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It’s difficult to describe the experience of reading Max Porter’s new novel “Lanny”, but it feels somewhere between “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor and an Ali Smith novel. In some ways it’s a simple story of family life in a small English village where a child goes missing. But it’s also about ancient elemental forces which periodically cause widespread chaos and test all the moral fibres which we believe hold our society together. Parents Robert and Jolie want their young son Lanny to develop his inherent artistic sensibility so bring him under the friendly tutelage of an aging famous local artist named Pete. The two develop a touching creative bond. But Lanny harbours many eccentricities and beliefs which centre around a figure of local legend named Dead Papa Toothwort. It’s a mystery whether this character from village lore actually exists in the story or is a figment of the eccentric boy’s imagination, but his presence is felt throughout the book as Toothwort takes in the sounds and voices of the village which physically twist throughout the pages of this novel. It’s a rapturous journey which slides from the emotional details of ordinary life to the deliciously surreal. 

That any new book by Porter is unclassifiable comes as no surprise given the highly innovative form of his debut “Grief is the Thing with Feathers”. Both his novels show the way guilt and inner pain distort reality and this is reflected in the way sentences and paragraphs are structured on the page. So reading Porter's books feels more like an experience as if staring at a sculpture where the form conveys as much meaning as the content. He has a talent for illuminating the inner workings and relationships of a family – especially the repercussions when there is an unexpected tragedy. But “Lanny” captures more the feeling of a whole community and how such an event can trigger the release of fear and prejudice to turn a village against itself. While it brings some people together, it also causes others to question who belongs: “Authenticity competitions, striving to be the one that most belongs here, guarding their own special spot in the picture. All this has shown what a bunch of wankers most people are.” In this way, this new novel engages more with the political mood of the country which has been especially preoccupied with questions about who is “authentically” English. At the same time it is a playful, funny and wickedly irreverent story making it such a joy to read. And, at its heart, there is a hopeful portrait of a sensitive boy who has the capacity to reshape the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMax Porter
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This is the first novel by Norah Lange to be translated into English and it’s just been published by the wonderful independent press And Other Stories. It was written in Spanish and originally published in Argentina in 1950. In her day Lange was a celebrated member of the Argentine literary scene – especially the avant-garde Buenos Aires group of the 20s and 30s. Throughout her life she famously hosted many literary salons and associated with writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. She was awarded a Grand Prize of Honor by the Argentine Society of Writers having published poetry, memoirs, nonfiction and novels. Yet, she’s barely known outside her native country for reasons which César Aira’s introduction to the book and James Reith’s recent article in the Guardian interestingly suggest. It’s thrilling to discover a novel like “People in the Room” because, although I studied avant-garde literature at university from Borges to Alain Robbe-Grillet to Tristan Tzara, there were few female writers of this era included on the course list outside of Gertrude Stein and Nathalie Sarraute. It’s somewhat alarming to think that Norah Lange was there all the time, but most North American and European readers had no access to her work.

As characteristic of the innovative art and writing from this time, “People in the Room” pushes the boundaries of character and narrative where we’re given few specific details about the protagonist and her situation. Instead the reader follows her labyrinthine train of thought as she voyeuristically observes three women in their thirties through a window across the street from where she lives. Her obsession with these neighbours leads to endless speculations about their potential status as criminals or tragic figures or secretive heroines. Curiously, though she makes tentative contact with the women, she doesn’t want to discover any actual facts about them – not even their names. It’s as if her observations can transform them into an endlessly tantalizing array of fictional characters of her own creation: “I knew, if I was patient, I could have their finished portraits just the way I liked finished portraits to be: for them to be missing something only I knew how to add”.

Maybe it was the frequent references to portraits and three women that made me fleetingly think of the portrait of the Brontë sisters as I was reading the novel. But it was thrilling to discover when I read in Aira’s introduction (which I only did after I finished reading the novel so as to avoid any spoilers or interpretation of the text before I’d experienced it myself) that Lange had publicly stated she was partly inspired by Branwell’s famous portrait of his sisters where a ghostly painted out figure looms in the background. There’s a popular romantic conception of the Brontës living a cloistered existence of literary creativity that seems to chime with this story. But “People in the Room” also doesn’t shy from exploring darkly troubling concepts as well. Throughout the book Lange refers to portraits as if to fix a version of the women in place before excitedly creating another portrait which shows them in a different light. But this leads to an unwieldy multiplicity: “She seemed to possess many portraits, as if constantly adding them to the hidden gallery of her own face; as if arranging, on the four walls of the drawing room, in order, the story of her face.” It’s fascinating how these descriptions naturally inspire ideas about our psychology and William James’ concept of how we have a different personality for each person we know. It suggests that no matter how dedicated we are in observing or spending time with one another we can never really know one another completely.

Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Alongside these fascinating ideas, there’s a compelling ambiguity throughout the text about the narrator herself. She’s a teenager on the brink of some great change who is directed by her family at one point to take a trip elsewhere. Yet, rather than meditate on her own state of being or future, she continues her frenzied focus on the women across the way who might be entirely in her imagination or mannequins or women involved in their own unknowable preoccupations. It’s as if she wants to preserve something about her creative process and imagination before yielding to the responsibilities and limitations of adult life. There’s a sombre tone to this enterprise “it would always be as if she was gathering memories beside a plot reserved for a grave.” There are frequent macabre references throughout the novel to death or the narrator’s expectation/desire/fear that the women she observes might soon die. Perhaps if they are dead she can better preserve her own idea of them without the messy complication of their real personalities. There’s a disturbingly bleak sort of romance to this which she describes stating “when I was fond of people I always imagined them dead.”

Getting brief clues about the narrator herself at different points in the text makes “People in the Room” a mystery wrapped in a mystery. I enjoyed the many layered and oblique ideas this book holds. It’s a novel which ought to be read alongside Norah Lange’s contemporaries for the fascinating concepts it explores and the way the curious story pushes the meaning of narrative. But it’s also a compelling exploration of the process of writing itself. The women are the narrator’s malleable characters which she endlessly enjoys reshaping, imbuing with her own psychology and destroying in a perverse godly act when she can no longer control them. It’s a novel that can be read in many different ways and would no doubt benefit from multiple rereadings. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNorah Lange
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Recently I made a video talking about examples of contemporary authors who fictionally reimagine the lives of classic authors. But it's been a funny coincidence that the past two novels I've read do this exact thing in creatively pioneering ways. Cristina Rivera Garza brought back multiple versions of the Mexican writer Amparo Davila in her gender-bending “The Iliac Crest” and now Olivia Laing has done so in her first novel “Crudo” by merging her own identity with that of punk poet and cutting-edge novelist Kathy Acker (who died in 1997.) I've been anticipating this novel so much because Laing's nonfiction book “The Lonely City” was such an important touchstone for me in understanding the condition of loneliness. “Crudo” follows a re-imagined Kathy twenty years after her death in 2017 during the languorous Italian days in the lead up to her marriage to a much older writer. She reflects on the state of the world from dispiriting politics to her interactions with groups of artists to the challenging interplay between the inner and outer world. In doing so Laing forms a fascinating portrait of the modern crisis of an individual who feels she has opportunities and access to vast amounts of information, but is in some ways powerless to enact change or escape her own privilege. 

Part of what makes Laing's nonfiction so mesmerising is the intense connection she describes with the artists and subjects whose lives she explores so sympathetically. These are often figures who were marginalized but whose creations and activism pushed the conversation forward. So it's unsurprising that she'd be drawn to the figure of Kathy Acker whose anti-establishment aesthetic incorporated styles of pastiche and a cut-up technique to explore elements from her own life as well as subjects such as power, sex and violence. Acker's fiction also appropriated a number of prominent classic authors such as Arthur Rimbaud, Emily Bronte, Marquis de Sade, Charles Dickens and Georges Bataille. It's described in this novel how “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and readymade. She was in many ways Warhol’s daughter, niece at least, a grave-robber, a bandit, happy to snatch what she needed but was also morally invested in the cause: that there was no need to invent”. In the same way, Laing transposes lines from Acker's writing (as well as some other authors) to form a modern narrative which is in some ways autobiographical. This literally bleeds Acker's thoughts and ideas into Laing's sensibility to reiterate what has been said before and say something new. 

I'm really fascinated by writing techniques which incorporate pre-existing texts such as Jeremy Gavron's recent “Felix Culpa” which forms a compelling self-contained fictional narrative. But “Crudo” is much more intensely personal describing its protagonist Kathy's desire to break out of the bounds her gender and her time period: the bleak summer of 2017 when the public dialogue was overwhelmed with talk of Brexit and Trump (as it still is.) It describes how she both wants to engage in this conversation and escape from it in the transformative space of solitude “It was just she kept sneezing, it was just that she needed seven hours weeks months years a day totally alone, trawling the bottom of the ocean, it’s why she spent so much time on the Internet” and how our online lives filtered through mediums such as Twitter allow us immediate access to information, but also have a curious distancing effect. This leads to a understandably pessimistic view of the world with its diminishing resources and reactionary politics:“It was all done, it was over, there wasn’t any hope.” But, of course, Kathy as an individual persists as does the propensity to create art that engages with and reacts to this fraught world. 

