Saturday, 30 July 2011

My Month in Novels (July)



1. Cynthia Rogerson — Love Letters From My Death-Bed

Rogerson is like an American Lucy Ellmann . . . no hang on, that’s not right. Rogerson is like Lucy Ellmann, but one based in Scotland . . . no hang on, Ellmann lives in Scotland, right? Rogerson is like Lucy Ellmann, but one living in the Highlands . . . didn’t Ellmann recently move to the Highlands? Oh for God’s sake. Forget the comparison.

So this is a warm (and murderous) tale, part family drama, part black comedy. The sort of thing Annie Griffin might script—another American milking Scotland for its oddness. (Both moved here in 1981). A hospice in California is struggling to attract dying people to keep itself open, so the owner recruits illegal ‘doctor’ Manuel to drum up business. Manuel tells Morag (who he desperately loves) that she has three kinds of cancer and she could die anytime. Meanwhile a band of unpleasant stoners knock around having unpleasant adventures.

That’s the book. The whole premise hinges on the utter absurdity of Morag—a somewhat intelligent character, her Scottishness pumped to the max—believing that her old friend (an ex-restaurant cleaner) could secretly be a doctor, and diagnose her with three cancers. If that loopy plotline can be excused, then the reader is free to revel in the spiky and funny prose, the grappling attempts at affection between these emotionally autistic people, and the wisdom of its author.

The little excerpts from a ghost’s diary that preface each part feel a little superfluous, as do the illustrations in the book, but they add colour and intrigue to the proceedings, so we can excuse them too.

2. Bernard Perron & Mark J.P. Wolf (Eds.) — The Video Game Theory Reader 2

This compendium is essential reading for all aspiring game theorists, tackling video games from a range of angles—psychology, market analysis, narratology, education, the whole caboodle—with an accessible range of academic papers and reports.

The focus is, naturally, on academic work, but the best academic writing presents itself in a readable way, shushing the poindexters and pleasing the populace. Academic writing should aspire to be as fluid as the best non-fiction work, and the best papers here do. Those authored by research teams or groups are the worst: smothered in technical language of no interest to those outside research facilities. Boo to them.

I shouldn’t have read the whole thing but what can I say, I’m getting into the topic. Let a man show a little passion from time to time.

3. Raymond Queneau — Children of Clay

Les Enfants du limon emerged in 1939, the fifth of nine novels in a decade of tireless creative energy for the Parisian polymath. Unlike the other OuLiPo originals, Queneau had a solid body of work behind him before co-inventing potential literature, using the group as a springboard for ideas, to launch him into superstellar orbit. His output of poetry, essays and songs is far greater post-1960, though his corpus of novels act as fine exemplars of the OuLiPo methods—methods that would seep into postmodern literature throughout the sixties and beyond.

This novel perfects the sharp comedic timing and pace found in later novels Zazie dans le metro and Pierrot mon ami, while indulging the bibliographical hobbyism common in his early life as part-time philosopher and reformed Surrealist. Our protagonist, M. Chambernac, is working on an encyclopaedia of French “literary lunatics” in the 19thC, and hires trickster Purpulan to do the cataloguing and secretarial work. As he completes his work (of which vast screeds are reproduced here), he finds his own mind teetering off-piste, and discovers the real lunacy may be closer to home.

As in all Queneau novels, there are multiple plots and characters: here centred round the (im)moral figure of Chambernac, his cousins, children, former workers. What dazzles here are the dialogues, poems and scenes, sinister demonic undercurrents and violent realist flashes—all unique to Queneau’s world, all packaged in exquisite humour and endless play. The ending alone is worth the slow, tiring slog through old texts: as the game unravels, Queneau is one step ahead of the reader at every turn, and the final pages bloom with the divine efflorescence that is Great Literature.

