Claire Turnbull is an ex-girlfriend whose life I ruined. We dated for a spell (relax—no sex) at university, she reading the Classics, me bog-standard Scottish Literature. One afternoon as we were discussing the anti-epic properties of Ovid’s epic The Metamorphoses over two fruit smoothies in a popular national chain she blurted out that she had written a novel that she wanted me to read. I was surprised because I had assumed Claire was from a bourgeois Devonshire background and therefore untalented. She produced a novel entitled The Corruption of the Enfeebled Elf-Children and told me I had a month to read before she wanted the manuscript back to send to Canongate, who at the time were a brave publisher of innovative new fiction. I read the novel to page twelve before concluding it had no artistic merit whatsoever and that Claire should stop writing or at least attend classes on how to produce a coherent cliché-free sentence. I was too scared to tell her that truth and so ignored her texts and emails for a week until she tracked me down in my flat. I told her that the manuscript was appalling and that it had little merit and she would need to sweat like a sun-stricken sow to stir up something semi-fine. She broke down and ran away, I was too tired to chase her. Later she texted me to wish me a swift and painful death and that I had ruined her life for the rest of her life (redundancy sic).
Tuesday, 19 November 2013
My latest pizza longish writing The House of Writers has been completed after up to five months of larks and slog. Originally conceived as a book-length comedic novel with unapologetic OTT humour and satirical touches, the idea fell flat as I hit the seventh chapter. In a stroke of desperate drunk-thinking I rearranged the existing material into the form of a corporate recruitment prospectus and trimmed half the fat. It feels exhilarating to take the shears to over 25,000 words of a novel but at the same time, like a machete being driven into my bowels. Contrasting emotions. Perhaps this is a final warning. If I ever attempt to write commercial fiction again the souls of the Great Unread will rise to smother me in the sack where I slumber. Back to exploring forms and structures. Back to forms as generators of content. Back to miscellaneous collages fragments interlinked digressive constraint-based whatnots. Back to doomed attempts at originality in an age where straight character-driven narrative is king and so-called exploratory literature (of which I am a slight practitioner) is binned. Onwards.
Sunday, 20 October 2013
This year has been a barren barrel for my short fiction due to various changes in my attitude to short fiction—i.e. a complete lack of interest and a slavish devotion to longer-form pieces, known as novellas and novels. Earlier this year, I was included in New Writing Scotland 31, an annual annual of Scots writing and a step forward for me in terms of being published in more well-known (and local) anthologies and not esoteric lit mags. The piece printed was the last in a series of four ‘disquisitions,’ titled ‘A Disquisition on Inadequacy Among the Salaried Classes’ and is purchasable at the above link. I also forgot about a little pub from last year, ‘The Third Person,’ pubbed in Ink Monkey Magazine 5, which is an all right little comedic fou, but the stage play version last year rocked. Another story, ‘A Florescence of Gerhards’ was published in Bellow Literary Journal 2.1. All available at those links from the Devil’s Bum.
Sunday, 29 September 2013
My current writing project is called The House of Writers, a novel set in a likely future where literature is as welcome as sheep droppings in a cup of Horlicks. Forced to work for the expanding ScotCall empire, most writers have packed it in for safe desk jobs answering queries about anything and everything for a population of ill-educated bozos, while only a handful remain in a raggedy office block on the outskirts of a small rural province where Scotland’s writers turn out work for a narrow audience of unhinged freaks who still like to read. The protagonist, Cal, is an idealistic and ambitious youngster who believes he can make a name for himself in the House, while his family are assimilated into the ScotCall encroach.
Each chapter finds Cal moving up the nine floors of the building—from High Quality Literary Fiction all the way up to Bestsellers up top, each populated by various eccentrics whose works have been warped and exaggerated at the whims of their paymasters. The experimental writers lurk in the basement, breaking out occasionally to cause mischief on the higher floors, steal food, and plan ways to strangle ScotCall with their own phone lines. As Cal advances, ScotCall steals office space with the assistance of his poisonous sister Kirsty, who delights in the systematic destruction of all pointless scribblers.