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Part of me felt uncertain at first if Laing's method of invoking the figure of Kathy Acker was necessary for her to fictionally express a state of being that is evidently so painfully real for the author herself. After spending a lot of time thinking about what this novel says, I'm convinced that Laing's method isn't just a formal experiment but a necessary act. For all its desperate searching and relatable despair, “Crudo” is a surprisingly romantic novel in the way Laing breathes new life into a pioneering writer from the past and pays tribute to the power of committed love for comfort and solace. One of the most powerful scenes comes when Kathy is at a dinner party where it describes her grappling to eat a crab. She pounds on it persistently to crack inside and there's a moment where her personality melds with that of the crustacean: “Someone was pounding on the door. The hammer, smashing the crab’s back. She wanted to be cracked open, that was the thing, only on her own terms and within preordained limits. There were rules, she changed them.” This beautifully encapsulates the core of this narrative which feels encroaching forces threatening our liberty and our bodies, but which shows a determination to change the landscape which is so rapidly transforming beneath our feet. “Crudo” is both a beautiful drag act and an urgent cry to witness, remember, connect and move forward.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
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Part of me was so drawn to reading “Felix Culpa” simply for the sheer audacity of its creation and out of a curiosity to see how it would work. This is a novel that’s composed almost entirely from the lines of other works of fiction by (approximately) eighty authors as varied as Italo Calvino, Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack Kerouac, Cormac McCarthy and Mary Shelley. In poetry this is known as a cento where different verses or passages from multiple authors are composed into a new order. Jeremy Gavron forms in this fictional collage experiment a story about a young man named Felix who mysteriously died after he was arrested in a botched robbery. The narrator is a writer/teacher at the prison where Felix was incarcerated and he embarks on a mission to discover more about Felix’s life and what happened to him. Amidst his travels to interview people Felix encountered he slides into his own epistemological crisis and radically alters his life. It’s a moving tale in itself, but through the very nature of its innovative construction it also poses fascinating questions about the meaning of narrative and the way in which readers connect with fiction.

I think one of the greatest works of art produced thus far in the 21st century is Christian Marclay’s video art installation ‘The Clock’. This is a looped 24-hour video montage that takes scenes from hundreds of films and television shows featuring clocks that are synchronized to show in real time. In doing so, these pieces of disparate video footage link up in a mesmerising way and meaningfully comment upon the way we are all caught in the flow of time. It’s interesting how when we’re confronted with a series of fictional works that are artfully mixed together we begin to imaginatively form narratives in our heads. As I was reading “Felix Culpa” I became aware that I was filling out scenes or adding details to characters based only on a few suggestive phrases that Gavron has paired. Of course, this is what we do all the time when reading fiction. But, somehow, because I was aware that this narrative was a construct of preformed sentences, I had a greater self-consciousness about the active role I play as a co-creator of the fiction that I’m reading.

Some sources used for the text of Felix Culpa

Some sources used for the text of Felix Culpa

In the course of reading this novel I also became more aware of the playful ambiguity of language and the plasticity of sentence construction. Lines or phrases that mean something in one context can come to mean something entirely different in another. Again, this is something fiction does all the time and part of its great beauty is how it can mean many things all at once. In this novel lines are spaced out with gaps in between them to demarcate how they’ve been taken from different sources. This also has the effect of highlighting passages and the reader must take an infinitesimally small pause in going from one line to another. This is something that’s often done in poetry, but in this book lines consciously flow together to form a cohesive narrative. So a line like “Time comes to leave” stands on its own. This has a meaning within the story where it’s time for a character to depart to go somewhere else. However, staring at this line on its own it also takes on connotations of how time is fleeting, that a moment only arrives to depart. But, in reading these lines on their own, I also often felt curious about how this line might have been used in its original story.