4. Steven Poole — Trigger Happy

This is a passionate and very English (and a decade old) cri de coeur for games to rise above their shortcomings and triumph as a platform for aesthetic wonder and transcendent magic! Yeah! Come on games! Has that happened? A decade on from 2001, that is? Umm . . . no. Not especially, though there are enough truly great games to contest this. Don’t look at me, I’m an observer, I am the horny fact collector.

The text is very flighty and academic: the author being a Cambridge lit graduate and Guardian columnist, so out come the Ancient Greek references and wide-ranging citations from French theorists to psychologists to Martin Amis. Poole begins with impish humour but ups his game when the passion kicks in and he’s banging on about symbols and the constant deficiencies he sees in games preventing it from achieving power as a wide-reaching artform on its own terms and conquering the world! Yeah! Go games! (I may be slightly drunk).

I liked it.

5. Mikhail Bulgakov — Black Snow

There are some oppressive regimes (well, most of them) where it’s not a good idea to be a wit. Like Burma, for example, where two comedians were sentenced to twenty years hard labour for, um . . . telling jokes. Or, as Bulgakov learned the hard way, when Stalin is King and Russia is tooling up for another war. Black Snow is about censorship but mainly about the inner workings of the Moscow Theatre, how Stanislavsky was a fraud, and how being a playwright in Stalinist Russia was harder than swallowing a church.

The narrator is a suicidal and callow writer who grumbles his way through the Russian theatrical elite, dodging censorship, criticism and resentment at every turn. As a satire on the writing life it’s pitch-black, as a cock-snook at stage pretention it packs a wallop. Modern shows such as The Bigger Issues or Annie Griffin’s Coming Soon flesh out the ideas explored, showing great comedy does stand the test of time.

The novel is unfinished and the ending is tacked-on, but be fair, the writer was scheduled to die in a few weeks.

6. Toby Litt — Corpsing

Oh, how I missed reading these very London sorts of novels: scheming, intrigue and shagging among loony eccentrics in the media! I confess to reading two Tony Parsons novels when I was sixteen and being entertained by the cosy bubble of London infidelities (before realising my error and picking up Camus the next month). I also read a few books by Sean Thomas and Sean Hughes which pounded that middle-aged middle-class media self-disgust thing to death.

Toby Litt can be excused because Corpsing straddles the line between accessible lit-fic and mainstream blokey fiction rather well. In this genre pastiche a TV producer attempts to solve the mystery of why someone shot him and his ex-girlfriend in a busy restaurant three times each. The narrative moves apace, our hero in the noir-ish mode but laregly unlikeable, delving a little deeper into the psychology of relationships when not entirely concerned with plot. But it's largely a plot affair.

7. Ali Smith — The Accidental

A flat-out triumph of structure, style, shifting narrative voices, rhythm and language. A pitch-perfect technical masterpiece. Split into three components—the beginning, the middle and the end—the story moves between four perspectives: daughter, son, father, mother. Each section describes various events around a holiday trip to Norwich and the arrival of Amber, a charismatic drifter who changes her behaviour to accommodate each person.

A very tight, free indirect style is deployed to bring the third person narrator as close to each character as possible, from Astrid (sulky teenager daughter) and her show-off vocab, Magnus (sulky teenage son) and his mathematical attempts to work through grief, Michael (philandering father) and his embarrassing poetic endeavours, and Eva (writer mother) and her resigned melancholy, her cosy middle-England spirit. Each voice is rendered with tonal precision and demonstrates a mastery instructional to all writers.

Amber is the central catalyst of the book (little portions between each section are devoted to her voice, or what is assumed to be her voice), the one trigger that sends the story and characters into strange spirals, while their mundane domestic dramas continue undisturbed. She steps into the novel as an unrestrained, truly free individual and compromises the stifling repression rippling at the heart of this typical family.

The technique is very close to Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, another complete triumph of structure and style. If you care about truly spectacular writing and appreciate a writer successfully spinning more plates than is frankly human, The Accidental will knock you flat on your ass, as it did me. Genius.