The House of Writers is an anarchic comedy, with no pretensions to subtlety or mainstream acceptance. The idea is to indulge in wordplay, bouncy and playful language with a funky rhythm, and sheer stylistic exuberance as a celebration of what is brilliant about literature and the reading of, and why books should take precedence over everything else, especially food and procreation. I also want to posit an alternative to the book-burning visions of Bradbury et al and suggest literature will always exist, but will simply get marginalised into obsolescence, or buried under a mound of trash, and people’s standards will sink so low, Everyman’s Dan Brown editions will be released by 2070.
This is a sketch of the novel. So far the surreal comedy is leading me into other areas of (unwelcome?) strangeness. By imposing a structure on the book, hopefully my “freewheeling” tendencies with regard to plot and character won’t lead to the sort of tedium that awaited readers of my last comedy, A Postmodern Belch. We shall see. And once again, methinks I am writing essentially for niches too small to be niches, but so be it. Long live my beloved niches.
Sunday, 26 May 2013
My trip begins in July 2007 outside Wauwatosa Pocket Park. Before me is a closed off road and a crane demolishing a series of Greekly architectural structures. To the left, a burned-out bus heading towards a flat-roofed building that appears too melted and sickly to contain actual life, and to the right, two big-bumpered Cadillac-like cars are parked before the cordons that read ROAD CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC. I spin around and proceed up Harwood Avenue, along a wide asphalt road flanked by elm trees, arriving at a church with an enormous grey-brown arch with two window-like holes on each side, a family of bells in the centre, and a drab concrete cross on top. At the bottom, a marble statue of an unidentifiable religious figure (Jesu?), with arms outstretched, welcoming people to the fringe-roofed place of worship. I spin around to my right, where a eatery called Niemann’s shares a blue awning with an unreadable place with an Eiffel Tower symbol on front. There are no people around.
Further up, leafy apartments on either side, Victorian street lamps with two-pronged elegant bulbs, a second entrance to the church that is now chasing me up the road, and on the right the first American flag hangs outside another low-ceilinged mauve-bricked structure with five columns (a school?). A 20MPH sign is pinned to a large pylon that drags across the pavement and a spin to my right reveals a tall building with trendy B&W photos in the windows, and a bald fat man in a blue shirt hangs on the chunky banister beneath a green half-tunnel awning. The wall-pinned white plaque-signs are too blurry to read, but an old-style newsprint is identifiable on all three. A dark blue wide-load SUV is parked in front. A second American flag comes into view as I progress into Harwood and dodge an unattended lawnmower that seems to be moving along the sidewalk on collision course with a skinny tree. It all has the clammy dull emptiness of ten o’clock in a Sunday morning in a place too hot to do anything. Suddenly I disappear.
Flushing, New York
And materialise on Farrington Street. Before me is October 2007 and a dull skyline that emphasises the greyness of the surrounding buildings. A factorial structure with a roof like a loaf of bread is before me, and I advance towards a fenced off site with trailers and a ceremony of pylons strung onto their roofs. A JCB is parked inside. On the road before me, a garbage truck shows its teeth. I ride alongside and pass it, arriving at A&R Lobosco Inc—a grey factory where a green-suited black worker walks towards a recycling skip outside. To the left, a car lot for conEdison. Up ahead, a series of shiny black freight lorries, diggers and stray cars. The first American flags appear (three in fact) outside a car wash which also offers QUICK LUBE in a separate entrance in proud caps on a red sign. TRUCK LUBE is available in a smaller font on the left side.
Across, a small L-shape of shops, three of which seem boarded up with grey textless signs and shutters up. Another shop nestles in the nook of the L, possibly having driven the other two businesses to despair, in the traditional way. Up ahead Astoria federal Savings offers incredible CD rates, and a large five-story building with curvy sides and small wraparound windows looms over another large car park. Everywhere is industrial and dreary and littered with dirty grey cars. Mercifully I disappear.
