Category Archives: Books

Book review: ‘Infinite Ground’, by Martin MacInnes

Full disclosure – I’ve known Martin for years (it would be too strange to refer to him as ‘MacInnes’ throughout this). He’s my closest friend, so any pretense of objectivity will have be abandoned at the entrance to this review; which isn’t to say that I’ll approach it in the spirit of back-scratching favouritism either. In many ways, having watched Martin’s thinking evolve over the years, I feel like this book’s ideal reader, and I would feel positively towards it regardless of whether I knew him or not because it does exactly what most excites me in contemporary fiction. It presents a sequence of extraordinary ideas and startling imagery in a prose style that is both precise and hauntingly elusive, and it maintains a tone of bewildering strangeness and threat that manages to make reality seem more interesting than it did before you picked up the book. It encodes its central theme in its form, and manages to radically destabilise the concept of narrative coherence while masking this destabilisation behind an ostensibly straightforward noir plot – one that rapidly and thrillingly spirals out of control into something far, far more disturbing.

At the beginning of the book, Carlos, a 29 year-old office worker, has gone missing during a family meal at a local restaurant, in an unspecified South American country. A semi-retired inspector is called in to solve the case, and he begins by piecing together an idea of the missing man through interviews with his co-workers and by examining his working space at the temporarily unnamed corporation where he was employed. Uncovering dark hints of corporate malfeasance in the country’s rainforested interior, the inspector soon finds his investigation focusing on the physical, forensic traces that Carlos had left behind in his office; a bio-trail of microbial disorder that initially points to a psychological or possibly biological breakdown on Carlos’s part. As the inspector begins to feel similarly disordered, the city around him, suffering under a punishing heatwave, begins to feel threatening and unnavigable; a maze that throws surreal events into his path, and that seems to generate shattering trains of thought in his increasingly fevered mind. Finally, convinced that Carlos had felt compelled to track his way into the distant rainforest, the inspector traces his imagined journey into the interior; a destination that will generate in him a radical unmaking.

Martin told me that he had always tried to find a virtue in his limitations, and that being uninterested in verisimilitude or feeling himself incapable of writing psychologically rounded characters meant that he had to find his own techniques to convey the ideas he was interested in. In Infinite Ground he uses the rough scaffolding of the narrative to turn his gaze deeply inwards, to ignore the psychological development of character that the 19th century realist novel has trained us to believe is the pinnacle of literary art and to focus on the material development of character instead. This biological imperative takes us into a narrative world where the broiling system of the human body is an environment in itself, where the inspector’s investigations are as much into the ‘edge-life’ of the microbes on Carlos’s skin, shedded and left behind on the keyboard of his office computer, as they are into his day to day life. The inspector’s obsessive need to reconstruct, to create a facsimile version of Carlos’s office in order to recreate the conditions in which Carlos would have experienced his breakdown for example, are revealed as so much shabby artifice, incapable of illuminating the true condition of the missing man. The temptation is always to find a psychological correlative for biological events; ‘It was difficult to think about’ the inspector admits, ‘to consider in any way that wasn’t grossly reductive.’ Instead, he has to find a different mode of approach, ‘thinking via the life of the room.’ Isabella, the forensic specialist who assists him, scorns the idea of a neat division between the self and the environment that forms it, ‘the front-facing third person. A man and a landscape clearly defined.’ ‘There is no clear distinction between him and his room,’ she later says, ‘inside and out.’ Once that perspective has been lost, the book suggests, and as we become crushingly aware of our own fundamental incoherence, we dissipate and are blown away on a fertile wind.

Within the framework of the main narrative are situated two sections of freestanding speculation; one, ‘Flying to the Interior: Case Notes on the Forest’, is an unattributed account of what dark and surreal communities the rainforest might be hiding under its canopy; the other, ‘What Happened to Carlos’, is a sequence of 29 numbered paragraphs (the same age as Carlos when he went missing) hypothesising the possible means by which he disappeared. Both of these sections are some of the most innovative pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, the ‘What Happened to Carlos’ section in particular a fount of disturbing invention, each separate paragraph reading like the summary of the alternative experimental novel Martin could have written in place of the one he actually did. Here we see the theme of biological fecundity given concrete shape, with its suggestion that the novel’s final form is only one possibility among many. It also negates the idea that a mystery could or should have a solution; that a novel should pick up the ball it has set rolling. ‘What Happened to Carlos’ (presented as a statement rather than a question) suggests that there is something metaphysically as well as narratively banal about the need for resolution.

