Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: KUU

Etc Etc Amen. Part Two of a review of a novel by Howard Male

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 3 2015.

Part One can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/etc-etc-amen-part-one-of-a-review/

 

 

male plus cat

 

Howard Male has written on music for the Independent, Songlines, The Word and other publications and on the arts in general for theartsdesk.com. He is also a musician. Etc Etc Amen is his first novel.

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Part Two

“Let go of your belief – it’s more trouble than it’s worth! Many have  died fighting over the small print from the undeniably ambiguous texts of their holy books. Belief is an End not a Beginning. Making a choice with regards to a theological position is patently absurd. Because…We. Know. Nothing.”

 

Male’s novel deals with rock god Zachary Bekele who founds a non-religion called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis.

KUU Theology

KUU stands for the Knowing Unknowing Universe. Male says: “I wanted to see if it was possible to devise a theology which went completely against the troubling grain of all that had gone before it, yet made perfect if eccentric sense as an alternative.” “Knowing” suggests something that demonstrates intelligence as well as something beyond our comprehension. “Unknowable” means we have to be content with unresolved guesses because all religion is guesswork. “Universe” symbolises what we find impossible to understand. The more knowledge we acquire the more fragile and contingent we feel. “The Gratuitous just keeps on raining down”.

KUU-ism is a middle way between theism and atheism; an escape from the “tribal binary prison”. Even our greatest thinkers only seem to pose either/or questions or definitive statements. Everything is reduced to the taking of sides while the truths remain ambivalent and overlooked. “Sitting on the fence might actually give us the best view”.

The Tripod built in Marrakech symbolises this third way. It is a middle way between the belief in an interventionist or non-interventionist deity. The KUU is semi-interventionist, and recognises `Cosmic Nudges’ – KUU-incidences (what Carl Jung called Synchronicities). KUU offers a welcome to refugees from any faith or even “agonised agnostics” and atheists. Bekele describes himself as “part evangelical agnostic and part woolly-minded fantasist”. He also says he is, “just a born-again questioner with a novel interpretation of the facts”.

KUU asserts that science is just as likely to be made up of bizarre hypotheses as ancient religion was made of bizarre gods. Scientists have not “made a dent on some of the central mysteries of mind, soul or creation”. KUU is not a personifying name of an entity that explains everything. “Why should we suddenly have all the answers now any more than we did two hundred or even two thousand years ago?”

Religions have dumb rules. The bible gives equal weight to sartorial and dietary advice and serious misdemeanours.  KUU Ground Rules are not Commandments. There are Eleven KUU Non-Commandments (or Gentle Suggestions), concerned with the individual’s well-being, sense of self and relationship with the possibility of a spiritual realm. Here are a few from the eleven: “You can laugh. You can doubt. Meditate on the Mystery of Music. Embrace and delight in the hello of the Cosmic Nudge. Forget about love, Empathy and respect are the real deal. Respect is rarely blind, stupid, jealous or crazy because it requires prior thought and has to be earned.

The central idea is that a connection can be cultivated between The Knowing Unknowable Universe and the receptive “entertainer of the possibility on Earth”. You may be enlightened if you entertain the possibility that unexplainable events such as coincidences are Cosmic Nudges. “It is part of our hardwiring that the unexplained is not worthy of our attention…the fact that you have never witnessed a serious car crash does not mean that car crashes don’t exist…the one form of unusual occurrence that we don’t feel self-conscious about discussing is coincidence…what if coincidences are the subtlest form of supernatural  phenomena?” “The Cosmic Nudge is the light of infinity glimpsed through a tiny rent in the opaque curtain of everydayness”. We are neither favoured nor persecuted by a higher being. Cosmic Nudges do not reward or punish, they just gently tease, they are playful not frightening.

“Here are some suggestions on how to live a more fulfilling life while also getting the occasional glimpse that there could be to that life than meets the eye. Let those glimpses enrich your daily existence but don’t let them go to your head. Be aware and creative, pursue wisdom knowing it can’t be attained, and find someone to love and have a good time with”.

“Get up off your knees! Don’t pray. Dance!” When you lose yourself in dance you lose your ego.

Optimistic doubt: “instead of living in constant disappointment at not receiving what you think is rightfully yours , you live for the moment and so experience pleasant surprise when good fortune comes your way. Life is the now. “

In spite of this sensible approach, the KUU’s followers decide to interpret KUU doctrine in a way that redefines the KUU as a supernatural entity.

