I’m honoured and delighted to have been longlisted for the Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award 2016. Here is the full longlist.
Archive for May, 2016
There’s something about Toby Litt that’s like chewing on tinfoil. He’s like a casual acquaintance or work colleague that you run into a little too often: someone who doesn’t do or say anything actively wrong, but nevertheless leaves you with a faint sense of annoyance in his wake. I’ve read a couple of his books. Beatniks was fantastic, and haunting, and I can still recall its last line today. Finding Myself – a country-house mystery done as a novel-within-a-novel – was innovative and entertaining but ultimately had no story to it. There’s an affect of affectless in Litt, and quite a few other UK literary writers as well. You sense a coldness: not quite Chekhov’s chip of ice, but a quiet, immutable self-satisfaction.
I saw Litt once at an event in Manchester. He made great play against what he calls a ‘faux-naif style… the idea that you can be at a funeral and only grieving and not thinking about how you look, how you come across.’ Maybe I misunderstood his point – and I’m quoting from memory over some years – but I remember thinking that not everyone is rationally self conscious and self reflexive absolutely all the time. If they were, the world would be a more orderly place (and we might find less to write about in it).
Litt’s recent article about writing says all the right things. The majority of writing is really quite bad. Bad writers are self obsessed, and take criticism badly. There’s no great conspiracy to publishing. Gatekeepers exist because the impact of reading bad writing is so time consuming and soul destroying. Just because your girlfriend likes your stuff, doesn’t mean the world will. Litt says this, and it’s true. He even has a great line: ‘To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.’
And yet and but and all things considered – I do find things to argue with in Litt’s piece (don’t I always?) For a start, that ‘bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue.’ I agree that one should wear one’s politics lightly (and haven’t always taken my own advice) but if you write well enough, it’ll transcend your convictions. Upton Sinclair, for example, nailed the Chicago meatpackers to the wall in effortless prose. Uncle Tom’s Cabin reads a little melodramatic today but near started the Civil War. Authors in totalitarian states must find ever more inventive ways of writing well at all, because even in the digital age the secret police are afraid of good writing and will come down hard on it, as countless Saudi and Bangladeshi bloggers could attest. (Shahriar Mandanipour’s 2009 novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a brilliant satire on the loop fiction writers must jump through to get anything published while avoiding arrest.) And yet Litt also writes that stories are not timeless because ‘historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular moment.’ Arguably so – and that particular moment has political and economic systems as well as cars, buildings and brand names.
Litt also says that ‘the most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call excuse writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ The ‘excuse writer’ is a hard concept to pin down, but Litt gives some examples: ‘Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou’. These are ‘writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ What I think Litt means (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) is this: that many famous writers operated on an apparent irrationality and so it’s a danger for bad writers to tap into that irrationality as a short cut to success. ‘If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.’
But I wonder if charm is all there really is to the legacies of these writers. When I think of authors I still admire and reread – Henry Miller, Peter Straub, Roth, Highsmith, Parker, Houellebecq, Donna Tartt, Vonnegut, King – they were all flawed and sometimes degenerate, but they had passion. Kerouac’s work was a tragic mess but there is passion and memorability in the mess that makes it worth rereading. Atwood is a supremely rationalist writer, but she has passion (‘context is all, or is it ripeness?’) You need to be serious and disciplined, but if serious and disciplined is all you are, why not design IT systems (and make a lot more money)? In their article on DFW, twenty years after the late novelist’s classic essay on irony, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll looked at the old soul lyric (‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow… Glory Hallelujah’) and quote Cornell West on it: ‘Going to struggle anyway. Cut against the grain anyway. Never view oneself as a spectator but always as a participant.’ The passion. Amen.
Again, though, Litt can’t make up his mind. ‘Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn,’ he writes – and then: ‘Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’ Good writers think: ‘This is being written.” Too much doubt and humility – and then not enough. Critiquing Litt is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. And yet if you are career focused this article is probably all good advice… however (to continue Litt’s marvellous circus metaphor) your career will be a tightrope of self consciousness and self reflexiveness.
And sometimes you will yearn to jump off the tightrope and dive into the carnival.