With its Ballardian combination of sparse lyricism and the brute poetry of the medical report or corporate account, Martin’s style is perfectly suited to convey both the inspector’s gradual degeneration and the more abstruse scientific information, without the latter seeming like mere didacticism. Here life can be ‘A temporary euphemism hung upon a large amalgamation of disparate biological material, memory and feeling’, or, at a more human level, he can pick out the office worker’s calves which ‘thrummed a walking impulse that was suppressed by the desk.’

All of this might make the book sound forbiddingly austere, but this is a playful and generous novel that is alive with, and intoxicated by, its own invention. Mad speculation is whipped along to its logical conclusion, and scenes of cinematic clarity are followed by dense considerations of the wilder side of microbiology (which, as the afterword assures the reader, is ‘always speculative, and sometimes wholly invented.’) Perhaps the key achievement in Infinite Ground is that Martin has managed to write a novel which is fundamentally about science without relying on that tired stand-by of the scientist-narrator, the omniscient hero who can explain exactly why the world should be seen as so consistently awe-inspiring. Here, the science is threaded through every sentence of the book, and gives the novel not just its form but its sense of pitiless unsentimentality. It isn’t nihilistic by any stretch of the imagination, but it refuses to fall for the false consolation of transcendence, ‘This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible’ as Isabella says, ‘because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled.’ The sense that human beings, that life, is ‘just’ matter though is wholeheartedly rejected. ‘Listen, I am not saying we are merely this, in the pejorative sense. I am saying we are exclusively made from this and that there is nothing more extraordinary.’ This is a major work that will surely inspire a generation of young writers, demonstrating to them what is possible when you cleave wholly to your obsessions and refuse to compromise your intent, when you make ideas your master and follow them wherever they may lead.

(Infinite Ground is published by Atlantic Books, £12.99)

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The forgotten Kenneth Grahame

It was only after reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to my four year-old daughter over Christmas that I realised it isn’t, properly speaking, a children’s book at all. I’ve loved the story, its picture of comfortable domesticity and wild adventure, since I was a child myself, but there’s enough in the book at a formal and stylistic level to hint to the interested adult reader that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The two chapters commonly excised from abridged versions, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’, are the most obvious signposts to more enduring concerns than the everyday trials of small, anthropomorphic woodland creatures. The former sees Mole and the Water Rat drawn into a hallucinatory encounter with the god Pan, while the latter recounts the Water Rat’s meeting with a Sea Rat, who intrigues him with tales of the high seas and distant, dusty Mediterranean ports, to the point where Ratty is about to give up the river bank for good.

But enough has been written about ‘The Wind in the Willows’ in the century since its publication, and I doubt I could contribute much else of interest. It’s an enduring classic of children’s literature that repays adult discovery, and if anyone reading this hasn’t glanced at it since they were small, then scare up a copy of the Oxford Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction and notes. What I’m really interested in now is the ‘forgotten’ Kenneth Grahame, the deeply reserved and eccentric bohemian who spent his career in the Bank of England; the children’s writer whose son savagely killed himself, and who preceded his best known book with a curious, whimsical collection of essays and two arch, superbly ironic books about (not for) young children. The cosy Edwardian had in fact been a late Victorian aesthete in many ways, publishing articles and stories in the notorious ‘Yellow Book’ and forging a style of paradoxical exuberance and precision that would go on to influence Kipling, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and (I would argue) Vladimir Nabokov.

