It was a real thrill to hear Armistead Maupin read from his new novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. In fact, it was spellbinding. It was like being in a room with all his characters, all rolled up into this one extremely funny, lovable, compassionate, quick-witted, joyfully acerbic man.
Maupin’s books are a roly-poly mix-up of Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Jackie Collins and a weekend at Burning Man. With their silly, sometimes preposterous, plots (it was funny to hear him talk about the plots he discarded along the way – glitter killer, anyone?) and campy subculture referents, the Tales of the City novels might have been too outrageous to become popular. But the books succeed and endure because they are about people – ordinary, dysfunctional, flawed, funny people – and Maupin makes us care about them.
It was clear to see from the audience reaction just how much Maupin’s stories matter to people, and what a difference he has made in their lives. It’s fantastic to be reminded what it is that writers actually do, and why we cannot survive without them. Writers like Armistead Maupin make the world a better place. Even if all we had to thank him for was the ‘twat cosy’ (which reduced a 300-strong audience to tears of helpless laughter) it would be a brilliant, unforgettable contribution.
The central premise of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful first book, Mountains of the Mind, is that the mountains we encounter are a strange almalgam of rock, stone, ice and our own imaginations. He suggests that mountains are formed (in some ways) as much by the drift of ideas as by the action of the continents brutally smashing into one another. By way of history he shows how, until the 17th century, Western people experienced mountains as rather ugly, almost a mistake on the part of God. Then Lyell came along and uncovered the deep, deep time of geology, and the mountains became a way to time-travel. And now: majestic, sublime, fearful, they are the places you go when you want to come face to face with your own extinction.
Macfarlane says that the gap between the mountain of one’s imagination, and the real mountain of rock and ice, is often a fatal one.
I think it’s possible to apply this theory to virtually every experience in life. We are always dancing this dance between what is real and what we have constructed in our imaginations. And what is real is also mediated through culture and performance, so as to make us feel that we have closed the gap, that we understand. But nobody understands a mountain. One cannot even see a mountain without the superimposition of one’s memory, ideas, science, visions and dreams layered over it like a transfer.
So it is, I think, with every event of nature, including people. We don’t see each other as we are. We cannot. We cannot see things as they are – there is no such thing-as-it-is. Not for us humans, no. Because we cannot experience anything without first filtering it through our minds, washing it out with soap and water, spinning it into something other. I think that is fundamentally what it is to be human: to impose a narrative upon the world. We turn everything into a story about us.
This gap between things as they really are and things as we believe them to be may be a dangerous one for mountaineers, but for writers, it is the source of something important. Macfarlane himself has written a book that makes use of this very gap, and he has created something that is not a history, nor a memoir, nor a scientific treatise, nor a fiction, but something in between all those things. Something interstitial. Something numinous, and wise, and transporting.
For speculative writers, this gap between what a thing is believed to be, and its true thing-ness, gives rise to what I would call the Weird. The interstitial, the liminal, the estranging, the unfamiliar, defamiliarising, jarring, disturbing… It’s not fantasy or science fiction – it’s not just ‘another world’. It is this world, at an angle. In one sense, it is absolutely as real as reality. But we agree that reality is not really real, not in the sense of things being as they are, and the Weird comes out of that gap between reality and story about reality, and makes the gap visible.
Philip K Dick once said that his project was to explore the question, ‘What is reality?’ In doing so, he had to go very deep into the gaps between things, so much so that he could even be called a fantasist or a madman. For me, this sums up the Weird. It is not an aesthetic, not a genre, even, but a willingness to dwell, imaginatively, in the uncertain gap between fiction and reality.
When I think of California, I picture a family sitting around a table in a riotous garden. Big avocados and glasses of cold white wine. I think of a friend, a writer, who lives there now. I think of the sea, and mountains, and the sound of car doors slamming. The sun always shining. And I think about Philip K Dick dropping out of… everything. He started writing professionally in 1952. ‘Professionally’ means he made money at it. He wrote a lot of books. People say Philip K Dick wasn’t much of a writer, that his books were pulpy and his prose flat. They are often right. But I always thought he was amazing. I always thought he was a genius.
