In its Beginning is its End

“In its Beginning is its End.” The Guardian Weekly, 6 December 2013, p. 39.

What exactly is the problem with the realist novel and why does it persist, asks Andrew Gallix

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time.

American literary critic Fredric Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

It was a product of the tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As essayist Jorge Luis Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

In the new novel Robbe-Grillet called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken: something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel”, while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing…seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

Unfinished

Barry Schwabsky, “Can an Unfinished Piece of Art Also Be Complete?,” The Nation 14 April 2016

In his recent book Dividuum, the philosopher Gerald Raunig hypothesizes that current technology offers the possibility of a new “type of interactive and activating writing.” Raunig imagines a future in which data about reading is harvested from e-book readers to “recursively affect the production of books, of texts altogether.” Writers would be required to revise, abridge, or otherwise recast their now perpetually unfinished books in accordance with data about the “democratically” determined preferences of readers. All books would be crowdsourced, and writers would become the slaves of “an endless feedback loop and chain of ever new versions.” The modernist idea of “the open art work,” Raunig warns, could become a “Sisyphean nightmare.”

What Raunig envisions is a far cry from the “definitively unfinished” works that we’re familiar with from history. On the one hand, there are those that have come down to us in an unpolished or fragmentary state—because of, say, the artist’s untimely death, their inability to envision a way to proceed past a certain point, or simply the intervention of chance. On the other hand, there are works that are deliberately unfinished or unfinishable, including all instances of what Umberto Eco characterized as “the open work” in his in his 1962 classic of the same name — works whose very structure depends on indeterminacy, most obviously the aleatoric music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Luciano Berio. (Strangely, Eco doesn’t mention John Cage.)

Other art forms have their own variants, such as Nanni Balestrini’s novel Tristano, in which the order of the text varies in every printed copy — its publishers claim there are 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations—or Stan Douglas’s video Journey Into Fear (2001), in which a 15-minute film loop is synched to bits of dialogue that are scrambled and recombined by a computer in combinations that play out for more than six consecutive days. Such works may not be literally infinite in scope, but no one reader could ever experience all their various instantiations. They evoke what might be called a kind of mathematical sublime, to borrow Kant’s phrase.

The question of finish was crucial to the emergence of modernism. The gauntlet was first thrown down by Manet, whose works in the 1860s were declared by critics to be unfinished — in fact, not even paintings but mere sketches. Similarly, a few years later, Whistler was accused by the Victorian sage himself, John Ruskin, of doing nothing more than “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” But Baudelaire had already anticipated the howls of Manet’s and Whistler’s denigrators when he observed, in 1845, “that in general what is ‘completed’ is not ‘finished’ and that a thing ‘finished’ in detail may well lack the unity of the ‘completed’ thing.” From Manet and Whistler (or, indeed, from their predecessor Corot, who was the object of Baudelaire’s defense) until today, artistic modernism has been inseparable from the critique of finish. And this change in painting and sculpture occurred in tandem with similar developments in the other arts. Consider the difference, for example, between the omniscient narrator of the high Victorian novel and Flaubert’s style indirect libre, which depends on the reader making implicit connections and intuiting unmarked shifts in viewpoint; or, in the 20th century, the rejection by modernist architects of ornament—which had long been considered indispensable to a building’s finish—as something that, as August Perret remarked, “generally conceals a defect in construction.”

For all that, the force of the unfinished was far from a discovery of the 19th century, as Kelly Baum and Andrea Bayer point out in the catalog for “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” the exhibition they’ve curated with Sheena Wagstaff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (…) They cite the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who observed in the first century “that the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures…are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts.”

(…) Such truly unfinished works are rare in the second act of “Unfinished,” as are those whose status is ambiguous, where it’s unclear whether they were finished or not—as in the case of the van Eyck Saint Barbara or some of the Turners — or are obviously incomplete yet somehow unaccountably powerful, leaving viewers in doubt as to how they could have possibly been brought to any greater degree of completion. These are the cases in which art presents the problem of finish as an irresolvable epistemological question.