Grahame’s first book, ‘Pagan Papers’, was a compilation of his earlier sketches, essays and articles, a composite portrait of the artist as a young bohemian. Musings on pipe smoking and pints of ale in country pubs share space with more considered reflections on book collecting, marginalia, ‘loafing’, and a wonderfully evocative sketch of ‘The Rural Pan’. It was Grahame’s second book, ‘The Golden Age’ (1895), that was his real breakthrough, a critically and commercially successful collection of stories and reminiscences about childhood that counted amongst its many unlikely fans both Theodore Roosevelt and Algernon Swinburne. In a series of linked stories, the narrator and his siblings play their childish games with deadly seriousness and muse on the mystery of the ‘Olympians’, the adults that provenance has put in charge of them, and whose motives remain utterly inscrutable. Grahame’s stylistic breakthrough here was to narrate the stories from the necessarily limited moral and intellectual perspective of a child, but to give him the language and the sinuous, elevated register of a gifted prose stylist. He uses this high, rhetorical style to present the everyday games and trials of middle-class Victorian children in way that both gives them an ironic distance, and frames them with all the resonance and power that the children in question would have experienced.

These are of course taken out of context, and perhaps don’t illustrate what I mean as forcefully as could the book entire, but here are a couple of examples, picked literally at random from the page. In one scene, sneaking down to the kitchen at night, the eldest child Edward togs himself up as a bold cavalier: “Whatever the audience, Edward, if possible, always dressed for his parts with care and conscientiousness; while Harold and I, true Elizabethans, cared little about the mounting of the piece, so long as the real dramatic heart of it beat sound.” Or, being sworn at by the farmer whose rowing boat they have stolen, the children wonder “where Farmer Larkin, who was bucolically bred and reared, had acquired such range and wealth of vocabulary.”

Sometimes the prose leaps gorgeously into the intimation of higher things; in my favourite chapter ‘The Secret Drawer’, pausing while he investigates an old bureau in a spare room, the narrator looks out of the window: “Westwards the clouds were massing themselves in a low violet bank; below them, to north and south, as far round as eye could reach, a narrow streak of gold ran out and stretched away, straight along the horizon. Somewhere very far off, a horn was blowing, clear and thin; it sounded like the golden streak grown audible, while the gold seemed the visible sound.” It is that far off golden note that rings through all of Grahame’s work, the pagan call of distant adventure, and a long road in the getting of it.

All this seems to raise further questions on the nature of ‘voice’ in narrative fiction. Not to name names, but I have always hated novels where the narrator’s perspective governs the language; in other words, books narrated by children that read as if they were written by children hold no immediate appeal. Rather than the objectively patronising approach of writing with one hand tied behind your back, Grahame’s style seems the most rewarding and the most sincere to me. Nothing other than ultimate meaning is held back from the children in ‘The Golden Age’ (and its sequel, ‘Dream Days’), and they are allowed to express their inner lives with all the vigour of a great talent reaching at full stretch, relishing his command of the language. A direct line can be drawn from this to, for example, Martin Amis’s ‘Money’, where the slobbish, ignorant and inarticulate John Self can narrate his own story with all the acuity of a writer pushing himself to his best achievement.

It’s incredible to think now, but Grahame had tremendous problems getting ‘The Wind in the Willows’ published. After the great success of his earlier books, no one could quite understand this woodland whimsy, and it’s rumoured that an American edition was only secured through the direct intervention of Roosevelt himself, who revered ‘The Golden Age’ and thought its author a genius. The adventures of Mr Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger will remain in print as long as books are read or stories told, but it’s something of a scandal that these three earlier books are currently out of print. Of course, in the infinite bazaar of the internet old copies can be found, but how much more of a tribute to their author would be a decent Oxford or Penguin Classics edition, available in all good bookshops etc, and set to introduce a new generation to one of the most beguiling and near-forgotten talents of the age?

The glove is thrown down; publishers, take up the challenge.

 

Book review – ‘Ian Nairn: Words in Place’ by Gillian Darley and David McKie

I first heard about the architectural critic Ian Nairn when I read an article about him by Jonathan Glancey, three and a half years ago. At the time, my interest in architecture was an offshoot of my interest in Ruskin, but it was Glancey’s portrait of Nairn as a tragic and outspoken figure that first captivated me. Mercurial and melancholic, he eventually diluted his talent with alcohol and died in relative obscurity. In the 1950s and 60s though, Nairn was one of the most savage and beguiling voices in his field, a self-taught outsider who brought an iconoclast’s perspective to the profession, and who was one of the most persuasive critics of planning and redevelopment in post-war Britain. I was eager to read more by him, but his books were all out of print. The library of the university where I worked at the time carried none of them on its shelves, and opportunists online were charging ridiculous sums for volumes like Outrage, Nairn’s London, and his editions of Pevsner’s Buildings of England: ‘Surrey’ and ‘Sussex’. I may have badly wanted to read Britain’s Changing Towns, but not to the extent of paying £1700 for it.

