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Paul O’Flinn

Kilroy is Here

(February 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.86 (wrongly numbered No.85), February 1976, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Kilroy is Here
Gordon Willis
Pluto Press £1.30 paperback

Kilroy is Here amounts in effect to two short stories. The first is about Dunkelman who wakes up one morning to find an aspidistra growing out of his back. The second is about Kilroy who works on a rubbish dump till he gets concreted over by his boss and set up in the town square as a statue symbolising Triumph and Hope.

You soon grasp the point of Dunkelman’s aspidistra. It suggests anything any of us have that sets us apart and makes abnormal, capitalist society regard us as queer, whether it’s Marxist politics, homosexual tendencies or a cheery hatred of the Queen Mother. Dunkelman struggles grotesquely with the dilemma of either hiding his aspidistra and so playing a hypocritical role or revealing it honestly and so accepting the identity of a freak. It’s a familiar kind of dilemma that Gordon Willis unravels in nightmarish terms.

The Kilroy story ranges wider and raises a whole series of issues from the way workers can be conned into oppressing each other on to the battle for women’s liberation up to the nature of advertising and the media in a society of spectacle. But to set the themes down in that bald way is to distort the book completely, for its strength lies in its ability to take hold of crucial if mundane political problems, transform them and pitch them back at us in the bitterly disturbed shapes that a stimulated imagination can create.

All of which puts Gordon Willis a long way from the dead conventions of socialist realism. The work feels fresh, though its origins are clearly in the tradition which has the techniques of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial at its base. Marxists have at times been a bit hard on the Kafkaesque. Here’s Howard Fast, writing in 1950:

‘Very near the top of what I have in the past rather indelicately called the “cultural dung heap of reaction” sits Franz Kafka, one of the major Olympians in that curious shrine the so-called “new critics” and their Trotskyite colleagues have erected.’

Stalinist hostility of this kind to modernism in all its forms points of course to the Six-Heroic-Tractor-Drivers-in-the-Virgin-Lands type of novel as the model for all aspiring progressive writers. (That Fast himself wrote much better novels than the model suggests is just more evidence of the chasm between theory and practice that is the norm for Stalinists.)

The model had two components: first it defined the function of the Stalinist writer as a sort of Butlins Redcoat, someone whose job it was to convince the rest that they were all having a bloody good time in Uncle Joe’s Holiday Camp.

And secondly it involved in artistic terms the comprehensive denial of working class experience that also underlay the political structures of Stalinism. Work in a complex industrial system is not heroic, fulfilling and ennobling; it’s a bore and a grind and something no one in his right mind does for five minutes longer than economic pressures dictate. To anyone who’s done time in a factory that’s not news, but it’s a truism that middle-class Marxists, in an understandable but emotionally soggy siding with ‘the workers’ have sometimes lost sight of.

Gordon Willis, far from losing sight of this, makes a novel out of it. Kilroy hops around a scrap heap performing random, absurd tasks on the orders of his boss and the borough surveyor. It’s an acute vision of the devastating waste of capitalist society – waste not just in terms of the smashed washing machines, abandoned vans and evil-smelling oil drums that litter the dump but waste too in terms of people’s lives and people’s labour spent in endless, urgent, busy work that exhausts and leads nowhere.

As a map of our times, and a map with one or two signposts towards the way out and even the way forward, Kilroy is well worth a read.

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Last updated: 30.12.2007