8. Brad King & John Borland — Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic

An informative but unstylish look at the visionaries behind games like EverQuest, Doom and Ultima Online, with particular focus on Richard Garriot, a designer who dubs himself Lord British and likes to buy castles. His story is the most entertaining and shows a truly eccentric character at work, a D&D geek and Lord of the Rings fan determined to bring co-operative fantastia to the mainstream. And he did.

The book loses focus, drifting into other stories and personalities sometimes at random, so keeping this about Garriot would have made more sense, esp. when you include family photos in the text, otherwise it ends up looking a bit weird. And that's the plight of most gamers, it seems, looking a bit weird. Bless ‘em.

9. Niccolo Ammanti — I'm Not Scared

A small-town kidnapping tale, told from the POV of an ickle boy. What vexes me about narrators close to the child's perspective is that the narrator is usually a grown-up narrating their childhood from twenty or so years on. The same is true here: the grown-up Michele is narrating his childhood twenty-odd years later. My question: why would a grown-up write his story with such a close childhood POVunless he was a writer who had consciously taken that decision to sustain such a narrative position and style? Answer me that, Consuelo!

Regardless, this reads basically like a film script: extremely fast action, a new paragraph break every sentence, picturesque Italian scenery, manipulative child-beating. Someone ought to make a film version. Oh wait . . . they . . . they . . . they'd have to pay the writer. Never mind then.

10. Barry Atkins — More than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form

An attempt to turn games into ‘texts’ to be ‘read’ like books or films. I see the point: games are interactive narratives and follow constructs similar to books and blah blah . . . but so what? Call me a philistine, but I don’t want people doing degrees in comparative computer game lit. And until game developers write half-decent scripts and dialogue for their products, there’s no particular reason we should elevate their cultural position.

This book was rather dry, lonely and plodding.

11. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Fall 2007: New Australian Fiction

A damn good (but not damn great) introduction to some of Australia’s brightest fictionistas. As in the manner of these things, most of the writers are legends in their homeland and not ‘new’ (as in young), but the stories are fresh and the writers new to Brits and Yanks. Among them: Carmel Bird, Greg Bogaerts, Gerald Murnane, Ouyang Yu, Thomas Shapcott, Christos Tsiolkas, Michael Wilding, Delia Falconer and Christopher Cyrill.

The overall flavour of the collection is eclectic: no stories enforce Aussie stereotypes and several are written by ex-pat authors living in Australia writing about China or India. In fact, there is very little clue as to their Aussieness, which was probably the intention: to display the cutting hedge of avant-garde o'er there in a culturally unpatronising stylee. One story is written in stream-of-consciousness dialect, however (and it’s the worst one there. Ha.) I suggest seeking out work by Delia Falconer, A.L. McCann and Christos Tsiolkas.

Or maybe I will.

12. Patricia Waugh — Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction

This is almost three decades old, but still crackles with energy and page-turning excellence. (And it's an academic text!) A brief and thorough rip through metafiction and its practitioners, with emphasis on Muriel Spark, John Fowles and B.S. Johnson. This is all the reading one need ever do on that curious and anarchic blip in the continuum of literature, that still continues to baffle readers and critics to this day.

Long live authorial intrusion and self-consciousness!

13. W.G. Sebald — Austerlitz

More meandering and glorious Sebaldian prose, with sentences callipered from 18thC German texts and respooled into post-war Wales, France and Germany, with one man’s attempt to comprehend the horrors of the Theresienstadt workcamp and—obliquely—the Holocaust. This novel is a longer, more distancing work than The Emigrants or Vertigo, both chopped into four chapters and separate narrative threads.

The framing device here is unusual, with the narrator (Sebald?) quoting long screeds of dialogue from a conversation with Jacques Austerlitz, whose story comprises the novel. Within this frame, a sub-frame, when Austerlitz quotes from Vera, an old lady who helps him uncover his secret childhood. Both these devices are distracting—for the narrator to recall book-length dollops of conversation the interviews would need to be transcribed, and no mention is made of this occurring. Likewise, the long dreamy sentences are forever punctuated with ‘ . . . said Austerlitz’ to remind us we’re within a frame.