Happily, and probably as a result of Glancey’s article (and the short films which accompanied it), Nairn seems to be undergoing a mild renaissance. Always championed by writers like Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley, both of whom contribute short entries to this excellent collection of critical essays about the man, Nairn’s books could hopefully re-enter print. Indeed, Hatherley has just edited a new edition of Britain’s Changing Towns under the title Nairn’s Towns, issued by Notting Hill Editions this month. Even more happily, at the university where I now work I have just managed to secure a copy of Nairn’s London from the library stacks. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Darley and McKie approach Nairn’s career chronologically, which is also to approach it thematically. They take us from the early Outrage period, when he was writing for the Architectural Review, through to his broadcasting career making films for the BBC about British and European towns and buildings, and then on to his sad decline after a successful stint as a Sunday broadsheet features writer. By the 1980s Nairn had descended into alcoholism, and he died an early death, essentially unemployable. Jonathan Meades, who met him not long before he died, recalls that Nairn sank 14 pints over lunch. No one can live like that and not expect the worst.

As a writer and broadcaster Nairn was unafraid to speak his mind, and Darley and McKie perfectly capture his belligerence and critical force. He offered a purely visceral, sensual, subjective opinion of the styles and designs that moved him. Neither a conservative nor an arch-modernist, Nairn responded most to harmony and character, and he never lost sight of a fact that many architects and developers seem to have abandoned some time ago – the built environment should be subordinate to the people and the communities who live in it, not the other way around.

This is not to say that he favoured the bland over the dynamic though. Nairn could go into ecstasies about the best of Le Corbusier, even as he excoriated Corbusier’s more arrogant, self-parodic efforts. Brutalism can be harmonious too, in other words. In a way, his perspective was postmodern. He was drawn to a multiplicity of styles, gauging each only on its value as a lived experience. For Nairn, this meant an experience in context, not in the abstract.

There are a couple of his 1970s programmes on YouTube, and they exemplify both his humanising approach to the built environment and the way he seemed to take bad planning personally. His presenting style is certainly unique; hesitant, diffident, scruffy and conversational (and unscripted), Nairn strolls his way through ‘Across Britain – From Leeds into Scotland’, extemporising on the towns and villages he finds on the route. Carlisle exasperates him for its lack of control and blurred focus; Riccarton depresses him for the waste of its half-mile of platform, disused since the junction was closed down. There’s a wonderful scene at Hawick where, moved by the virtually abandoned storage depot buildings in the town’s grand railway station, he stands on a bridge over the empty line and gasps with disgust at all this useless dereliction. He flinches and looks away from the camera, his voice breaking as if he is going to start crying with rage.

Some would argue that Nairn’s humanising approach is, or would be in any other field, mere anthropocentrism (or even anthropomorphism), and he would probably agree. Buildings and places are not just designs to him, and he often referred contemptuously to ‘paper architects.’ He admires buildings and places for their character, as one would admire a person. Buildings ‘come out fighting’; features ‘leer’ or ‘grimace’, while flat roofs are often ‘inarticulate’ – they have nothing to say.

Although by all accounts devoid of a personal politics, Nairn’s disgust at the unthinking paternalism and elitism of much of the planning process is inherently political. Those who have the most to gain or lose from the quality and utility of the built environment are always those who have the least say in its design and production. No thought is ever given to them. This remains the case today, as the government’s housing policy is essentially a system of bribing the construction industry to build expensive flats for the benefit of buy-to-let landlords, who will rent them out at exorbitant charges to the very rich; or, on the other hand, to bribe potential homeowners with the ‘help to buy’ scheme, which guarantees mortgages irrespective of income, in an uneasy mirroring of the ‘sub-prime mortgage’ fiasco which brought the financial system crashing down in 2008. Architecture, then, remains the only artistic field in which both practise and criticism can have both aesthetic and political/social consequences. As Nairn spent his life arguing, it is too important to be left in too few hands.