Influences and comparisons

While I was reading the book, a number of possible influences came to my mind. I was not suggesting plagiarism but was intrigued enough to ask the author. I was reminded of Vonnegut’s Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in which Hazel Motes grows up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin. Hazel’s war experience turns him into an atheist and he preaches a gospel of antireligion through his Church of No Christ. I wondered if there might be echoes of The Dice Man by Luke Rinehart.

 

The film Privilege starring Paul Jones (a rock star playing a rock star) directed by Peter Watkins and written by Johnny Speight dealt with a music idol who develops messianic powers.

 

 

Male has not seen the film. He admits to being influenced  by “in some sense every decent writer who has ever made me forget I was reading a work of fiction while I’ve been reading their work” However, he has not read Wise Blood and only vaguely recalls The Dice Man.

KUU seemed to have a bit of Buddhism in it, with the absence of a supreme being and prescriptive commandments and the notion of a “middle” way. All faiths except KUU are focused on blinkered certainty. “All moral codes stem from a paradoxical blend of selfishness and altruism…KUUism is about responsibility, rather than the handing over of that responsibility to a higher order, be it human or supernatural”.  I noted that Zachary’s band was called The Now. Male told me: “Buddhism, oddly enough, I only began investigating with any genuine curiosity after I’d finished writing the novel, as my sister – who has been a halfway house Buddhist for about eight years – saw a lot of Buddhism in KUUism.  The new novel Serious Fun explicitly shows this influence in that it centres on a character who has recently taken up mindful meditation.”

Male told me: “KUUism had – as its two starting points – the number of unlikely remarkable coincidences that were happening to me as I considered the idea of the cosmic nudge, and the self-appointed task of devising a religion (non-religion) that was the opposite of the existing religions yet morally and (to a degree) rationally sound.”

 

Reception

Male has written much rock journalism and continues to write expertly on what has come to be known as “World Music”. He brings his own personal inside knowledge of the rock world to the writing of this novel.  He was encouraged by supportive comments from respected music journalists like Charlie Gillett, Robin Denselow, Mick Brown, David Quantick  and Nick Coleman. Coleman described the novel as “an art-school rock-theological satirical thriller.” The book  received glowing praise from Tony Visconti, an American record producer  who has had a long association with David Bowie. Visconti said: “It’s a wonderful book! I am even more awestruck the second time around. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. One of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade’. Whitbread prize-winning novelist Patrick Neate thought it was “something really special”.

Howard Male tells me that he has completed a sequel called Serious Fun  and has started work on the third novel of the trilogy. He is now working on a screenplay of Etc Etc Amen. Etc Etc Amen is available on Kindle.

 

 

 http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40333-howard-male%E2%80%99s-novel-etc-etc-amen.html

Etc Etc Amen Part One of a review

 

 

 

 

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 19 2015.

 

http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40005-airport-novel-with-ideas-above-its-station.html

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Howard Male described his first novel as: “An airport novel with ideas above its station. A literary novel that’s having too much fun for its own good.”

 male plus cat

“We have the skeleton of a philosophy but, as you know, it’s primarily a philosophy committed to its lack of commitment to the very ideas it puts forward”.

So says Barney Merrick in Howard Male’s novel Etc Etc Amen. The novel  is stimulating and entertaining on a number of levels. Male says: “It’s a love story, a hate story, a murder mystery, a suicide mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a satire on organised religion, it’s not sci fi, it’s not horror, it’s not a rock novel – despite the fact it has elements of all those genres.”

 

My own interpretation is that the novel’s main thrust is as a satire on religion but it also provides a wry picture of the rock music business. I think I also detect a satire on the parasitic nature of journalism in general as well as rock journalism in particular.

There is a strong element of the page-turning thriller- I received a few surprising jolts as I was reading so I must take care not to emit any spoilers. There is also a vivid evocation of Marrakech, which brought back happy memories for me.

Male’s main creation in the book is rock god Zachary Bekele, who founds a non-religion (which becomes a cult) called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis. The St Paul of KUU is erstwhile rock journalist Paul Coleridge. The novel is structured upon extracts from The KUU Hypothesis, selections from The Life and Death of Zachary B by Paul Coleridge, a narrative written  in London 2005 about the 1970s, and accounts of a visit to Marrakech in February 2007 by a female journalist, August, and a photographer, Damian.  They are investigating a series of deaths of KUU followers and are awaiting an interview with the cult’s Leader Who Is Not a Leader

Zachary’s Story

Rock journalist Paul Coleridge is assigned to interview Zachary Bekele who is a 70s glam rock star.  We piece together Zac’s biography from extracts from Paul Coleridge’s memoir and from the visit of August and Damian to Marrakech. Zac’s father, Girma Bekele, had made a fortune selling stolen icons from Ethiopian monasteries. His dodgy reputation adds further intrigue to Zac’s persona.