This aside, Austerlitz is a dour meditation on unimaginable horrors, handled with exquisite tenderness and power. Occasionally dull, written as one continuous block with no paragraph breaks, punctuated with miserable and fascinating photographs, and less humour than usual.

Listen to Sebald discuss this book in this final interview, recorded eight days before his death in a car crash.

14. Martin Amis — Night Train

Amis tries a badass American she-cop voice in this thinking man’s police procedural. The voice is acceptable once the story shuffles on apace, spiky and mellifluous in all the right places, more pastiche than proper policewoman. The story is partly snappy thriller, part hmm-ing on suicide. There isn’t much room to let things like character or intrigue grow, and the last third collapses under too much stylised posturing. What, you say, stylised posturing? In a Martin Amis novel? Why, never! I liked it. It’s cute, and not half as stiff as House of Meetings.

15. Agnès Desarthe — Five Photos of My Wife

Agnès Desarthe is a celebrated French children’s novelist and this is one of three of her adult novels translated into English. This and Good Intentions are available from Flamingo and Chez Moi from Penguin. This book concerns an octogenarian Jew named Max who hires a range of painters to recreate his deceased wife’s image from five grainy photos. The book is a meditation on age, time passing and, circumspectly, love. I found the book rather slowly paced, a little indulgent and not entirely successful at achieving the bittersweet pathos it needed to keep the reader engaged. The protagonist was a complex, interesting character but ultimately the story wasn’t that interesting.

16. Nicholson Baker — Checkpoint

I decided to read some lovely short books this weekend, among them this strange little Iraq war polemic. I liked Baker’s The Mezzanine, though confess to finding the last third a slog (is the footnote dead? Discuss). No such problem here, as this all-dialogue number serves us quick and chin-stroking content from cover to cover. Two friends gather to discuss the ramifications of assassinating George W. Bush and talk tangentially about their lives.

This book makes brevity a narrative strategy: it’s too short to be “about” one thing in particular, to carry a political message. To me, it articulates that cloud of confusion when war was declared, when outrage swept across the world and most right-minded people wanted Bush’s head on a spike. Towards the end, the book argues against anger itself, dejectedly suggesting we should shake our heads and move on, being powerless to stop things. And, alas, it’d be right. Sad, funny, wacky, and deeply serious. Bravo.

17. Vladimir Nabokov — Mary

Vladimir’s debut, pictured here in resplendent pink, is the slight tale of arch git Ganin remembering his first love—the obeisant Mary with the Tartar nose. The novel suffers from lingering descriptions of almost every strange nuance to each individual scene, written before Nabokovian prose was truly Nabokovian. This problem dogs some of his earlier work, among them Invitation to a Beheading and The Luzhin Defense in its snoozier moments.

This general qualm aside (well, it’s quite a large qualm, but fans, keep reading) the characters are rendered with good humour—several of them caricatures from older Russian novels (the sick poet, the bored daughter, the tedious man)—and the nostalgic throb of lost love is palpable: many fans of this book empathise with the summertime setting and the ebbing away of affection. Alas, however, the ending is an amateurish drop-off, barely worth the slog through long passages of seasonal flux and ponderous pining.

18. Amélie Nothomb — The Character of Rain

A book narrated by a two-year-old intellectual prodigy, slyly based on the author’s own upbringing in Japan. As the blurb states, the book looks at the Japanese notion of okosama, or the Lord Child, a piece of lore where children are revered as Gods until they are three. This is true of a toddler’s own outlook: there is no one more important in the world than themselves—attention lavished on others is downright insulting.

What transpires is a curious novel about a two-year-old experiencing the world through her distended brain. Imagine a more compassionate (and female) Stewie Griffin in a posh Japanese house, with a father proficient in Noh singing and a bitter ex-aristocrat nanny who leaves her to die. This is fun and a little more cerebral than the satire of Sulphuric Acid or the wry storytelling of The Book of Proper Names. Worth a snifter for the uninitiated.

