It’s a November evening and I’m sitting in Glasgow’s inimitable bookshop and DIY zine haven, Good Press. I’m listening to Iphgenia Baal read from the text ‘Pro Life’, published in her latest collection Man Hating Psycho (Influx Press, 2021). The small, closely packed setting feels appropriate for the genuine intimacy and sharp gossipy nature of Baal’s writing, which feels more like an anecdote from a friend than a reading from a published book. ‘Pro Life’ is an addictive, dizzying narrative, which accurately reveals the messiness and cruelty of teenage friendships. At one point, the speaker, with brutal honesty, states: ‘I’d assumed ‘these people’ would be my friends for life but suddenly the thought occurred to me that they might not be. Also, that I’d never really chose them.’ Many of the texts within this collection beckon towards, and then reveal these precise stinging, unavoidable moments of realisation. When brought together, they perform a series of awakenings within multiple overlapping contexts: the tension and loneliness that exist in so many relationships (in the blurriness of our online and offline lives), a social order that feels increasingly fictional, and the ever-developing city of London, where the virtual space undergoes the same corporate metastasis as the urban landscape.
I should backtrack slightly. Although Man Hating Psycho has been largely promoted as a short story collection, I use the word ‘texts’ as this is how Baal refers to them, when we chat briefly after the reading. While it seems to suggest a certain formality, by framing her work through this term, Baal allows her writing to remain uncategorisable, full of poetic slippages, found language, and fast-paced virtual exchanges. The first text in the collection, ‘Change :)’, is composed entirely of a group WhatsApp thread that quickly turns chaotic, replete with cheugy pseudonyms (including ‘Lowercase_Guy’, ‘Lollipop Princess’ and ‘Marshmellow Man’) and what appear to be actual phone numbers. Starting with the figure of ‘Red Ed’ sending out a mass message encouraging friends, acquaintances, and total strangers to vote for Corbyn and ‘share links to help have an informed debate given the biased mainstream media’, the escalating replies are a mixture of encouragement, confusion, and accusation. I feel instantly voyeuristic reading this thread in page form, also exacerbated by the time stamps showing how fast these messages are spilling into the chat: am I indeed part of this chat and choosing not to speak?
Baal manages to succinctly showcase how narrative is constructed in the fragmented everyday collaborative texts of our post-internet lives: every piece of information we put out into that digital web is always enacting a story of ourselves, as we compulsively project our desires, and they are reflected back to us in absurd forms, the lines between reality and fiction overlapping. I use the term post-internet here expansively, defined by SPAM Press as ‘living in media res, linked by the sultry, insidious cables, wireless signals and emoji glyphs of this space-time compression we call the now.’ Post-internet artist Cécile B. Evans argues ‘The Virtual is Real’, as ‘Over the past 10 years digital technologies have permeated our lives to such a degree that it is no longer possible to distinguish it from physical reality’ Baal transposes these shifting rhythms that the screen enacts, seemingly effortlessly, onto the page, and this opening to the book is an instant reminder of why I love her work. It feels performatively interactive, defamiliarisng me from the numbness of everyday scrolling and instant feedback, to perceive how the in-built drama of a text functions on the self, with language in diverging contexts, all inviting collaboration in a continual meaning-making. This writing feels bodily.
The first work I read of Baal’s was Merced Ez Benz (Book Works, 2017), published in the US as Death and Facebook (We Heard You Like Books, 2018): ‘Change :)’ echoes its constraint, as the book is entirely made up of Facebook chats, SMS, BBM, and emails exchanged between the narrator and her boyfriend, reconstructed in the aftermath of his death. In typically innovative Baal style, the design is integral to the reading of the text. Redactions, rotating fonts, and timestamped bursts of intimacy and contention bounce off each other, bringing a sense of immediacy to the complicated relationship of two late twenty-year-olds in 2011 London. There is an expansive, architectural quality to the way much of Baal’s writing unfolds—rather than being superimposed in the final stages, the design plays an intrinsic, generative role in the text’s creation. This can be seen in the DIY trajectory of her career, which includes a back-catalogue of zines. In the tiny collection, Gentle Art (Trolley Books, 2012) which feels like an archival collage of the internet, the design showcases how, like pop-up windows, different modes of image and text can coincide to perform an aesthetic that feels loud, emotional, and often vulnerable. Many of the works in Gentle Art also function as transmedial artifacts and narratives. The text ‘Topshop Returns’ was expanded into a short film and ‘HEAVY VIBRATIONS’ was transposed into a darkly humorous newsroom performance, starring Baal herself.
I return to Baal’s previous work, as it shapes how I interact with Man Hating Psycho, not only because the speaker seems to so often be Baal (why pretend otherwise?), but also because the book wears its performativity overtly from the outset. The front cover is scattered with images of phone searches and selfies of Baal, while the blurb for the book is presented in the form of online blogs and Google reviews. The accusatory nature of the title also feels wholly deliberate: who is the Man Hating Psycho of the work? No, that’s an irrelevant question. The Man Hating Psycho exists as itself, as an accusation, a violence enacted through language, a phrase that would not shock if it was read in the context of a Twitter thread. Briefly peeking around the back cover is a screenshot of a Google search for this phrase: the title of the work is simultaneously an affective framework for the book while also being, on its surface, completely irrelevant to the content within. It parallels experiences of scrolling and taking in the ambient overload of online information: we follow links, but nothing really connects. I’m reminded of Dan Power’s online essay, published by SPAM, ‘Glitching the Collective Mind: Too Much Information’, in which he states: ‘At best the database makes the sum of all the world’s content feel overwhelming, and at worst having it all laid out makes it feel mundane. Either way, the damage done is to expose internet users to too much information, and this can lead to an existential crisis.’
