The Difficult Second Novel

For Splice this week, I’ve taken a long, in-depth look at The Large Door, Jonathan Gibbs’ follow-up to his frenetic début, Randall:

It’d be misleading to say that The Large Door is a lesser work than Randall. It’s more the case that it unfolds on a different scale, being self-consciously not a maximalist novel. By comparison, then, it is less ambitious and somewhat more cautious, more inhibited, in picking out targets for full-throated satire. But, taking as given its relative circumscription, it has the same swift narrative momentum and the same propulsive quality to its prose. There’s hardly a page that lacks some sparkling turn of phrase, some energising construction. When Jenny steps into the path of an oncoming cyclist, the cyclist yelps, swerves, then peddles off, “throwing back over her shoulder a no doubt withering and entirely justified kite’s tail of invective.” Just prior to this, when Jenny embraces an old colleague with whom she has regretfully lost touch, Gibbs writes that she breathes in deeply, “hoping to take into herself something of Frankie’s scent, some thread of spoor leading back to the past, but there was nothing, just the sterile residue of hotel soap and shampoo.” Elsewhere, the prose engages in light formal play: lines of text break off suddenly, without a full stop, as characters backspace the messages they’re writing on their phones, and one scene describes a presentation delivered at an academic conference by allowing the prose to devolve into hurried notes: “M wrong about JV … Men use their intelligence tactically, like women use make-up, hair, clothes. Intellect as clothing? … Fundamental beliefs = underwear? Hygiene. Support. For e.g. the woman with JV after coffee break.”

Movement Like a Moth

Adam Scovell’s Mothlight is one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’ve reviewed the novel for Splice, with a focus on the fascinations of its form:

It has been said that moths are drawn to burning candles because they confuse flames with the light of the moon. Moths, after all, use moonlight to navigate a path through darkness, but light from elsewhere reliably drags them off-course. The result is a split in perceptions. From the moth’s perspective, the path remains direct although the destination is unreachable: the creature believes itself to be flying straight on towards its goal, even as it fails to close the remaining distance. From the perspective of an observer, however, the moth has been snared into a spiral with no way to break free; it flutters around the flame in a way that makes a misleading light the centre of an experience, surveying the object of its desire continually from a distance. In his début novel, Mothlight, Adam Scovell has written a book that shadows the movements of the captive moth. Scovell’s narrator takes aim at a very particular objective, albeit one that is hazily conceived, only to end up whirling around in circles, unable to seize his prize, fixating on an ideal in a frenzied pursuit that robs him of his sanity.

I also had the pleasure of speaking to Scovell about the process of writing Mothlight:

What about the prose style, and the way it contributes to the tone in conjunction with imagery and the narratorial perspective? There’s clearly a bit of W.G. Sebald in there, maybe some Teju Cole, but were there other models for Thomas’ voice? Where did it come from?

I think the majority of the voice techniques come from European fiction of the post-war period. Sebald was and always will be the biggest influence on my writing, but the main voice that dictated the OCD recursions in Mothlight was Thomas Bernhard. I don’t think I’d have the bottle to write fiction the way I do without having read him, and he’s probably the closest a writer has come to recreating my own “head voice”. In particular, the way Bernhard uses repetition to lock you into the tics and worries of his narrators is really quite astounding, and you can definitely see what Sebald took from his writing as well. Teju Cole was another influence, generally. I love how he is building on the use of the photographs within prose, as well as his mental and physical meanderings. I loved Open City, and reading one of his essays on Sebald from Known and Strange Things whilst in Strasbourg created one of the most uncanny reading moments of my life, though I won’t say why.

Genre Games

Alan Trotter’s Muscle takes an interesting approach to dismantling the notion of literary genres — specifically the hardboiled mystery genre — and although it gets off to an admirable start, in the end the genre always wins. That’s basically the case I make in my latest review for Splice:

By now you’ve probably got the sense that Muscle is a rollicking good time, and you’d be right — up to a point. It is the language, above all, that animates Trotter’s novel, and not only the language of Box’s narration but also the dialogue of other characters who repurpose the kitschy ease of pulp noir. A woman who looks like a potential femme fatale, for instance, is explicitly designated as a generic type, as “the love interest” of a private investigator. And the shamus, for his part, speaks like the ideal of the hardboiled hero, telling his “love interest” not to worry, calling her “kid”, and issuing Box and ______ with a warning that properly belongs in a speech balloon from a comic book: “You two so much as wag your tails too hard and there’s lead coming back through this door for you to fetch.” But then, as will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to read a copy of Black Mask from cover to cover, there’s only so much buoyancy that a story can take from even this entertaining language, and beyond that point there’s a real struggle for fresh air.

Beckett Without Beckett

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.

Flash!

This week, on Splice, I published a double-take, so to speak, on the flash fiction of Helen McClory. First up, I reviewed McClory’s two collections of short short storiesOn the Edges of Vision and Mayhem & Death:

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.

Then, a couple of days later, I spoke to McClory about her aesthetic preferences and her decision to return to flash fiction after having previously published a novel, Flesh of the Peach:

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..