Sunday, 26 May 2013

Exploring America on Google Street View

Wauwatosa, Milwaukee

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

I Deny the Existence of Publishers

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

Five Personal Paragraphs on Beardy Deities

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

Turning Misery Into Art

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.