Tag Archives: Experimental Novel

Interviews with Experimental Writers: No. 1, M.J. Nicholls

25 Mar

Here we introduce an occasional series of posts to this blog, interviewing fellow experimental writers. First up is M.J. Nicholls, author of The House of Writers and Postmodern Belch. As we shall see, M.J. modestly states that he is not a writer of experimental fiction but merely following in the footsteps of the craft’s great exponents. You can find him on his blog and on Twitter (just click the links). He also works as an an editor at the innovative Verbivoracious Press. 

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The House of Children’s Book Illustrators

What first got you interested in experimental writing?

Reading Flann O’Brien and Georges Perec as an impressionable man-child. A prominent Scottish man then introduced me to Gilbert Sorrentino and the saloon doors were blown open.

Who are your major influences? Why?

Any author with a penchant for wordplay, fiddling with form, and a strong humorous voice. Gilbert Sorrentino showed me the pleasures of play, and the tantalising possibilities of the novel outside the world of conventional fiction. Other authors I worship include Flann O’Brien, B.S. Johnson, Raymond Federman, Christine Brooke-Rose, and the Oulipo writers. The filmmaker Armando Iannucci sparked my passion for humour with his talent for surreal, satirical writing and inventive language.

Are you interested in experimentation in other fields of the arts?

Not with the same fervour as in fiction. I’m an avid viewer of European cinema and its charming curiosities and innovations: most recently, the work of Dutch auteur Alex Van Warmerdam whose warped tragicomedies like The Dress and Waiter exhilarated me with their unhinged imaginative visions.

What would you say is experimental about your writing? What is your writing process?

I wouldn’t use ‘experimental’. I pin that term on proper innovators (see list above), whereas I tend to frolic in their wake. I write with a blurb-outline of the novel and wing the rest. Detailed plans and intentions are too tempting to mash. Usually, I prefer writing in short-burst chapters and use lists, dialogue-only sections, repeated phrases, and semi-confessional shticks, to break up the standard narration.

How long did it take you to write The House of Writers? Where did the idea come from?

About two years. I was worried about the surfeit of writers out there and the dwindling number of readers in here. At some point in the future, when faced with the public’s apathy towards reading, I wondered what might happen to the last cluster of writers who refuse to surrender their pens. So I invented a place for them to practise their professions, albeit in a passionless and programmatic capacity.

What were the particular problems you faced in writing it? How pleased are you with the end results?

At first I wanted the novel to focus on one character and his madcap adventures up and down the floors. I became bored with this narrative, so started a sequence of splintered stories from inside the building. This splintering became more appropriate for the novel, and made the thing more pleasurable to write. I ended up with a more coherent structure than I had imagined. The end result was published, which convinces me it has some worth.

What are you working on at the moment?

The last in a trilogy of novels on writers, readers, and publishers. The House of Writers is the first, and the second (not published yet), The 1002nd Book to Read Before You Die, I completed last year. The last novel, The Consultation Room, is ‘about’ the manipulation of readers and writers by middlemen, and the impact this has on the calibre of the literature we’re made to confront in bookshops. 

What are you reading at the moment?

Beckett’s How It Is (an unpunctuated monologue of a man crawling through the mud), J.G. Ballard’s Complete Short Stories Volume Two (breathtaking apocalyptic and dystopian parables), and Carlos Fuentes’s Adam in Eden (alongside G. Cabrera Infante, my favourite Latin American writer).

Which one book would you recommend to someone wishing to investigate experimental fiction?

I would invite readers to peruse the catalogues of Dalkey Archive Press, FC2, New Directions, Verbivoracious Press, et al. 

If the Oulipo invited you to join would you do so? What about the Illuminati?

If the Oulipo invited me, I would know they had been seized by the Illuminati. I would perform an intervention at once with a copy of the Oulipo Compendium and a spatula.

There you have it, then.

I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to me about his writing. Below is an extract, Writer Portraits, from The House of Writers (Sagging Meniscus Press), available to buy on Mammon-Goliath-Mammoth (otherwise known as Amazon) and elsewhere. 

