Archive | February, 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Backwards Narrative

26 Feb

When Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow was first published back at the start of the 1990s, critics were swift to point out that the idea had been cribbed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s book features a number of experimental techniques, unusual in a work that has proved so popular. The narrative is anything but straight, bent out of shape through a series of time shifts experienced by the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. There is the old metafictional trope whereby ‘Kurt Vonnegut’ appears as an occasional character in the book. The key passage for our purposes, though, is the backwards narrative device used to throw the harsh light of irony upon terrible acts, to make sense out of the unintelligible. Billy is sitting in his living room watching a war movie on his television. He sees an Allied bombing raid on a German city, but as he does so events run backwards. Thus we find that the bombers “flew backwards over a German city that was in flames” and “opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes”. And so it goes. It’s a brilliant device, producing a fiendish transformation in which acts of war are turned into ones of mercy.

The harping of critics notwithstanding, I found Time’s Arrow to be the strongest of Amis’s books. And so while he might not have been the maker of this infernal device, it was Amis who rose to the challenge of sustaining its use across the entirety of a novel, employing it to investigate another of World War Two’s horrors, the Holocaust. Necessarily then, it’s a work of the darkest imaginable irony. Tod Friendly – Amis has a genius for names – is the alias of Odilo Unverdorben, a  former doctor at a Nazi death camp and now an old man hiding up in the USA. We travel back in time with him to the depths of human depravity and his involvement with events at Auschwitz. Here is an example – “…to prevent needless suffering, the dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive. The Kapos would go at it, crudely but effectively, with knives or chisels or any tools that came to hand. Most of the gold we used, of course, came direct from the Reichsbank. But every German present, even the humblest, gave willingly of his own store”.

Harrowing it may be, but it’s a story that must be told and retold so that we never forget. Hearing a Holocaust survivor relate her experiences back in the 1990s was probably the most moving and inspiring event that I have ever had the privilege to attend. And a quarter of a century from now, almost all of those who had the courage to speak will be gone. Amis has put Vonnegut’s clever technique to work in a remarkable piece of writing that ought to make a contribution in keeping alive the memory of those dreadful events. Time’s Arrow joins La Disparation, that sustained lipogram by Georges Perec  (whose own mother died in the Holocaust), in which the letter ‘E’ never appears. Both then are bold, experimental novels, seeking to find some way to articulate the unspeakable – by omission, by relating events backwards…


Running the same whether viewed forwards…

A similar principle, of course, is contained within the palindrome, that push-me-pull you of the written word that can be read either backwards or forwards. In its pure form, it reads exactly the same both ways. That great hero of experimental writing, Georges Perec is credited with creating the world’s longest, The Great Palindrome (well, he was GP, after all) weighing in at over five thousand words. Wow! If you’ve ever attempted this, you’ll know how very difficult it is. It is, perhaps, the ultimate constraint (see a forthcoming post for a fuller discussion of constrained writing). In a perfect world, the term itself would be palindromic, a ‘palinilap’, perhaps. Such asceticism is not always possible or indeed, desirable. A relaxation of the rules allows for sentence or paragraph order to be reversed. While this compromises on purity it increases scope. There are elements of all three in my short story, So reflect, etc: elf, Eros. Again, I have found it to be a technique that can be used to ironic effect. Do try it yourself at home, but be prepared for the long hours of mental torment…


…or viewed backwards

All images and text – except quotations from Slaughterhouse-Five and Time’s Arrow – © PSR 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part Two: in Defence of Literary Games

17 Feb

Experimental fiction – difficult, isn’t it?

