Here’s another double-take. Earlier this week, at Splice, I reviewed Sam Thompson’s new novel, Jott, which depicts a lightly fictionalised version of Samuel Beckett and even includes fragments of pastiche representing the fictionalised Beckett’s outpourings:
[But] Jott… is really a novel whose various elements — the characters and their situations, as well as styles of thought and expression — are assembled in an array of delicate equipoises and counterpositions. At its heart is the dynamic of antagonism and conciliation between two oppositional personalities. Arthur is a buttoned-down young man so polite and cerebral, so emotionally distant and contained, that he remains ashamed of himself for the secret he harbours: he is “two months from his thirtieth birthday” and he has never had “a sexual experience”. Louis, conversely, is puerile and lascivious, deflationary and iconoclastic, a provocateur “burning with conviction to the fingertips, living by a hunger that would not be satisfied, incapable of doing a dull or conventional thing”.
Then, later in the week, I spoke to Thompson about the place of this type of writing in the current literary landscape:
Were you conscious of contributing to a minor trend in contemporary literature? Jo Baker fictionalised Beckett in A Country Road, A Tree (2016), and a version of Beckett appeared again in Alex Pheby’s Lucia (2018). What’s your response to writing on a similar wavelength to these books?
You know all those ‘punk’ genres in SF — cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk and so on? I like that terminology because it captures how fiction can take a certain setting, with its associated sensibility, paraphernalia and preoccupations, and work it up into an aesthetic which becomes an end in itself. Writing Jott felt that way to me. The whole business of writing á clef was really just an excuse to get inside an atmosphere and invent a world. So maybe that’s the nature of the kinship with A Country Road, A Tree and Lucia — I wasn’t conscious in advance of joining in a trend, but maybe Jott belongs to the micro-genre of Beckettpunk.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a short story by Helen McClory so distinctive, but without fail you’ll know it when you find yourself reading one. McClory has been mining her own particular patch of territory for almost five years now, traversing the terrain between fabulism and domestic drama, surveying the stuff of folklore and mythology and weaving it into serious fiction with vivid imagery and poetic flair. Earlier this year, the publication of her second collection of stories, Mayhem & Death, was accompanied by the republication of her first, On the Edges of Vision (2015), and the two collections work in concert to give readers a more expansive sense of McClory’s inventive world: its breadth and contours, its alternately whimsical and sinister atmosphere, and its uncanny rules.
Why keep going back to [flash fiction], then — unjustly under-appreciated as it is — when you know you can do amazing things with forms that attract more respectability, and more readers? What does it give you, creatively, that longer forms don’t?
I’ve never thought about this before: why return to flash? I think that’s because ever since I discovered it as a form, flash has felt right, the right use of my tendency towards hybridisation. There’s something between the dog and the wolf about it: the poetic prose, but not prose poetry, able to shift into direct, more traditionally realistic modes, but then swiftly about-face and become wild again in a moment.
Longer forms don’t have that specific quality. A novel drifts through its moods over years, a big galley ship. A novella is an exercise in staging a set and following the story through to its end. Flash fiction shivers, mutates, blooms in its tiny space. I don’t know what I’m going to write when I set out to do it. I hope that the fluidity and experimental feeling of it is transmitted to the reader, too..
Although I had some serious reservations about the first hundred pages of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole, particularly regarding its mythologisation of its nativist protagonist, I found the novel taking a more critical turn and I ended up admiring it. I reviewed it at length this week for Splice:
Consider the poetry of the tarn. Does it even exist? Glaciers, waterfalls, windswept moors: these are the features of landscape typically taken up for romanticisation. Tarns tend to be disregarded, ugly black pools fringed with reeds, or else construed as the dwelling places of demons, hags, Grendel’s mother. If there’s any hope for a poetry of such things, it’s to be penned by way of an inverse romance: a celebration of mud and muck, spindles and gorse, the suck and squelch of claggy soil, and an adoration of the guttural language which, in its own peculiar way, breathes a beautiful onomatopoeia into these usually maligned aspects of terra Britannica. But not content with simply pulling poetry from the tarn and its dreary surrounds, Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole is a novel that aims for something more difficult. It trains its gaze upon a group of hardbitten, weatherbeaten men who find the tarn a thing of beauty anyway, regardless of any attempts at romanticisation, and it sets out to give voice to their latent poetic sensibilities.
