Friday, May 30, 2014


Three Things I Don't Write (About); and Three Things that I Do

Nina Allan has tagged me in the latest literary meme that is going around; and I am pleased because it’s a quirky yet intriguing meme and Nina is an excellent writer with exhilarating ideas and an extremely polished prose style. Indeed she is one of the most accomplished speculative fiction authors to have emerged in recent years and I highly recommend her story collection A Thread of Truth as one of the best books Eibonvale Press has issued.

So here are three things that I don’t write about... Any contradictions noted in anything I say are there because I am full of contradictions and don’t know how not to be. If there are no contradictions despite having said this, that only goes to show how contradictory I am.

I am sometimes criticised for not putting believable ‘characters’ into my work, for not seeming to care about the people who inhabit my stories. It was said to me a long time ago that my protagonists are only there in order to have things happen to them. This is utterly true. In fact, there are only two real characters in my stories: (a) the author, (b) the reader. And the text itself is a chessboard placed between us. The quasi-characters who appear in the text, the sequences of words on a page that are supposed to be regarded as sentient beings, are chess pieces and the entire reading experience is a game. This is overstating it somewhat, but I feel it is more basically true than any claim that I am trying to penetrate and represent the manifold complex psychological truths of human beings through fiction. I leave such tasks to others. That is not the purpose of my writing. For a start, I have doubts about the validity of the ‘empathy’ that a reader can feel for a fictional character. I have spoken about this elsewhere. I know what I do well and what I do badly. I do conventional characterisation badly and so avoid it. My ‘characters’ are ideas, conceits, connections, whether concrete or abstract, possible or impossible.

The truth is an ideal we are told to strive for, but it is a dark ideal. The truth hurts. Truth is the only tyrant in the service of which no collective guilt need be felt when individuals are disheartened or even destroyed by its workings. The truth is cruel. Thankfully, such remorseless and pitiless telling of the truth is still unacceptable in society. It can’t be tolerated, nor should this devastating weapon ever fall into the wrong hands, and all hands are wrong to wield it. Our hands certainly are not the right ones. That is the truth. But that’s for everyday life. In fiction the situation ought to be different. A writer should be allowed to tell the truth in the arena of the made up story because that is a place where it can’t do total damage and is confined inside the tiered walls of the prose, on which the readers are sat with their thumbs at the ready. The point of fiction is to be rigorously and unapologetically true, to spill the whistle and blow the beans on our motivations, desires, actions, justifications. To tell unpalatable truths. This is why writers like Bataille, Céline and Houellebecq are important. They don’t pretend to be nice; they don’t pretend that we, their readers, are good people. Because, frankly, we aren’t. No human being is good. It simply isn’t possible. We are selfish, acquisitive, aggressive. Unfortunately, too many writers are insincere in this regard. They constantly glance back over their shoulders while they write to see who might be looking, and they tailor their prose in order to flatter that audience. I can’t bring myself to write this way, not even for the sake of greater commercial success.

There are several levels of love and some are pure and others far less so; but taken as a whole, love is the one quality that redeems humankind, our best and only hope in this whirlpool of absurdity called Reality, the only chance we have for justifying our existence in the universe to some hypothetical ultimate judge. Even more than mathematics, it is humanity’s highest achievement, and is common to all of us, at least in potential. Not everyone can solve a quadratic equation and it was never really intended that we should be able to; but the capacity to love is the motor of our shared destiny. The motor breaks down often but it is there. And yet I don’t write about love. Because I can’t do it justice. It is a theme, a miracle, beyond me and possibly beyond most or all writers and artists of any kind. I was once asked by someone I was in love with if I had ever written a love story. My answer was no, I hadn’t, but I treated the question as a challenge and I wrote one for her. Just words, a few pictures, a story; a transient way of calming my inner turmoil by using its energy to create something outside that imperfectly mirrors the inside. The relief it provided was brief, as I knew it would be. I wish it had been a product of unconditional love, the motor that runs forever, a form of perpetual motion. But no such luck. It was category one, erotic love. Oh dear.