Let’s face it, there’s something liberating about the apocalypse – that’s why end-times literature sells so well. Imagine being able to walk around a near-deserted shopping precinct and loot all the latest electricals. Imagine singing bad karaoke to an empty O2 Arena. Imagine the peace and speed of the morning commute. With no work at the end of it. There is something endearing about the apocalypse – and perhaps no more so than in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims.
In Fagan’s end-times book the catastrophe is caused not by plague or zombies but plain old cold. Fagan has the rare gift of being able to write about climate change in a way that is realistic but not didactic. The radio says: The entire planet is being impacted upon by the collapse of intricate weather systems that are vital to survival… As of today, the Prime Minister has released a statement saying people must stop panicking, but it seems the public do not agree. It sounds like exposition, but it doesn’t read that way. Fagan’s story is set in the remote Scottish town of Clachan Falls. The local Ikea becomes a food depot, news crews show up in town, a man freezes to death, the sun goes down at four, then three, then half two, darkness swallows the earth. There is panic on the radio but not in the story. Although there is the familiar argument that every now and again the planet needs a break from humanity – Fagan’s theory is that the ice age is a kind of insurance against our troublesome genus – people don’t stand around asking why such terrible things are happening and what does it all mean. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s right here, and the people of Clachan Falls bear it philosophically. The Sunlight Pilgrims has the tone of a very cold, dark January evening spent indoors with a bottle of wine and Beth Orton on the stereo.
The main focus is on the characters. Dylan is an arthouse picture house owner fleeing creditors in Soho, who reaches the Clachan trailer park because his mother had strange roots there. Stella is a teenage kid looking to transition (the topic of male-to-female gender reassignment is handled with great sympathy and style) Constance, her mother, who never married but had alternate relationships with two other trailer park men who are still very much part of the equation. It’s a fascinating landscape, but Fagan is at her best when she just lets her characters talk. ‘We know that dark matter is all around us in the universe, if we can even feel it out there,’ Stella says, ‘and as we all know, goths have a direct line to any source of authentic darkness’. So does Jenni Fagan.
They’re talking about making a movie of The Dark Tower cycle, Stephen King’s fantasy epic. I think Idris Elba is a fascinating choice for Roland (after all, John Luther and Stringer Bell were both gunslingers of a kind) but can Elba and Matthew McConaughey save the Tower from the curse of Stephen King adaptations? I think you would need a multi-series HBO or Netflix deal to really do it justice so I am not hopeful. But we will always have the books.
If exiled to the Radio 4 desert island and told I could bring one book, I would choose the Dark Tower cycle. True, it arguably doesn’t get going until Jake finally makes it back to Mid-World in The Waste Lands. True, the Tower books have unfortunate longeurs, maddening self-reference and quirky little New Englandisms that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. But there’s something about the world in these books that makes you feel you’re actually walking around in it. King began the cycle as a college student of the early 1970s. He didn’t get to the final finishing sprint in the early 2000s at a time where everything else he wrote showed signs of a tired and flagging talent. But the last three Tower books are still gold. His heart never quite left the trail.
There’s a point in the story where Roland compares his world to the wreck of a ship – things are washed upon the shore, and float upon the surface, and these random objects might give you a sense of something greater, but they aren’t comprehensive. It’s the best way to world build, and it’s what makes the Tower cycle so compulsive. Roland – if I may give the overview – is the last of a knight caste that plays the role of soldier, strategist and diplomat in a civilisation now in ruins. Roland’s quest is to reach the Dark Tower, which holds up the universe, and is under attack from an evil project led by the Crimson King, whose forces are trying to break the six cosmic beams that hold the Tower up. The King’s men have been at this for years, working across centuries and a multiplicity of universes, using monsters, vampires and dummy corporations. We don’t know the Red King’s motivations: he’s a crazy demon who acts seemingly on pure nihilism. As Ted Brautigan says: ‘Do they see the lethal insanity of a race to the brink of oblivion, and then over the edge? Apparently not. If they did, surely they wouldn’t be racing to begin with. Or is it a simple failure of imagination? One doesn’t like to think such a rudimentary failing could bring about the end, yet…’
As a result of the Beam’s gradual weakening, society is destroyed by war and revolution, time and distance grow hazy, even the elementary concepts of reality wear down as holes open in the fabric of the universe. The books are filled with instances of decay: grey and sluggish bees, crawling orderlessly around a broken hive; a version of New York rotted into civil war; a robot outside a purpose-built brothel screaming the same come-on over and over in an eternal synthes loop. Mid-World is full of technology, from electric lights to teleportation devices, left behind by the ‘Old People’ – maybe King’s word for an age of science that has long passed – but half of this technology doesn’t work and what remains is incomprehensible to the point of uselessness. ‘Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces,’ Roland says. Exhaustion. Deterioration. Degeneration. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.