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t have to be. While works such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or James Joyce’s Ulysses have given it that reputation, it’s by no means a requirement that experimental fiction must be impenetrable. Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual remains eminently readable, I would argue, while playing a host of literary games. The same is surely true of Ulysses itself. Personally, I have always found myself drawn to the experimental aesthetic, to that sense of otherness to be found in such works. So I’m fond of the music of Schoenberg, for example, and the paintings of Max Ernst. Is it all just a question of taste, then? Perhaps. I once joined a reading group – I’m not sure why – and when my choice came around, I suggested Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a beautiful and strange but admittedly, somewhat experimental book. It was slated, almost universally. I made no further suggestions. I’m still tempted, though, to join another and when my choice comes around to pick Finnegans Wake

Experimentation isn’t modernism. Nor is its successor, post-modernism. Think of Tristram Shandy. Think of Nightmare Abbey. It’s about an approach to writing that says a novel can be more than just a narrative with a plot and characters. Sometimes it can be less than this and yet somehow more (think of Beckett’s Molloy). In my view, fiction has to aspire. Just as the development of photography (no pun intended) forced painting to raise its game, so film and then television asked questions about the purpose of fiction. To paraphrase something I once read, if most TV programmes were any good then the novel would be dead. The writer was striking a position, of course, but you can see what he meant. There will always be that beauty of language and clarity of thought to be found among the greatest writers, qualities sufficient in themselves but all too rarely found. Experimentation is one way to lift writing above the mundane, to create a point of genuine interest. And let’s not forget, while the experimentalists labour away in the literary laboratory, many of their ideas come to be incorporated into the mainstream in time. After all, Hemingway’s bold narratives were once considered experimental before a legion of imitators got in on his tough-yet-tender act.

Literary experiments take many forms. There are those metafictional games, challenging the artifice of the novel (Martin Amis appearing  as a character in Money – the precise moment, according to the novelist, when his father, Kingsley threw the book across the room). There is the so-called stream of consciousness, that experiment in dialogue and thought, flowing from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay”) via Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to James Kelman. Constrained writing is another playground. And so we have an entire novella written using just one vowel (Perec’s Les Revenentes) or the same, simple story told over again in 99 different ways (Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style). And for an example of constraint in my own writing, see Extract 2 from ‘The Great English Novel‘. Only the human imagination limits the possibilities. In the wrong hands, of course, such experimentation can be tedious, excruciating and quite possibly both. There’s a field day to be had by clowns and hoaxers. One has only to think of much of the free-form verse composed in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, perhaps the best comparison is  with the visual arts. In the progression of Picasso’s art from the figurative to the semi-abstract, we can see that the great modernist was also a supremely skilled craftsman who’d have been capable of producing sublime representational works had he not been blessed with one of the twentieth century’s finest imaginations. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, on the other hand, have exposed the opposite in moving from ‘conceptual art’ (i.e., Duchamp recycled 70 years after the event) to attempts at traditional representation.

crawford painting

Abstract painting by Simon Crawford – see more at

Commercial pressures have resulted in a considerable degree of dumbing down so far as the novel is concerned, particularly here in the UK. The demise of the independent publisher and bookshop through the relentless logic of business efficiency has led to an overwhelming conservatism in the trade. Everything it seems these days must be clothed in grey and sniff around after money – even our imaginative space. The condescension with which the British reading public is treated puts me in mind of those book-writing machines in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pumping out their pulp for the proles. What passes now for experimental fiction would never have been classed so in the past. I haven’t managed to finish reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but it strikes me as a pretty conventional book, its ‘nested’ structure aside. Good stuff still occasionally gets smuggled through, but I suspect it won’t be long before we’re returning to our samizdat typewriters or committing books to memory Fahrenheit 451-fashion merely to keep alive the idea of writing that aspires.

Anyway, I’m off to the writing den to fix the guttering and to work on one of my two current fictional projects. Ah, the prosaic and the profound… Happy reading and/or writing!