Beyond all this, Nairn’s perspective was one of delight and disgust in the unique capacity of architecture to define place. Its marriage of science and art enthralled him, and he wrote and broadcast about it with vigour and passion. This excellent collection of essays is an ideal introduction to a powerful writer and personality who has languished in obscurity for too long. It is time to rediscover Ian Nairn, and through him to rediscover the cities, towns and villages in which we live.

Yet more reading in public

For someone who genuinely dislikes it (or at least dislikes the build-up to it, and who on the whole prefers his days to be free of the sight of dark clouds on the horizon), I seem to be doing more and more readings of my stuff in public. Last month it was Blackwell’s, this month it’s the open-mic night at the Skylark in Portobello, tomorrow evening (Friday 20th September). I don’t know how many people are reading in total, but I shall count myself amongst them. I’ll blog later about how it went.

I was also going to post something here about the latest Man Booker Prize controversy (in the same way Martin Amis suggested American readers might think it’s actually called the ‘Prestigious Booker Prize’, I sometimes think of its official title as the ‘Controversial Booker Prize’ – only it’s not really controversial, and every gesture towards controversy seems utterly contrived), but in the end I find I have nothing in particular to say about it. Perhaps, as the dust clears and the battle lines become more emphatically drawn, I’ll lend my weighty opinion to one side or the other. But the decision seems to have achieved its main aim anyway, which is to generate discussion, which in turn generates free publicity, which in turn generates sales of the shortlisted books, which in turn generates further prestige and controversy for the Controversially Prestigious Man Booker Prize. Job done.

Book review: The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

I would have been drawn to this book regardless of the author or the subject matter, on the strength of the imprint alone. As a huge fan of Hammer Studios‘ productions (I have the epic box-set to prove it), I think it has been a masterstroke to revive the brand simultaneously in both cinema and literature. Even better, rather than trusting the job to hacks or pulp-scribblers, they have recruited serious and celebrated writers like Helen Dunmore, Julie Myerson, Sophie Hannah, Melvyn Burgess and, here, Jeanette Winterson, to bring a literary sensibility to these tales of horror and suspense. Horror is always contemporary, no matter how outlandish the scenario or distant the setting; what scares us is what defines us, or what we define ourselves against.

It’s also interesting that of the five titles published so far under the new Hammer imprint, four of them are by women. I do not want to make any generalisations here, but I wonder if the female sensibility responds more fully to the ambiguity that is at the heart of any successful portrayal of the supernatural? This is not to stereotype female writers as purveyors of mood and feeling only, but as perhaps less absolute in their judgements. In any case, Winterson’s bold, disturbing exploration of the notorious Pendle Witch Case of 1612 demolishes that stereotype with aplomb – this is a visceral, violent, and pitiless tale.

In the feverish atmosphere of the early 17th century, Lancashire was seen as a hotbed of recusant Catholicism, outlawry, and witchcraft, and not the least achievement of ‘The Daylight Gate’ is to demonstrate the nexus of paranoia that was created from these seemingly disparate elements. In the minds of many, including King James, the three were essentially the same thing: ‘Witchery popery popery witchery’, as the saying went. In 1612, a series of local disputes came to a violent head when a local pedlar, John Law, accused Alizon Device of casting a spell on him that left him paralysed. Of those caught up in the net of accusation were Alizon’s extended family, and a local businesswoman called Alice Nutter. After months of torture and interrogation, ten of the eleven accused were executed for practising witchcraft.

Winterson goes beyond these bare facts to explore the network of relationships that gathered these women together, and without judgement leaves it to the reader’s imagination whether some of them genuinely believed they had magical powers or whether it was in some way a natural response to their oppression and marginalisation. The images of talking spiders, muttering severed heads, and the ‘Dark Gentleman’ who appears in their dungeon could be explained away by their fear and hunger, but could also be the residuum of a pagan belief system not quite wiped out by the dominant religion. Through the character of Alice Nutter, Winterson also introduces the ideas of alchemy and renaissance ‘magick’ that were prevalent at the time. A former disciple of the Elizabethan magus Dr John Dee, Alice is supposed to have made her fortune from her alchemical studies, which resulted not in base metal being turned into gold, but a more prosaic system of fabric dye that gives her magenta dress its luminous shine. With her lover Elizabeth Southern, Alice had lived an intellectually and sexually fulfilling life in London, until Elizabeth was drawn to the darker side of these magical explorations. It is this relationship that eventually pulls Alice into the bog of hatred and paranoia in the town of Pendle, many years later.