What’s impressive about “Felix Culpa” is that this elaborate self-conscious assembly of hypertext doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the story Gavron forms himself. I felt totally emotionally drawn into this tale and sympathised with Felix’s struggles in life as the narrator uncovers piece after piece about the journey that led to Felix’s untimely death. This character is formed more through an outline than through direct descriptions of Felix himself, yet the reader is still keyed into the ambiguities of Felix’s heart and mind. I grew to feel a sense of loneliness in Felix where his circumstances led him to make poor choices and end up in isolation. I haven’t felt this way about a character since reading about the nearly silent figure of Stevie at the centre of Rachel Seiffert’s brilliant novel “The Walk Home”. Felix’s struggle is something that the narrator of the novel also connects with and his obsession with Felix’s plight says something significant about the unspoken crisis in the narrator’s own life. This novel is a richly rewarding work of art.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJeremy Gavron
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If you want to tap into the most cutting edge fiction today, the Goldsmiths Prize (now in its fifth year) is one to watch. It was started in 2013 by Goldsmiths, a university in south London and the prize seeks to celebrate creative daring, reward fiction that breaks the mould and extends the possibilities of the novel form. Obviously, like any prize, it’s subjective. This isn’t a definitive list of all the excitingly experimental things being published today, but it gives a good guideline and it’s become one of my favourite prizes since past winners Eimear McBride’s “A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing”, Ali Smith’s “How to be Both”, Kevin Barry’s “Beatlebone” and Mike McCormack’s “Solar Bones” count among some of my favourite novels in recent years. And isn’t it funny that the previous two winners are both Irishmen who have the word “bone” in their book titles? Those Irish are so morbid! Ha!

I’ve read four of this year’s six shortlisted novels. I really admired both Sara Baume’s “A Line Made by Walking” and Nicola Barker’s “H(A)PPY”. I had very mixed feelings reading Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13” but in reflection I’ve found it a really moving novel and I’d be eager to read it again. I’m as baffled about what’s so good about Gwendoline Riley’s “First Love” now as I was when it was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year. It made me angry how withholding the narrative of this novel felt, but obviously others appreciate it much more. I’ve heard mixed things about Will Self’s novel “Phone” but I’ve appreciated his fiction in the past and I’m eager to read it. I hadn’t heard of “Playing Possum” by Kevin Davey before this prize and I love it when book prizes introduce me to writers’ work I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

You can also watch me discuss my thoughts about the shortlist and experimental fiction here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKbujRtyLWg

What do you think of the list? Do you like experimental fiction? Are you intrigued to read any of the books from the shortlist? It’s difficult to say, but I’m betting that “Reservoir 13” or “A Line Made by Walking” will win. Do you have a prediction?

There's something really compelling and endearing about the prolific maverick Argentinian writer César Aira. He takes an idea and runs with it pulling the reader through madcap, existential or surreal adventures. Previously, I've only read his novel “The Seamstress and the Wind” but I can tell likes to take his characters on trips: both physical journeys and through altered psychological states that warp reality. “The Little Buddhist Monk” (first published in 2005 under the title “El Pequeño Monje Budista”) is about a diminutive monk who feels his life was meant for something much larger than the circumscribed existence in his native Korea. French couple Napoleon and Jacqueline arrive in the country seeking artistic inspiration and cultural edification. The small man has difficulty being seen, but once they notice him he offers to take them to an out of the way monastery. What at first appears like a realistic cross-cultural experience gradually morphs into something much more strange and abstract. In this way, Aira challenges and surprises while making uncommon connections.

The reader first becomes attuned to something off-kilter about Aira’s landscape when the monk and French couple travel to the monastery. Individuals periodically pull the emergency brake on the train and exit onto stations which look slightly off to Napoleon and Jacqueline. The monk confides to them that these people have been enchanted by witches that inhabit the surrounding environment and find it fun to prank travellers into stopping at stations which don’t really exist. This concept of people being controlled by unknown forces repeats in later revelations about the monk’s state of being. It prompts questions about the degree of liberty people are capable of possessing. We often dream of living beyond the bounds of the lives we’re born into, but few people are actually able to break out of the paths created through our particular circumstances and culture. It also asks the degree of difference between one place and another in the modern world: “globalisation, which nowadays had converted all civilisations into one.” The French couple travel to experience some “authentic” kind of other, yet find themselves in a reality that has merely been formatted for their consumption.

Another dominant concept of the novel is about the question of perspective. Napoleon is a photographer who takes 360 degree photos as a way of trying to capture the totality of a particular time and place. The mischievous monks at the monastery dart in and out of the picture frame because they find it funny, but their image isn’t captured due to the long exposure. So does Napoleon’s photo fully capture the reality of this place? Aira questions the validity of realism in artwork stating “The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.” It could be that through his absurdist storytelling, the author more fully engages with our psychological reality rather than novels that render a landscape within nature’s laws. One of the final concepts this novel poses is a television program which the monk is desperate to watch as it claims to definitively map female genitalia. This is a humorous joke about some men’s inability to sexually satisfy women because they can’t locate the pleasure spot, but it also says something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down.

