It’s always nice to get recognition; so much of what we do as writers is solitary, theoretical, awaiting the completion of another’s perception. We wrestle with the old philosophical saw about the tree falling in a forest: if no-one hears it, is it real? Deep down, it’s every writer’s fear. Michael Chabon describes writing as a secret handshake that only makes sense in the presence of another; writing is a concept that needs to be received to be whole. Like love; the alchemy requires another consciousness: one won’t do. When something we write is noticed and applauded, it’s a kind of magic. It can be the subtle kind, or it can be on the David scale (Blaine, Copperfield). The only thing to remember is that it’s real. The truth is that it was always real, but writers being what they are sometimes just need to be told. And so to the wonderful folks at Leaf Books, in Wales. With great kindness and generosity, in a recent Blog competition, they selected one of my posts as being commended: Subtle Fractures, from last year. They also published this post on their Showcase Website. Yes, I think they are lovely. The blog itself is a fragment of the writing world that I am building, word by line, chapter by book, novel by screenplay. All writers are building their own worlds – we love the control – and when a little piece of our world shines with another’s praise, we feel a little warmer inside. Thank you, Leaf Books, for shining a light into my little corner of the blogosphere. Sometimes the satellites sent forth by the publishing gatekeepers detect our remote fictional worlds and report their findings, sending their signals back to the citadel. That brief transmission, that subtle pulse of acknowledgement, can make all the difference.
It takes a certain state of mind to never settle, never accept; to always move onwards, deconstructing the past to make something never seen before. A certain kind of ruthlessness. To be new all the time is a fierce position to take. Constantly remaking your world is not an easy thing. Writers, painters, musicians, TV execs, all face the challenge of reinvention; sustaining relevance. Take Californication’s third season: it’s darker and more complicated, rougher than before. Its beautiful soul, in the form of Natasha McElhone, has drifted to the periphery of the show, at least for now. Without its soul it is lost somehow but still has its wayward charm, despite the rawness, the darkness. You fear for it, like you would fear for a charming alcoholic with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The intelligence and wit are there, but with more of an edge, a presence of rage beneath the surface. It’s like a Kris Kristofferson blues, a Warren Zevon comedown lament. Like days ending. The sky darkens, the night brings rain, whispering on the surface of our minds. Massive Attack’s new EP is that whisper. It’s a remixed promo for a forthcoming album – remixing the future this time – a pensive set of tracks. Beauty and loneliness in peripheral vision, half-dreaming. It’s a quiet yearning, an aching that never seems to stop. Much less quiet, disrupting the night with sound and fury, is Jay-Z, whose Blueprint 3 was recently released to a roar of critical approval, and the #1 spot – his 11th. It’s a monument to the relentless pursuit of being the best, the newest, the one and only contender; the Ali of rap, the Beyonce of pop. The album is like a triple-triple-espresso in every beat, like the sentences in James Ellroy’s latest opus, Blood’s A Rover; brutal, condensed violence, densely packed yet overarching, epic – it has much in common with Blueprint 3. This Jay-Z of novelists went so deep into the darkness of his characters to feel them truthfully that he lost himself in a breakdown. It’s the ongoing theme – the danger of journeying into the dark for art. Fortunately Ellroy made it back; truly a giant of American fiction, of any fiction – looming over the literary landscape. The U2 of fiction, towering like the Alien Claw set on U2’s current tour. The monstrous structure rising out of Giants Stadium like a mothership about to lift off, past the intense line of the Manhattan night skyline ripping the night alive, heading away from NYC into a shimmering oceanic density of thousands of glittering lights. The entire structure rippling thousands of times a second with light roaring majestically into space. It’s philosophically astute, this Spaceship set. It shocks you out of your usual ways of experiencing and your perceptual expectations like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, opening your mind to the pure, unmediated experience; what you “know” set aside in favor of what is. Exhilaration, over the top, like the skyline, too beautiful to be real; an empire state of mind. All writers need this state of mind over their own literary kingdoms. We need to build our spaceships and not be afraid to take off. Vision. Vertigo. The two often go hand in hand. Creating the blueprints for the future to rise alongside the skylines we’ve already made. Always hustling, looking for the greatest line, the most perfect four minute song, or riff, or story, or novel. Each one must be the best, better than the last, better than the rest. “I move onward, the only direction, can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection,” raps Jay-Z in On To The Next One. What joins them all is the bold vision that deconstructs what went before and refashions the future according to their creativity, their souls. Like Lady GaGa deconstructing pop to build the mezzo architecture of Paparazzi, then deconstructing Poker Face into a metallic heliosphere and her own unprocessed voice, dizzyingly, exhilaratingly pure, her naked voice the most beautiful it has ever sounded, as though through the metal and light she’s revealing her soul to us with eerie intensity. Like the Weather Project, like U2’s mothership, the lights and fury and sheer unexpectedness of it all shock our perceptual framework sideways and then we experience unmediated exactly what the artist wants us to. With Lady GaGa, it’s her lonely, lovely voice that strips back the meaning of the song and rebuilds it again. U2 do it with I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, utterly dismantling the song and retrofitting it into a pusling techno behemoth that could only exist beneath the Claw. Ellroy does it in Blood’s A Rover, attacking and restacking his narrative style. This might be the mark of the truest artist; they can fragment what came before into something new and beautiful, then deconstruct and remix their own creations into futuristic, stripped back yet magnificent new versions. Striving for the new, finding a new visual, verbal or musical language, a new language of movement in choreography; new ways of moving us and touching our souls. Like Michael Chabon’s Trickster In A Suit Of Lights, the exuberantly talented mischief-maker who exists in the spaces between the things we know. Bono embodies this literally during Ultraviolet towards the end of the show, in his suit covered with red laser-like lights, hundreds of red lines piercing the blue otherworldy glow around him with chaotic geometry. The Trickster looks for the action in the borders between things, the places where new directions take form; this is where U2 dwell, more experimental and progressive than many give them credit for. After two straight-up rock albums, they returned with a quietly ruminative piece, from which they launched one of the biggest rock tours of all time, journeying around the planet in their Spaceship/Alien Claw creation, bringing out of the hushed quiet of No Line on The Horizon the behemoth of the 360 tour. True tricksters (in the best sense) of hearts and minds.