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Mr Nicholls

Movements

Freed-in-Fiction

The Freed-in-Fiction movement was the hippest club for intellectual dropouts, child/wifeless male academics, and assorted creatives unwilling to face up to their personal problems. A coterie of exhausted English Lit & Creative Writing students, failing upon graduation to rise to the challenge of carving careers for themselves in teaching or editing or corporate proofreading, decided that their fictional creations were far more alive and interesting than their real lives, and elected to neglect the quotidian in favour of vicarious living through their novels. One of the founders, Dan Inch, laid down various rules to help direct the group, the first being a complete shunning of publication of any kind—to publish was to acknowledge that books (and themselves) existed in the real world, whereas they were looking for an ontological loophole that excused them from the business of living (choosing to dismiss their actual corporeal presences on the planet as irrelevant). The second was that their physical presences on the planet were to be treated as part of their ongoing oeuvre—an unwritten extension of their books through the medium of movement and speech. This unhinging of reality, naturally, led to deviant behaviour. One writer in his novels had written an antihero who went around shooting corporate criminals and having sex with random beauties whenever one wandered into the narrative. This behaviour, replicated in real life, was not repeated, although the author beat up random bankers, shop managers, or anyone who appeared to be indulging in capitalist excess, and conducted himself in improper ways around women with pinching and unsolicited touching. These writers were commonly regarded as laughable and clueless until a harsh winter finished them off.

The New Established Writer Movement

New writers, i.e. those who had been passed over by agents and publishers for decades, chose to establish themselves as established writers. To achieve this, a list of books published overseas was invented, alongside false overseas agent and publisher contact info (including false agent and publisher websites), and new (i.e. old) manuscripts were sent to UK publishers with the salvo of a respected publishing history (in Australia or New Zealand) to help pique the interest of agents and publishers. If successful, The New Established Writers would find their latest (or earliest) novel published and, depending on sales, find their non-existent backlog sped into print to meet the demands of a burgeoning audience. Most of the writers had ten or so complete novels in their drawers, and in some cases a whole catalogue was “re-issued” simultaneously (with the author having to typeset and print fake copies privately to send to their real publishers so facsimiles could be made). This movement was exposed in a similar manner to the The New Writer movement some years earlier, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Serial Listing Movement

These writers believed that the furniture of conventional novels was superfluous; that the ordered line-by-line dialogue of characters was superfluous; that the linear page-turning plot was superfluous; that deep insight into the human condition was superfluous; that the finger-tingling all-over assault on the brain and body produced by the most masterly of stylists was superfluous; that the words on the page themselves attempting to communicate something or nothing at all were superfluous; that double or triple meanings were so many layers of mouldy custard within a smelly trifle; that the spooky transference of art from brain to page was mystical bunkum; that the physical rigor required to bring books to fruition was a lazy dreamer’s hyperbole; that the bitter sacrifice of sanity, soul, and sexual needs was the pitiful cry of a loner; that all the precious components of timeless literature could be reduced to a series of blank lists with no substance or heart. The movement was criticised as a direct nouveau roman rip-off, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Anti-cis-heteronormativist Movement

This movement set about rewriting literature with the assumption that all characters were trapped in false gender identities, and by allowing characters to realise their true gender roles, free literature from the oppression of the cis-heteronormativists who had been imposing heterosexist ideals on readers since time immemorial. The first rewrite was Jane Eyre, with the famous heroine recast as a pangender transitioning towards a more male-centred outlook. The plot was tweaked to castigate Rochester for his persistence, where he learned to respect Jane’s complex gender position and stronger romantic pulls towards female sexual partners. Further rewrites included David Copperfield realising himself as a queer heterosexual, which better explained his attraction to Dora Spenlow; Molly Bloom identifying herself as a “fifth sex”, outside both genders, outside all non-gender classifications, a separate class known as Bloomism—sort of a magnet for all sexualities, genders and non-genders; and Raskolnikov as a transsexual in process of becoming a woman so he could be kept by a husband and write without having to concern himself with making a living. This movement, while an amusing contemporaneous reimagining of the patriarchal canon and a necessary riposte to the tyrannous influence of university syllabi, suffered due to the lack of talent involved in pastiching the originals. A harsh winter finished them off.