It’s challenging to get the reader to truly care about the journey of the characters in such cerebral writing. But I feel Aira shows real empathy for his characters’ situations and takes their struggles seriously even while driving them through the funhouse of his creation. There’s tension in the French couple’s relationship when Jacqueline sees no place for herself in Napoleon’s all-encompassing photographs. She finds that “In real life there were no enchanted princesses, only hopes extinguished by routine, by prosaic and gradual deaths.” Their many journeys abroad do little to bring the pair emotionally closer together. I was even more compelled by the monk’s dilemma who seeks to become larger than the small existence he’s been programmed to live.

Aira is such a curious writer, but I think his novels only manage to be so compelling because they are so brief. There are now over eighty of them! His style of leaping from idea to idea around a central story concept wouldn’t be sustained very well in a larger fictional work. For instance, I don’t think he could pull off a novel as long as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsolled” or "The Buried Giant" which follow dream-like structures. Nevertheless, Aira’s absurdist imagery peppered with philosophical musing has such a seductive appeal. It’s invigorating writing that has a curious way of lingering in the reader’s imagination.

Continuing with my lists of the year centred around certain categories, here are great books of experimental fiction first published in the UK in 2016. I’m really excited by daring writing that breaks the mould and I think these books have pushed the form of fiction in interesting ways. They include a memoir told with a mixture of literary forms, a bleak tale of isolation and paranoia, a disfigured man waking up to the horrors of a warped reality, a detective investigation which shades into the philosophical, a wild road trip in search of a lost sister, a brilliantly innovative account of a difficult love affair, a radical re-visioning of Icelandic history, intriguing thoughtful tales of female experience, prostitution and rabid dogs in Spain and a hilarious/thought provoking take on standardized tests. Watch me discuss my top ten picks of experimental fiction here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQHC2fCUi_k

Have you read any books that intriguingly play with narrative form this year? Is so, let me know about them in the comments.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

When I was in school I absolutely hated standardized tests. It seems melodramatic now but I simply could not focus on the dreary text and formalized questions. Often I ended up filling in the multiple choice answer sheet to make a pattern on the page rather than mark what I thought were the right answers. I wish now that I had just knuckled down and focused more but at the time that felt impossible. So it’s a delight coming across inventive Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s new book “Multiple Choice” which is based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. He creatively plays with the test’s format to form micro-stories and oftentimes hilarious commentary on society, formalized education and the human condition. This is a brisk, short book but like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel you could easily spend ages thinking about the multiple combinations and outcomes you could make in each section.

Each section of the book is laid out like a standard multiple choice test where you are instructed to exclude a term, reorder a sentence, decide on how best to complete a sentence, eliminate certain sentences from the text or show your comprehension of a story. Yet, quite often the multiple choice responses are comical, sarcastic or slyly make subversive statements. Sometimes reordering the text creates radical new meanings which are in turns poetic/ironic/poignant or the possible answers create impossibilities as if completely mocking the idea of an exam. There’s a great deal of wordplay where in one section he writes “You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.” The infamous military dictator Pinochet pops up several times in the text and some sections make a sharp critique Chilean society and the notoriously oppressive political system under his rule. These passages add a weightier feeling to the book as you can sense so strongly the strain of having lived under such a fearsome regime. (If you want to see a great documentary about the longlasting effecting of Pinochet’s dictatorship watch the powerful film Nostalgia for the Light.)

Many of the early sections are filled with only brief lines of text whose meanings are cryptic or suggest there could be much longer stories told. Frequently there are allusions to broken families or tempestuous relationships. One of the extended stories towards the end is about a man who won’t give or can’t remember his former wife’s name. It was quite shocking to learn in this story that Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. Another story is about a man who works variously as a chauffer and ghost writer for a politically conservative man who wins the lottery. The more extended texts are followed with possible interpretations of the text which are alternately funny or add another kind of meaning to them. It reminds me of Will Eaves’ powerful book “The Inevitable Gift Shop” which similarly suggests methods of reading while simultaneously creating an engaging story.

