Book Review

Babel by Alan Burns

a middle class british heterosexual Howl

September 1st, Tottenham 

This is the end of my brief Alan Burns season here at TriumphoftheNow.com.

I’m not ending this season because I don’t want to read anymore Alan Burns ever again, but because I’ve read all four of the Burns books I rashly bought while reading Joe Darlington’s phenomenal group literary biography The Experimentalists. This novel was Burns’ fourth, and was first published in 1969, and of those four novels, (all of which I’ve read in the last few days), takes things up a whole notch and I found it incredibly satisfying.

Babel is the novel’s name, obviously referring to the famous biblical tower, which in Judeo-Christian mythology symbolises the rise of such human pride and overconfidence that God decided to punish us all by making us have more than one culture on the planet, which is kinda suspect actually, imo, to see difference as inherently bad.

It’s easy to find regressive and conservative viewpoints expressed in “scripture” (obviously it’s also very easy to find exciting narratives and commendable positive progressive ideas too), evidenced by the fact that these are the ones that self-described Christians tend to focus on.

In the story, after humanity builds the massive tower of Babel, God (capitalised because it’s referring to the literary figure and thus is a “proper noun”) destroys it, then scatters us across the planet to make sure we can never communicate and collaborate on such scale ever again. We’ve had violence, discrimination, prejudice, hatred, division, wilful ignorance and all sorts of other bad things ever since (though the story occurs in Bible after the first murder), but… we’ve also gained diversity of opinion and culture and language, which has allowed us to increase wisdom, knowledge and, by having varying experiences and lifestyles, afforded those of us who don’t believe their particular way of life is inherently superior to others, the opportunity to expand our sense of empathy and our ability to understand what it is to be human.

As you can perhaps work out from the title, Babel is an ambitious novel, though it is not quite seeking to bring the world together. It is also somewhat surprisingly – given the title – a completely monoglot novel.

Babel consists of vignettes, the longest of which are around a page, the shortest are shorter than a sentence…

Most (but not all) of these vignettes begin with – or seem to begin with – a capitalised “headline” (whether from real newspapers or composed by Barnes the text offers no clue), which is then riffed on with differing levels of complexity, length and tone.

There are lots of references to real people (including celebrities/politicians of the time), and there are also lots of archetypal figures, for example, lawyers, doctors, bishops, politicians and so on.

There are people and figures and ideas that re-occur, though in many ways it’s basically a middle class heterosexual British version of Howl and – like Burns’ other novels – takes great influence from Naked Lunch, too.

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to given my feelings about Burns’ underwhelming third novel, Celebrations, as Babel feels like a real, effective and efficient text using a sustained, coherent aesthetic style that matches form and content.

Below are three quotes from the text to indicate style/tone/content:

vestments and furs – smelling of incense and shame

His poetry experiment is a verse a day. “I never use ‘I’ – it is never the right word.”

IT’S HARD TO FORNICATE IN YOUR OWN HOME – IT’S BETTER IN THE PARK.

And that’s it!

I’m done with Alan Burns for now, and looking forward to a new literary adventure next week!


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