Monday, August 30, 2021

Against The Grain Again by Brendan Connell


3 thoughts on “Against the Grain Again – Brendan Connell

  1. Against the Grain Again
    The Further Adventures of
    Des Esseintes


    Notice the main character is named Des Esseintes. I think I prefer Clark as a name. Seems simpler. I am afraid, meanwhile, with my future life under a current cloud, I can’t be doing with affording the time to carry out the necessary homework for reading and reviewing this work properly. Please forgive me. If Clark is anything to go by, I am sure this new Connell will prove to be a wonderful wonderful book.
    Against the grain again… Desadence, ah well. Sorry. 

    “The sound above was like a drum. It traversed the ceiling from left to right and then returned from right to left. There was a pause, a bang, and then a repetition.”

The Empty Chair by Roger Keen (1)


31 thoughts on “The Empty Chair – Roger Keen

  1. The book’s OPENING QUOTE: “Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.” — Marcel Proust, ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (The Guermantes Way)

    I always wanted to be buried with Proust! — see HERE.

    Followed by a defensive author’s note about this book and four definitions of words that probably do exist (though I’ve not checked), these being words I have possibly not encountered before but with definitions that seem to indicate they are examples of Proust’s ‘neurotics’….

    Plot spoilers in my review? Well, I hope not!



    “…those fortuitous coincidences and happy occurrences of serendipity which drive a plot along and conveniently untangle conflicts, leading to neat – perhaps too neat – resolutions.”

    Yes, in art perhaps. Too neat. Contrived.
    But when as a reportage-embedded real-time reviewer in each book that I review and seek to ‘guesstalt’, it’s my own REAL-time findings interacting with me and my current happenstance life that make the Jungian Synchonicity in any art (‘art’ being in this book the fiction itself as well as the 1980s filmmaking scenario it promises to portray), yes, make it LESS contrived and more PRETERNATURAL, I claim. And I have not been doping myself at a bonfire party like filmmaker Steve Penhaligon! But I did gain much about him from this chapter’s would-be synchronicity of an ‘empty chair’…
    NB: My period of life at a similar age as Steve’s age seems to be was more during the sixties or early seventies, I guess. Yet I recognise here elements of Steve’s eighties …

    I shall come back here to report on this book from time to time if* and when I have read more of it. I am certainly captivated already by its style, but I always want to eke out such books like I did with the Barley Wine beer I drank as a young man.
    *at my age and state of health, I always have to say ‘if’!

  2. 2

    Amazing, it is almost as if I am living this book.
    Steve’s co-vivid dreams or morphing nightmares of his parents when he was younger, his father in his favourite armchair with a bloody gash, for example, notwithstanding, Steve’s need to lead a life in order to create movies from recorded incidents in his life, for example psychotherapy, echoes my long held fears (publicly expressed) about my real-time reviewing being affected by my simply knowing that I am making my reading thoughts PUBLIC, thus affecting what I say or even causing the book itself somehow to morph!

  3. 3

    “Time slowed on that walk towards the doorway and he felt the painful vulnerability and transparency of the exposed paranoiac.”

    …that Zeno’s Paradox again, but no paradox here.
    Maybe schizophrenia, not paranoia. This book seems inadvertently to cover all sorts of feelings of going mad, the battle between things REALLY outside oneself homing in, against such things that one fundamentally believes are part of one’s imagination….

    Steve builds in character and backstory (his highly difficult father as one example), a portrayal of his POV in a psychotherapy session, beautifully adumbrated and thought through and evoked, yet I think outside my gestalt real time reviewing are surely things REALLY outside such a process affecting it, in addition to some things imagined within it. This reviewing process in recent years has possibly stopped me from ‘going mad.’ And, here, ambitious journeyman TV careerist by the name of Steve has foolhardily ventured into a therapy session, pretending to his TV colleagues that he had gone to the dentist, the very thought of which therapy had actually increased his hang ups, till now, he was here, potentially ironing them out satisfactorily. BUT weren’t we told earlier that this therapy session will also be used by him, in some way, as part of his career ambitions!? Using it creatively? Any further ‘coincidences of the chair’, notwithstanding.

    “…it’s a form of Gestalt therapy, isn’t it?”

