- Vital Signs by Ian Penman
Serpent’s Tail, 374 pp, £10.99, February 1998, ISBN 1 85242 523 7
One of the myths that fuzzes the shadowy outline of Ian Penman, a laureate of marginal places, folds in the map, is that Paul Schrader, the director of a sassy remake of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, admired Penman’s review so much that he invited him over to Los Angeles to talk product. Penman in California was truly the vision of a man who fell to earth, a pale alien in an X Files landscape. Wasn’t that the dream they all had, the gob-for-hire scribes, the cultural commodity brokers? That Abel Ferrara or Wim Wenders or Fassbinder or Jean-Pierre Melville would recognise that they were the only ones who understood the secret text, the story beneath the story. And they would be whisked away, club class, to an air-conditioned suite to collaborate on some long-incubated millennial masterpiece. They would pass through the curved window of the cinema screen, critic (tolerated fan) to artist in one snort. American Express voyeurs ripped out from the scratch-card world of overnight prose into a rippling surface of starlight on swimming-pools, Mexican gardeners; dreamtime transfusions of tequila and cocaine. From institutionalised prose to celestial poetry. (They hadn’t read, these promoters of the Penman in Hollywood fable, Michael Moorcock’s minatory letters to J.G. Ballard, the grind of lost years and aborted projects.) So, obviously, when I met Penman, this Schrader yarn was the one I put to him. Why did he come back? Where did it all go wrong?
The truth was less romantic. Penman had, it’s true, vanished for a while. Things had got a little complicated in the city. He’d gone home to Mum in Norfolk. Still shaky, on his return, he’d met an acquaintance in (inevitably) the toilet of a club, who put the Schrader story to him. Penman was too far gone to deny it. With the haemorrhage of time, he became increasingly unsure whether he’d taken his sabbatical in Palm Springs or up on the bleak, north Norfolk coast. Some edge of the golf course, out of season resort like Sheringham – where Patrick Hamilton dried out, on a regimen of no booze before lunchtime, Hopalong Cassidy novels, and the occasional glimpse from behind net curtains of schoolgirls on horseback.
They should have known the real story, because it was there from the start. Staring them in the face. I. Penman. A modest assertion, registered anonymity. George Gissing reborn on the cusp of punk. Penman was gifted with a Grub Street membership card at a time when Grub Street had been decommissioned. The slender ego of that single initial protected the man from any possibility of worldly success. Puffed up with some redundant middle-English middle name (like those cricketers whose superfluous initials signal careers of fretful indecision), Penman might have been tempted by hubris. He could have come to believe, along with Julie Burchill, who kicks in an Introduction to Vital Signs, Penman’s eclectic retrievals from time lost, that he had become a ‘signature’. A logo. A mark. A neon sign that culture buffs will chase without worrying too much what he is writing about. One of those elephantine Hunter S. Thompson, self-cannibalising careers that define the point where it all went wrong, where the floating signifier began to get above itself and spit like a snake. Penman’s value lies in the way he occupies this clerical post, as reporter, commentator, without feeling the need to devour or diminish his subject. He doesn’t sulk when the jaded (doped, deranged, terminally dim) interviewee refuses to perform. He accepts his role in the scheme of things, servicing the nearly famous, or formerly famous, in hotel rooms; listening to their broken sentences, drinking with them, then going home to make a shape out of this transient experience of chaos. Penman trained himself to become technically competent in the art of rendering incoherence – stuttering egos, pre-breakdown confessional monologues, epic self-justifications, psychobabble – as text. In however many words he was asked to deliver. He is one of the only writers I’ve met who relishes the prospect of being edited. It’s the masochist in him. He admires discipline. Not for him the dreadful inflation of the broadsheet, the hysterical trawl of diary prose graced by an outdated photograph (from a period when the Name still had hair and cheekbones). The celebrity columnist is anathema to Penman. Desperate fame-chasers who vampirise the self-impersonators they are sent to profile. Hacks who acquire status by association, until print media is too cool to hold them and they are transubstantiated into television. These calculating strategists made Penman, who was, first and last and always, a writer, flush with rage. He was an elective invisible. The artisan, the artificer. John Bayley, describing James Joyce in a review in this journal, called him ‘the penman of the family’. Praise indeed. A curse from which there is no possible abdication, a lifelong task, and one which Ian Penman has accepted with quixotic and sharp-witted stoicism.