Saturday, 18 May 2013
My problem is that unconventional forms and structures excite me. The content of a story, for me, is swappable with other content—I have no burning story to tell, I only have a cast of no-hopers and oddballs, shambling through a world of slapstick darkness looking for something to alleviate their loneliness, because other people are unavailable or unwilling, and novel ways to tell stories, comment on those stories, and open these stories into other stories or comments-on-stories, in various ways that attempt to dodge the “meta” tag (now one of condemnation) enough to be respected (i.e. “published.”) All the while, sweating blood to appear “contemporary” or “innovative” in an age when no one really cares about these things except other writers, who are the first to slap you down when an elaborate construct you spent a year refining unfortunately repeats a far smarter one designed by a 60s pre-Derridean poststructuralist genius, forcing you to spend another year redesigning your origami swan of obscurity before binning the whole thing to write the Next Big Plotboiler.
My other problem is that linear stories are infinitely boring to me, and that in our distracted and distracting age, it is becoming harder to convincingly compose a story in a slowly archaising form. We watch videos, movies, clips, listen to albums and songs in our own way. The linearity of the conventional novel is becoming less appealing to the, or least this, reader: surely fiction should strive to present its own appearance of “linearity” in a way that connects with a contemporarily fragmented brain?
We want to get there quicker! Faster! More speed, more steam, more horsepower! We use our Satnavs and iPhones to take shortcuts to our destinations so we can squeeze in an extra protein shake, trip to the gym, short-term relationship, five or six songs, so every urgent desperate fading moment is not wasted, because what could be worse than dying at ninety-four without having squeezed every vomcube of pleasure out of the human experience? Give us the ending now! Give us the ending before the story begins! Better still, give us the plotlines and characters and themes and emotions in the story and let us assemble them in our own time! If we can find the time, which we never can, you know . . .
So listen: my novels loaf in quasi-experimental obscurity because the alternative is a rapacious publishing machine that eats your face and kills your dog. I write them because I seriously DO NOT BELIEVE (this is not defeatism, damn you!) that there are commercial publishers out there for me who want to pay me for my efforts, or zealous tireless agents and readers in positions of power seeking to reward the new with pounds and pennies, I DENY THEIR VERY EXISTENCES! My proles are harassed overworked alcoholic small-press editors, who also have no aspirations to publish me, what with only publishing two books per year, and ones that need to find an audience, who I also do not believe exist! (Note: this does not stop me sending manuscripts, but once sent, they do not exist either!)
Who else is there to write for but yourself? Most writers can’t even get their friends and family to read them, and sneering amateurs at workshops simply tell you how unsellable and weird your stuff is, in comparison with theirs. My next novel is going to be a final exercise in self-destruction (my first novel was too), but this time, I am taking everyone else with me. Beware.
Thursday, 16 May 2013
My religious life slowly evaporated after repeated Saturday night visits to mass as a child. There is no “right time” to drag an angsty teen to listen to sermons, singing and highlights from Ezekiel—Sunday mornings would be twice as heinous as a Saturday night after a week spent slogging through school and its time-bending boredoms. So when I left to make my fortune in the Big Town university, I wasn’t prepared for how fast and fatally I would fall into godless despair and need something kind and beardy to cling to. Blaming my brutal shyness on an unforgiving universe absent of kind beardy deities, I turned instead to Dostoevsky (successfully), Camus (less successfully), and Nietzsche (pointlessly).
Dostoevsky’s tormented narrators and characters were a perfect fit for my own bleeding soul, especially the Underground Man, whose melodramatic rants and lacerating self-hacking laments chimed with my own outlook on the world. To cope, I adopted the aloof attitude of Mersault from Camus’s The Outsider, and wrote screeds of brutal prose by night, including a whole novel of howling woe called Don’t Tread on Me (I still have the tear-soaked MS in a folder whenever I want a chuckle). I had phased out Our Lord entirely until my final year, when hiccups of hope began hopping up my throat.