Winterson relies rather too much on exposition to get much of this context across, but the spareness of her style here is very effective at conveying the numbing regularity of violence in a world of extreme poverty and superstition. The casualness of Sarah Device’s sexual assault when being questioned by local constables is horrific in the proper sense of the word, and when Alice’s lover Kit Southworth recounts his castration and torture for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, he also mentions being raped by his jailers. Threaded throughout the book is a seam of sexual violence and exploitation – of prisoners by their guards, of children by their parents, and of marginalised women by the men who lord over them. The true horror in the book is not the threat of witchcraft, not the severed heads and demonic apparitions, but the exercise of power by the powerful over the weak. In contrast to this are the examples of the generous and accepting sexual lives led by Kit, Alice, and Elizabeth, a meeting of ideas as well as bodies, in an environment where no ideas are judged or outlawed.

There are a few weak links in the novel; the style is sometimes too spare, the chapters occasionally perfunctory, and the cameo appearance by William Shakespeare perhaps slightly unnecessary. But then what Winterson is doing here is showing us the truth of the Bard’s adage, that the past is foreign country, and they do things differently there. As Winterson is aware though, this is only half of the truth. None may be hanged for witchcraft now, but the witch hunt has its analogues in public life, and the powerful will always do their best to make the lives of the weak a misery. Under what could have been a rather throwaway imprint, Winterson has written something provocative and political, and genuinely horrific.

Thanks to Philippa at Random House for the review copy

Next Big Thing

This questionnaire has been doing the rounds amongst unpublished/recently published writers in Scotland, and thanks to Kirsti Wishart I’ve been tagged on the list, so here are my answers below:

What’s the title of your latest story?

The last thing I finished was a novel called ‘In Borderlands’.

Where did the idea for the story (or, in this case, novel) come from?

It came mostly from a single image that just popped into my head many years ago, of a man tied to a tree and waiting for something terrible to happen. (In the end, this image doesn’t appear in the book at all, but it was the source for everything that followed.) In addition, I was interested in the idea of someone failing to be punished for something terrible they had done, and how you would deal with that if you didn’t particularly care. (Again, this doesn’t really feature in the completed book. The ideas that get the ball rolling are rarely what make it to the final cut.)

What genre does your story fall under?

Although I don’t think of it as a ‘genre’, I’m aware that plenty of people do these days – so, it could be part of that much-maligned category called ‘literary fiction.’ I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ‘experimental’, but it’s broadly non-realist.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie?

I think that one of the most pernicious trends of recent cultural history is the idea that no work can be fully validated until it has been converted into a film. Cinema, for purely monetary reasons, is seen as the apex of cultural achievement, and books and comics (especially) are rarely seen as anything other than templates or rough drafts for the movies. No one would think that a novelisation of a film is anything other than money-grubbing trash, but you rarely hear people saying the opposite. Not everything could or should be filmed. It’s one of the reasons why poetry, as a form, will last longer than anything else; because it resists this kind of cultural appropriation. But saying all that, Werner Herzog would be an obvious choice to play one of the characters, and whichever generic British actor in his thirties happens to see the script would do for the main character – the blander the better.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?

“Nathan Nixon is content with his solitary, directionless life, but when he is accused of manslaughter he finds himself on a strange journey from the Scottish Borders to a collapsing North African state, in the company of vagabonds, mercenaries, and a dangerous crew of guerilla filmmakers. Entering an ambiguous zone between countries, between dreams and reality, and even between life and death, Nathan eventually finds himself back where he started – only to discover that his experiences have changed him beyond recognition.”

That’s two sentences I know, but you could replace the full stop with a semi-colon I suppose? Anyway, sounds good, doesn’t it? I’d definitely read it …

Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully represented by an agency – I’ve just started that life-affirming process of trying to get an agent and/or publisher interested. Watch this space. (Of course, if any agent or publisher is watching this space, then please get in touch! You’d save me a lot of time and bother.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Just over three years. It was originally an insane and unwieldy 200,000 words long, but I’ve managed to scale it back to around 150,000. It’s fairly long, but not overwhelmingly so.