When I first started reading PKD, no one really gave a fuck about him. That’s changed a bit these days, perhaps thanks to Bladerunner, and thanks to the growing popularity of science fiction in general. I’m not sure that PKD’s work really counts as sci fi, though. A sub-genre, maybe. I guess it doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. It goes along its own weird trajectory – his visions of the future and life on Mars are uniquely flavoured, and more often than not are centred on lonely outsiders who, try as they might, are utterly at odds with the rest of the world, whatever that world may be.
What I like most about Philip K Dick’s books is the instability of reality. In the worlds he creates, the rug can be ripped from under your feet at any time. Time can flip back, turn inside out. You may not be who you think you are. Drugs are doorways into other dimensions. And when you think you are safe, you are not safe. And everything you think you know is an illusion.
If I had to choose one writer who has influenced my writing more than any other, it would be PKD. His themes and ideas are the ones I keep coming back to, over and over, pulling at the threads.
When I was a kid, I read three or four books a day. I really loved to read. I read every book in the house. Then I read every book in the school library, and then I read every book in the kids’ section at the public library. I got hold of books that were way too old for me – but they didn’t seem to do me any harm, probably because they went right over my head. I had no idea that Henry Miller was even writing about sex, for instance, and I thought that Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward was quite a good story about a man who wasn’t very well.
I’ve slowed down (and wised up?) a bit since then, but still get through two, three or more books a week. Yet it’s increasingly rare for for me to find myself utterly in love with a book.
Then, last weekend, it happened. I was travelling to Birmingham from Edinburgh, a journey of just over four hours. I had my kindle with me and opened a book I’d found whilst browsing online. Four hours later, I’d barely looked out of the window. I had been transported to another world. Yes! That’s what’s supposed to happen! (But it hardly ever does.)
The next day, coming back, I finished the book with three hours of my journey still to go. And then I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done, in all my years of reading, which was to turn immediately back to the beginning and start again.
The book in question is Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. It put me in mind of Louise Erdrich and John Irving, if those two had collaborated on a novel about an intersex baby in a remote and hostile Labrador town. There were parts of it that I thought were a bit silly and over-simplistic, but the language completely drew me in, and the amazing setting kept me absolutely fascinated. There’s something about cold, harsh landscapes that make them perfect settings for stories about love and family, ritual and weakness. And there’s something wonderful about being shown a whole new world through the pages of a book.
In one of the more hilarious moments of my life, I recently discovered that I am living underneath a troupe of Australian acrobats. I found this out when I went upstairs to politely enquire about the tremendous stamping/thumping/crash-bang-walloping noises they were making. WHAT ARE YOU, GIANTS? ARE YOU SUMO-WRESTLERS? ARE YOU JUST THROWING EACH OTHER AROUND THE ROOM? (I ever-so-politely asked.)
Actually yes, they said. The last one.
After I stopped laughing, they gave me a couple of free tickets to their show, so this afternoon a friend and I went along to see it. I knew it would be good, because acrobats and circuses are always thrilling. We sat right at the front, crowded around the few square metres of performance space.
“It’s audience participation,” I joked to my friend. “Can you remember how to do a forward roll?”
The acrobats started with a bit of fun skipping-and-stripping, but soon got into the serious business of DEFYING GRAVITY. They held each other in the air, balancing on hands, heads, shoulders. They climbed up each other’s bodies to reach the ceiling. I had my hands over my mouth most of the time, thinking there was no way I could be seeing what I was seeing.
In one particularly mesmerising section, two of the guys balanced on one another, whilst the sole female acrobat stepped and climbed over them. The game was that she couldn’t touch the ground. Wherever she stepped, there had to be a hand or a thigh or a head or something to hold her off the floor. This was a beautiful piece which not only showed the strength and coordination of these athletes, but also the depth of their connection to one another. There was something very humane and touching in seeing them move almost like one extraordinary body.
The most incredible piece, however, was the finale, in which the guys literally threw the woman around the space in a sequence that became ever more impossibly wonderful. She leapt from their hands, spiraling through the air, to land on other hands. She flew like a bird. There was always an edge of danger, a sense that they might just drop her (but of course they never did). Afterwards, my friend and I both had the same thought – how many times must they have flung her off into empty space before they perfected this routine? And how crazily talented she was, how focused, and how strong.