In their brief preface to the first issue of Egress, the editors claim that we live in “a time of increasing distraction”, a time in which “conventional fiction can no longer detain our attention”, and that, as a result, “the future belongs to those strange outliers, those writers who bend and warp the medium into bold new shapes.” In the journal’s final pages, in an essay entitled ‘Attention and the Future of Narrative’, Veronica Scott Esposito elaborates on this notion: cataloguing fiction that “departs… from the conventions of storytelling” and “relentlessly resists systematization”, she celebrates literature that cannot be appreciated without “sustained focus”, “active attention”. Overall, then, Egress emerges from an aspiration to publish work of such linguistic and/or narrative novelty that the reader’s attention is warranted, held, challenged, and rewarded. How well has this aspiration been realised, now that the ink has dried on the page?
Kicking things off at Splice today, here’s my review of the recent reissue of Brian Dillon’s memoir of depression, In the Dark Room:
[In the Dark Room] is a work of formidable intricacy, both conceptually and stylistically. Dillon’s thoughts shuttle back and forth rapidly between the abstract and the concrete, between the ethereal and the corporeal, sometimes in the space of just a sentence or two. He unpicks the fibres of the experiences that have impressed memories upon things he can see and touch, and he seizes at spontaneous recollections and sutures them to objects and locales. Moreover, he does all this with great care for both the lyricism of his own prose and the pertinence of words drawn from other sources.
Of particular note are Dillon’s inimitable sentences. They tend to be long, recondite, and elaborate, yet also rhythmic and eloquent: mimetic of the flow of his thoughts. They are also often convoluted, sometimes obscure, packed with digressions and qualifications in subclauses, parentheses, and asides — not in ways that are purposefully opaque or impenetrable, but in ways that strike an unconventional balance between the sense of a statement and the sensuousness of the prose. They string out their substance along syntactical lines that loop back onto themselves, tying into other lines from other works, other pages, threading the entire book with thoughts that are often begun in a place far removed from where they reach their conclusions. To follow each of them all the way through can require real work on the part of the reader — painstaking attention to modifiers, conjunctions, and punctuation — but the reward for the reader’s labours is prose of such fine textures of meaning and prosody that it is actually able to simulate some of the bodily sensations it describes.
Poor Magnus Mills, the marginalised maestro of contemporary British literature. Although his début, The Restraint of Beasts, landed on the Booker Prize longlist almost twenty years ago, his ten subsequent titles haven’t won him much of a mainstream profile. In a sense, that’s no surprise. Mills makes little effort to appeal to a popular readership. His novels, especially, are abstract and opaque, recursive and pedantic, short on story and long on incidents of no apparent significance, and they loudly and proudly disavow any sense of purpose or relevance beyond their own pages. Still, it’s sad that his work has attracted only a niche following. His books are bitterly funny, belonging to that breed of deadpan absurdism and not-quite-fabulism pioneered by Donald Barthelme, and their narratives are supremely structured around elaborate schemes of concealments and revelations.
If you’re one of the many who haven’t yet jumped aboard the bandwagon, Mills’ latest novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, might entice you to make the leap. It contains a good dose of everything that makes Mills worth reading, and in fact it not only embraces the tendencies that colour his backlist but also brings them to a sort of apotheosis. Longtime fans may the book a little irritating, perhaps a compendium of retreads of some of Mills’ greatest hits, but for newcomers it will open up the perfect port of entry to his entire body of work and to the array of bizarre scenarios he has spent his career creating.Continue reading →
Max Porter recently received an unusual honour when his debut novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The Guardian, operating in partnership with Waterstones, tends to favour middlebrow literary fiction, eloquent but structurally conventional accounts of individuals in emotional extremis. Goldsmiths, in contrast, seeks to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and “embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” How, then, did Porter pull off the double nomination?
Despite the clear differences between the two prizes, it’s not a great surprise to see Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shortlisted for both of them. The novel explores the emotional distress of an academic whose wife has recently died, leaving him to raise their two sons by himself, and this set-up alone makes the novel pure gold for The Guardian. The twist in the tale is that the man and his boys are visited one night by a crow or a crow-like creature named Crow, a physical manifestation of their shared grief who moves into their house to guide them through the grieving process. Crow is a wild and wonderful creation: as mischievous as Loki, as brash as a barroom brawler, as self-pitying as a whipped puppy, and, on top of it all, a manifestation not only of grief but also of intertexuality. The grieving husband is a Ted Hughes scholar whose personal trauma turns his thoughts towards the intricacies of Hughes’ Crow, the poet’s exploration of his own grief after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and so the character of Crow gives form to the animating spirit of Hughes’ book as much as he gives form to the scholar’s emotions. There is yet more intertextuality throughout — the title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems — and, too, there’s a structure in which the narration jumps around between the increasingly terse man, the two boys who only ever speak of themselves as “we,” and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of their otherworldly, inhuman companion. All of these elements, in combination, push the novel not too far beyond a scant one hundred pages with lots of white space throughout, which in turn often transmutes it into something approaching prose poetry and thus something distinctly palatable to the Goldsmiths judges. Continue reading →