What I sought was not the worship and belief (I simply have no faith at all in God or Jesus), but for the transcendent love and kindness to other humans to work its way into my system of undying cynicism and loathing for human stupidity. I was after a form of “drive-by” belief, as if by rubbing myself up against church walls I could absorb some of that celestial essence and find myself less poisoned by bitterness and snarky detachment. Eventually I read the novels of Dickens, and was struck by the holy transcendence of his characters, and his attitude towards them, and the perfectly beautiful religious ecosystem in evidence. My own flickering spark of religious whatevs returned with attendant warmth.
But how does belief impact on one’s writing? Nowadaze, the standard position from young authors is smug detachment and a know-and-above-it-all attitude towards religious matters, and an assumption the reader starts out from a position of atheistical superiority (or, at least, this is one of the prevailing positions). So I if were to toddle back into the arms of a kind and beardy being and sat down to write my characters, would my writing take on a fresh new compassion, or would it lapse into sermonising banality? The point being: a positive move for the writer is not necessarily the best move for the art. My opinion is that it doesn’t matter: skilled writers won’t lapse into the same religiosity that plagued Tolstoy in his final years, they will find a way for their beliefs and work to cohabitate.
So there isn’t an actual point to this post as such, except to doff my yarmulke to God-lovers everywhere and say keep it up, on the QT, and watch this face for conversion experiences.
Friday, 3 May 2013
One of the most disappointing realisations I have faced as a writer is that living through unpleasant or dark times does not automatically bestow me with an instinctive talent for writing about these dark or unpleasant times, nor does it give me instant access to the necessary emotional tools to create powerful and haunting prose wrought from the blackest caverns of my suffering. A prose style has to be sculpted to accommodate one’s flair for language, stylistic quirks, eye for detail or character insight, around the sympathetic or natural part of one’s personality responsible for the more arresting emotional peaks in a piece of work.
If anything the more suffering a person endures, the less likely they will be able to express themselves in lyrical streams of moving prose. Too much suffering creates psychological barriers between you and the work (writing opens old traumatic wounds), or leaves you too depressed or damaged to stare down the page (because drinking before the TV is nicer). I am not in the business of composing lyrical and emotional prose, but I do write about past miseries in the hope of connecting with the reader for a sort of shared-nod experience in between making them titter or entertaining with the language and pace and dialogue and characters in my stories.
This leads into the problem of trying to capture the intensity of the “minor emotions” that make up our lives. Say I was sitting alone, as all writers do, one evening and wanted to capture the slight melancholy of this loneliness in the story I was writing—not to ring tears from the reader, but make them feel a pang of semi-sympathy by way of recognition. To say James was sitting all alone in his room suggests the character’s own self-pity, and rather than feeling for him we laugh or smile at his sadness, because the very fact of someone’s loneliness suggests a personal failure that could have been avoided through being a less hopeless human specimen. We expect better of our characters. Why couldn’t he go out and make friends? Why should we feel sorry for someone who has only brought this feeling on himself? Our own experiences harden us against the experiences of people in books. Or even worse, our own feelings written on the page seem simply trivial and pathetic without sufficient artistic heft to turn them into valid literary emotions worthy of book-to-human responses.
In my own fiction, I am only interested in “minor emotions”— lonely sighs and self-pitying reflexes: failures of people to pull their socks up and solve their problems and arrive at the moments that precipitate “sweeping emotions.” People who can’t find a partner let alone lose them in a car crash. People who never find themselves involved enough to care if the whole team gets cholera. I want my stories to pirouette between these minor moments: I want my narratives to be largely comic, frosted with moments of pathos and sadness that create a coherent emotional tone behind the comedy. If I can achieve this I hope to represent the pervading sadness behind most human life and aim for a fairer depiction of the stoic emotional tapestry that makes up reality over the more manipulative focus on the “sweeping” that dogs mass-market prose.