  4. Pingback: Coincidences of the Chair | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time ReviewsEdit

  5. 4

    “But then again he considered that the imperfections of memory were part of the whole creative process.”

    65A44E1D-52AD-4E29-8FCD-FB4F151FCD73“…fuzzy boundaries in the infantile state and used the analogy of motorway traffic cones…”

    Therapy that had now allowed him initially to re-draw his own boundaries.
    Meanwhile, inspired by Steve’s Empty Chair syndrome, I have just rediscovered, as shown here, my own seemingly fore-fated 2008 symbol for Steve’s later thoughts on: “…regressing to childhood, reliving all that, spouting baby talk and blubbering away…” — to help ‘launder’, almost literally, the voices and the bad memories concerning his father …
    …but surely not regressing towards Zero itself?
    My own Eureka! moment to match Steve’s in this chapter?

    Whatever the case, Steve goes through various stages following his therapy, at first a honeymoon period of feeling he can now better deal with the inner or seemingly outer voices that had blighted his mental health. But a high that later gets lower again.
    Utilising, detachedly perhaps, the memories of the therapy, too, as a template for inclusion in the ‘plots’ of his creative TV work.
    We also follow his fascinating relationship with ‘flapper girl’ Justine and her own backstory. And I am also reminded that we are back in the era when everyone seems preoccupied with someone called Thatcher!

  6. 5

    ‘It was like the Carole King song, you know… “Something inside me died…”’

    In my 2021 review of this author’s 2017 novel, ‘Literary Stalker’, I speculated on the great novel I saw within its potential. I am confident that this brave new novel is that very promise fulfilled. Early days, I know.

    The character of Steve is building in its own potential of destructive conflicts, involving regressed memories when playing with his sister, and clashing with a monster called Dad. 

    “For Steve, play was somehow synonymous with destruction, and it all seemed totally natural at the time.” —This book’s writing has a similar synonymity, I guess. A swing of brinkmanship. Rainfall in desert areas spoken about on the radio in the eighties, it seems, and Steve ‘pissing’ himself as a boy in desperate anger during the earlier Twist and Shout era. An “overwhelming panic right up to the far boundary fence” of his boyhood garden, but realising later “there were no boundaries” to his Dad.

    And a regression where “he felt transported to an elsewhere of expanded time and space,”… not unlike my Cone Zero?

  7. 6

    Obsessional neurosis, connections, families and their often difficult backstories, family christmases, politics and Thatcher, ‘parentnoia’ – they all connect with me in different ways. It is almost as if I yearn in my older age for connections some of which have avoided me all my life, now salved by seeking the overarching pattern of a Literary Gestalt Theory.
    Theory versus Therapy.
    Philip Larkin’s famous poem, notwithstanding!

    “protracting the journey by going through Glastonbury and stopping to look at the Tor, silhouetted against a late afternoon sunset”

    “Steve loved these tales from the distant past and the way they confirmed the pattern of abuse being handed on from generation to generation like a negative, anti-matter version of the family jewels.”


    Me with my son and daughter in 1977 climbing Glastonbury Tor. 🙂

  8. 69EE0892-F664-4AF9-BBAA-9AF5AF5FBFA8“And here, talking to Daniel, Steve found the thread that connected up the early manifestations of disordered obsessional thoughts, the voices in his head in church, to the new psychedelically enhanced version of that same syndrome.”

    Daniel is the therapist, and these three chapters represent one session, involving the running over of Steve’s backstory leading up to his earlier misbegotten marriage with Cathy — his childhood changes vis à vis his father and the Catholic Church, puberty then pubs, and seventies fashion and music, even a sentence with Thatcher and Proust in one breath, and drugs toward LSD acid, and the creative and inner trips that we all now see, I think, as part of the co-vivid dream syndrome. A fear of the grim reaper. Appreciation of surrealism. Also a lighthouse and involvement with Tarot cards. Fear of the KGB. Even, today, Steve is questioning whether Daniel is using this session as a template for a novel as Steve is for film! Yes, all this having evolved, thus, into a ‘forest fire’ of paranoia and a “gnawing anxiety.” I relate to these outcomes although I have never used any drugs other than moderate alcohol drinking and, years ago, tobacco. Steve’s career, too, leading to becoming a ‘foot soldier’ at the BBC, rubbing shoulders with a few notable celebrities. This one-to-one therapy session with Daniel ends with the threat of group therapy replacing it, a fact which brings me back to what I see as the world’s endemic co-vividness today and to my realisation that I use literature itself as tantamount to a drug trip of would-be gestalt and connection-hunting and a mass co-triangulation of creativity as cross-reading! These chapters’ pests and hoaxes, or what! And I also dwell on my own fiction book equivalent to Steve’s “fictionalised tapestry drawing from many actual dream accounts, and featuring a classic recurring nightmare that dated from the dawn of his consciousness and subconsciousness.” Sorry for personalising things in this book, but that brings me back to you (as another reader of it) personalising it, too, as part of gestalt co-triangulation of coordinates.

