There is a contagious stylistic flavour to Ed Atkins’ writing that induces a desire to do the same, to play and prod and push around in language with words. Consequently, responses to his work tend to be as turgid, brimming, and effervescent as the writing to which they are responding. This is attested to by the hoard of blurbs, acting as textual sound bites, jam-packed with enthusiastic lists and celebratory gusto, on the pages before one gets to the meat of the plain-faced, cobalt blue Fitzcarraldo Edition that is Ed Atkins’ recently released Old Food. And, true to Atkins’ garrulously dense form, this new novel is replete with a flurrying sense of a lotness, too muchness, and a relentlessness that is propelled in, by, and through words from page to page. These words get swilled about, chopped and chewed, slid around, and spat out, ready to be eaten up again.
It is unsurprising then that a Georges Bataille quote starts things off and drops the anchors ‘formless’ and ‘spit’. Underneath, a quote from a pair of British 1970s folk singers sets the tone:
‘My dreams have withered and died.’
Old Food? Think not the banquet or even the meal, think the flies, the maggots and the mould of the aftermath.
Old Food quickly enacts a lexical assault on the reader. Aware of its own overwroughtness, it laps up and layers on a deliberately ersatz and overblown writerly treatment of food and its consumption, which feels part horror story, part perverse recipe book, and part textual counterpart to the macabre strain of 16th century Flemish still life painting. The leitmotifs of Atkins’ previous work—death, cadavers, rot, and mutation—circulate and, in the same way that the digitally rendered avatars of Atkins’ videos occupy a strange space of detached and uncanny not-quite-real-ness, language here is mutated and made strange, dislodged from its usual functioning and made to malfunction and trip over itself, choking and mangled in its profusion.
Food feels like prime subject matter for Atkins to sink his writing teeth into and from which to sap out its linguistic juice. At times it feels like a verbal and verbose cesspool of mumbled munched up fodder. It is as if the words are going through a process of mastication, assimilation, digestion and regurgitation themselves, so that once-ordinary words are made abject and distorted. It is an adjectival frenzy that is buoyed along by clusters of alliteration that insert the bluntly poetic into the frantic, occasionally flowing, rhythm of the text.
Language gets revealed in its malleable and fragile state as unexpected words get mashed together and sound sometimes sidesteps meaning. The frequent bundles of consonants necessitate a certain shaping of the tongue and rounding of the mouth, making the English on the page induce some of the muscular contortion demanded by the speaking of another language. In particular the riffing on foods that jams the book renders these common, sometimes exotic-sounding daily components of language in their raw state as words, made up of letters on a page and sequential sounds on the mouth, refracted by their unusual combinations with others:
‘Later we’d cut parachute silk with skate wings and secateured corrugated sailfish dorsals. Ripe avocado, furrowed soft wet green fat.’
Consequently, the materiality of words, detached from their conceptual and semantic functions, pulses throughout. There are many disruptive ‘ums’ and ‘an’s’ that should be ‘a’s’ that infuse the text with all of the imperfections, hesitations, and disruptions of speech as it gets uttered from a speaking mouth, the same orifice that acts as the corporeal locus of all the eating, drinking, sucking, slurping and kissing, around which the book orbits.
Old Food becomes a text ridden with this corporeality of language. It is a visceral work, a body of text acting as a text of the body, but one that feels dismembered or disjointed. There are many partial sentences, placed staccato-like, and a frequent lack of prepositions and conjunctions that dislocates the content of the writing from a particular time or place, leaving it to float amidst the textual deluge.
But as much as Old Food is about excess and indulgence, it also simmers with feelings of desolation, the emptiness that sets in when the party’s over, when full bellies fail to detract from an intangible sense of angst and dread. There are moments of paucity and melancholy, the fear of and from insufficiency, the scantness of what being has become (‘stranded on a voiceless rock’), all infused with a souring nostalgia:
‘We aren’t sick we’re miserable Hannah would say.’
As the text swoops, swerves and unfurls, woven with culinary mise en scènes, the narrative arc of a dystopian fiction emerges. It is fitting then that cannibalism lurks throughout and, in the end, we come to blood-sucking vampires and a world ravaged and bare-boned like one of Atkins’ cadavers.
At these junctures the book feels most barbed, with a simmering politically charged message brewing underneath the frothy prose. Food has always been a political issue. It is bound up with health and class and extends from the extremes of famine to those of obesity, the two poles—of scarcity and excess—around which this book oscillates, the backdrop to the trepidation and uncertainties experienced and distracted from by the protagonist and those around him.
Old Food, littered as it is with references to foreign foodstuffs that feature regularly on our plates, amps up the extent to which the daily language of our lives is infused by those of languages and cultures from elsewhere. This is significant in light of the political climate in which this book—and the exhibitions it was ‘written in blurts throughout’—came to be: of a Brexit Britain, rising nationalisms and the stoking of anti-immigration rhetoric. Although English has become the global lingua franca, Atkins draws attention to the fact that there is a continual creolization not just of our palettes but of our tongues, in the various senses of the word.
Language—the words in, of and on our mouths—is a living, mutating, hybrid thing. And, as shown in Old Food’s abundance of specificity, it can often do and indicate more than it simply means or sounds. During a discussion with Atkins and the artist Katrina Palmer, Sally O’Reilly describes this kind of writing and use of language as ‘not meaninglessness, but excess of meaning, relentlessness of meaning.’ Atkins operates at these thresholds. His writing is often referred to as a kind of stream-of-consciousness, but, although it is admittedly gratuitous, this overlooks his pointed and hyper-constructed treatment of words, his use of words as material that can be assembled and moulded in order to, perhaps contradictorily, access and induce a feeling beyond the verbal.
With all this excess, Atkins seeks to exceed the givenness of language and the usual functions that we ascribe it. And so with Old Food it seems best to churn and simmer with it, resist the restrictions of straightforward meaning and instead float along with the current of its feeling. It might feel like a binge but it offers the possibility for some sustenance if you look for the subtlety of ingredients at play.
 RCA: Absurdity: Colouring in the Void. With Ed Atkins, Katrina Palmer, Sally O’Reilly and Kit Downes, 25/06/2018 (online): http://thisistomorrow.info/broadcasts/view/absurdity-colouring-in-the-void-with-ed-atkins-katrina-palmer-sally-oreilly
Sara O’Brien is a writer based in Glasgow.
‘Old Food’ by Ed Atkins is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Presented by Cabinet Gallery and Fitzcarraldo Editions, ‘Jones reads Atkins Old Food’ is a live, performative reading of Ed Atkins’ book, ‘Old Food’, by the actor, Toby Jones. It was recorded on December 17, 2019 at Conway Hall in London, on the occassion of the publication of the book.