19. Samuel Beckett — Ill Seen Ill Said

Beckett frightens me almost as much as Joyce, with his complete disintegration of language and adherence to stubborn avant-garde aesthetics that batter and bugger the reader into depression. This short assemblage of paragraphs further reinforces this fear, and makes me want to hide under the duvet reading Andy McNab until the sun comes up. But hey, I won’t be beaten. Here’s to readingMurphy in the next few months. *raises metaphorical glass*

On a side note, reading multiple small books in one day is as physically exhausting as it is mentally ditto. I have a bad case of reader’s pinkie and am off now into town to get it licked by Donna the Dirty Dominatrix. Night all.

20. Alexandros Papadiamantis — The Murderess

This is a charming little tale of a mother smothering and drowning babies, a mad brother stabbing his sister, and Harrison Ford-style adventures on Greek cliff-faces looking onto crashing death-waves below. Mr. Papadiamantis serves us a moral fable with oodles of suspense and terror, weaving a folky classical Greek yarn around a desperate on-the-run action narrative, told slowly and elegantly, with vitality and astonishment. Sublime little 19thC novella.

21. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: The Editions P.O.L Number: Fall 2010

This edition of ROCF, fast becoming my favourite literary journal, examines the work of French publisher Editions P.O.L, the Gallic Dalkey Archive Press. A series of interviews, smitten scene-setting pieces and excerpts from their books make up the issue, which is shorter than usual but still handsome. Several P.O.L books are available in English, among them Jacques Jouet’s Mountain R and Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation.

22. Lewis Carroll— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

I never had the sort of parents who sat reading Lewis Carroll to me as I drifted off to sleep. My parents weren’t crackheads or slovenly brutes, they simply had different kids books. So there. Adventures in Wonderland was the funniest of the two: it seemed madder, witter and sharper somehow, but Through the Looking-Glass is none two shabby either. It was fun to engage with the enormous critical debate around the books as I read, spurred on by the extensive endnotes and 40-page introduction, though the intrusive notes had me compulsively skimming back and forth between the text and the trivia throughout, driving me a little mad, as mad as a March Hare, in fact.

What struck me the most was how horrible everyone was to Alice, which is to be expected, I suppose, Alice being the sweet face of purity and all, but my God she gets hell from those Queens. Towards the end the combative nature of these Victorian hags made me a tad peeved, but then it’s all in good humour, and the humour abounded, and the magic shone. No other book has appealed to an age gap of 2 to 100 for over a century, so clearly this is a treasure, and sod all the bastardisations.

23. Gilbert Adair — Alice Through the Needle’s Eye: A Third Adventure for Lewis Carroll’s Alice

This ‘third adventure’ is a witty and warm as Carroll’s own stories, perhaps even more so since the emphasis is largely on wordplay, puns and sheer delight in the magic of language. Adair doesn’t parody Carroll, merely imitate his creations in his own unique style, making the settings a tad more modern, but still firmly ensconced in the 19thC. Fresh from reading the two originals, I can safely say this holds up as brilliant and funny, paving the way for the author’s later translation of Perec’s lipogram A Void.


* Library: Public Library in Massachusetts

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

My Latest Book

Blue in the Face: Confessions of a Bitter Smurf

Cast out from the magical land of the Smurfs, Billy Baxter has some things to say about his former colleagues. In this riveting and no-holds-barred account, Billy—formerly Sissassis Smurf—reveals how his colleagues used to fill his white hat with diseased sarsaparilla leaves, leading to nasty bug infestations in his hair. “They would seduce me to sleep with the magic flute, stick this rotting plant in my hat, then wake me up with a slap on the cheeks. It was fun at first, but soon maggots were coming out my nose. It was disgusting.”

