Webchat 2: The 21st Century Novel?
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I want to broaden the debate to form on and within the page, as part of our
artist’s palette as writers. To revive and carry on the experiments of modernists
such as Joyce and Faulkner which seem to have ground to a halt after William
Burroughs’ & Terry Southern’s cut‐up techniques. My call is to drag the novel
into the 21st century artistically, as well as in its distribution and production.
So what do I mean by experiments in form? There are plenty of 20th century
novels that play around with either or both space and time, Faulkner being a
wonderfully rich exemplar. These are experiments in narrative structure. I am
interested in the possibility of going more quantum, down to language itself.
legible to a reader? Personally, I write ‘Voice’ rather than ‘characters’. Straight
away the level of reality that the words are describing is plastic and unfixed. The
words may not describe any material reality whatsoever, but purely sculpt using
language and human thought. I favour words that have more than one meaning,
or at least have a secondary echo (maybe in their original root) that works
against the main, established meaning. Sound is a very important feature for me
as a writer. What is the precise relationship of us writers, petitioning the private,
intimate space inside a reader’s head as their minds process our words ‘silently’
inside their mind. This is where drawing on some of the features of poetry’s
lyricism can be of use.
“The idea of brewing the kettle
has two tracks, the second echoing the notion of kettle.
in, and out of sight. Cameo-flagged, in order to carve my relief on his body.”
word camouflage, with cameo and relief sparking off one another and relief having a
further meaning in relation to emotional relief from the act of revenge.
reality being expressed here, yet the knicker-elasticity of supply & demand, I believe
conjures up something very clearly in the reader’s mind. Simply through the power of
new word associations, rather than a visual sense from description.
them wobble past. That flesh jiggle corona, in the no-man’s land between abdomen
and hips. ‘Love handles’ being just so wide load of the mark. The ensemble rounded
off by the peeping thong. An inverted arrowhead, directional rather than warning.”
verbally through imitation as infants and only retrospectively are the symbolic
approximations of alphabets and spelling applied to the spoken language we
already confidently possess. As writers we can do all sorts of visual things with
these alphabets. Spatially we could render words non‐linearly. The book cover
for “Everything Is illuminated” hints at the possibilities, but leaves it at the cover
rather than continuing inside. Alasdair Gray performs spatial things with his
words and he is also a visual artist. Of course, some of what I am proposing
appears to be very hard to reproduce in online representations, where software
options are far more restrictive. Yet it is not just to be thought of an exercise in
graphics and typography. There must be reasons for breaking up the uniformity
of the written word.
How many books do you read where the metaphors seem tired and second
hand? Most metaphors have probably been constructed in some novel or other.
Time for us to forge some new ones. Language being to the fore in this
endeavour. Again, without wishing to being seen wedded to science, but I would
point at so much of modern scientific theory in astrophysics, theory of mind and
microbiology, themselves being wonderful metaphors, where the actual hard
science is less easy for them to express (particles that have no proven existence
other than they ‘should’ exist etc). How come it is the scientists who are forming
these rather wonderful metaphors and not us writers? Using our imaginations,
we should be informing them and giving them the tools to further their own
expression. Seems we have the language, but scientists have the creative
imagination. Time for us to step up. Scientists tend to specialise within just one
scale, be it quantum, microbiological or cosmic. We writers can skip across any
within a single paragraph if we are so minded.
Where I do deviate partly from the modernist tradition, was their tendency to try
and reconfigure new meanings by ripping established understanding from the
moorings of its context and to cast them into new guises. (maybe a reason for
Modernism running out of steam was that they took this as far as they could go
with it). While I’m not against that as a path of inquiry for writers, I am
interested in the linguistic roots behind those original contextualisations. They
are not random. They are not neutral. They embody hidden relationships, often
to do with power; for example the split of Anglo‐Saxon and French Norman
words in our language, often reveals the dominant power wielding Normans to
have much of our vocabulary in religion, law, cookery, property and the like,
whereas the AS words tend to be more humble and down to earth. Here it seems
to me is a very rich source for stripping away ‘meaning’, the very nominalism
that organises our world around us. Striking at the very root of ‘realism’, rather
than flailing around fettered by it. Think of the word ‘table’ and all the different
contexts of it; from a glass coffee table with “Ideal Homes magazine resting on it”,
the same table used in a sex act, a dinner table, a soldier eating his rations off an
upturned ammo case, a table created by an artist out of an animal’s ribcage, an
unopened Ikea flatpack table ‐ all a table according to Plato’s ideal forms
nominalism, but all with very, very different contexts and in the case of the Ikea
one, a potentia of table only…
The modernist project has had a sabbatical for some 40 years. Time to put it back
to work and reinvestigate the written word and its subunits, sound, rhythm and
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