  9. 10

    “…there was no available space in which to enjoy the coincidence.”

    Another one-to-one session between Steve and Daniel, covering Catholic absolution and this arguable Therapeutic catharsis of confession, mainly covering — after a ‘leap’ (of faith?) — Steve’s marriage to Cathy somehow related to his Dad‘s bullying. But who was the bully in this marriage, I ask. A flashpoint concerning an erstwhile Glastonbury Festival, a sort of career suicide as a metaphor for condemnation by his colleagues, leading to paranoia as “giant black dead weight” and autonomous thoughts, by a self as third party, towards real suicide and much else …
    Steve’s inner and outward behaviours are reported by him to Daniel as a third party narrative of fiction, bespoke permutations of which will relate to every reader who is likely to pick up this book, as well as to the people who know them. Why or how this book manages to accelerate in potentially dangerous power…?
    A theme and variations on fiction as fantasy book as well as personal fantasies within an angry hollowness of precarious freedom, fantasies that somehow seem essentially real when experiencing them. A growing nightmare that contains other people in one’s life who are rasping loudly not only within the pre-covid workplace but also within the ‘in camera’ or Huis Clos of one’s own head, I guess.


    11 & 12

    Cross-fictionalising and adapting real life for fiction, and vice versa. And I wonder if I have bitten off more than I chew in embarking on this would-be cross-fertilising real-time review of it!
    An absurdist irony, then, that Steve considers his first film project, Maelstrom, as “overindulgent and overambitious”, as I have indeed been fazed by its being reported on here in detail as part of this pattern of cross-reading and cross-filming, as I am, so far, also fazed by the number of characters introduced to us as part of the ice-breaking session of the Group Therapy, a panoply of people that he intends to adapt for his film Empty Chair, just as, perhaps, the inferred freehold author of this book does, too, for his fiction book that we are now somehow reading, i.e. about this group of people that his leasehold narrator meets!
    Just for the record, and to catch my breath, I will state that Steve’s own leaseholder is called Chris Dowlais.
    I was somewhat relieved that the Sooty Show was mentioned at one point, a bridge like Steve’s own end-to-end bridges of once Clifton destructivity and filmic creativity, but here a bridge between my own era with Harry Corbett of the 1950s, and Matthew Corbett in Steve’s era.

  11. Pingback: The Eschairtology | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews Edit

  12. #eschairtology #gestalttheory #gestalttherapy #gestaltrealtimereviewing #theemptychairnovel

    13 & 14

    “…falling through the mirror, where the theoretical becomes actual.”

    The theatrical, too.
    Now it is the second session of the Group Therapy, and of course there is a girl (Alex) whom Steve fancies, despite his still going out with Justine. Alex deems her problem as being self-indulgent, a further ironic echo of what Steve thinks of his own Maelstrom! She is finally persuaded — despite later rejecting the chance to Empty Chair role-play it all out — to tell the group of a recent problem event in her life … and I can’t help comparing this attention (thus ‘geometrically’ progressed and focussed on her by the group) with the “quantum” effect Steve is said later to observe in the whole meta-layering of leasehold and burgeoning freehold creative influences in this book, a meta-layering generated by the audit trail of a singular linear life called Steve!
    Steve later bats against the odds of sports metaphors in his career ladder at Channel 4, and this evokes his Tumbledowning it, I guess! — creating his urge for more of Diazepam’s safety cushion, to be obtained against the increasing resistance of his doctor. So much more to report, but I am an embedded journalist, a literal real-time journal-keeper about fiction, dealing with the inner and outer psychological wars depicted in books and, so, I also need to be abstemious! Suffice to say, that I was delighted to see that Beckett was mentioned in the text here, even if he didn’t write Huis Clos! And if Alex is Steve’s would-be Wonder Girl, then Rod, his career bane, is her inverse as the explicitly deemed ‘Boy Wonder’, I guess.