Billy reveals how his attempts to widen the Smurf language fell on deaf ears. “I wanted to add more verbs into the lexicon, but all they wanted to say was Smurf-this, Smurf-that. It severely weakens communication to have one universal verb denoting all actions. I would ask for a glass of milk and Sassette would pull down my trousers. The animators hadn’t drawn the bottom half of my body, so I was a hovering torso for months on end.”

Billy was a talented Smurf innovator, but the other Smurfs were envious of his abilities, and suppressed his ideas. “I designed the packaging for the original berries cereal, and came up with Smurf pasta. Hefty and Clumsy couldn’t take being outdone and locked me in a shoe for three years. By the time they let me out they had become millionaires—for their brilliant cereal packaging and Smurf pasta. I was furious, and hungry.”

Learn how the Smurf BBB burnt down the Green Smurf village in a frenzy of racial hatred. How Lazy and Dreamy are ruthless capitalists, exploiting young Smurfs for cheap labour. How the original Smurfs, the Schtroumpf, were put into concentration camps and exterminated. How the flute with six holes is a standard flute with perforations. How Smurfs are adept at business English and political rhetoric, and often sell arms to Kuwait. All this and more in a shocking exposé of a deadly cartoon fear regime.

Order from Schtroumpf Memorial Books, Price: Dependent on Personal Skills

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

On Hiatus, But . . .

So I seem to be able to write quick bursts of average things in a short space of time. Whether or not these quick bursts will lead to a mediocre MP offering is the question. But the pace is reassuring and I can always check into Jamie Theakston’s Private Spa afterwards. Back I go . . .

Friday, 15 July 2011

On Hiatus For the Foreseeable Future

Well. You know how it is. You go into a shop to buy a cream bun, you end up with thirty-odd pages of rewrites due in three weeks time. It’s one of those things, ask the ASA. For now: bye, and wish me luck.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Talking Punctuation


Hubert Selby Jr’s work is known for its strange punctuation, deployed aesthetically to depict life among slumland characters, to give a sense of disconnection: from society, sobriety, sanity. In particular, long before text messaging turned the nation into wanton apostrophobes, Selby was writing without them: first because his typewriter was faulty, later because the technique was so effective at creating his nightmarish worlds, he made it a part of his style.

So what other punctuation mishaps might we palm off as technical decisions? Bad grammar or punctuation is usually ascribed to poor writing by characters, such as the hilarious school feedback in B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo, where the teacher asks his pupils to write, anonymously, what they really think of him. Or the appalling letters from the Mexican escorts to the hack writer in Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew.

Is there any value in poor punctuation techniques? Say I run together words without spaces,like that several times,to give the impression of a speedily written text, something being written at haste because of unseen threats? More or less effective than working with register and rhythm? Or how about lots of lovely stabbing em dashes—that—link—together—to—create—a—sense—of—either—fast—breathing—or—some—weird—daisychain—effect? Wouldn’t that look purdy?

More punctuation fun is needed in novels. People still have the temerity to correct the error in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake by adding the apostrophe when he sank almost two decades of effort into breaking down all known rules of language to give us a brighter future. We owe it to him to really shake things up . . . you, knowits TRUE.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Here Comes the Codswallop


When I was fifteen I joined the Life is Too Absurd to Give a Fuck gang. Because we didn’t like most things, including each other, we spent all our time having group sulk sessions, or if we couldn’t be bothered to meet (and mostly we couldn’t), solo sulk sessions. We didn’t subscribe to any known teenage aesthetic, dressing at all times in contrary clothes: one in leathers, me in cardies, another in black t-shirts. Our very contrariness became in itself an aesthetic: to always contradict one another regardless of logic to underline the inherent absurdity in all human speech and endeavour.

This worked for a while until it slipped (very swiftly) into teenage depression. Many years listening to Radiohead soon followed, and I joined the Life May be Absurd But I Need to Give a Fuck Soon or Things Won’t Ever Change gang. That was a fun period, gazing out of trains having thoughts like ‘does my life matter?’ and ‘what contribution do I have to make to anything?’ and other life-affirming gems. Thank God that passed.