Paul gets an early warning about Zac’s character when the star plays table football in an unsportsmanlike manner  and then  reneges on the promised interview. Paul has to work up the Man of Mystery angle to meet his deadline. Paul begins to feel that his articles have played a significant role in promoting Zac’s success. Between 1972 and 1975, he was one of only two journalists to whom Zac would talk.  Zac seeks Paul’s opinion about new tracks, but will not accept anything but praise.

Coleridge recalls Zachary’s early performances in the 70s: “vocally, he was part Scott Walker and part Marvin Gaye”. He was an intellectual as well as a rocker; he told an interviewer, “CS Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis were guiding lights.” He acknowledges his English roots – he was born in Chelmsford and loves the Kinks and the Stones- but his father was from Ethiopia. “We’re about soul music from Saturn. Vibes from Venus”. There is something of Bowie and Bolan about Zachary B.  Memories of seeing Arthur Brown perform as the God of Hell Fire in a blazing helmet came back to me as I was reading.

arthur-brown2

Nick Valentine, Zac’s manager says: “Don’t let all that peace and love bullshit fool you. He needs fame even more than he needs money”. Zac develops delusions of grandeur. As well as the attentions of the usual kind of groupies, he also has a stalker who hoards his cigarette butts like religious relics.

When Punk came along in 1976, or so the received wisdom goes, it was a rebellion against pretentious “progressive” rock. In fact, Johnny Rotten often talks about his respect for artists like my former neighbour Peter Hammill of the “progressive” band Van der Graaf Generator.  As long ago as 1977 Lydon  said: “Peter Hammill’s great. A true original. I’ve just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I’m damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff”.

Bowie

Zac is not ready for punk. Changing musical tastes make him redundant and a spectacular at Trafalgar Square intended to resurrect his career instead finishes it off.  Zac’s solipsism makes him deaf and blind to the discomfort and displeasure of the audience and the other musicians. “Since Trafalgar, in the eyes of the public, he’d come to represent the more farcical, cartoon-like aspects of the rock world: he’d become lumped in with Gary Glitter rather than David Bowie, and it must have hurt like hell”. He succumbs to the degenerate rock lifestyle of groupies and drugs. “During 1975 and 1976, Zac’s coke and cocaine habit gathered further momentum”. Paul and Zac’s wife Jody bond as they both become sidelined.

Garyglitter

Glam Rock

This novel deals, in part, with the early pre-punk 1970s that gave birth to a strange phenomenon known as Glam Rock. I lived through that era and survived to tell the tale. Glam Rock did not appeal to me but I can appreciate Male’s respect for the more talented practitioners, such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music and their rougher US equivalents, the New York Dolls. Even the better acts toyed  with androgyny and sexual ambiguity – “gods dressed as goddesses”. Lower class versions hit the charts with other people’s songs but were mainly ludicrous bandwagon jumpers – “mutton dressed as lamb Second Division”.  Zac describes them as “builders dressed as princesses with their stubble and acne-pocked jaw lines making a mockery of their meticulously glossed lips”.

sweet

Rock and Religion

I recall seeing live performances by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Brown wore outlandish costumes (although he sometimes stripped naked) and a flaming helmet as he declaimed: “I am the god of hell fire!” The record was produced by Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend and issued by The Who’s Track Records label. It sold over a million. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was in Brown’s band when I saw them. Brown was also notable for the extreme make-up he wore onstage, which would later be reflected in the stage acts of Alice Cooper, (there is a character in Male’s novel called Alice Cooper- she is female) and Kiss. Brown’s behaviour was so outrageous he was even  kicked off a Jimi Hendrix tour. Brown is still performing 50 years later.

Townshend himself has had spiritual moments. Since the late-’60s, Townshend has been a disciple of Indian mystic Meher Baba “I heard the voice of God. In an instant, in a very ordinary place at an unexceptional time, I yearned for some connection with a higher power. This was a singular, momentous epiphany – a call to the heart. “Jimmy Page spoke about: “that fusion of magick and music… alchemical process.” Dylan flirted with born-again Christianity and then explored his Jewishness. Later he said: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music”. Alice Cooper himself (Vincent Furnier) says: “It doesn’t matter how many drugs I take, I’m not fulfilled. This isn’t satisfying. There’s a spiritual hunger going on. Everybody feels it. If you don’t feel it now, you will. Trust me. You will…Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s the real rebellion.”  Male mentions John Lennon’s notorious comments: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right, and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

More on KUU theology next week.

 

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