I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like this before. Having said that, whilst they were doing an intense bout of backflips, I did think to myself that I’d heard something like this before. I’m pretty sure they do that in their living room. It would explain a lot. Of course, my first (proud) words to my friend upon leaving were, “They’re my neighbours, you know.”
If you’re in Edinburgh, go and see them! The show is called ‘Gravity and Other Myths’ and is on every day at the Gilded Balloon (Teviot).
(And yes, before anyone shouts at me, I *am* supposed to be writing a novel and I *will* get right back to it, this second. Jeez.)
The Flame Alphabet may be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. The fact that it is beautifully written only adds to the nasty queasy feeling one is left with at the end. The sense of being made complicit in a series of cruel acts. I’ve never read a book which contains so much that is wrong and off and weird in the most unpleasant ways. Oh, but it is brilliant.
The subject of the novel is language. When language becomes toxic and lethally unspeakable, unhearable, and unreadable, all relationships fall apart, and love itself becomes impossible. Society breaks down, and the post-apocalyptic world is characterised by an inhuman desperation to re-connect with one another. That’s a very basic summary of the plot. The strangeness of the setting, the twisted Heath Robinson-esque contraptions deployed by the narrator in his efforts to cure himself of language illness, the secret cult of the Forest Jews who listen to sermons through flesh-like ‘listeners’ attached to cables underneath the earth, the scripts and signs that are also diseased – this all makes for a very odd novel full of thematic richness. But the most disturbing elements of the book are to do with parenthood, with fatherhood, to be precise. And in many ways, the novel is traditional – it has a protagonist and a plot, a beginning, middle and end. Yet there is something absolutely surreal and estranging about the writing that washes you up somewhere very far from home.
This novel made me feel slightly sick, if I’m honest. I appreciate that this is a meta-message – language is toxic – but mainly, I just feel a bit ill.
Everything that Sarah Hall writes is luminous with genius. Her fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, concerns the intertwining lives of four people, disconnected by place and time. Their stories take place adjacent to one another, are intimately connected, but never share the same temporal geography. For all its vibrancy and currency, its earthy people and gripping stories, this book is essentially a meditation on the nature of art. There is an exuberant and joyful celebration of the inner life of the artist, a basking in the mysteries, a revelling in beauty. It is a book full of love and loving, not at all cynical, alive with feeling.
There is something magical, too, in the way that Sarah Hall traces chains of coincidence and synchronicity: connections that are subtle, too oblique to be noticed, but which exert their power nonetheless on each of the characters’ lives. The people in this book are defiantly, irresistibly alive. Their deaths are tragedies, and yet, as the clever structure of the novel suggests, their deaths are not the end of them. In the perspective of the novel, art is life, and art survives death.
Hall’s writing in her first novel, Haweswater, put me very much in mind of Alan Garner and, sometimes, Ted Hughes. She understands the landscape intimately, physically, historically, and her people in Haweswater seem to rise out of the land, seem to be hewn from rock themselves. How to Paint a Dead Man is a more polished novel, more sure-footed and wider-ranging, but it still has that same organic, natural magic. There is something wildly exciting about writing that is so confident, so daring, so unafraid of its own themes and emotions. If you want a novel that makes you feel brave about writing, I recommend this one.
Reading Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet was an incredible experience. I read it in an afternoon, sitting in the kitchen with the dog asleep at my feet, and rain beating against the window. Not that I was aware of my surroundings for long. The voices in those pages spoke directly to me, called me into their world, and I was drawn completely inside – or rather outside, or elsewhere: this beautiful dark rough nature.
This book is an evocation of feeling, it compels the reader to inhabit the language and be overtaken by it. Nothing happens for the sake of show in Garner’s writing, but each image is organic, profoundly simple, dense with meaning, mysterious, and true. His magic is steeped in physical history, in the landscape, in the intimate connection between humans and the land we live from. The knowledge passed down through generations, which encompasses the true nature of the material, and works with it in precise, sympathetic, patient, intuitive ways. Crafting yourself so you can do the work without fear.