And now three things that I do write about, equally rife with contradictions:

I am utterly obsessed with paradoxes. I collect them, think about them, create variations of established ones and even attempt to devise brand new ones. I have loved paradoxes ever since I saw a reproduction of M.C Escher’s ‘Waterfall’ in a children’s book when I was small. I was flabbergasted. At that exact moment, I realised that a purely cerebral object can have a profound emotional impact. I adore paradoxes of all gradations, from free and easy to formal and precise. My stories are full of paradoxical situations and I don’t think I have ever written a work of fiction that doesn’t relate to a paradox in some way. Here is just one example, a story I wrote a couple of months ago. There are hundreds of others. Paradox is the child of Logic, but I am acutely aware that what many people mean when they say ‘logic’ isn’t always quite the same as what it actually is. That’s fine. The everyday meaning of the word is connected with empirical causation, the way things in the real world behave, but logic is actually only the manipulation of symbols and those symbols can stand for anything, so even if they are nonsensical, the logic will still work logically. I frequently use the logic of word association rather than the logic of everyday cause and effect, a method that guarantees the story will veer in unexpected directions. This is especially true of my new book, The Lunar Tickle, which is filled with tightly controlled wordplay in which the entire dynamic dances to the music of the prose and the subsequent logical outcomes are all lateral to each other.

The art of irony is the art of saying things on more than one level at the same time. All too frequently it is confused with sarcasm, with meaning the opposite of what is said. It is more subtle and useful than that. There are in fact two categories of irony and they are radically different from each other. This is a truth that is often overlooked. Negative irony is exclusive, it appeals only to those few who understand that irony is being employed. The more ironic the treatment in this mode, the more exclusive the result. Eventually such irony succeeds in being so ironic that only the ironist understands that there is any irony at all. It is exclusive to the point of isolation. The final step is to be ironic about irony itself. This is self-negating. The negative ironist vanishes into a singularity. Positive irony, on the other hand, is inclusive. It admits that we are all in the same universe-boat together, that none of us actually has the answer, try though we might to pretend we do, and that we need to help each other in our explorations of Time and Life. One of the best positive ironic tools at the disposal of a writer is metafiction, fiction aware that it is fiction. The rules that govern the way the rules are used; this is something that has long fascinated me. The most characteristic writing of my favourite author, Italo Calvino, was once described as holding a mirror up to life and then writing about the mirror. It is a noble endeavour and I wish to emulate him.

To move from here to there, or from there to somewhere else, or even from somewhere else back to here. Journeys. I have written a fair few stories that aren’t journeys, but they tend to be inferior to those that are, at least in my own opinion. I have a fondness for the picaresque style of tale telling that is so deep and abiding that I would give up writing altogether if forbidden to employ it. I am a Don Quixote with a pen instead of a lance and one who tilts at pages in order to mimic the meanderings of that knight, though of course I rarely use a pen these days, but how does one joust with a keyboard? The picaresque means freedom to me, escape from the confines of the narrow walls of despair. With a very few exceptions, my protagonists, such as they exist, which as I suggested earlier is not at all, are variations on, detached shadows of, tributes to Quixote, Candide, Lemuel Pitkin, Cugel the Clever. The weaving of threads, the snaking of rivers, the rising and falling of melodies... Even explaining what a journey is requires a journey, a voyage of words, the growing upwards and outwards of the persuasion that lives in those words in the same way that fully grown trees live inside seeds, as potentials of massive strength. My ultimate dream is to write a very long novel that will be an immense journey through both time and space, a saga spanning seven thousand years generation by generation. This book has a title and a vague outline, has had these for many years, but so far nothing else. It is a long journey to the start of that journey.

So now... It is time for me to tag the next writers in turn. I have chosen to tag Don Webb, an interesting fellow, half wizard, half absurdist, half darksmith, half visionary; and if these four halves add up to two wholes, and these two holes turn out to be the nostrils of the proboscis of knowledge (the one knows that can’t be blown) then this only serves to highlight the duality of the man. He is his own dark and light twin. Check out his work, if you haven’t already.

And I have tagged Brendan Connell, because I can’t imagine a situation where I wouldn’t tag him. He is eminently taggable in such games of memes. He is in fact nonuntaggable, a word I just coined but which looks like the name of the sort of land Gulliver might have ended up in after Swift ceased to chronicle his adventures (let’s not forget that Karinthy and Szathmári took over this task). To tag Brendan is an essential, an inevitable.

And I have also chosen to tag Ariana Aragão, the beautiful poet from Portugal who creates poems that are delicate but strong, bittersweet and yet uplifting, tinged with melancholy but also life affirming.

And I have also tagged Ruby Madden, who is an author I had never heard of before yesterday. So why have I tagged her? It was done at the suggestion of A.A. Attanasio, one of the nicest, politest and most decent human beings in the speculative fiction business.

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