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
The reader’s response to Gordon Comstock’s behaviour will depend upon whether the reader has ever tried to live a “self-sufficient” life free from bourgeois respectability, or seriously pursued an artistic vocation with stubborn single-mindedness. Orwell’s novel is pretty one-track plot-wise—what happens when a person renounces money and its interminable grip?—but Comstock’s obsessive pursuit is a societal conundrum of universal proportions and makes for a frustrating and bone-deep trip to the depths. In my own case, my mother abandoned college ambitions to support her parents, and my two siblings have ditched artistic ambitions in favour of reasonably stable and well-paid occupations—as the third child, with this history of “selling out to the man,” I felt a strong need to have convictions as an artist manqué, privations being part of the plan on the road to obscurity. Comstock’s artistic drive is not strong enough to triumph over his money worries, suggesting his desire to write poetry is nothing but an excuse for rebelling against a predetermined bourgeois society (more horrible in the 1930s than it will ever be again). As with all Orwell’s fiction: it burrows into your conscience and lays eggs there.
10. Hubert Selby Jnr. — Song of the Silent Snow
HSJ’s only story collection, released in 1986, lacks the power of his novel work—those books thrive on slow-building doom and the repetitive grind of addiction and madness, whereas these vignettes can’t attribute their weaknesses to style. Selby’s affinity and loyalty to the down-and-outs of New York never relented, unlike Lou Reed, who switched from bourgeois reformist to street-smart wiseguy in the space of two albums (listen to New York then play the laughable The Blue Mask to see my point). Like Reed’s 80s lyrics, some of the material here is nigh-unreadable: Selby makes Writing-101 mistakes in stories like horror schlock ‘The Sound’ or the diabolical mess ‘Liebesnacht.’ A more direct approach suits the form, with the epistolary ‘Im Being Good’ and ‘Indian Summer’ among the stronger hits—surprising shocks of reality from lives barely held together with lint-fluffed sticky tape. But Selby’s style (and inability to advance beyond that style) simply doesn’t satisfy in the same way as those masterpieces, and Selby’s standards are lightyears beyond the writing in evidence.
11. Anthony Burgess — One Hand Clapping
Burgess’s 1961 satirical jeu, “dashed off to make a hundred pounds or so,” concerns that evergreen of topics: “The cheapness and the vulgarity and silliness and brutishness and nastiness of everything and everybody.” Is there any other topic worth writing about? Narrated by typical northern lass Janet Shirley, the novel uses the quiz show as a metaphor for the above commentary—how the Great Poets & Writers remain unread and unappreciated, relegated to trivia questions and fodder for fact-vacuums like hubby Howard. As the novel progresses, a dark tension unravels as Howard experiences the hollowness of a consumerist universe and takes drastic steps to escape the futility of it all. Despite its plainly improvised plot, and occasional slapdash phrasing here and there (tut tut, Anto), for a novel completed in a month for a cynical buck, it is a pleasingly fine product of Burgess the contrarian lunatic mastermind and one-man book-shitting machine. I intend to read this man raw.
12. Vladimir Nabokov — The Enchanter
The Enchanter is the blueprint for Lolita, there’s no dancing around that fact. The story concerns a middle-aged man-of-private-means who falls for a twelve-year-old nymphet and marries her unappealing mother, later bumping her off to satisfy his crazed libido. The slinky prose wonderment of Lolita is here in miniature too, minus the distinctive lyricism of HH and pervading darkly comedic tone. In true [P] style, all that remains is to tell a 2000-word anecdote about my early years and in some wildly tangential way try to relate it to the novella. Try this on for size. I was working as a travelling salesman in Dundee, selling old paperbacks door-to-door when this foxy teenage delight swung back the door and asked for the latest Louise Bagshawe. She had beautiful cheekbones and silky astral-dark manes of luscious hair, not to mention two of the pertest prehensile dugs this young farmboy had ever seen. But because she chose repulsive chick-lit written by a Tory dragon I slammed the door in her pretty face, despite the come-to-bed eyes she was making and the lusty lip-licking she did in response to my manliness and scholarly power and standing as 5th most popular reviewer on UK Goodreads. Integrity is integral in this reading game—nymphets don’t read at my speed.
