Film-makers use jump cuts, freeze frames, slow motion.
Film-makers use jump cuts, freeze frames, slow motion.
Musicians remix, scratch, sample. Can't we writers have some fun as well? We are now living in the future. How disappointing this period seems compared with the world we promised ourselves. With the Dome, the millennial celebrations and the general feeling of "Was that it?" behind us, we have become slaves to cynicism, artificial passions and desperately forced excitements. It is not a time for great art. However, if it is fuelled by world-weariness alone, the future may not last long. Perhaps, in our imaginations, we could bypass this period entirely. I would like to discuss a possible literature, the kind of writing that will take place in the post-future age. One symptom of the current future is the perceived sorry state of the English novel. The people who complain that the English novel is dead spend the rest of their time praising the latest masterwork that manages to tell a good story in a simple enough manner. In other words, a retreat is made into the past. Almost every novel published this year will use a template invented three centuries ago, and set in stone during the Victorian age.
Those few books that do try a new approach are met with tired groans. This is the fashionable ennui of current emotion. The writers are being too clever, there's too much going on, too many ideas, it's too much like hard work. Oh, the constant laments of this or that book being unreadable.
What the naysayers really mean is that they themselves cannot read it. It's too difficult for them. Compared with what? Jeffrey Archer? James Joyce? What is this benchmark of readability? Ian McEwan, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie? What are these lines drawn in the sand, over which writers are not supposed to tread? Have we lost the courage to engage with a challenging text?
Two British writers, Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne, recently made a set of 10 rules by which to create fiction. The collection of stories they put together, All Hail the New Puritans, is a peculiar document. Fifteen fairly young writers have decided to remove all traces of formal density from their work. There are to be no flashbacks, no authorial voices, no dual narratives. The writers will "shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms".
The New Puritans have nailed their colours to the mast, and what a drab, lifeless banner it is. These are the dry, deft, slightly engaging tales that so many of our writers produce already, without any rules other than fixed tradition. The small thing, done well; a fearsome denial of the imagination.
Where does this fixation with the linear narrative come from? By dismissing the textual adventures of Joyce, British writers stayed true to the old pleasures of straightforward storytelling. This leads to our current situation, where the vast majority of novelists are still intent on drawing a single narrative thread through a complex world.
Yet we live daily in a web of connections, all of us becoming adept at riding the multiple layers of information. This is the fluid society. Tracing pathways through this intricate landscape needs a different kind of narrative art. It is in this spirit of adventure that I envisage the post-future novel.
I do not mean a refusal to tell stories. But we need to expand the notion of what a story is, and to seek out new ways of telling these stories. We need to be brave in this, as writers, as critics, and as readers.
It is pertinent, in this regard, to look at the recent novel House of Leaves, by the American writer Mark Z Danielewski. More a vast, convoluted labyrinth than a simple book, House of Leaves contains wondrous delights on every page. There are poems, photographs, quotations, areas of text printed upside down, almost blank pages, footnotes, an index, a playful use of typography. The book also tells a great story. Searching for the narrative clues scattered throughout the text becomes an intense pleasure.
I would propose that this book is one of the first examples of post-futurism. It is exactly the kind of storytelling we now need. House of Leaves was a big success in the States. It is interesting to imagine what the critical reaction to the book would have been in this country if the novel had been written by a British author. Could such a beautifully complex story even be told at this time, on this damp, grey island?
By reaching towards an imaginary literature, the post-future novel offers itself as a way forward. First of all, we have to accept that English writing has been far too slow in its adoption of avant-garde techniques, in comparison with popular music, art and films. The narrative fabric of the latest cult movie is woven through with jump cuts, freeze-frames, montage, slow motion shots, tracking shots, hand-held camera techniques, and the like. House, hip-hop and garage recordings contain elements of remixing, scratching and sampling.
We can also look at the branching narratives of computer games, at the strange connections that hypertext links reveal on the internet, at the games played with image and text in a graphic novel.
All of these are fluid mediums, for a fluid society. Set against such material, no wonder the contemporary novel seems moribund. As writers, we need to open ourselves up to this fluidity. What are the prose equivalents of the tracking shot, the hyperlink, the remix, the freeze-frame? As readers, we need to bring the expertise we use when enjoying a film or a piece of visual art into our appreciation of the novel.
As I write this, I'm playing Decks, EFX and 909, a CD by the techno DJ and musician Richie Hawtin. Listening to it now, an idea has come to me. I'll present this idea as the possible outline of a post-futurist novel. The CD consists of 38 pieces of music, played on a number of turntables, with two or three records being played simultaneously. Hawtin includes a diagram on the CD's sleeve, which depicts where each record begins and ends.
The DJ also employs the other two devices mentioned in the title, a special effects processor, and a Roland 909 drum machine. With these various elements, Hawtin produces a coherent musical narrative. I use the word "narrative" without compromise. Anybody who has enjoyed a good DJ set in a nightclub will attest to this sense of a story being unfolded through the music.
With this in mind, we could use Richie Hawtin's CD as the template for a novel. We need to create 38 stories, which then blend into each other using the CD's diagram as a guide. As one story comes to an end, another story, or two other stories, are mixed into it. These new stories are then carried on, until further stories are added to the mix.
Hawtin will return to the same record twice, or to a different remix of the record; we can use this technique to allow our various stories to reappear at different places in the narrative. The special effects and the drum machine elements can be interpreted in their own ways, according to the individual imagination. There are no rules, only opportunities. Above all, imagine the pleasure gained from following the various stories through the mix.
This gives just one possible structure for a post-futurist novel. I now want to talk a little about the language that such a novel could use. We have become very adept in this country, at writing "books". By this, I mean that we tend to concentrate on the big picture, rather than the interplay of words.
Looked at in a different light, however, words become a liquid medium, a malleable substance capable of being transformed in surprising ways. Words can be stretched, broken, melted, drugged, mutated, forced into submission, set free. We need writers who revel in the wild excitement of language, at this deepest level, creating a kind of dub fiction.
Our writing will then be charged, sensual, and alive with the poetic effects the New Puritans fear so much. Let us not be afraid of intensity of expression.
Hip-hop DJs have a phrase to describe the detailed, moment to moment controlling of a set of turntables, celebrated in the classic early track by Gang Starr, "DJ Premier in Deep Concentration". The post-futurist novel will employ just such a concentration in its use of language.
At the same time, it will utilise a fluid, organic structure, a network of storylines. It will be experimental, and yet will place a firm accent on the portrayal of human desires. It will be Raymond Chandler writing Ulysses, James Joyce writing The Big Sleep. It will move away from lazy cynicism and nihilism. Post-futurism reveres the narrative imagination. If the English novel is truly dead, we should place a flower on its grave, trample down the dirt. Now is the time to raise up the fragile, blossoming ghost.