The _______ Movement

Four men who did no writing whatsoever and bragged about their lack of achievements at writing groups, readings, and events. Their belief that more than enough fiction had been penned over the last three centuries was illustrated with the blank notebooks they carried around and the no pens in their pockets (if approached for a pen, they made a show of patting their pockets and declaring: “Sorry, we never need one!”), and if presented with a book published after their inception, they refused with the refrain: “Sorry, for us the buck stopped a while ago!” (the buck meaning new books). In writing classes, the men would sit in silence, staring into space during the live writing portion, infuriating the teachers by insisting on a four-minute silence during their allotted reading aloud time. At author readings, the men would turn their backs on the authors during the readings from their new books and listen to loud punk on headphones, resuming their attention after the applause. If the author’s first book had been published after the group’s inception, the men would book seats and not turn up to the events, leaving the chairs blank as a protest (despite the fact the rooms were usually empty anyway). On online workshops, the men would embed pictures of blank pages, or include a sequence of blank ____ lines, and delete the abusive feedback. One time, an ex-vintner with a first novel out castigated them for wasting his time by standing up to ask a question and singing the chorus to ‘Fernando’ by Abba, humiliating them after the show by exposing their movement as a testament to their own failure as writers, and their pathetic need to flaunt their failure by spoiling the success of others. The harsh vintner finished them off.

Interview text ©PSR and M.J.Nicholls 2017. Novel extract and author photo © M.J. Nicholls 2016. Graffiti image © PSR 2017. 

 

Where Armorica Ends

24 Feb

Finisterre. In some ways, the name tells you all you need to know. Land’s End, the Celtic Fringe, where Europe ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins…

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Travel around the small towns and villages of rural Armorica and you’ll find a society at the edge of the world. The young people, those with professional ambitions, the holidaymakers – they’ve all left. One by one, the amenities are disappearing too. It’s obvious that some of the former café-bars there have closed. The buildings are falling into disrepair. The drapes drawn across the windows of others inform you that they’ve served for the last time. Long ago, Christopher Hutt wrote an insightful and prophetic book about public house closures in England called The Death of the English Pub. I don’t know if a similar work has been written about this phenomenon in northern France, but the pattern is being replicated here, some thirty years later. 

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And those same processes are taking place across Europe. The internet, retail parks, supermarkets, the privatisation of social life, the agglomeration of industry and jobs into the European core… the causes are multi-fold. Smaller communities Europe-wide have had the heart torn out of them. The spaces where village life would have taken place – the chapel, the bar, the games pitch – are public no longer. 

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Sail west from Armorica, then, and you reach America. The pun isn’t mine. It belongs to the master of wordplay and encryption, James Joyce. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” he wrote in the second sentence of Finnegans Wake, that great and impenetrable meditative word-game, “had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor…” As an Irishman, Joyce knew well the “scraggy isthmus” of Europe’s Celtic Fringe. He chose to live in Paris – arguably, as a great artist, it was essential that he worked out of one of the continent’s great cities – but he never stopped writing about Ireland. Those remote and rugged places lay claim to you and won’t let go. 

I’ve seen it happening from my own provincial patch of the writing universe. The Writing Den lies some fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. When I first started spending time out there, it had four bars. The Bar des Sports with its boules pitch is long gone, as is the crêperie and bar with its cast of reprobates. Last year, after several changes of ownership, the bar-restaurant that served as the local truck stop closed its doors.  Now only the Bar Tabac remains open. The post office, grocery, butcher’s, newsagent, hairdresser’s, children’s clothes shop and stores selling electrical appliances and gardening supplies have gone too. The depopulation adds to the quiet and charm. The ruins are charismatic. They increase the region’s hold over me. But I worry where this decline will lead, when it will end. It may not be the end of the world but it sometimes feels as though you arrived there. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

“Experimental Novel Wins Prize!”

