I want to tell you about the two most brilliant books I have read this year.
The first is, ostensibly, a biography of the KLF. Strange: the KLF were not a band I had much interest in. I was scarcely aware of their existence, having passed the first half of the nineties detached from popular music, in a fug of Spiral Tribe and free jazz. But The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds, by John Higgs was recommended over and over this summer at Festival 23 and I was intrigued: a book that uses the story of the KLF as a device to crowbar wider, weirder ideas into your mind. A book that could make you believe in magic, that could connect you with chaos.
It lived up to its promise. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s story is woven into a broader history of the Discordian movement. The book introduces other diverse characters, from Robert Anton Wilson to Ken Campbell to Alan Moore. And it interprets the history of the late 20th and early 21st century in the light of their magic, drilling a reality tunnel so wide that you’ll never look at the world in the same way again. No spoilers, but in the last few pages there is a red pill/blue pill moment that is mindfucking in its beauty, depth and potency. I gasped, yelled, and laughed out loud.
Following the paradigm shift of Higgs’ 2013 book, I was very keen to get onto his latest. Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century turns out to be another masterpiece. Higgs has the rare knack of reframing difficult concepts with absolute clarity. Rarer still, he crafts seemingly unrelated topics into a tight narrative. The result is a compelling story, turning the impossibly hard into the blindingly simple.
Each chapter tackles a topic which first appeared, came of age, or changed unrecognisably during the twentieth century. So: relativity, war, modernism, individualism, psychoanalyasis, quantum theory, science fiction, nihilism, space travel, sex, teenagers, chaos, financial markets, postmodernism, and the Internet.
Higgs’ prose is like a needle gathering all of these topics together. A thread runs through them; they bind tight; a single pattern emerges, impossibly clear. He’s fucking with his reader’s minds, again, digging another reality tunnel. But, oh, it feels so good, so perfect. Suddenly I’m sure I know exponentially more than I did a few chapters earlier.
Also, despite the wankstain of a spot we find ourselves festering in, here in 2016, he ends on a surprisingly optimistic note. It’s a stretch, but there is hope for the future.
I am not John Higgs. My prose cannot convey the power of his prose. Mojo said that “reading John Higgs is like being shot with a diamond. Suddenly everything becomes terrifyingly clear”. They are right.
Read John Higgs.
In the modern internet world you have what I talk about as the ‘War of the Certain’: people insisting that their absolutist viewpoint, in 140 characters, is exactly the right way to think, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is terrible. If you’ve grown up reading Robert Anton Wilson this is awful.