What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

I found this question quite difficult to answer, not because the book is so wonderful and unique that it defies comparison (which, obviously, it does), but because you try to block out all other influences or analogues while you’re writing, and to make comparisons after the fact seems a bit artificial. Anyway, it has vague affinities with Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’, Jennifer Egan’s work, a superb novel by Steven Amsterdam called ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’, the poetry of John Burnside, and, in a strange and not immediately obvious way, the fiction of Geoff Dyer. I think these affinities are mostly tonal and structural, rather than anything to do with subject matter, and obviously I have to add the disclaimer that I’m not trying to say my work is anywhere near as good. And what’s odd is that these are all writers I started reading only after I was well embarked on the book; they’re not necessarily influences on my writing as a whole (of which I would include the great JG Ballard, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, VS Naipaul, and, again in a strange and not immediately obvious way, Denis Johnson).

Who or what inspired you to write this story?

I’m wholly against the idea of ‘inspiration’, if what the term means is a generative source coming from outside the writer, forcing him or her to write. (The definition of the word, after all, is, ‘to breathe life into.’) What makes me write in general is some kind of weird inner compulsion that I wouldn’t dare to analyse, and a relentless, all-consuming obsession with words and language. At the same time, I like to think that it’s possible and necessary to convey or communicate, through language, the simultaneously incredibly profound and incredibly boring life experience of the average human being; in particular, to deal with that old existential, absurdist question, How do you find value in a world without meaning? (But funny.) Some kind of combination of the two inspired this book, as well as general notions of chance and consequence. There was also a sequence of images I had in my head that I wanted to link together, for reasons that defy explanation.

What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

If you like hyenas, then this book features hyenas.

What’s next?

I’m working on a second novel, provisionally called ‘Cemetery Songs’, about two poets meeting in the ruins of a bombed-out city. Thematically, it’s very broadly about the oppositions between civil and vatic poetry, or lyricism and modernism, and about the way culture is artificially constructed and used towards political ends. (But funny.)

So that’s that! According to the chain letter blog tagging rules, I have to pass this on to five more writers, who will each pass it on to five more etc etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know five other writers who have blogs, I only know three!

And one of them doesn’t even have a blog, so this time next week I will graciously grant him space on mine to answer the same set of questions – he is, of course, the great Martin MacInnes, who has been published in the Edinburgh Review, who co-edits Free State with me, and who is writing about evolutionary biology, Ascension Island and disappearance, amongst many other subjects.

Second is Glasgow-based graphic artist/writer Coll Hamilton, who is co-writer/artist of the online graphic novel ‘Amber and Chelsea’, and whose work has recently been shown as part of the Royal Scottish Academy’s Open Exhibition.

Third is Hannah Renowden – journalist, blogger, and, most importantly, contributor to Free State.

(Neither Coll or Hannah have got back to me on this yet, so very possibly by tagging them like this I might spur them to action. Or not.)

Edit: I can also now add to the list my good colleague Rosie Phenix-Walker, graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing MA programme, and ace bookseller, who writes a blog here!

Enjoy, and see you back here next week for Martin’s answers.

Book review: ‘Joseph Anton’, by Salman Rushdie

No book by Salman Rushdie can ever have an entirely neutral reception. He has entered history in a way not normally reserved for writers of fiction, and since the fatwa that was issued by the dying Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Rushdie has lived to a greater or lesser extent under the threat of violent assassination. In this absorbing, enthralling, occasionally irritating memoir, Rushdie plunges into the maelstrom of events that saw him condemned to death by the head of a theocratic foreign power for having written a novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, that was deemed ‘offensive to Islam.’ Salman Rushdie the person disappeared into a host of competing characters – the ‘Satan Rushdie’ of demonstrators’ placards; the ‘Rushdie’ of the Rushdie Affair; and ‘Joseph Anton’, the pseudonym he cobbled together from the first names of two of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov. Even his book was denied the definite article, and, almost self-condemned, became no more than ‘Satanic Verses.’ Reading about the web of security in which he was caught, the sense in which his life was being directed by forces entirely outside his control, one wonders whether a pseudonym like ‘Joseph K.’ would have been even more appropriate. Throughout his ordeal – and no one after having read this book can side for a moment with the mean-spirited Daily Mail tendency that claimed all this security was present merely to stroke his massive ego – Rushdie tries to retain a sense of himself as a man and a writer. This does not come without a cost, and Rushdie is scathingly honest about his fears and failings, his infidelities, his inability at times, locked in the prison of his security, to act as a proper father, husband or friend. Finally, after much behind the scenes diplomatic intervention, and after commendable protest groups and awareness campaigns have managed to keep the Rushdie Affair in the public eye, the Iranian theocracy backs down and claims the fatwa will no longer be enforced. Shortly afterwards of course, September 11, 2001 makes of the Rushdie Affair an overture to the main event.