13. Guy de Maupassant — Bel-Ami
A rollicking tale from Flaubert’s protégé chronicling the inexorable rise of social climber Georges Duroy. Translated by Douglas Parmée, who rendered A Sentimental Education into irresistibly sumptuous English, Bel-Ami is powered by electrifying dialogue and a terse descriptive prowess Flaubert seemingly overemphasised to Maupassant—the prose is so compact you could park it in your driveway. Duroy is a misanthropic schemer and exploiter, but something of a “working-class hero,” if we understand the term to mean someone who manipulates the money world to his advantage and tramples upon bourgeois society to achieve his fortune—you can’t be content as a poor-rich person without pissing on the little people who helped you up. Far from being a satire, the novel is a comedic romp that somewhat revels in the machinations of upper-middle-class society—clearly Maupassant was not averse to a little strategic foreplay in his career (but he died in the nuthouse, so don’t worry) and the moral lesson is only there if you imagine it to be. Most importantly Bel-Ami will remind you how much naughty sexy fun French classics can be, and still make you feel cultured and refined for reading them.
14. H.G. Wells — The History of Mr. Polly
Everyone at some point in their lives will suddenly realise in their naive exuberance they made a colossal mistake that now has its python-like grip around their cowardly little necks, and that the only solution is to burn the shop and down and become a country hobo. Or maybe only the first part of that sentence. Life in the early 1900s was uniformly dreary for the working classes, but at least they were born and raised to expect nothing—nowadays we are taught from the womb to reach for the stars and dream big dreams and made to feel like failures if we haven’t achieved everything by the age of twenty-eight, when we are still young and sexy enough not to be worn down by bitterness and remorse to take some pleasure in our achievements. Mr. Polly is like you and me—witty but not witty enough and clever but not clever enough to escape the humdrum, drummed into a predetermined life of oafs, clots, lollygaggers, pissants, pipsqueaks, miscreants, toadies, bores, whiners, haters, tyrants and psychos. The only rebellion in this sprawling penitentiary we call civilisation used to be the pursuance of personal pleasure at all costs, so at least when you dropped dead at thirty you could do so with very happy memories, but nowadays such revolting self-interest is the reason our civilisation is quickly rotting from the inside and heading for a swift and painful annihilation by the time our grandchildren hit forty. Books like this one provide a necessary anatomisation of our repugnant species, and do so with a breathless passion for change.
15. H.G. Wells — The Island of Doctor Moreau
The Island of Doctor Moreau? Please! Who among us hasn’t gambolled in fields with apecats, badgies, cockpigs, donrets, elephocks, ferrats, gerbats, horsharks, iguanomones, jagutans, kookakeys, llamoles, monkelots, narwhelks, ostringos, pandicoots, quaileeches, rhinilgais, shaardvarks, tigeels, uintapmunks, volemice, wombulls, xanthraffes, yakapes and zebrams? In your back garden (or if you live in a city, in the countryside—a mythical place where grass exists), trillions of micro-organisms are cross-breeding right now to introduce even more wondrous deviations and half-breeds to the planet, twice as splendorous as the cloned sheep and spliced deer-penguin hybrids being created in underground labs by Evil Docktors and their hunchback locums. Nature is a language, can’t you read?
16. William H. Gass — Fiction and the Figure of Life
First, an admission. Gass’s first collection of essays is lightyears beyond my intellectual level. Switching between heavy philosophical investigations to poetical and opaque literary meditations (by way of book reviews), the essays here lack the same layman’s entrypoint as in later collections Finding a Form or A Temple of Texts—two stronger, more musical and spellbinding books. So my three-star verdict is a partly a reflection on my own shortcomings and partly because Gass has not fully mastered the masterful nonfiction prose style in evidence in later books—this one behaves like something of a unified manifesto of sorts, with strange footnotes scattered in each essay directing readers to other essays, in a mostly distracting way. The second part contains my favourite pieces on Stein (surprise), Coover, Barthelme, Borges and Nabokov, and later a waspish one on Updike. ‘The Concept of Character in Fiction’ and ‘The Medium of Fiction’ are fascinating insights into Gass’s fictional world (and future) and contain the purdiest writing. Later pieces on Henry James and Wittgenstein are less my literary bag and sent me into a pleasant snooze to the music of a superior brain. For Gassheads only.