“Multiple Choice” is a richly rewarding and extremely funny book which so cleverly plays upon those standard school tests many of us dreaded taking.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It begins like a caper story. A young man named Carlos went missing from a family dinner when he stepped out to use the bathroom and never returned. An investigator is given the case to track him down. But his search almost immediately folds in upon itself when he starts searching the restaurant/Carlos’ office and interviewing people connected to him. The woman he speaks to who he believes is Carlos’ mother is not really his mother and many people at his office are only actors hired to look like productive employees. A scientist named Isabella analyzes traces of Carlos’ biological makeup and expounds upon an increasingly improbably multitude of chemical factors which could have led to him departing. The borders of reality collapse as the investigator struggles to analyse, research and report. Nothing is what it seems. The closer you look at things the more the world becomes an absurdist fantasy. Martin MacInnes’ compelling debut novel is a story of existential crisis and irreconcilable loss.

There’s a wonderful fluidity to MacInnes’ writing so that, although his narrative makes surprising tonal shifts from the comic to the horrific to exhaustively detailed analysis, I felt entranced by his skewed perspective of the world. It all resonates with how the investigator is not just searching for a missing person but for a way to wholly capture experience. By the time all the details are accounted for, time has moved on and the moment has passed and we must mull over it all again trying to faithfully recreate/understand it. If you think of these things as obsessively as the investigator then “it was a marvel, he thought, that any of them managed to do it all, to get from one day to another, to keep everything going just like that.” The novel artfully expresses the fallibility of memory and the clunky mechanics of consciousness. It’s interesting reading this so soon after César Aira (a quote on the cover compares this novel to his work) because Aira equally uses dream-like logic as a way of highlighting the futility of accurately representing reality.

The investigator frequently looks for a more primal understandings of human motivation and behaviour as a way of explaining our actions. Many chapters of this novel are prefaced with quotes from a fictional book about tribal behaviour. The second half of “Infinite Ground” entails the investigator’s travel to “the interior” of a forest where he believes Carlos has slipped away to. Here he embarks on tours to find others who have become lost in this wilderness as well as searching for more authentic modes of life. Hilariously reality here turns out to be as simulated as that in urban life. This is also where the investigator becomes more psychologically revealing as his civility is stripped slowly away. Some time ago he lost his wife and instead of dealing with her loss he seems inspired by Isabella’s proposition that “If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.” Instead of narrowing down possibilities, the investigator opens his mind to an infinite amount of them. It becomes apparent that “He was out of his depth in a case he couldn’t understand and would never resolve.” This was never about finding out what really happened to Carlos, but accounting for the totality of life when we’re caught in the unstoppable flow of time.

This is an experimental novel whose imagery and ideas challenge our modern sensibilities. In an age when our understanding of other people’s lives are mediated through how they are represented on social media it seems more pertinent than ever to question how we can really understand or know about another’s experience. At the same time there is something pleasingly retro about the novel’s style and earnest manner (perhaps because its action isn’t located in any specific time or place). It harkens back to post-modern literature like Joyce Carol Oates’ phenomenal novel “Mysteries of Winterthurn” which is more about the process of investigation than the crime itself. No matter how objective we try to be in understanding the world it is always refracted through a personal perspective leading the investigator of MacInnes’ novel to see he was “so naïve as to believe in the authenticity of the investigation and the autonomy of his own role.” The totality of the investigator’s being is caught up in searching for answers (which might be why he has no name), but he can only start to see what’s true when he looks hard at himself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMartin MacInnes
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Valve is a literary journal which publishes fiction and poetry that (in the words of the editor) “uses form, language or techniques in unusual ways, often generating an essential set of rules within a piece through which to channel creativity.” This is its third issue and many of the pieces contained within it succeed in their experimental mission to express something in a creative new way and adhere to their own internal logic while breaking away from traditional form. The editors carefully pair different pieces within the journal usually bouncing two distinct stories or poems off each other which are variations on a similar theme. This transforms meaning in itself. Of course, the pleasure of flipping through a journal like this is that pieces can also be taken at random whether in a hurry on a morning commute or steeped in a warm bed on some sleepless night.

One of the pieces of writing that struck me most was Lucy Ribchester’s story ‘The She-Squid’s Embrace’ where intense desire is expressed in a squid’s taking possession of a shipwrecked sailor. She takes him down to her lair and tries to coddle him though he’s slowly being devoured by sea creatures and disintegrating on the ocean floor. While presenting a warped version of passion the story expresses something very true about love and the longing to hold onto someone who is falling apart.