  13. 15 & 16

    Not linear, after all! — “Proustian litany of problems” and Steve “had trouble in marshalling his ideas, and he’d go off in one direction and wouldn’t know what to say next, so he’d vacillate and then get tongue tied.” Still he had the benefit of not being neurotically self-conscious of his own voice, like Richard, another group member! These two chapters represent the circumstances where he messes his thing not only with Justine outside the group but also with returnee Alex back within it. Anger discussed in all its forms with other group members, and a Beckett-like play or group drama feeding off from this ground base of real therapy is temporarily snuffed by his pet slasher character Nick turning up on pages where Steve dabbles written words. I have my own anxieties about which of his pages contain the real thing and which don’t. And whether eschairtology has anything to do with ‘reporting directly to the chairman’ in a career-ladder social gathering involving Rod and, glancingly, Leslie Crowther and Henry Kelly.
    ‘Scaled down’ therapy group as the ultimate TONTINE (a staple concept for many of my past gestalt real-time reviews – just Google any word like this with “nullimmortalis” and you will see) – “dropping like flies” is the expression used here with regard to the group Steve regularly attends.
    And Justine’s two small sons looked at Steve as if he were “a strange piece of modern art.” There is so much in this book, with an impression of it becoming out-sized and sprawling, but that is deceptive for there are some very brain-swerving and ground-breaking patterns of fiction emerging in this book with the slowth of Zeno’s Paradox, the latter expression being another one to google alongside “nullimmortalis”.
    Nasty Nick (now VERY nasty here) from a mutant version of the first Big Brother House as another In Camera /Huis Clos. The next “garden shoot”, notwithstanding.
    Sorry for my personalising again, but this book seems to swaddle the readers and their individual bespoke-nesses within it. Well, certainly mine. Steve and his Catch 22 syndrome again? He seems to gain ground by proving something hopeless is indeed hopeless. Is that masochism? Me just sprawling now.

    • From my real-time review of ‘Melmoth’ by Sarah Perry here in 2018:-

      ‘a vision of which witness or watcher all empty chairs contain, perhaps? “…but the feeling that to witness such degradation and humiliation was to somehow take part in it:” […]
      More “witness” moments and empty shadowed chairs to remember, too. Leading later to a potential Proustian cake of liqueur and apricots…’

  14. Pingback: Whose empty chairs: Witnesses or Witnessed? | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews Edit

  15. 17 & 18

    “…he had to admit that the plot had been lost, and it really was too late to change that.”

    Well, if the Group Therapy Tontine does collapse, at least for its paying members if not for its organisers, my own imagination on behalf of Steve is sufficient to suspect that Tiffany, the new member as previous serious child abuse victim now with TV career ambitions, is a role-playing plant or honey-trap that the organisers recruit for the closing sessions. The end of which was almost a cult ceremony! Think about it.

    Whatever the case, Steve’s erstwhile bridge metaphor has now itself collapsed in the middle. And his own subsequent bodily traumas ending up with two parallel A & E visits are symptoms of that. 

    His chair of planned creativity is now truly empty to the point of despair but, later, his thoughts-in-limbo (or at least mine) turn to already semi-crystallised Nick as a potential character in the pecking order or ladder or hierarchy of reliable and unreliable meta-narratives as a pattern out of which may come his ultimate success.

    Soon to have to take my own Leave of Absence or Lost Weekend from this real-time reviewing. This book seems to be growing bigger and bigger even as I read it — please see my very many comments on Aickman elsewhere by googling “Aickman” + (“Zeno’s Paradox” OR ‘“Zenoism”). And I am thinking that, however diligently I ply my craft with this utterly wonderful book in its style to die for, such activity may start encroaching on a period when I am due to have a sabbatical from this reviewing because I am being snatched away for a few days next week on a so-called holiday… 

    Oh, talking about that ‘unplugged iron’ anxiety of Steve’s, how often have I suffered that! Like the character in Ishiguro’s UNCONSOLED, I have taken to carrying an ironing-board around with me wherever I go!