10 Nov

Well, that’s an unlikely headline, isn’t it, at least, so one might have assumed until a Nobel Prize in Obscurantism and Difficulty is instituted, but I didn’t make it up, I just paraphrased, because Irish novelist, Mike McCormack – congratualations to him – has just won the recently launched (2013), £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize for his single-sentence novel, Solar Bones, published by recently founded (2014), Dublin-based Tramp Press, none of which I’d heard of before, I confess – not author nor prize or publisher – but all of which I shall have to investigate, and which offers hope that in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world not everything has to get worse, and to celebrate this post-Tramp world, I’m going to share the second part of my univocalic – the first part of which (Post-Hobo World) I published in my 2015 post, Is The Experimental Novel Dead?’, the third part of which is yet to come – summarising my current work-in-progress and following the abstract image below…

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Log on.  Scroll down.  Spool off.  Long story or short, my story’s thy story too.  Holy book by Doctor of Hymnody or Zoology, told of two by two, of wolf or fox, of sow or ox.  Look, storybooks for schoolboys or bookworms, for Psychology Dons, Profs of Mythology, for provost or proctor.  Story oft told of Mongol lords or monks’ swords, of trolls or scrolls, of North folk – Thor Godjonson, Otto von Rottsborg, Vyktor Rofdogsky – of boys too, of only sons, of cold loft rooms.  Toy loco rolls by wood-block town (sold by old boy from toyshop’s grotto, rosy chops, snowy locks – ho ho ho!).  From Szolnok to Nörköping, Tromso thro’ to Tomsk, Omsk down to Bonn…  Now clockwork robot stomps on clompy boots ‘cross wood-block floor of loft room… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Is the Experimental Novel Dead?

15 Sep

I note that Tom McCarthy is once again included on the short list for the Mann Booker Prize. He and David Mitchell are touted as the UK’s leading experimental novelists. I wrote before about my experience of reading McCarthy’s novel, ‘C’ and of being unable to finish it. I found its concern with a narrow band of characters from the upper middle class unengaging. In this, the book has far more in common with the work of William Boyd or Sebastian Faulks, it seems to me, than it does with that of Joyce or Beckett. And experimental? Hmm… The timidity of publishers in our dumbed down age stems directly from the industry’s domination by big, risk-averse corporations. I suspect innovative novels are being written out there but no publisher is willing to take a punt on them or the small returns that they might offer. From time to time, something interesting reaches these shores from abroad, a Roberto Bolaño, say, or Diego Marani and reminds us of what is possible. The experimental novel isn’t dead, then. It’s just being buried alive. 

We could draw a parallel with radio. Compare the conservative scheduling of a commercial station like Planet Rock (playing the same old songs by Status Quo and Deep Purple) with the new and interesting bands played on 6 Music. We’ll miss the BBC when it’s gone. New bands will continue to form and experiment but we won’t hear them. They’ll be ignored by Sky Radio 1 and Virgin 6 Music in favour of talent show winners rehashing easy listening from the 1970s. 

‘What genre do you write in?’ asked a new member of my writing group. ‘He writes in a genre of his own,’ remarked Stephen, a writer whom I’ve known for many years. I would make no great claims for the originality my work. I try to write books that I myself would wish to read. I’d describe my fiction as having an ‘experimental twist’ rather than being purely experimental in nature. I aim to intrigue the reader, not to alienate or infuriate him or her. I combine techniques that I’ve encountered in my reading and hope to create something new as a result. And I make no secret of the influence on my work of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and WG Sebald, among others, even if I’m not worthy to clean their metaphorical boots. 

An image from my latest manuscript - thank you, Herr Sebald

An image from my latest manuscript – thank you, Herr Sebald

If all fiction becomes backward-looking, harking back to the realist tradition of the nineteenth century or to tired genre stereotypes, cultural stagnation will surely result. We need the experimental novel, even those of us who do not read it. In the past, innovative fiction has renewed the mainstream. Think of the influence of Hemingway or Kafka. Without it, what will fiction have that television or film cannot offer? 

The extract that follows employs a univocalic. That’s hardly new, I know, but the device pushes your writing in interesting directions, forcing you to give up a little control…

Toomo Tork stows down on Box No. 15.  Toomo’s story follows. 