More radical experiments with form itself take place in other pieces. Some are composed of lists such as Andrew Blair’s funny and vivid numbered reasons in his piece ‘you cannae shove your granny.’ Harry Giles gives indications of gruesome and tragic scenes occurring while only providing impersonal lists or an announcement. These highlight the way we are screened away from the horrors of reality by the mechanical processes of a regimented society. Bjorn Halldorsson gives ‘A Swimmer’s Guide to the Front Crawl’ which is a set of instructions that trail down the page like words riding currents in water. This transforms a physical activity into a metaphysical meditation. Katy McAulay’s ‘Important news for lifeguards’ presents another list purportedly for instruction, but which really takes on a graver meaning in the way people may be experiencing an internal crisis though they look alright on the outside. David Greaves ‘Boulders’ presents text with additional groups of words in the margins on either side of a primary text that can be left out or inserted into the main body of words to elucidate the central meaning. Another piece by Martin Schauss uses repetition of the second-person “you” to create a poetic sense and give a suggestion of being romantically transfixed by another. Poetic repetition also occurs in Lynsey Cameron’s ‘The Man Holding Flowers’ where a profusion of possibilities and a torrential downpour of past experiences bloom out of the single image of a man holding flowers.

I was once in a creative writing class where someone passed me a hand-written piece which she’d revised a lot. She intended only the words which weren’t crossed out to be read but I felt all the deleted (but still visible) words highlighted different meanings and emotionally expressed someone grappling towards what they wanted to really say. Kirsty Logan’s ‘Love in Centralia’ is an impersonal description of a town where the text is mostly slashed through with black lines. Only a few essential words are left unmarked to give a radical new meaning. There is a tremendous amount of power in writing which is crossed out so the process of selection and editing can be seen. For this reason I’ve loved looking at holograph editions of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room’ and ‘The Waves’ which present drafts of these novels which show where she crossed things out and inserted other things into the text.

Some pieces in Valve enter into a self conscious dialogue with other artists to elaborate on original ideas or ricochet concepts off others to provide entirely different meanings. Clair Askew takes issue with Wordsworth’s view of the Lake District offering her own poetic view of a starker more reality-laden landscape. Scott Morris pays homage to the surrealist poet and photographer Paul Nouge with short sharp quips that expand upon a world inverted by speech and offers transformative ways of seeing.

There are flashes of the way popular competitive events inveigle their way into our consciousness making us care one moment and forget the next in the form of a Masterchef challenger in Graham Fulton’s ‘Larkinesque’ and a hotdog eating race in Charlotte Turnbull’s ‘Hotdogs.’ We’re swept into a voyeuristic sensitbility witnessing the triumphs and failures of individuals, our hopes for them dampened by a sense of superiority when they blunder. In the case of Fulton, Welsh competitor Larkin’s plight is likened to the raw reality of the cosmos. Turnbull plays much more with form in her story brazenly shouting at us with text enlarged and bold like a commentator’s irritating blathering.

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One of the longest pieces in this issue of Valve is Elaine Reid’s ‘Trees for Africa.’ This story follows a call centre director over the course of a day where she receives lewd responses from a man she contacts about helping to maintain forestlands in Senegal. The worker traces the call to the home address where she meets a harried lonely woman caring for a number of children. The story expresses a sense of how we are disconnected from one another and gives a haunting feeling of good intentions being swallowed by shorthanded emotion.

In David Manderson’s ‘On the Beach’ he portrays a European holiday beach resort overseen by a tourist with his head full of the impending doom for the European economy. His pleasure of the holiday and his emotional investment in the beauty and grotesqueness of his surroundings is hollowed out by his sense of societies’ failing and feeling like “A silent man trying to scream.” Destruction comes in a more literal form in Chelsea Cargill’s poem ‘Tsunami’ which expresses a deep desire to leave a personal mark upon a world that is being washed away.

Afric McGlinchey transforms the domestic privacy of a bed into a tangled forest landscape where the body becomes tree. There is a sensuous physicality to the descriptions and deeply intimate associations are produced in small details. Ryan Van Winkle includes an Untitled poem about living surrounded by snow. Here I felt the heft and persistence of snow is likened to the way our best efforts and hopes are buried by the weight of reality. In another poem of his ‘The Duke in Pines’ an experience of listening to the jazz musician sparks an imagined dialogue between the narrator and someone who the narrator has designs upon.