    By the way, I was intrigued by the references to Rothko and Gilbert & George both of whom have featured in past ‘holidays’ of mine. However, the reference to Elvis Costello at Glastonbury brought a reminder of my recent review (here) of R.B. Russell’s ‘Waiting For The End Of The World”…

  16. …and the above sort of naturally leads us to what will surely become notably known as the London chapter of this famous-to-be Empty Chair book, whereby Costello’s (if not Abbott’s) end of the world becomes a Rothko edge…

    “There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, except fall off the edge of the world.”

    Chapter 19

    Yet we have Morecambe and Wise courtesy of Gilbert and George! Dennis Potter’s actual NHS hospital bed, too, where he dreamed of the blossomest blossom, I guess. But the chapter’s essence is Steve’s visit to Rothko at the Tate.

    “He no longer wanted to experience them consecutively, he wanted to breathe them in as a oneness, letting his gaze dart wherever it would.”

    …as I hope to do with this book as he does with Rothko. And the cute but seemingly unobtainable girls he sees in various places such as the Tate. The live rail of the tube train. The encroachment of a male slapstick Nick as a potential rescuer within a declining perception of self. Claustrophobia, OCD, ‘autocinemalisation’ (another of this book’s neologisms?), and, yes, that ever-teetering, Zeno half by Zeno half, upon the final edge where there is nothing beyond.. nothing but clinging to a sense of place, of a homeland, a subsuming slowth in the ‘perpetual sight-seeing’ of landmarks like Buckingham Palace.

    A “ghoulish maelstrom of introspection” salved, I infer, by the infiltrating non-monochrome pastels of an Albino or Psoriatic man painted, when round some geometric bend, by Rothko?

    My own sense of place…

  17. 20

    “The ironing board with its unplugged iron was still standing in the hallway,…”

    Also a sort of ironing-out by Steve of his own realisation and acceptance of failure, now spurning the surreal walls with hands of Polanski et al that had populated his earlier Maelstrom, — and with his  life now  becoming a Zeno-like “plod through knee-deep treacle.” Not that I am making this a  direct comparison with this book so far, in fact far from it — just witness now the absolutely brilliant characterisation of Harold  (the namesake of Steve’s Dad) who is a 65 year old with a rich backstory of professional drama on TV and cinema and famous names that he keeps dropping. And, separately,  the brilliant characterisation of Jocelyn the so-called nymphomaniac  weathergirl!

    But soon after this de-pressing ironing-out, via tangential talk of Stalin and cider and Patrick McGoohan’s Prisoner, Steve’s life seems to start climbing some ladder of hope and activity, helped somehow by the separate arrivals  of Harold and Jocelyn in his life and their readiness to accept him, if perhaps such collateral encounters are without their own staying power, I ask?

    In fact, this whole book is fast — or slowly! — becoming a tour de force with a felicity of novelistic skills that are breathtaking. Still early days, though. But the signs are definitely this promising, in my humble opinion.

    Yet, meantime, my own propensity to personalise things in my reviews, for which  I have apologised already twice during this particular review, has taken its own potentially depressing  turn for the worse in my now having to face this fact head on alongside Steve, but it is also something  that is paradoxically satisfying to me!…
    “This kind of writing was really an encumbrance, a compulsive neurotic activity which like drugs gave a false sense of achievement, making you think you were some kind of nascent genius when in reality you were just a fool messing around in the hermetically sealed playpen of your own brain.”
    An important passage, and please forgive me for quoting it at length.



    “He’d never been faced with such a steep learning curve before. […] …all contributing to Steve’s glorious dream. […] …was like someone else’s life.”

    Plus a sense that “he was plugged into some ultra high voltage national grid of femininity, connected to all beautiful women…”
    From Cone Zero to the learning curve of a sexual oneness-throbbing Gestalt…?

