Two things I’ve noticed about a lot of things I’ve been reading recently: their formats, and their topics.
I’ve been reading a lot of shorter things. I think that comes down to having a lot on, and not always being to devote the brain-cycles (even if I have the time) to large, ongoing works. So I’ve been diving into short stories – notably, George Saunders’ most recent collection – and the Kindle Single, which appears to be reviving the novella for the early 21st century.
50-100 pages is a really nice length for fiction – longer than the ultra-tight focus of a short story, but still confining enough to give it a focus that novels don’t always have. It also means you can finish something in a single hour, which is, I think, why I’m warming to these so much: I get the satisfaction of finishing a lot of fiction without committing to the emotional and time demands of a novel.
But going beyond the format, I began to see echoes in the content.
Towards the beginning of the year, I read Nicholas Royle’s First Novel. I’m a big fan of Royle’s fiction; I can never tell if I’m in a minority, or if it’s just underrated. This might be my favourite book of his yet. Perhaps the most unsettling, too. It is very aware of its status as fiction, and yet the tale of an author who teaches creative writing at a redbrick university begins to feel like it’s slipping into an autobiographical mode… until it lurches, and you begin to worry for Royle’s own sanity – which is, of course, part of the point of that perspective; he’s playing with you, and completely in control of the fantasy of the novel. The way it jars with what we know of reality is part of what makes it work.
The frequent trips to sit in parking lots on business parks reminded me a lot of Marc Augé’s non-places, and as I say that, I realise that all these books and stories are about unplaces of one kind or another. The parking trips interrupt the flow of the narrative, punctuating it with emptiness. these episodes set the increasingly unsettling tone, which the main narrative picks up and runs with in the final act, and you realise that whilst various events of the plot were red herrings and blind alleys, the tone of events up to this point has been very carefully focused on producing a singular sensation.
It’s a similar conceit to Nic Roeg’s direction of Don’t Look Now: whilst the A-plot marches forward, the bodies dredged from the Venetian canals serve primarily to set tone – Venice, beautiful Venice, becomes unsettling and unpleasant, all dark alleys and a serial murderer on the loose. The murderer is seemingly unrelated to the A-plot, and yet in the final act, Roeg brings this background action into the foreground… only to prove how unrelated it is in the closing scenes. I know Royle is an admirer of Roeg, and there’s something of Roeg in his plotting.
What’s really stuck with me, though, is the depection of familiar spaces to the point they become unfamiliar. That also emerged in Keith Ridgway’s The Spectacular, a Kindle Single about a literary author trying to construct a pulpy thriller around the Olympics to finally earn some money. The character’s obsessive research begins to take him down some strange routes, and as he begins to emulate the terrorist (if only in his imagination), the shape of the world changes; he sees it differently. By the end, when the plot takes a sharp 90º turn, the author decides he may as well roll with it; reality has shifted far enough in his head. Rod has written about this book before, and I loved it – very topical, somewhat strange, and depicting 2012 London (very familiar to me) as if it were a foreign country.
That notion of the familiar and the unfamiliar then came to a head in M John Harrison’s Autotelia works – firstly In Autotelia, featured in Arc 1.1, and then Cave and Julia, available as a Kindle Single.
Autotelia is another country, and they do things differently there. It is not just foreign; it is the most foreign; actions, events, emotions; all are different in Autotelia. A place one goes to feel different. It is abstractly distant – connected not geographically, but through some kind of transition zone; it is a place you can go to but it doesn’t appear on a map. And as such, it manages to be familiar and unfamiliar all at once; ageographic, ahistoric. Unfamiliar histories leak out of it. (It also bears a little resemblance to Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago, and it’s no surprise that The Affirmation was one of my favourite books from last year, and one that has already become dear to me).
It helps that Cave and Julia is written in Harrison’s wonderful, sparse, prose. I’ve been reading a lot of his work recently, and am growing to love his use of language, his knack for description in such little space. His blog is worth a subscription – fragmented prose leaks out of it, and the quotations and excerpts stand shoulder to shoulder with blogposts and even short fictions; it becomes hard to tell which is which, which is old, which is new, and is better for it.
And: I think, based on things written in a variety of places, there’s some degree of social overlap between these writers; Harrison and Royle seem to know one another, I think.
I mainly wanted to jot this down because, over two months, I kept going back to similar spaces in similar short fictions, similar notions touched on in different stories by different writers with very different intents, and I wanted to jot them down – because if you like one, you’ll probably like the others. A series of stories all, in their own ways, about unplaces.