The collection reflects this sensation of utter overload, whilst also recognising the collective comfort that can be accessed through the Web. In ‘Pain in the Neck’, the speaker responds to an ex-friend’s text, and goes over to his place for a party, only to find herself left alone with his girlfriend and later stranded on a roof overlooking London, before literally falling off said roof into a social setting in which she feels completely ignored. On returning home, she settles into the comfort of googling her physical symptoms, an environment where others across the world connect with her experience, where isolation can dwindle for a moment, but where deep in the recesses of her scrolling she reads: ‘‘The experience of an illness reveals a mistake that we have made in life, so an important aspect of treatment is to understand the message it carries.’ The message I’d made was thinking Matey was my friend.’
The trajectory of Man Hating Psycho is fascinating: the first half of the book moves from a WhatsApp group thread to a consideration of the social affects of form and language in the short, swervy ‘Line’, to several texts that vulnerably dive into the difficult emotions surrounding relationships where power dynamics and true feelings are unclear. In ‘vodafone.co.uk/help’, the narrator is woken from a drunken sleep to a series of text messages from a stranger and the stakes of the communication are immediately high: ‘I know you’re there, baby. And I’m here too. Hello? Hello? I felt like I recognised the voice, especially when it said ‘baby’.’ The proximity of the texts received is exacerbated by the very vessel of the phone itself: ‘In the darkness, an impression of an iPhone floated, scarred onto my retina, like when you accidentally look straight into the sun.’ It is unclear whether the speaker does in fact know this texter, but in the end it is the mode of communication that creates instant proximity, regardless of the surrounding context.
The second half of the book then pans out, to consider the messier implications of a social order filled with sexism, racism, and classism within a hyper-capitalised city (very specifically, London) that hangs over the text, influencing and dictating the speakers’ lives. In ‘Taylor Wimpey ‘99’ horror’, we are given a list of the numerous horrors the city of London inflicts on its citizens’ lives and futures: ‘Independent Boutique Horror’, ‘Open-plan studios for fast-paced horror’, ‘Programmable mood horror’, ‘Effortlessly accessible horror’. Later, as the narrator leaves London to begin a new relationship in L.A, the Grenfell Tower disaster occurs and she watches, in turmoil, through digital footage and articles accessed online. It is a moment when all the hypocrisies of the growing city come to a head, and the separation anxiety and grief are compounded by repeated viewings across different media outlets—extreme sensations coincide.
I feel genuinely close to the speaker in this collection. This book is gut-wrenching, honest, sometimes overwhelming, and it is within these tones that tenderness and understanding is created. I should admit I have never lived in London, although the price gouges and aggressively upbeat gentrification of Glasgow feels like a microcosm of the same phenomenon, with rent prices in 2021 rising faster than any other city in the UK. Still, I feel as though reading this work, I know what it is to live, survive, contend with, love, hate, and feel affinity with a city that feels cruel beyond its means—so unliveable, so vast. The repercussions of such an environment (and its larger surrounding socio-economic structures) are felt intensely in the final text ‘Victim Blaming’, in which the narrator finds herself literally locked inside by the system, in a police cell. From within this space, she must contend with the violence of the present day’s power structures, whilst also negotiating the violence of the past. In every moment of her being and existing, the speaker thinks, there is also the pain of what her ancestors endured, as without their struggle ‘I wouldn’t exist. All there would be instead was a couple of weirdos rolling round Ukraine or Russia or Angola or Sierra Leone or Ghana or The Gambia or Senegal or maybe even Indonesia, who had eyes or a temperament or a physique or preferences or talents or tastes vaguely similar to mine.’ The long-running violence of a history she is so personally linked to, brutally reveals the unlikeliness of her own existence.
The reading at Good Press is intimate and it feels like being surrounded by good friends. Alongside Baal are readings from Lucy Wilkinson (poet and editor of the brilliant small press Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers), Shola Von Reinhold (author of the genre-bending Lote) and poet and performer, Colin Herd (author of the playful poetry collection You Name It). I can see the connections between all four of these writers’ thinking and hybrid approaches to form. There is no stage in Good Press so the boundaries between speaker and audience are continually blurred as each reader chooses where in the shop they want to speak from. It’s spontaneous. Like Baal’s work, which feels like it comes out instantly, we see the messy draftiness of our lives skidding on a surface, skidding off the screen. Perhaps this is why I feel like she is someone I can say anything to, so I do. Perhaps embarrassingly, I tell her I am a fan girl. On the inside of my copy of Man Hating Psycho, she writes: ‘From one fan girl 2 another.’
Man Hating Psycho, by Iphgenia Baal, was published in spring 2021 by Influx Press, £9.99
Kirsty Dunlop is a writer in Glasgow. Her practice-based research explores New Media writing, hybrid forms and essaying. A pamphlet, Soft Friction, co-written with Maria Sledmere, was published by Mermaid Motel in 2021. She is the Senior Editor at SPAM Press.
The body, proximity, and place can be far-reaching and boundless—this series intends to question these complex questions through different experiments with language, art, cultural phenomena, and writing as practice, and is led by editor-in-residence Hatty Nestor.