Garner’s craft is fluid, natural, timeless. His craft is to find the seam of magic running deep under everything. His infallible mastery of language is necessary in order to bring these old true stories back from the mists of time.
Unless words are metaphor, they are dead. You will find this wherever you come across a jargon, which is a valid construct stripped of ambiguity in order to communicate matters precisely, simply and beyond misunderstanding. The words are not elegant and have no literary value. They serve, but never dictate.
What we need to follow, then, is the ambiguous, the strange, the nonsensical. There is no urgent need to worry about making sense. What we must do is make strange.
A work of art is a dream. For all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous. A dream never says, “You must”, or, “This is truth”. It presents an image. To grasp its meaning, we must let it shape us as it shaped the writer. Then we also understand the nature of his experience. He has plunged into the healing and redeeming depths of the unconscious, where we are not lost in the isolation of consciousness, but where all are caught in a common rhythm that allows the individual to communicate feelings and strivings to mankind as a whole.
This connection to one another, deep in the heart of this dream, where all is strange and obscure — is where we find the hidden magic of our lives. And that’s what art is for, to serve that connection and to increase its vibrancy and power.
For some reason, my book love has grown huge again of late. It may simply be a symptom of my gradual return to decent health after a few years of battling with various conditions that left me depressed, depleted and utterly exhausted. My brain has started to work a bit, my neurons are getting sparky, something is going on… and I have more excitement and enthusiasm about reading than I’ve had for years.
At the same time, some of the authors I’ve clung to with fierce loyalty over the years now seem a little… well… Dull. Jejune. Unoriginal. I’ve always read widely and in all genres, but it’s still been difficult at times to find books I really care about. Books that I want to live in and eat and make clothes out of. But right now (thanks to your recommendations) I’ve got a stack of eight new books in front of me and I’m excited about all of them.
One of them is Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I have high hopes for this novel, mainly because I just finished reading The City and the City. Which blew my mind. Talk about a book I want to live in! I found it such a startling and remarkable idea, such an extraordinary metaphor for what it is to be human. How we unsee and unhear and unsense that which doesn’t fit comfortably with our understanding. How we live in fear of ‘breaching’ the standards of normal behaviour, going too far. And how almost everything interesting and meaningful in life happens in the interstices, the places inbetween. The setting is the story in this novel, in a very direct way, and if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to give too much away. But you must read it. It is wildly brilliant.
It made me think a lot about setting in story, something I’ve blogged about before. In The City and the City, the story could only happen in that particular setting. In other words, the setting is integral to the plot, characters and narrative, and provides much of the imagery and language of the novel. A genuinely well thought out setting can do all that and more. In this case, it delivers a profoundly satisfying and coherent narrative. Although I felt the novel had some faults, some boundaries it wouldn’t breach, so to speak, it still worked beautifully, meaningfully, on every level. I found myself thinking about it for days, captivated by the oddness of the ideas, and wondering how on earth it would unravel. That was all because of the extraordinary setting (and, of course, Mieville’s great skill and talent at putting it to work.)
I think that setting is a rather under-appreciated element of storytelling, and one that we ignore at our peril. I am inspired to try a story that depends on its setting for every aspect of plot, character and language. It’s something I’ve got close to before, but this time I will be making sure that the story is a direct product of the setting – something that could only happen then and there.
What about you? What are you reading at the moment, and what is it teaching you about your own writing/art/life?
So, there’s this major writing competition called the Bridport Prize. It happens every year, there are huge prizes, and the standard is absolutely immense. Thousands of writers, both established and emerging, enter. This year there were over 6000 entrants. I was one of them.
Guess what? I didn’t win.
But I found out yesterday that I did get shortlisted! For some reason, they don’t tell entrants they’ve been shortlisted until after they’ve told the winners/runners-up that they’ve won/run-up. That’s probably a good thing in my case, as I would now be very disappointed to find out I had lost – as it is, I get the joy of knowing I was close. I have no idea how close – I guess there could be hundreds on the shortlist. But I don’t care about that. It means my story was of a high enough standard to be seriously considered. And I am well chuffed about that!
The Bridport Prize is the one competition I’ve had my eye on since I started writing seriously. This is a big deal. Here’s to next year!