Books In Conversation
MALCOLM MCNEILL with Edward S. Robinson
Reflux+:Some Things Just Won’t Stay Down
Polyartists are often met critically as being jacks of all trades, but, as the adage goes, masters of none, spreading their talents and visions too thinly to excel in any given area. For Malcolm McNeill—born in England but resident in the United States since the early 1970s—his wide-ranging output is key to providing a rounded perspective of a multifaceted character. McNeill’s abbreviated biography sees him described as “an illustrator, sculptor, video producer, director, and raconteur,” and notes that he won an Emmy Award for his “groundbreaking opening title sequence for NBC’s Saturday Night Live.” It’s an impressive resumé, and yet it still only touches the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Having studied Graphics at Hornsey College of Art and been advised to pursue a career as an illustrator, McNeill’s first significant post-graduation project was on Ah Pook is Here in collaboration with William S. Burroughs. A precursor to the graphic novel, the project was fraught with difficulties and not just of a technical nature. Consequently, the project was shelved, incomplete, after seven years or so. While Burroughs’ text was published in 1979, Mc Neill’s images remained unpublished until 2012, after an aborted attempt to publish the work as intended. Observed While Falling, published simultaneously with Ah Pook, contained McNeill’s autobiographical recollections and reflections on the evolution of the project.
It was around this time that I first got to discuss Ah Pook with Malcolm, who filled in a number of the gaps as to why the Burroughs estate had declined to give permission for the use of excerpts from the text for my own project, Shift Linguals (which I began at the auspicious age of twenty-three, and which, like Ah Pook, stretched out over seven years).
McNeill would subsequently contribute essays on a host of topics—seemingly whatever popped into his head—to Paraphilia Magazine, an Anglo-American online project that had emerged from MySpace. The eclecticism of the subjects covered—and the sometimes irreverent humor with which they were addressed—fitted perfectly with the countercultural melting pot the magazine represented.
2014 saw the publication of Reflux, a selection of these essays. With Paraphilia Magazine having since called it a day, Reflux+ gathers McNeill’s complete essays within a single spine, and is very much a book one can dip into at random and pull out a nugget of brilliance that also provides food for thought. While chewing on it all, it seemed an opportune moment to pitch some questions around the genesis of the book, and more.
Edward S. Robinson (Rail): The pieces in Reflux+ cover a vast array of topics, and within those, there are many references and intertextual elements. Would you say there is a single overarching theme or idea that connects all of these things?
Malcolm McNeill: The subjects range from Tarzan’s erection, to ant weather, to mothers and their children being hanged from trees. There’s not so much a theme as an ongoing series of dialogues: fact and fiction, equality and scale, information and knowledge and so on. Plus, the basics: intention, significance, sacrifice, freewill etc. There’s no real method to it, stuff just pops up. It’s a madhouse down here, some of it’s funny, some of it not.
One of the things about Reflux that really encourages me is that several people have said it made them laugh out loud. That to me is the greatest compliment, because they also say the ideas were sometimes quite disturbing.
Rail: Sometimes the only way to respond to the insanity of the world is to laugh at it. Do you feel that modern society seems to be losing its sense of humour, and is becoming increasingly sensitive about what’s ‘appropriate’ for sources of humour?
Rail: You address some fairly weighty concepts, and there’s considerable depth to many of the pieces—although there is no shortage of lighter pieces for balance—but render them in in an almost conversational tone. How important is writing accessibly to you?
McNeill: Holding onto a reader is tough given the enormous amount of material out there. Like Huxley said, surfeit of information will be the problem, not Orwell’s lack of it. Anything longer than a tweet is risky— one dud sentence and the reader taps their finger and goes elsewhere. We hear words when we write them and read them, so it really is a talking process. In that sense expressing an idea is like refining a joke. You run it over and over in your head until it sounds right.
Rail: One recurring source of contemplation is The Bible, and you approach characters like Noah and Moses from quite unusual and unexpected angles. What is it that draws you back to the Bible, and how would you describe your relationship with religion more broadly?
McNeill: I didn’t really read the Bible and Quran until I began working on a book called 1% about the DNA difference between humans and apes. Religion was part of that. It was only when I started reading them closely that the improbabilities, contradictions and incongruities became so insanely apparent. Here was the bedrock of Western Civilization full of all these wacky stories that everyone knew about, everyone accepted, but hardly anyone had actually read. People have read the Samson and Moses stories in Reflux+ and think I made them up, but they’re straight out of the book. On the other hand, these stories were foisted onto unwitting cultures for centuries, often on the sharp end of a stick.