Later I signed up to the Still Don’t Care But I Can Fake it Like a Good Whore team. Everyone was pretending. Everyone hid the existential dread inside themselves and filled it with food. The not-knowingness of all things, knowing only not-knowing, and not even knowing that. I took solace in writing absurd stories shot through with humour. I had to map out neutral territories in my head: what to care about, what to be seen to care about, what to pretend to care about to endear myself to others. I still found it hard to care about absolutely anything but I acknowledged I had the capacity to do so.

So then I joined the I Care About Writing That’s Something So Let’s Focus on That and See What Happens group. Best group I’ve ever been in! Honestly, caring about something is such a pleasure. Such focus, such discipline, such drive! Who needs friends when you have imaginary friends wrapped in words who do what you want at the tip-tap of a keyboard? Being someone who cared about writing gave me a belated sense of belonging. But sadly, it came too late, two years into my undergraduate degree when I’d already made a pudding of everything.

But at least it came. These days I care too much about things. Frankly, I’m nostalgic for the days when I could ignore things as a pointless protest. Now I get sucked into every beached whale, bus crash, zinc poisoning and massive stroke. It’s exhausting being a human being with a heart who cares too much about the unpleasant codswallop that befalls everyone every couple of days. For now, I’ll try to swallow my own codswallop and deal with that. Open up, here comes the codswallop.

Friday, 8 July 2011

C*nsors**p


We are fortunate enough to have lenient censorship laws in this country (and the US). We can pretty much write anything at all and with this freedom we produce novels like Haunted or Hogg or Wetlands that thrive on gore, fecal fun and sex. The career of Mikhail Bulgakov was hindered by the horror of Stalin’s censors. When he wrote to him begging to emigrate, Old Joe installed him in the Moscow Theatre, where he faced further cuts and purges to his plays. (The experience is satirised in the excellent Black Snow).

But when writers are held back, this gives them a fiery resistance, a need for their art to emerge uncompromised. What do writers have to fight against when they have the whole world to write about? When I write with serious motives in mind (and this is a rarity—I am a silly salami) I write about those blocks I come up against in the world that stop me from doing such-and-such, those parts of human behaviour that lead to the estrangement of a person (me) from his environment. If I wasn’t suffering these setbacks, how would I cope with the absence of things to kick against?

If someone told you all swearing and sex was verboten, your entire output would consist of noisy shagging in Malcolm Tucker’s office until the ban was lifted. We fought for centuries to enjoy the freedom of complete self-expression we almost have today, and the books that continue to boff taboos are tiresome. Some of the best novels today are coming from Eastern European countries, where the simple fight for truth and freedom makes for humbling work. (That’s not to say these writers wouldn’t rather have it easier, but still. Their books are delicious).

So let’s get back to the Stalinist purges. Let’s introduce some random bans to keep writers fighting their corner and creating a new literature of oppression. Here we go:

No negative remarks directed at the current Prime Minister’s leadership skills or choice of hair gel.

No reference to lorries, caravans, small vans or Renault Meganes.

No male characters.

No animals to appear unless in drag disguised as an apple.

No religious words in dialogue and no secular words in prose.

Four words per paragraph.

All stories to be about diaper theft.

Only those named Violet can write.

No writing on computers or typewriters or paper or anywhere.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Story Structure

The rules of this new revamped QoD dictate I must produce three posts per week. Now, that may suit your tireless, endless, unstoppable breed of blogger (naming no names—cough Hart Johnson cough) but this idle thumb-twiddler finds such a regime oppressive.

Regardless, hi. Today I want to talk about a story I recently wrote and interesting structures. I like structure. I like structured days, structured months, structured sex and structured structures. In stories, structures are delicious. They help generate those other less important things—things like character (boo) or plot (booboo) or setting (boobooboo).

