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.

rules

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.

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Exhibit A

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Exhibit B

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Exhibit C

All text and images © PSR 2013

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4 Responses to “Experimental Fiction, Part Three: Structural Games – Literary Consequences”

  1. Mari Biella February 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    All three drawings made me giggle, Paul – I like the confused look on B’s face (what is that on his chest, though? – It looks a bit like a shower attachment!) and C’s expression of extreme annoyance. I voted for A sImply because of what he/she/it is wearing. If I may raise a (possibly unwelcome) spectre from the past, it reminds me a bit of the 1997 (?) Brit Awards, when Ginger Spice strutted out onto the stage wearing her Union Jack minidress.

    Then I looked a little more closely and saw that the design here is actually more like a cobweb. Oh well…

    Anyway, the collaborative novel … I like the idea. It’s a bit like setting off on a journey without a map; you’re losing a degree of security but gaining the pleasure of travelling without a clear destination. Perhaps the very fact that the ultimate direction of the novel was largely out of the individual’s control would grant the writers a rare degree of freedom. I often feel a little ‘straitjacketed’ in my own writing, because I’m always very aware of the direction I want to take the narrative in, to the extent that I’ve rejected some good ideas simply because they’re not consistent with the overall narrative drift or they seem irrelevant and don’t contribute to the story as a whole. (I conceived a horror of the latter during a writing course years ago, and trained myself to ‘trim the fat’ pretty ruthlessly. Now, I’m beginning to question the wisdom of that outlook, but that’s another story…)

    I think it would work very well in a scenario like that of the funeral and the different attendees. Different writers and styles of writing for a diverse group of characters. Different voices and outlooks. Rather like real life, I’d say!

    Then again, I think the results would indeed be variable. Interesting, though. I’ll have to try to get my hands on ‘Finbar’s Hotel’ and ‘London Consequences’. Sadly, it seems to me that this kind of experimentation would not be welcomed by today’s publishing industry, though I could be wrong… 🙂

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves February 16, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    Good choice, Mari, good choice… I think Exhibit A carries the look off with more panache than Ginger Spice, though.

    I have little doubt that you’re right about the lack of ‘commercial viability’ in such a project from a current publisher’s point of view. It was indeed an interesting little project. There probably was a book worth’s of material there, though, as I’ve indicated, the standard was patchy. But my life went through one of those upheavals it seems to from time to time, and since I was instigator/editor, the project was left unfinished. For me, it was only ever a side-project, but I know exactly what you mean about escaping the restrictions that we place upon our own creativity by pursuing a particular vision of how a work should turn out. I might yet try it again in a more radical form with a new scenario and fewer contributors…

  3. Detlev Gohrbandt August 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

    Dear Paul,
    I was intrigued to read your information about experimental and in particular collaborative fiction. You mention Drabble’s London Consequences, which I did not know about. I imagine Drabble was taking up the example of Consequences: A Complete Story, London 1932, NY 1933, by nine writers (John van Druten, G.B. Stern, A.E. Coppard, Sean O’Faolain, Norah Hoult, Hamish Maclaren, Elizabeth Bowen, Ronald Fraser and Malachi Whitaker), most of them now forgotten, and with a lovely frontispiece by Eric Ravilious. Earlier still are a number of collaborative fictions by German romantic writers, then the 1909 Der Roman der XII (The Novel by 12 Writers; among them Gustav Meyrink of Golem fame), and a row of efforts by a French quartet (Bourget, d’Houville, Duvernois, Benoit), one of which was called Le Roman des quatre (1923), an epistolary novel. One might also take the story of the origin of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into consideration.
    Do you know of any other examples from the 1920s or 1930s?

    Kind regards,
    Detlev Gohrbandt

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves August 14, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Hi Detlev. Welcome to my blog and thanks for your comments.

    Nope, not heard of any of them! Thank you for enlightening me. I had no idea there was so much out there. There’s a much greater willingness to experiment among French and German writers than among my compatriots, I think. Are any of them any good? I’d be interested in seeking them out if so.

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