As an official guardian of order, Roland wants to get to the Tower so he can save it, and put a stop to all this unraveling gloom. But he also wants to get to the Tower so he can see it. Go through the field of singing roses and climb the spirals of the Tower and see what’s at the top. It’s his obsession – and it strikes me now how much of the Tower cycle is about obsession and addiction: Nort chomping on devil-grass, Eddie the heroin addict, Balazar with his towers of cards, Calvin’s books, Rhea’s glass, even King’s own alcoholism and drug-fiending is touched upon. Roland himself draws followers easily. As well as the gun he has the sideline talent of hypnotism. But his comrades tend to come to bad ends. Roland himself is like a drug, one that kills.
It’s made all too clear in the final volume. At first The Dark Tower is a fun book, with Roland and his gunslingers taking on the bad guys of Algul Siento. Then Eddie falls – and his death is just the beginning. One by one each well-loved character hits the clearing. It’s a crescendo of sadness with Roland struggling on towards the Tower, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early on in this book, the spider-prince Mordred traps a billy-bumbler (sort of a cat-dog species with a limited vocal ability) and gets ready to eat it. The bumbler sends a sad plea for clemency – please let me live; I want to live have fun play a little; don’t hurt me – to no avail: Mordred chomps the poor creature into pieces. Close by, another bumbler, gunslinger mascot Oy, senses it: ‘Somewhere close by, one of his kind had died… but dying was the way of the world; it was a hard world and always had been.’ Delah. So it goes. You’re even a little sorry to see Walter o’Dim check out.
Part of this glammer though is the ironic glammer of postmodernism. Parts of Mid-World are damn near recycled. There’s a guardian of the Beam named after a Richard Adams novel. The mad factions of Lud kill each other to a ZZ Top riff they call the ‘god-drums’. The Crimson King’s villains travel through time and the multiverse, get their kicks from watching 9/11 and the Lincoln assassination, and make deadly weapons based on the ‘snitch’ from the Harry Potter Quidditch game. Stephen King himself has a supporting role. ‘You started as a version of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name,’ he tells Roland. So much of the story depends on text and interpretation and representation. The metafictional King saves Roland and Susannah from a tricksy vampire by means of a carefully placed note saying: ‘RELAX! HERE COMES THE DEUS EX MACHINA!’ The Crimson King is destroyed by the artist Patrick Danville by the expedient of drawing and then erasing him. So much of it all comes down to creation and artistry. Glammer. Roland says of Stephen King that ‘I’ve met talespinners before, Jake, and they’re all cut more or less from the same cloth. They tell tales because they’re afraid of life.’
So there’s plenty of metafiction here, but none of it’s self conscious. You still feel the magic and the glammer. King revisited the Dark Tower series in 2011 with The Wind Through the Keyhole – a kind of add on that doesn’t really extend the story but has a draw all of its own. The protagonist in this one, Tim Stoutheart, searching for a cure for his blind mother, follows a beautiful fairy into the forest: he later discovers that the fairy was an agent of Walter o’Dim explicitly trying to get him lost and confuse him. He later discovers half a dozen billy-bumblers sitting on a felled tree, sniffing the air for a storm. ‘They were, he thought, far more beautiful than the treacherous Armaneeta, because the only magic about them was the plain magic of living things.’ In this line is the honest appeal of King’s Tower. The touch of other worlds.