    Whatever the case, and whatever the possible presage of an impending Coke Zero at the end of this otherwise spectacularly action-filmic chapter, we now follow Steve into a significant turn of fortunes after his giving a momentarily-drunk Harold a lift home in Harold’s own modernistically car-phoned Bentley, this being the chance arrival of an opportunity to work in a swashbuckler of a period film involving swords and ships. An opportunity Steve fulfils with instinctive ability and gusto, with fight choreographies and even aerial shots! Another impressive novelistic moment of events and characterisations, as if the author himself has grasped this his own nettle of opportunity with equivalently instinctive writerly skills, a telling head-on portrait of a central protagonist who echoes many traits and hang-ups that people increasingly find in themselves today, all of this being factored into accessible Proustian colours of mood as well as gustily engaging scenarios as based on good research of – or past experience in – the film industry and all our Empty Chairs.


  19. 23

    “When absorbed in a book, he would think in the mode of its terminology and view his personal issues…”

    As with a long-term view of Proustian selves (real and unreal), there is a sense of my Prisoner self inside Time’s tidal flux of book-reading and book-creating and grappling with my own self therapies through periods of time…. And, for Steve, the 80s unfold and the 90s now beckon, with Steve’s experiments in film and TV career-making and his own psychotherapy panning out, too, alongside an “old synchronicity magic,…”
    From Janov’s Primal Scream to a new shrink whom Steve meets called Jake and Jake’s own experiments … So much business-like narration in this chapter — Jocelyn’s new weather fronts, Rod and his Road Racing, new ventures and fashions in TV/Film and their technology versus the constraints of an end-game Thatcher, Trout Mask Films and a Zen if not Singing Detective to outwit Morse with Mystic Orientation, plus other characters too numerous to name in the uncontrollable stream of life’s consciousness, then Steve’s jumping ship into freelance? — and I feel a new Primal Scream is needed to disrupt the smooth surface of this chapter’s narrative technique, ripple it into unpredictable waves and I shall now type on my own Amstrad PCW the next stage of my own real-time review in the following eked-out but unpredictable days of a future yore…. a legacy’s rebel with his own maverick cause. The Empty Chair catharsis having once stuttered upon its own coitus interruptus?

  20. 24


    ‘Zen is about seeing the underlying magic in everything. It’s about laughing off adversity, because success and failure are the same. And it’s about sudden flashes of insight where all becomes clear, if only for a moment, which can be very useful to a detective…’

    Or to a book reviewer like me? Yes, yes, yes. Success and failure, triumph and disaster, all one. As with a Lawrence Durrell quote I’ve hung on for many years. Above is Steve’s sales pitch at a TV business meeting (one that he also compares to his earlier group therapy meetings!), here directors, technicians and screenplay writers et al for a TV detective series gig and it works for Steve! Another career watershed. Amid this whole unmissable telling portrait by Keen, via Steve, of that era especially if you already know the TV shows that were happening then and the era’s surrounding politics. Consumingly reminding.

    While we share Steve’s continuing relationship with his bullying and undermining Dad, or at least a Jekyll and Hyde Dad, but we only hear Steve’s side of the story via the author’s stance of giving us Steve’s point of view, I guess. Steve’s Dad, like me, “seventy now, a confirmed old man and as entrenched in his ways as ever.” — now 74, me, and my own son 50. But entrenched in my ways? I think not! Whatever the case, the scene of golf between Steve and his Dad in this chapter is a genuine literary gem. And a believable one. I currently give Steve the benefit of the doubt. Unreliable point-of-view or not. Us men, though, Goodfellas all, at least from our own points of view!

    “Scorsese’s latest Goodfellas, which combined delicious baroque violence with a fresh kind of gangster storytelling, creating a pop-culture stream-of-consciousness noir for the new decade.”


    From the cosmic point of view, to have opinions or preferences at all is to be ill; for by harbouring them one dams up the flow of the ineluctable force which, like a river, bears us down to the ocean of everything’s unknowing. Reality is a running noose, one is brought up short with a jerk by death. It would have been wiser to co-operate wih the inevitable and learn to profit by this unhappy state of things – by realising and accommodating death! But we don’t, we allow the ego to foul its own nest. Therefore we have insecurity, stress, the midnight-fruit of insomnia, with a whole culture crying itself to sleep. How to repair this state of affairs except through art, through gifts which render to us language manumitted by emotion, poetry twisted into the service of direct insight?”
    from ‘The Avignon Quincunx’ by Lawrence Durrell (‘Constance’ 1982)