You’re asking: how can structure help character? If you opt for a simple three-act set-up, you’ll need your character to do certain things: to change, grow or go beyond himself. (Yes, I hate these things too, but I paid £4000 to learn they are sometimes important. So booboo). Your character will adapt in tandem with the structure, pulled along by the structure into his actions and consequences. And plot, well—plot thrives on structure! Otherwise, plot would be running around all over the shop, not knowing where to end or begin! I admit, structure doesn’t affect setting a GREAT deal. But if your structure permits long digressions, the scenery might come into it somewhere. Unlike Chekhov, who used scenery to determine almost everything else. Dear silly Anton!

But back to me. The story I wrote, ‘On/Off,’ is a structural experiment. We begin with our generative device—form—the form in this case being a reader flipping through TV channels, in the story ‘channels’ of narrative. Each narrative strand presents a murder (it’s a genre piece, so it seems) of different sorts, presenting the elements of a basic murdered husband and wife case in variations across five distinct narratives (distinct in style/tone). The idea was to create five contradictory outcomes, weaving various hypotheses around the murdered and the murderer, and create a story that functioned on its own terms.

This is why structure matters (well, form as well—in fact form is better than structure, but let’s not upset the structure of this post). It’s essential for the writer who feels himself at sea in conventions, and yes, it’s important to master conventions before they’re muddled with, but it doesn’t mean he can’t play around with them if it helps get the story out. So there. That’s all for tonight. I’m off to write a jeremiad on the toilet seat.

Monday, 4 July 2011

M.J. Nicholls in Habitat

What does it mean to be an M.J. Nicholls in the wild? In the wild, the M.J. Nicholls is a social carnivore, he only wants flesh he can exploit to his advantage, none of the casual small-talk white-meats that make up human interaction. He is a lone hunter, hibernating most of the year, emerging in Autumn for a rampage of guts and gore, licking it all up until he has to leave his hideout again next year.

In hibernation, the M.J. Nicholls is pensive, he watches the world pass by, noting the peculiar habits of the other creatures, studying their behaviour for his annual feast. Sometimes, when beings enter his lair, he displays for them so he might discharge his fluids. He makes assumptions about other beings that he believes and brings with him to the outside wilds, and when proven wrong he bites their faces off.

M.J. Nicholls is a placid creature, but if you ask him what he is writing at the moment he will leap on you with savage intent, mauling the most sensitive areas in unconventional ways. If you ask him how he is, about his future plans, why he’s wearing the same trousers as last week, he will swoop down upon you with such ferocity, you will need an army of proctologists to the repair the trauma inflicted on your rectum.

The M.J. Nicholls in hibernation is simple to please. All he needs are texts, milkshakes and computer access. If anyone disturbs him when he is at peace, they will suffer. Take note.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

This Blog’s Slow Decline

I can feel the rot setting in. What this blog needs is focus. New management. Some strategic thematic wank. When QoD launched in 2009 I wanted to combine detailed discussion on writing technique with amusing digressions and the occasional slice of fiction experiment. Now what do we have? Scraps! Book roundups. Does anyone need to know what I think of the five million books I read? Nay! Surreal fictions farted out the brain. Where’s the discipline? The effort? Oh, sir! This will not do, not at all.

So what we’re going to do is regulate the posts. There comes a point when the spontaneous word-slinging must stop and a new form of logic, order and coherence must dawn. I know this is hard for you to take on board. I know in our youth we climbed vast peaks together, vast peaks of strange words and ideas, entering lands of partial amusement and interest. But those days are gone. We burned brightly, we loved nightly. Now we’re shrivelled old-age husks, taking vittles through a straw, wondering whether we knew each other in a past life.

I exaggerate. The proceedings won’t vary too much. On Monday I’ll write a personal post about a particularity of the M.J. Nicholls experience. On Wednesday, a blog themed around writing in whatever tenuous way. Fridays will concern an arbitrary topic I will attempt to write about, chosen by Lizzie Sage in the Newscopter, or Bill in the sewercraft.

Quiddity will rise again!