Locos – lots of locos! – roll by.  Tow tons of goods, stocks, so on or so forth.  Box No. 15 follows Box No. 14 follows Box No. 13… from Moscow to Oslo, Rostock thro’ to Porto, Stockholm down to Brno.  Look now.  Boozy old hobos, Olof or Oolf, hop on or off – Toomo too – go to or fro, got no work or odd jobs only – work on crofts or chop logs – short of food, knock off hooch or hock or scotch, croon songs on dobros of doom or gloom, ‘got no tomorrow, only sorrow’.  Crooks, clowns, snoops, so on or so forth, show ghostly photos of lost towns or sons, old dogs or smoky motors.  Locos roll on slowly thro’ frosty woods of dogwood, cob, broom, holly, thro’ hollow nooks, follow flow of cool stony brooks, by smoggy old towns, sooty lorry or loco works, by spooky ghost towns of low blocks (no doors, no roofs, no floors), roll on now, God only knows why.  Cows low on foggy moors – ‘Choo-choo!’  ‘Moo!’ – flocks of rooks or crows roost on rocky knolls, owls hoot from snowy rooftops, poor dogs howl, woof-woof, bow-wow… 

All words and images © PSR 2105

Writing a Novel: Thirty Days or Thirty Years?

15 Jun

I’ve ranted previously on this site about the idea that a novel worthy of reading might be completed in a matter of months (see post here). In particular, I objected to the premise of ‘National Novel Writing Month’ and its implication that a novel – or anything like one – might be written in thirty days. It took me six years to write my last novel. All manner of things happened in my life over the period. At times, it felt as though I’d always been writing that book. It’d have been convenient if it had appeared after a year – or indeed a month – fully formed, exactly as I’d imagined it. But it didn’t. It required an enormous expense of thought and toil, and was, to an extent at least, a pale copy of the fine work that I’d imagined. The idea that it might have been produced with a minimum of effort seems to me to be missing the point rather. And yet, six years, relatively speaking, is no time at all. I was listening the other day to A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 and one of the books chosen took the writer, the late Jeff Torrington, thirty years to write. Thirty years! From the ridiculous to the sublime…

And this was the case with not one Glaswegian writer but two. Torrington and his contemporary, Alasdair Gray, each spent the better part of thirty years producing their lengthy, complex début novels, Swing Hammer Swing and Lanark respectively. Young men when they began writing those works, they were deep into middle age (57 and 47) by the time that they were published. Think of the tenacity and self-belief that such an undertaking must have required. As I’ve related before, I abandoned a manuscript after seven years and it was a salutary lesson. And we’re all racked by doubts about our work from time to time. Imagine being 26 years, say, into a project and coming to the conclusion that it just doesn’t work. It must happen, I suppose. Torrington’s and Gray’s novels are both experimental to a degree and include games with language and the vernacular. I shall be discussing dialogue and monologue in a future post in my series on the experimental novel. It can all be traced back to Finnegans Wake. James Joyce laboured on his final work as his eyesight and health failed, from the dawn of Irish independence in 1922 to the advent of World War Two in 1939 – also a not inconsiderable commitment.

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Thirty years to bear fruit…

It took Hermann Hesse over a decade to write his magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game. And it took me half a life time to get around to finishing it, but finished it I have. I can report that I found it highly imaginative and ultimately worth the effort. Its major theme is the cost of dedicating oneself to the life of the mind, a subject to which anyone serious about writing can relate. I have to say that the ending came as something of a shock, even though I’d suspected something of the sort was coming. For all that it was drily cerebral at times, I found it deeply moving. I read it because games feature largely in both of my current projects. As it turns out, the game features in it hardly at all – and nor are there any glass beads. Ah, well…

I’m approaching the 50,000 word mark on the WIP that I’ve been writing for the last eight months. And when the first draft is complete, there’ll be much reworking to be done, no doubt, before I’ve produced the finished article. Hopefully though, the editing process won’t take me 29 years…

All text and image © PSR 2013

Experimental Fiction, Part Four: Constraint

24 Mar

Constraint in writing is nothing new. Blank verse with its strict rules on syllables per line, the sonnet with its fourteen lines divided into eight and six line stanzas (to which we shall return below), rhyme in itself – all are constraints. They distort language, forcing imagination to grow into new and potentially beautiful mutations.