Rushdie has approached his story in the third person, and what seems at first a slightly curious stylistic device makes perfect sense the further into the book you read. All the personae that were forced on to him by other, self-interested actors, effectively estranged him from himself. So unreal is the situation, so smothering and bizarre, that it does at times feel as if it’s happening to another person. Beyond this, Rushdie is keen to stress the key issue at stake in the unprecedented situation in which he found himself. As he gradually comes to realise, the larger question here is not the life and death of one writer, but the life or death of an idea. Free expression is everything or it is nothing, and a world in which tyrannical regimes can with impunity suborn the deaths of writers or artists for the unpalatable nature of their ideas is not a free world in any way, shape or form. It is depressing and enraging in equal measure to read of the petty vindictiveness with which the Tory government and the tabloid press greeted his plight, and it comes as no surprise that, by the end of the book and the end of his period in hiding, Rushdie begins to associate the United States with a purer degree of freedom than is available to him in the United Kingdom. He is never less than extremely grateful and complimentary to the men and women who formed his security detail, but it is clear that at the higher levels politics intruded more than once on the way in which he was protected. Even more depressing is to read of the relativist attacks on him from the left; John Le Carre comes out of this particularly badly, as does Roald Dahl and (my heart lowered to read of it, because I revere him) so does John Berger. The claim that Rushdie effectively deserved what he got because he ‘knew what he was doing’ is particularly asinine. As he makes clear, it’s not as if he could write a novel of 250,000 words by accident, but no one could possibly have predicted the sheer scale of the response.

Of course, in the world of the late 1980s, Rushdie was not alone in finding himself persecuted for his ideas. Closer at hand, in the communist dictatorships of the Soviet bloc, writers had long known the true value of literature. He writes at length about the gradual opening up of the Cold War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall (which of course also took place in 1989), and the fall of the Soviet Union, and, recounting writers’ conferences and festivals throughout the world, draws fascinating portraits of figures such as Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz. Rushdie to a small extent aligns his experience with the experience of dissident writers in the communist bloc, but in a way he could have made much more of this correspondence. If there is one major failing to the book, it is in Rushdie’s reluctance to offer any deeper analysis of the context in which the fatwa was made. There is a broad, correlative relationship between the collapse of Soviet communism and the global rise of militant Islam, and to blame the vicious intolerance of the Iranian regime, or the unsmiling response of self-styled ‘Muslim leaders’ in Britain on nothing more than ‘religion’ only answers half the question. Rushdie’s fiction deals above all with worlds in flux, with shifting identities and the reeling uncertainty of the migrant experience. Not to quite understand that there was more to the fatwa than a hardline adherence to scriptural doctrine demonstrates an uncommon inability on Rushdie’s part to connect.

As the book continues, its sources become more obvious. Rushdie must have drawn extensively on his diaries, because he has a tendency at times to offer checklists of events rather than explorations of them, and the more celebrated a figure he becomes, the more the reader must skim through the names of the great and the good at parties, conferences and festivals. I don’t particularly care that he had lunch with Warren Beatty, that he had a date with Meg Ryan, that he hung out with Bono and the rest of U2, or that Nigella Lawson is a close, personal friend. But these are small complaints to make of a large, sprawling, important book, one that brings to life one of the key events of the late twentieth century, with a plot and a dramatis personae more outlandish than any work of fiction. Reading it, you have the sense that one phase of Rushdie’s career is finally over, and it only remains to be seen what he will do next.

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.