“I’m going in for the kill, I’m doing it for the thrill…” La Roux
This played before the U2 show, as the sun set beyond Giants Stadium, a cool breeze flowed around the massive set and 84,000 people slowly appeared, the crowd intensifying as the sky grew dark and Muse unleashed their stadium-sized post-apocalyptic bombast via screaming, squalling brutal guitar riffing, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto prophecies ringing out loud and clear as the band roared out from beneath. Then the lights went out, U2 lit up, and for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the future came back through a massive rift in the time-space music continuum, spinning and flashing wildly, a close encounter with a future state of mind, an empire state of mind.
“As the variety of the environment magnifies in both time and space and the structures that were thought to describe the operation of the world become progressively more unworkable, other concepts of organization must become current” – Brian Eno
“One story just isn’t enough… I think I’ll keep going until every sentence is a different story” – Michael Cunningham
What makes a novel, a novel? What makes it “one thing,” one cohesive object? How disparate can a work’s elements be for it still to be considered a novel? These questions come to my mind as I read and reread my novel, because it began life as a short story, and then another, and another… until suddenly I had a whole book of stories focused on the same characters, their lives, their places – in one way, it contains multiple emotional trajectories, but in another, more profound way, it’s one trajectory, one “moment.” All the stories, or chapters, weave together as the one story progresses to a conclusion (of sorts). So, it’s a novel. As I thought about it more, I realized that this a scene that has been quietly developing: works published as novels that may be collections of stories in disguise. I trace it back to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, back in ’99. Published to great acclaim as a novel, the connections between each chapter are minimal. It does not fully involve the same people, places, emotions or atmospheres. It’s disparate, diverse. In Tessa Hadley’s Accidents In The Home, published in 2002, the fault lines are much more subtle – the chapters involve the same characters at least, but in different times, different situations, far away from each other. Michael Cunningham took this further in Specimen Days, published in 2005: it features the same set of characters in the same city (New York), but in three completely different times (the past, the present and the future), and in different incarnations of themselves (human, android, alien). It could be three novellas, or one novel, depending on your preferred perspective. We’ll leave aside the marketing and commercial perspective for now, save to note that publishing something as novel is clearly commercially more viable (interesting though that this commercial imperative creates these hybrid works). In 2006, David Mitchell (having published Cloud Atlas in 2004) returned with Black Swan Green, which he described as thirteen stand-alone stories that happened to be a novel. It’s fascinating, this crossing of the lines. This is where the energy is. Michael Chabon, in a precise and cogent essay entitled “Trickster In A Suit Of Lights,” references Lewis Hyde’s notion of the Trickster, the maverick creative spirit that resides in the borders between between genres; the intersections of the known forms of writing. “The Trickster goes where the action is,” writes Chabon, “and the action is in the borders between things.” The Trickster dwells at the threshold, the crossroads, the places where new directions take form. Chabon urges writers to uncover “the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore.” Once we step outside of what we think we know about genres and structures, interesting things can happen. Once we realize that what we used to consider “a novel” is changing, we can discover beautiful things, wonderful possibilities, like those brought to light by Mitchell, Hadley and Cunningham. How contiguous does a novel really have to be? Could its ‘novel-ness’ be an emergent quality from a swirling mass of narratives? There are underlying, hidden structures, felt rather than seen, that can allow a diverse collection to be considered “one thing.” If we look to other artforms, it seems easier: an album is really a collection of songs, but is seen as one coherent item. Maybe if we think of these fractured novels as concept albums, we’ll have an easier time of it. Maybe the individual stories are movements in a symphony. It seems as though we need a new philosophical landscape for the novel; we need to move, as Brian Eno describes, from definitions that are fixed, to definitions that are “multiple, shifting, blurred, experimental and adaptive.” Theories are stories, theorists are storytellers, and existing hierarchies are comfortable fictions. It seems that it’s just a story we tell ourselves at this point in time, that this is a novel, and that is a short story collection. We can tell new and different stories about what we consider to be novels. As Chuck Palahniuk has said, “any long story, any novel, is just a collection of short stories.” Our whole world (“one thing”) is of course a collection of many stories. Our consicousnesses are a blend of all the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and why we did this, or that. Our “consciousness,” which we think of as one unbroken flowing thing, is a beautiful emergent quality of many millions of things. Once you explore beneath what Michel Faber calls the “narrative exteriors,” any number of wonderful things might be happening. It’s incredibly exciting to me that a book could be a novel and a collection of stories at the same time, that we can not just be held to one linear definition, but can move to quantum states of multiple ideas coexisting in the same space; novels evolving in fluid motion over time, into newer forms.