(…) It’s hard to say. Is Walter Benjamin’s unfinished, perhaps unfinishable Arcades Project a quagmire or a posthumous triumph? I can’t help but think of a line that has haunted me for years, though I’ve forgotten the name of the book where I found it. Somewhere, the Mexican mystery writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II speaks of the absurd marriage between a book that will never be written and the man who will never write it. One’s involuted relation to the work is that of a debt in the worst sense: “the relation of a debtor who will never finish paying to a creditor who will never finish up using the interest on the debt” (the words are Gilles Deleuze’s).

The Met Breuer’s treatment of the unfinished is itself unfinished, because the true saints or heroes or victims of the unfinished cannot be seen there or anywhere. They are its unknown masters. In his 1988 novel The Botanical Garden, Jean Frémon — a remarkable writer who also happens to be a gallerist — introduces a minor character, one Pinto, a painter “who managed to pass unseen.” I assume that, like many of the book’s other characters, Pinto is based on a real person. “The devotion he bore for painting was equaled in intensity only by the hatred he expressed for his own production,” Frémon writes.

As a general rule, his passion for self-denigration led him to destroy any painting which might be able to pass as finished and to retain only those in which failure was manifest, the only ones toward which he showed a little interest and affection. “It’s because,” he said, “they still need me, they call to me, they keep me alive, they are still waiting for the inner light, a simple stroke, perhaps a single brush-stroke.”
There were thus hundreds of them, arranged standing, in staggered rows, leaning against one another, and he wandered among them all day murmuring, “A stroke, just a stroke.”

Later, toward the end of the novel, Pinto is given a posthumous retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art. That, I suspect, is the wholly invented part of his story.

The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

Un livre sur rien

Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, 16 January 1852

Ce qui me semble beau, ce que je voudrais faire, c’est un livre sur rien, un livre sans attache extérieure, qui se tiendrait de lui-même par la force interne de son style, comme la terre sans être soutenue se tient en l’air, un livre qui n’aurait presque pas de sujet ou du moins où le sujet serait presque invisible, si cela se peut. Les œuvres les plus belles sont celles où il y a le moins de matière. […] C’est pour cela qu’il n’y a ni beaux ni vilains sujets et qu’on pourrait presque établir comme axiome, en se plaçant au point de vue de l’Art pur, qu’il n’y en a aucun, le style étant à lui seul une manière absolue de voir les choses.

What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible.

Reverse Striptease

This is the phantom foreword to H. P. Tinker’s short-story collection, The Swank Bisexual Wine Bar of Modernity (2007). It went through several incarnations, before the author finally decided he wanted the book to stand alone; forewordless. And this is me in La Baule, on 21 July 2006, writing the aforementioned piece whilst shamelessly flaunting my bald patch (picture taken through the open window by my now-phantom spouse, Emilie Gallix).

Reverse Striptease

…’Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit,’ the Consul liked to say…
– Malcolm Lowry,
Under the Volcano

Privately Paul Gauguin considers himself an undiscovered genius. “But,” he tells Woody Allen over the phone, “What happens to an undiscovered genius when his genius is finally discovered? What is that all about? Where does he go then?”
– HP Tinker, “Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”

In one of the stories collected here, the mourners attending the funeral of an anonymous writer suddenly wonder: “So, what do we know of the author? Do we really know anything at all?” (“The Death of the Author” p. 105). The same question could be asked of HP Tinker himself. Despite the occasional circling Trewin or Prosser, he remains elusive; a cult figure on the literary fringes (1). This self-styled “Thomas Pynchon of Chorlton-cum-Hardy” claims that “writers should be read, not seen” and that “the work should speak for itself” (2). The work itself, however, is wilfully keeping shtum… (3)

