, doubtless, why Jeffers saw the harsh and at that time literally unspoilt wilderness of these great tracks of American land as a vestibule for Tragedy — above all, Greek tragedy. A reason why Jeffers himself went on to conclude a blood-soaked version of Euripides’ Medea set amidst the immense glare of California’s vastness.

In any event, all of the usual Bowden tropes are here — including two parallel narratives involving the same characters or dramatis personae. One series of incidents is set in the Old West of the nineteenth century; the other occurs in the twentieth century. The link between the two plot devices is provided by the same personnel in both cases. Bowden also allows himself two violent climaxes — in both story-lines — and there is a greater degree of normative good and evil here than usual with him, perhaps influenced by the genre. The criminal gang (fronted up by Old Man Smithers and his delinquent son Blackbird Leys Dingo) is particularly well-drawn in their baseness. It is a belletristic exercise in insect classification drawn from Jim Dewey’s Deliverance (from which the famous film was derived) and maybe even the yokel brigands in Straw Dogs. Certainly, the analysis here is Lombrosian. Extreme criminality is biological, somatic, genetic, and prior ordained; it can only be faced down by the morality of punishment. There is no hint of Obama’s penology here. For, like Robinson Jeffers, the harsh Western sun beats down upon all with a maximal glare and in a fully Pagan transport.

This is the nearest that Jonathan Bowden has ever come to writing a straight adventure story, or series of same, and yet he under-cuts this by a dreamy debate about Kultur. The West’s, that is, and whether the unfulfilled promise of Wyndham Lewis’ The Human Age trilogy can lead it forwards into aught better. It is interesting to note that much of the European New Right detests American life so much that they have lost sight of certain verities, but Bowden seeks to reclaim the dissident voices of Mencken, London, Pound, Eliot, Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the Southern Agrarians, Jeffers and Revilo P. Oliver. He sees in a dissident, post-Puritan, Apocalyptian, marshal-lawed, bleaker, sun-drenched, and full-on Ameri[k]a seeds of a new beginning. It is as if some of the rhetoric of Cotton Mather has displaced itself in time so as to elide with Andrew Macdonald’s Hunter (the progeny of Doctor Pierce) in order to flower in a violent Walden: a parody and Dystopia on the negation of Ellis’ American Psycho. In any event, the anti-communist, free, wise, and open art of the post-war firmament was abstract expressionism, encoded by Jackson Pollack from small-town Wyoming, and secretly financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. One wonders what they really thought about it all! Nonetheless, isn’t it time to put something on the canvas — and yet still remain expressive? Perhaps a skeletal arm, in imagination, reaches out all aflame and surrounded by white sheets . . . in a scenario where Death-on-horseback rides and twists, and where Philip Guston retreats in alarm to from where his later self-portraits originated in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

For those who have ears to hear — let them hear!

The novel Al-Qa’eda MOTH can be be read here.

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