All text © PSR 2013, image © Simon Crawford

Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – Literary Consequences

16 Feb

Everyone knows that childhood game, ideal for frittering away the odd half an hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You fold a sheet of paper in three. The first player draws a head, connected to a neck. The second draws the body and the tops of the legs. The third adds the legs and reveals the resultant monster. Consequences. The concept has always interested me. I once used it to describe one of the animal narrators in my abandoned state-of-England novel, East: Notes from the Margin (the extract is spookily topical too!). It’s a principle that can be applied to collaborative fictional works. I first came across the idea in Finbar’s Hotel, a joint enterprise by a group of Irish novelists and edited by Dermot Bolger. The writers invented a character each, staying at the titular hotel on the night before its demolition. Much later, I would discover the true origins of the idea and they led back to a familiar source…

In any case, I liked the idea and stowed it away for possible future use. Several years later, the opportunity arose to put it into practice with a group of writers whom I knew. I devised the scenario and rules. An old and misanthropic recluse has died. Unexpectedly, the funeral turns out to be well attended. The contributors must explain why their character is there. The results, if I’m honest, were variable, not least my own contributions, but it was an interesting exercise nonetheless.


Funeral Directions – the rules for a game of literary consequences

The idea actually originates from a collaborative novel called London Consequences, edited by Margaret Drabble and inevitably, I suppose, B S Johnson. It was constructed in a manner closer to the true consequences aesthetic. Book-ended by Drabble’s and Johnson’s contributions, the remainder of the manuscript was passed from writer to writer until the finished novel emerged. In its purest form, of course, subsequent contributors should receive only the last sentence of the previous writer’s chapter. Hmm, now that’s got me thinking…

So here is the scenario as presented to the contributors. Do feel free to bring along your own funeral attendee…

From The Ravenshurst Gazette, Monday 27th November 1978:

“The funeral takes place today of Mr Henry Polonius Baxter Brownlow, who died last week at the age of eighty-nine. Mr Brownlow had lived alone at the same address in Rookery Lane for almost forty years. 

Mr Brownlow was the archetypal recluse. The grounds of his detached Victorian villa (price and particulars available from Mr Jonathan Pumfrey at Parfitt & Pumfrey Estates) were surrounded by tall trees and an eight-foot high wall. A sign on the gate forbade entry to ‘hawkers and callers’. Blackout curtains were drawn across the windows in 1940. They never opened again. 

Mr Brownlow gained a reputation locally as a misanthrope and miser. On a number of occasions, police were called to the property after Mr Brownlow had loosed his foxhounds upon charity collectors or carol singers.  For all that, he was a man of independent means and reputedly kept a fleet of Rolls-Royce motor-cars in a converted stable block in his garden. 

Little is known about Mr Brownlow before his arrival in Ravenshurst. As a consequence rumour flourished.  He was a Black Shirt lieutenant evading internment. He was a literary genius working on his magnum opus.  He was a retired spymaster… 

Details of his early life are equally sketchy. He is believed to have gained a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University and to have served with the Royal Signals in the Great War. A contemporary photograph shows a tall young man with fine features and raven-coloured hair.  After this, he vanished from public view. 

It is believed that Mr Brownlow never married and leaves no heirs. Any person possessing information to the contrary should contact his executors, Messrs Maypole, Merriman and Maunderer. 

The service is at Ravenshurst Cemetery and commences at two o’clock.”

And finally, to enable anyone who might so wish to be an art critic, my children and I have laboured collaboratively through the creative process to produce the remarkable works below, which you are invited to judge.


Exhibit A


Exhibit B


Exhibit C

All text and images © PSR 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – the Johnsonian Box

11 Feb

And so here is the second post in my series on experimental fiction. That part three has been published before part two should come as no surprise. The post is, after all, about structural games…

