Book Review

Safe Mode by Sam Riviere

familiarity breeds affection

Safe Mode is a new book published by Test Centre, and as an object it is beautiful. Thick paper with a loose, exposed, binding and a wrapping made from a folded, totally radiant, piece of paper that contains on one side – only visible when unfolded – chapter titles for the piece contained within. Throughout the book, the text is interspersed with black and white photographs, the majority of which are portraits, each set in the centre of a page, printed with rich detail. Safe Mode is a beautiful book, in terms of its physicality, and I don’t know how much its highly commendable design work – credits to Matthew Stewart – influenced my reading of the text, my enjoyment of the text or, perhaps, my expectations of the text. Because to make a book look this beautiful, to put the effort and the time into the physical production of the book as object, inherently implies a validity to the project – Test Centre, through the serious application of materials and design, have stated that Safe Mode is a piece of literature worth serious consideration, serious appreciation. In terms of cost, too, at £20 for this version (with an EVEN FANCIER one available for £50), the reader has committed to something worthy, something important, a book that is worth £20 for more than its mere materials. Does Safe Mode deliver? Honestly, I don’t know, but I’d like to think that it does, because I certainly enjoyed it, though I’m a bit worried that I was tricked into doing so…

Familiarity breeds affection, which is something I can attest to from both my cultural consumption and my personal life. When one spends a lot of time around a place, a person, an idea or even a fictional set of people and places, one begins to care. This is why people continue to watch the same mediocre television shows for years (HANDS UP WHO ELSE WATCHED ALL OF LOST!? HANDS UP WHO ELSE CONVINCED THEMSELVES TWIN PEAKS WASN’T BORDERLINE UNWATCHABLE FROM BARELY A FEW EPISODES INTO SEASON 2!? nb haven’t seen three, but I watched all of two and why would I want to watch more of it???).

Familiarity is why people listen to the same bad music as adults that they listened to as culturally-naive teenagers; familiarity is why people keep sharing those same handful of “poems” by rupi kaur; familiarity is why people carry on seeing the same friends, lovers, family members, for years after they’ve decided they don’t actually like each other.

Familiarity is warm, is comforting, is easy. To return to somewhere or someone you already know is easier than to explore. The potential rewards, however, are lower. You’ll never find a ruby in a mountain of rocks you’ve already looked through before, y’know.

I’m not really writing about Safe Mode any more, I’m writing about my recent break-up. Which I probably shouldn’t be doing, but fuck it, I’m almost kinda somewhat back on my feet now and surely the whole point of this blog is to be more honest, more open and more personal than is wise. Actually, I don’t really wanna talk about it, I’m still very sad and very confused, but coming when it did, while I was already in the middle of a fucking breakdown, it took me a long time to recover from the complete psychological collapse before I could even begin recovering from ending a relationship that had defined my entire adult life, and had kept me, to be honest, living a life I was very uncomfortable in, hence the breakdown. It was a familiarity that had kept me there for as long as it did, like the familiarity that kept John B. McLemore living in Shittown, Alabama. I was kinda happy there sometimes, but I don’t think ever in a healthy way, and-

[[[[[200 WORDS REDACTED FOR BEING TOO HONEST EVEN FOR ME. WILL PROBABLY POST ANYWAY WHEN I’M A BIT LESS RAW]]]]]

I’m trying to write about Safe Mode, sorry sorry sorry sorry. Back to it.

The reason my digression on familiarity began is because the text of Safe Mode repeats. The majority of the text occurs twice, depending on which way up the book is opened – in essence the physical book contains two half-books, both of which can be read as if normal books, rather than one forward and one backwards. Each half is split into two chapters, and within each chapter there are multiple smaller units, which alternate between first then third person or – in the case of the book read the opposite way – third person then first person. Have I explained that well enough to be understood?

Both pieces tell the same story, about a man called James, as he wanders flaneurlike through different places, spaces and ideas. This repetition, seeing the same moments cast from within and without the perspective of an individual, is unsettling, but pleasing – we experience many of the same events both as the person enacting action and a person observing it – we are actor and audience simultaneously, alternating passage by passage and then reliving almost all the same experiences from the opposite perspective. Like slipping in and out of consciousness, like withdrawing from a heady dream.

Riviere describes Safe Mode as an “ambient novel”, meant to evoke a feeling, a sense, an idea rather than a plot. It is composed of ideas, snippets, aiming to recreate in writing a “life”, rather than a narrative. It reminded me a lot of Teju Cole’s acclaimed novel Open City, and similarly to my experience of that book, I enjoyed the lack of a push, a drive forwards, and I enjoyed being buffeted about amongst the thoughts and feelings of an individual life. However, I read Safe Mode not just twice in both of its two internal forms, but twice in actuality because I wasn’t quite certain I’d got it enough after the first time through. As regular readers will know, I always read poetry at least twice, it is a courtesy I give literature I believe requires it to be experienced as intended. So, by the time I finally put down Riviere’s text, there were many, many parts of it I had read in different forms as many as FOUR times. There was a comfort in this, on the second, the third and the fourth times through. The occasional humorous or especially poetic pieces caught in my mind time after time, and the warmth of familiarity grew as my experience with the text – and my engagement with it – deepened.

But I couldn’t help to wonder if I’d been tricked. Riviere’s prose is often interesting, and some of the asides and ideas he includes are compelling (a digression on a depressed polar bear, a line about no one being impressed by artistically rolled spliffs in their 30s, intriguing moments that shift from reality into dream and/or video games, discussion of literature and language and form and life and work and the environment but some bits on sexuality that I – tbf with a deeply problematic relationship with sex in general and my own sexuality (if it even exists) in particular – found a bit uncomfortable). I really enjoyed it, by the end, but I don’t know if that was because of the repetition, if my enjoyment arose because, over the course of a few days and two readings of a twice repeated text, it had become a part of me. The differences between the two halves became more conspicuous, the similarities between the photographs included in either half began to chime with what I was reading in the text or – at least – they began to feel like they did.

I know that what I should really be doing is quoting Riviere at length and using his prose to justify my enjoyment to myself and to you, whoever you are, and root them in something more serious, but I’m tired and I’m sad and I’m confused about my whole life and I just want to eat some sweet potato, watch BoJack Horseman, walk my dog around the block and then go to sleep.

That’s what I’m going to do. This wasn’t a very satisfying blog to write, so I doubt you enjoyed reading it. Apologies. Goodbye. So long.

 

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