…”Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor”, for instance — which mimics the clapped-out conventions of celebrity documentaries — takes Joe Orton’s satire of tabloidese and vox pops to its illogical conclusion. A voiceover-style narrative is interspersed with the Post-Impressionist’s impressions and snippets of interviews: “Paul loves to laugh and to make other people laugh. He also loves to dance. He has been blessed with the gift of tap. Not a lot of people know that” (p. 7). These soundbites come courtesy of a gaggle of friends and acquaintances ranging from the plausible (Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec) to the risible (Edith Piaf, Carl Jung or Nico). Such glaring anachronisms serve to break down the barriers of rationality and conjure up a world of promiscuous commingling where the pleasure principle runs riot (4). The mockumentary format is ideally suited to the episodic nature of Tinker’s stories with their air-tight paragraphs à la Flaubert, their picaresque jumpcuts from one incident to the next, or their wild goose chases “via a chain of wholly convoluted plot developments” (“Kandahar!” p. 19).

Direction, or the lack thereof, is a leitmotif throughout this anthology and, indeed, the author’s entire corpus to date. Consider “Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker”, with its self-reflexive Jules Verne-meets-Todorov-on Sarah Records title and disconcerting final sentence: “…I decide to solicit legal advice on precisely which direction I should be proceeding in” (p. 117). “Where are we going?” (p. 17) wonders Paul Gauguin mirroring the reader’s bafflement as the opening story careers towards its unlikely close. The artist’s question echoes the paragraph composed solely of the word “lost” repeated (for some reason) 92 times (p. 14) which, in turn, reflects the labyrinthine “Morrissey Exhibition” with its disorienting carpet scheme: “You can certainly get lost in there. Totally lost. Completely lost. Utterly lost. Horribly, horribly, lost. So horribly lost that you fear you might never find yourself again” (p. 128). The narrator of the ironically-titled “You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” confesses, “I needed to find myself, or at least somebody similar” (5) only to find himself (or at least somebody similar) accidentally in Stockholm where “the streets thronged with lost sports commentators asking for directions”. The “oddly convoluted directions” (p. 27) he is himself offered give rise to a Proustian travelogue (6) which — as is common in Tinker’s fiction — reduces locale to bare toponymy: “I licked my wounds in Lisbon and Tangiers. Then ate surprisingly badly in Madrid. Next, the warm air of Dakar stang my lungs. (I ignored Istanbul completely.)” (p. 30). “Son of Sinbad” concludes with the very thought that the only uncharted territories are indeed those of the imagination: “‘There’s nothing out there,’ he says, ‘you understand that, don’t you?’ and you say, ‘Yes, oh yes,’ eyes swimming with disappointment, knee-deep in thoughts of yawning oceans, uncrossed beaches, man-made islands, wine-dark women, unfashionably family-orientated coastal resorts…” (p. 49).

Angst proving resistant to geography, the itinerary morphs into a “search for experience”, a “quest for something different” (“Kandahar!” p. 22); rerouted inwards it thus becomes a journey of “self-discovery”, as the peripatetic protagonist of “Vic Chews It Over” — Vic, presumably — puts it (p. 38). However, all this experimentation only leads to an aporetic cul-de-sac that is strangely reminiscent of the fate of post-Symbolist Western literature: “I fell into abstraction. I travelled through complex textures, however dense and demoralising they became. I dug down, deep into the langue and parole of the situation. Words that once meant an awful lot to me, now held little or no meaning in my current context” (p. 30). In a few deft sentences, HP Tinker charts the far-reaching (philosophical as well as literary) consequences of the (Mallarmean but also Barthelmean) disjunction between signifier and signified.

When the misguided anti-hero of “Kandahar!” follows the directions of a Firbankian monk he discovers in his hotel bathroom (eating gazpacho and listening to Limp Bizkit), we know that his odyssey is bound to come full circle: “…and following his directions, I set off on a journey, following and swimming his directions, swimming across an open sea from one island, and jumping from the top of a 120-foot waterfall, swimming his directions from one island to another, crawling past armed guards…but swimming back because it got late, so late the monk was already sleeping in my bed by the time I got back to my room…” (pp. 23-24). We have now reached the “literary pottage” of postmodernism (“Death of the Author” p. 108), the eternally-recycled primordial alphabet soup — and a very weird soup it is too.