Two poems by Mary McDonough-Clark are filled with such raw emotion that it feels like the pared down phrases contain a heft of feeling that expands voluminously to fill the whole page. An elaborate scene of torrid violence is summarised in a few pointed words “I retreat, you accuse, I ask, you deny: she feeds.” She gives a powerful sense of the riotous scenarios which are mentally played through amidst the actual disintegration of a relationship.

Valve is a great platform for writers to push the boundaries in what’s possible with both language and form. These pieces don’t dally with experimentation and reconfigure structure for the sake of it. They have something immediate and meaningful to say which can only be expressed in formats which aren’t traditional. I've read many of the pieces several times and find them richly rewarding. The work within this journal teases, surprises and illuminates.

'Artful' is probably unlike any book you've ever read or will read again. It is a heartfelt account by a narrator who spends his/her time reading through a battered copy of Oliver Twist and speaking to a deceased lover who haunts him/her by sitting at a desk, speaking a strange language and stealing little things. The gender of both the narrator and the deceased lover who the narrator refers to as "you" are never specified. The narrator recognizes that this must be a manifestation that's part of his/her grieving process so goes to see a therapist but finds little comfort past confirming that the deceased lover is speaking Greek rather than a completely made up language. Interspersed with this are contemplations on the meaning of particular concepts like 'time', 'form', 'edge' and 'offering' in relation to art. Taking examples from such disparate sources as the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas & Sylvia Plath, novels by Jose Saramago, WG Sebald and Elizabeth Hardwick, Shakespeare, quotes by Katherine Mansfield and Margaret Atwood, the art of Yayoi Kusama, Herzog's documentary 'The Cave of Forgotten Dreams' and a Beyonce song. These references bring great weight to Smith’s arguments and observations as well as providing an eclectic list I could be thrilled by when I recognized the source or become very intrigued by if I didn’t know it. If it all sounds too cerebral to you, it isn’t. Smith incorporates all these references in a way that make them feel so meaningful to your own life and the life of the narrator grieving over a lost lover.

Smith uses second person narration in a lot of her fiction. This doesn't constrain the gender of the characters to one thing or another, but gives us a sort of utopian vision of social interaction where matters of male/female don't play any part. By writing "you" the voice of the narrator always feels very direct and intimate like being told a bedtime story. It also allows multiple meanings to blosom depending on who you think might be the recipient "you." It might be the narrator speaking to a particular character or the author speaking directly to the reader or, by speaking the words in your own mind, the reader directing the text out to someone in their own imagination. This is one of the most pioneering and powerful things about Smith's fiction and shows how she's someone that can break down boundaries and open up possibilities through a creative use of language. 

Smith unpacks words’ meanings by citing phrases that include the word such as this excerpt on time: “Time means. Time will tell. It’s consequence, suspense, morality, mortality. Boxers fight in bouts between bells ringing time. Prisoners do time.” Through these examples time can take on both an exhilarating meaning as well as a terrifying one or contain a whole slew of emotions at once. She shows that language is always about context. Language twists and bends through repetition. She could have easily referenced different dramatic plays from the branch of theatre known as “Absurd” as practiced by Ionesco, Pinter and Albee. In their plays words are sometimes repeated until they are flattened out to mean nothing and everything. The same sort of dissection takes place when reading books with special attention. Smith notes at one point “Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time.” If we’re to let ourselves be moved and transformed by writing it’s necessary to surrender an adequate amount of time to fully understand what the writer is trying to say. We also literally lose ourselves in the book by surrendering our own time to it. The process allows us to subordinate ourselves to the power of our own imagination. As Smith describes, “it knows us inside out, the imagination. It knows us better than we know ourselves.” By giving space for the imagination in art we discover, not just more about the world, but about ourselves. Imagination also allows us to know, understand and love one another. At one point Smith observes “To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.” This admits the fact that we can’t ever really know each other as we are all trapped inside our own heads. All we can do is imagine each other. To truly be loved someone must think the world of you, to stand in their imagination as someone who is probably even greater than you think yourself to be.

The title of the book is taken from Dickens’ character of the Artful Dodger – a figure Smith herself seems to inhabit in her writing - someone who is crafty, intelligent and a great survivor. I can’t recommend this book highly enough as well as Smith’s books of short fiction. I love Smith’s passionate engagement with art as something that is not just a luxury of life, but essential to it. Art flows through us. Art unmakes and makes us. Art gives us back to ourselves. And, as 'Artful' proves, Ali is a supreme artist!

Ali Smith will be discussing 'Artful' at Gay’s the Word bookshop in London on Sunday, October 20th at 1pm: https://www.facebook.com/events/1405649822998955/

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
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