One Saturday evening, some years ago, my friend, Gavin McIntosh and I were sitting in our favourite pub in Lincoln. Gavin is, of course, the author of the stupendous children’s/adult crossover adventure, Thunderbus, illustrated by his equally talented wife, Dahlia Lee. Back then, that pub was pretty much the hub in the city for artistic types and would-be Bohemians, ourselves included. You’ll know, the sort of place, I’m sure. I used it as the model for the pub in my novella, The Great English Novel, where my protagonist wastes his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band drinking accomplices, talking interminably about their artistic pursuits rather than actually pursuing them (see Extract 3 from ‘The Great English Novel’). Anyway, so there we were, riffing – as one does – about writing, when we hit upon the idea for a brilliant literary experiment. What if you were to write a novel, consisting of a series of loose pages inside a box, that might be re-assembled in any order? The possibilities seemed endless. Over the next hour or so, we elaborated on the idea with a series of breath-taking refinements, none of which I now remember. I do remember firing off an excited e-mail about the idea to a friend in Finland.

Wasting his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band of drinking accomplices...

Wasting his afternoons and evenings in the company of a band of drinking accomplices…

It was a couple of years later that I discovered the writing of the neglected 1960s/1970s experimental novelist, B S Johnson. I began with Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry and that led me onto The Unfortunates and to a further discovery. Our remarkable idea had already been conceived of and carried out, three decades before. Undeterred, I gave the method a try (see Johnsonian Box Experiment for the results – it’s pretty poor, but it gives you the idea!). Johnson has been ‘rediscovered’ in recent times, due – in no small part – to Jonathan Coe’s lovingly assembled biography of the novelist, Like a Fiery Elephant. Tragically, he would share the fate of another literary maverick, John Kennedy Toole. Both novelists killed themselves – at least, in part – in despair at the world’s indifference to their work. Johnson’s name also became the inspiration for that of the mythical fantasist, Bullshit Johansson in my recently completed war novel, but that’s – quite literally, in this case – another story.

Try it out for yourself. The main challenge, it seems to me, is in producing a sequence of chapter beginnings and endings that can dovetail in any order. And then you’ll have your very own random novel generator, a book that changes every time you read it. Need you ever write anything else?

All text and images © PSR 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part One

2 Feb

I seem to have less time than ever at the moment for writing and blogging. The day and evening jobs have taken up most of my time of late and there are bills to pay (ho hum…). Hence posts from me have been few and far between so far this year. I have, though, added a new page to the site. ’21 Experimental Novels’ is a list of such works intended to provoke discussion, perhaps, and serve as a guide to the reader who might be new to the field. It’s a subject close to my heart since I’m a fan of writers who play around with the conventions of the craft and I always incorporate elements of experimentation into my own writing. And in a series of posts to follow, I shall be sharing my thoughts on the experimental novel. In the meantime, please do take a look at the list and feel free to comment. And, if you feel so inclined, vote in the poll below.

I leave you with an extract from my war novel in which I play around with tense and genre.

The bomber won’t stop here, though.  It’ll be heading out toward the asteroid belt.  We shall no longer be able to recognise the crew.  They too will have undergone a change.  In place of flesh, they’ll possess a skin formed from a hyper-tensile alloy, displaying a leaf-coloured sheen when exposed to light.  Underneath, their internal organs, their respiratory and nervous systems will have given way to electronic circuitry, to hydraulics and electro-mechanics.  Though men may have conceived of such an enterprise they will have proved wholly unsuited to seeing it through to completion.  Their bodies would have been too weak to withstand the rigours of intergalactic travel.  In any case, the human lifespan falls pitifully short of the required time frame.  And so artificial life forms will have been created to carry out the task for them.  The armoury officer will detach the default digital unit from the end of his left arm and replace it with the laser gun attachment.  The navigational officer will plug his wrist socket into the universal mapping interface.  The functions of the second armoury officer will have become redundant.  Instead, he’ll align the three apertures at the centre of his face with the corresponding plugs in the communications interface and check for messages from Earth.  Most of the time, there’ll be little for the captain or his co-pilot to do.  The spacecraft’s computers will handle much of the work on long-haul journeys such as these.  For the next two hundred years or so they’ll remain in sleep mode.


Tradition or Innovation?

All text and images © PSR