Placing undecidability at the heart of his work, HP Tinker positively revels in the negativity of this impasse. “Nobody,” we are told, “is quite sure” what “exactly took place between the paper-thin walls of the Mexican sex hotel” (“Mexican Sex Hotel” p. 52). If Robert Rauschenberg transformed the erasure of a de Kooning drawing into a work of art, the author goes one step further by erasing a non-existent original. His short stories? Allegories pointing — most impolitely — to a subtext which is not really there (8). Rites of passage leading nowhere, except up their own ars rhetorica, like so many quests without grails. Hatfuls of hollow — without hats. The literary equivalent of losing something you never actually had in the first place, and then going looking for it again. At great length.

Most characters here are hankering after some ever-elusive — oft-illusive — goal. The General, for instance, inhabits “an intricate warren” of rooms which form “a mysterious labyrinth he can wander through, dusting and hoovering the narrow passageways as he goes about his business, as if in search of some unknown land” (p. 31). Entering the Mexican sex hotel is “like stepping into another world” of passages “shelving off into mysteriously-darkened chambers” (p. 51). The quest for an “unknown land”, “another world” — the “Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity” itself, if you will — leads one into a maze from which there is no escape, a “corridor of illusions” (“Le Fantastique Voyage de HP Tinker” p. 114) built to baffle: “What level am I on? You may well ask, on occasion. Is that way up or down? What’s through that door? Where in the name of Jesus am I?” (“The Morrissey Exhibition” p. 128). Spatial topsy-turviness provides a perfect metaphor for the mock-heroic (8) reversal of high and low registers which so often contributes — mainly through incongruous juxtapositions — to the mind-boggling confusion of reader, character, narrator and author alike: “You are totally confused and understand nothing” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 80).

This descent into nothingness (“The next morning, in the shaving mirror: an empty space,” “You Can Go Home Again” p. 120) is perhaps best illustrated by Tinker’s penchant for pulp pastiche. Take “The Investigation”, a story which brazenly advertises its mock-epistemological dimension: “It is an investigation into meaning…meaning, do you see?” (p. 79). Unlike your run-of-the-mill whodunnit — where the criminal is eventually brought to book — this (clearly ontological) investigation reveals nothing whatsoever. On the contrary, refusing to let in daylight upon magic, Tinker adds layer upon layer of opacity as if performing one of his characters’ customary reverse stripteases (9). Unsurprisingly, we learn in fine that “The investigation goes on”, a denouement as open-ended as Tinker’s fiction itself (p. 68)…

So what exactly will you find inside the Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity? Bawdy moustaches. The wildest of similes (10). Donald Barthelme rutting with a buxom Oulipian in the pale fire of a Nabokovian footnote. Morrisseyspotting aplenty. Devastating satire of Swiftian proportions (11). Lashings of hardcore gastroporn (12). Bewildering Lynchian filmic devices. Uncanny Orton pastiches (13). A recurrent association between artistic creation and immoderate masturbation. Relentless self-reflexivity; postmodernism gone mad (14). A very British brand of Surrealism that owes as much to the Goon Show, Monty Python or Glen Baxter as to the Continental heavyweights. At times, the feeling of Woody Allen stranded on a Carry On film set. Whereas his absurdist forebears could only gratify us with a sardonic grimace, Tinker does laugh-out-loud. Whereas much “experimental” fiction is deserving of study yet tiresome to sit down and read, he reconciles — seemingly effortlessly — the avant-garde with the plaisir du texte. His thrilling “A-level Surrealism” (“You Can Probably Guess My Trajectory” p. 29) — as far removed from the cosy world of Amis or Barnes as it is possible to get (15) — manages the feat of being at once experimental and accessible. The book you are (probably) holding in your hands is what French critics would describe as un OVNI littéraire: nothing less than a literary UFO…

(1) Susan Tomaselli claimed in Dogmatika that “If HP Tinker didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up”.