Rail: Reflux+ contains the complete essays from your column in the sadly now-defunct Paraphilia Magazine, and as such is an expanded edition of Reflux, which contained a selection of the essays, and was published in 2014. Were you ever tempted to publish the remainders in a second volume—like Reflux Redux, or is it more about having all of the articles in one place?
McNeill: The demise of Paraphilia—and International Times in a sense—was indeed sad. Díre McCain had given me the first opportunity to publish my essays and Heathcote Williams at IT, who also published them, was a great advocate and friend. When Díre decided to concentrate on her own work and Heathcote died, it was like the end of two great relationships. I decided to put everything I’d done with them in one book as an acknowledgement. International Times is still running of course and still publishes stuff I send them.
Rail: Paraphilia felt like more than a magazine, and had a sense of a creative community about it. The fact that there was no money involved seemed to liberate the contributors in some way. How did you come to be involved?
McNeill: I’d completed a dozen or so essays and sent them to Díre. She agreed to start publishing them right there and then. She’s a writer herself whose work I respect, and there were other contributors I liked, so that was approval enough for me. Like you say, a great creative community. That was in 2014. I kept sending her material for the next four years.
Rail: As I mentioned, the essays in Reflux+ originally appeared on-line in Paraphilia Magazine. Is having the physical object important to you, and do you feel that people relate and interact differently with print media?
McNeill: I can’t speak for “people,” but I’m much happier holding words in my hands.
Rail: It’s fair to say you’ve had a fairly varied career, and you were exclusively an artist for a long time after you started out. How did you subsequently transition through other media to the written word?
McNeill: I’ve kept sketchbooks/journals since I was a teenager and there are as many words in them as there are images. I came out of art school as an illustrator, but I’ve always seen images in terms of narrative and words in terms of images. This worked for me in television and film and certainly with Observed While Falling. The Reflux+ essays all have an image at the head to help focus the imagery in the writing that follows. They also create a word/image interaction in which the two compliment and work off one other as I’m figuring out the idea. Each finds different patterns and associations in the subject. Ever since Bill Burroughs, I’ve been fascinated by the methods of other creative individuals, especially the relationship between their actual selves and the worldviews they express. The disparity is another one of the dialogues in Reflux. The incongruities between the real-life personas of say Joseph Campbell or Angelina Jolie and the ones they promote through their “art-forms” reveal contradictions that are sometimes very disquieting. The fan/celebrity mindset makes critical reading of the narrative less and less necessary; it’s often sufficient that a revered source or individual is involved in presenting it. Just like the Bible stories once did, “faith” in the source allows the deeper agendas that promote it to impress their own ideas unchecked. Science, the book I’m working on now, tries to apply the same approach to the disparity between information and knowledge. It also sets up each essay with an image.
Rail: Ah Pook has a long and quite unusual history as unfinished projects go, and Observed While Falling provides some fascinating insights, on both the way the project went and subsequent events. Did the book’s publication provide closure after all those years?
McNeill: Not at all. Rediscovering Ah Pook is Here was literally digging up an archaeological artifact, it’s taken time to actually understand what it means. I’ve been working on an audio-visual presentation trying to clarify that. The images were shown before the books were published, when no one really knew the story behind them. Hopefully they will be more meaningful this time around.
Rail: When can we expect to see Science?
McNeill: The set-up images for Science are original paintings, which are hard to predict in terms of time. Not so much how long they will take, but how often I will feel like doing them. They’re the kind of images that once the idea is figured out it’s really just a matter of getting it done. It’s a forgone conclusion almost, but it takes a long time to get there. Writing on the other hand is more open ended and far more surprising; you never really know where you’re going to end up.
Rail: It’s interesting you should mention that you need to feel like painting to do it, and how it’s a very different process to writing. What is your creative process, and do you think that words are perhaps more malleable, for both the artist and audience?
McNeill: A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but a word evokes an infinite number of images. You say the word “horse” to fifty people and you’ve created fifty different horse images in their minds. But the images aren’t fixed, they’re a vague composite of many individual recollections of horse. Not so much a horse as an image of “horsiness.” The remarkable achievement of Lascaux, and the other cave painters, was that they solidified the images evoked by the spoken word. The paintings enabled them to talk about a specific horse, unequivocally that horse and no other. 35,000 years later, it’s still that horse. To me, that’s the difference between images and words.