The Oulipians were the masters of constraint. I’ve mentioned before co-founder, Raymond Queneau retelling the same simple story ninety-nine different ways in Exercises in Style and Oulipo wunderkind, Georges Perec writing an entire novel without the letter ‘E’ in La Disparation, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void (the first of his works that I read, and despite the brilliance of its execution, to my mind the weakest of his longer fictions) and then putting the ‘E’s back again in Les Revenentes, where they are the only vowels to appear.

The influence of the Oulipians has been felt in the English-speaking world. The American novelist, Walter Abish has dedicated a writing career to experimentation. Alphabetical Africa takes up the Oulipian challenge. In a variant on the lipogram and the acrostic, every word in the first chapter begins with an ‘A’. In the second chapter, ‘B’ is allowed also and so on until we reach the central chapter where there are no constraints. We then travel all the way back again to the final chapter where only words beginning with ‘A’ are permitted. The Canadian, Geoff Ryman set himself the challenge of writing 253 character sketches about passengers and the driver on a London underground train, each in 253 words. Unsurprisingly, then, he called the resultant book 253. Since the chapter/sketches are non-linear, they can, like B S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, potentially be read in any order. Originally published on the Internet, its hyperlinks allowed it more easily to be read in this way. In a haiku-like manner, the 253 words force Ryman to provide an insight for us into each character with great economy. Dan Rhodes – an English writer for whom I have much time – embarked on a similar project in Anthropology, in which 101 women that the narrator has known are each described in exactly 101 words. Over a decade later, Rhodes has written the follow-up, Marry Me, which I’ve yet to read.

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Like cultivars of fruit trees…

For myself, I have always made some use of such devices and was doing so long before I’d ever heard of the Oulipo. In my last work, for example, all 158 chapters had three-word titles beginning with the same three letters in the same order (not to mention the contents listing 158 false chapter headings governed by the same constraint). Like cultivars of fruit trees, the titles branched out in curious directions. The constraint forced unusual constructions in order to express the subject matter of each chapter using that limited palette of words. So we have Rigid Adherence Forced, for example, for a chapter about a character arrested by the military police for cowardice, a title that also expresses the self-imposed rule under which I was operating. In the false contents, it becomes Regulations Astringently Followed. Then there are the 85 anagrams of the book’s title with which sections begin. It’s madness, course, but thematic reasons lie behind it. Such techniques also push your mind into territory that it otherwise might not explore. And besides, it keeps you out of mischief of the real world variety…

...the titles branched out in curious directions

…the titles branched out in curious directions

Another interesting ruse, which I first encountered in the early writings of Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood, is the buried sonnet. Here, the writer composes a paragraph comprising fourteen sentences in which a concealed canonical sonnet – taken from Shakespeare, Donne or the like – is placed. In my abandoned State of England novel, I chose Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. In Sidney’s great work, the heroine is Stella. My leftist anti-hero, Elver Hodgkin is obsessed instead with Stalin. I leave you with a passage from it. A prize awaits the first reader to identify the sonnet buried within Hodgkin’s speech.

Elver Hodgkin is nearing the peak of another great oration, scaling the snow-capped heights of Stalinist rhetoric in a carefully scripted speech:

“Big Brother, dear comrades, defended hate, because like Marx, grown blacker in his love, with deadly shot had killed the circling dove to keep the peace in that first workers’ state. The boss refused, he feared the Marxist state, which threatened strikes, if push should come to shove: and just in case put steel inside his glove – break strikes, break skulls – where comrades manned the gate…”

As he speaks the neatly trimmed, tangerine art-beard wobbles about on his chin like an orange on the surface of a bowl of water in a Victorian party game. His right hand chops the air to emphasize each point that he makes; the left fiddles around inside his trousers. He is holding forth on the connexion between the CCCP and CCTV:

“Still the police camera is filming it, in Stalin’s brows it sees two hooded crows, and in his eyes the TV’s closed circuit. So now at you he peeps, somehow he knows, and sure enough, like Macbeth in that play, tears to shreds all that might get in his way.”

It is a pity that there is no-one to hear him in the front room of the rented house in Dog Lane.

All text and images © PSR 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…

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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…

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…or viewed backwards

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