(2) Quoted from a rare interview published in 3:AM Magazine in 2001.

(3) Significantly, an early abandoned Tinker novel was entitled “The Man Who Would Be Mute”.

(4) This Paul Gauguin (whose works include Jacob Wrestling Grandma Moses and Woman Chasing Bagel Down Fifth Avenue) designs Clarice Cliff’s corporate logo, ogles Russ Meyer’s Vixen! on TV (“The heroine has unfeasibly large breasts, Paul Gauguin notes, unable to take his eyes off the screen” p. 8), crashes on Willem de Kooning’s sofa bed (after attending Jackson Pollock’s housewarming party — with Man Ray), receives an erotic postcard from Yoko Ono and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from Vivien Leigh (“I was merely struggling with the baby shrimp” p. 11).

(5) After all, “I is another” in these post-Rimbaldian times.

(6) See also this characteristic extract from “The Countess of Monte Cristo”: “Heathrow. Rio. Lisbon. Brussels. Bruges. Rome. Venice. Barcelona. Madrid. Prague. Parma. St Petersburg. Moscow. Cape Town. Then Heathrow again” (p. 87).

(7) The subtext is either distanced and stylised into oblivion, or so obscure that it might as well not exist. “The General”, for instance, was inspired by a real person, but the story is obviously more than a private joke. So: is this objective correlation gone mad, or something else? Perhaps a clue can be found in “You Can Go Home Again” where Noël Coward reflects upon his work-in-progress which is “going nowhere”: “I wonder, he thinks to himself, is the subject too close to home?” (p. 118).

(8) The scuffle described like a Homeric epic in “[Just Like] Tom Paulin’s Blues” is a prime example of Tinker’s take on the mock-heroic (p. 96).

(9) “Every young Parisian girl wore woolly tights and thick overcoats, their pert, erect nipples completely hidden by several layers of obtrusive material” (“Vic Chews It Over” p. 39).

(10) Tinker is the master of weird similes: “…the plot thickening around you the way a good pasta should” (“The Countess of Monte Cristo” p. 78).

(11) 12 “Kandahar!” provides a scathing attack on the collateral damage of the so-called War on Terror: “Everywhere was bombed. My street was bombed. Then the street next to mine. Then the street next to the street next to mine. Night and day, they bombed all the wrong places….they were quite methodical about it” (p. 24). “(Just Like) Tom Paulin’s Blues” is one long, brilliant exercise in pricking an intellectual bubble of pomposity.

(12) The anthology is awash with Fluxus caffs, Franco-Pakistani bistros, Zen-like seafood platters, “media-friendly virtual tapas bars” and “funky post-coital noodle eateries” (“Kandahar” p. 23). Food frequently stands for the victory of base instincts over lofty ideals — a staple of comedy: “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we doing here? What are we going to do next? How can we escape everything that is artificial and conventional? What can we have for lunch? Why is there no food in this house? Did I forget to visit the supermarket? Are these potato cakes stale? Where is the green curry I was freezing? Am I all out of seaweed fasoli? Is a Brie sandwich at all feasible in the circumstances?” (“Paul Gauguin Trapped on the 37th Floor” p. 17).

(13) The recurrent Ortonesque mixture of American Psycho-style granguignol and laugh-out-loud comedy is perfectly illustrated by the opening scene of “The Investigation” which describes a detective contemplating a gruesome murder scene. A woman, hanging from a light fitting has been “expertly skinned”, one of her hands has been chopped off and her mouth is “full of shit”. The detective observes that this is the “sickest sight” he has seen “since he chanced upon the contents of David Niven’s fridge in 1972” (p. 59).

(14) There’s the guy in “Kandahar!”, for instance, who wants to produce a machine “to go back in time and kill the inventor of the funky bassline” thus giving rise to “a better world, one without the Red Hot Chili Peppers” (p. 20).

(15) Among his contemporaries the most obvious points of comparison are David Foster Wallace and, perhaps, William T Vollmann.