Plot as Ash
A Conversation Between Rob Beeston and Richard Canning
I count Rob as a friend, so you might not want to believe anything I write. In case you do -- here's the background. I teach a number of gay literature-themed courses at my university. They're usually taken by interested female students, and only rarely by gay men and women. Somehow these caught Rob's attention a couple of years ago. I was approached -- not by him directly, by a good friend of his -- and asked if I would meet "someone in the city with similar literary tastes and interests." I planned to run a mile. At parties, when I meet people who are supposed to have interests in common, this means ignoring the fact they have bad breath, tell interminable, dull stories, or want something you don't have enough of yourself.
I had demons and prejudices about the city in which I worked. It's not a city with much literary "front," or much cultural life for its size. Think New Haven, Pittsburgh or Buffalo. You'll know of it either because it's the word stamped on your cutlery (but the steelworks have closed), or because you've seen The Full Monty (our version). Miners who strip. Hm. (Rob says I forgot Sheffield's vast music legacy -- Derek Bailey to Arctic Monkeys, via Cabaret Voltaire and SND.)
What I'd seen of its gay life was especially provincial. A friend and I used to go to the sole city centre gay bar (city population: 350 000) occasionally. We'd duck to avoid a few flying glasses and leave (the women initiated the glass-throwing, but the older gay men, rent boys and the drug dealer with the gammy arm all joined in). It's closed now. There's a late gay club though, with a food menu that consists of: a plate of cheese (50p), a plate of chips (i.e. fries; 50p), or the special, cheese and chips together (£1). It's the only place in the world where you can be serenaded by a toothless nonagenarian playing spoons on his knee. It might have karaoke on a good night.
This matters, since it meant that my expectations regarding anyone outside the womb of the university were slight. I was wrong. As it happens, Sheffield is a sort of post-modern accident in Rob's case, as I suppose it is in mine. He has as little to do with any of the above as I should have had. We share many opinions about life and art -- and where we differ, I always want to listen (friends may say this is rare).
Rob showed me a manuscript; not this one. It was... fine. I didn't read "new writers'" manuscripts back then -- certainly not to comment on. I can't remember what I said, really. I think I was nice, but he's all ears. Rob inferred what I certainly meant: Great, now write it again; write it another way.
Journey Through a Body, which he gamely surrendered up in thirds over the following six months, is the astonishing result. From the first pages -- which Lodestar features here (A Flock of Rotations) -- I knew this was a very special novel. I read it, an addict, on swervy trains south. That doubled the giddiness. The prose remains... beyond you; irreducible -- an effect Rob admires in other writers (his own selections are appropriately heterodox). It's written out of his extraordinary learning, reading and perceptiveness, as well as a first-class inventiveness. You'll be hard pushed to make literary comparisons that mean too much. Rob travelled on the West Coast, meaningfully; it's his sort of place. Some of it rubbed off.
He's the most resourceful of writers, and proves the adage that you only "learn" writing through reading. The bits of others' work that stick seem odd choices, but Rob makes them make sense. Likewise he's one of life's great shoppers. He has a wish list of books he wants -- to own, not just to read -- and finds them all eventually, piecemeal -- invariably in a dusty local second-hand bookshop for 20p. I never find anything there. I guess he gets there first.
We aren't clones. His flat is always filled with this weird sound effect type music which means everything to him. I always feel the radiator's playing up. My own musical tastes are moronic. It doesn't get more complex than the Shangri-Las. Even then, there are unexpected crossovers. Rob retains his teenage enthusiasm for Andy Bell/Erasure, though he quite rightly laughs at the fact that I take boy-bands seriously, and learn their members' names like those of saints. When one leaves, I reflect on the shift in the pantheon.
He's innocently enthusiastic about everything except the converse of these qualities, namely cynicism and politics (the same thing?). It's a major virtue, I find. Rob keeps trying new "soundscape" artists and general aural oddness on me, however unpromising a pupil. We laugh at many of the same things. A big moment was a rubbish heist film set in Spain. It featured an English actor called Danny Dyer who specialises in playing Cockney lads. The script was wretched. Rob and I can be similarly disciplined in some areas. Our twin gazes in the cinema triangulated solidly towards Danny's redoubtable crotch. It was some sort of bond.
Canning: Tell me about the novel's title, Journey Through a Body.
Beeston: It's the last studio album (1981) by the English performance art group Throbbing Gristle. They were funny, seriously funny. Journey Through a Body was the only TG album I hadn't heard when I began the novel. The title was just to get me going, it sprang to mind. Then when I realised where I was headed it seemed appropriate. I deliberately avoided getting the album for the best part of a year. And then once I was finished a good friend bought me the CD re-issue to celebrate, and the original vinyl after the hundredth wave of editing, to seal the deal. The fallout from TG also impacted the novel in various knowing ways.
On the very first page you write, "I was convinced the most interesting aspect of certain thinkers was the very beginning of their work, the moment before the work in fact, those primitive energies that motivate the pen to say what it will and which, in the best works at least, endure unfathomably from research to applause; integrity you might say." It's about philosophers, but made me wonder if the same claim might be made of novelists. Is there a moment of "integrity" or "primitive energy" you could talk about in relation to the writing of this book?
I like books that are clearly in touch with somewhere else. It's glib to say but I like pages to be ashes, very much so. And I tend to think that wherever this place is, it's where novelists, thinkers, and artists of various kinds all hang out. It just seems a lot more natural than those kinds of writing where the page is all there is. To me that's just preposterous, because life's not like that, because we worry and we have desires, because the mind has a flipside and the body multiple parts. Integrity to me is maintaining some connection to this supra-natural aspect, like non-writers do as we go about our daily business, thinking two things at once or cruising him over there while paying for a loaf of bread. Writing is unnatural at the best of times, perverse even, so when there isn't even an attempt to go beyond it and grasp something of where it seems to me it came from in the first place, then I'm either just unmoved or (particularly when it comes to academic work) convinced of the irretrievable demise of proper thinking.
The birth of this book is so un-original (obsession) I knew if I didn't do something with it to get it as close to the sun as I could then it would turn out fairly pedestrian for the reader of queer lit (giving the false impression that queer lit was at all an influence) and possibly disingenuous to anyone who's ever been taken-a-back by instant love. I didn't want to write a tale of woe for woe's sake, for many other sakes but definitely not its own. In terms of anteriority, the story is very much just the material, the fuel (thus ash) for broaching this quite ordinary somewhere else. That was actually my check all the way through: was I writing about things that come to mind when I'm not writing? Was I being true to moments of loss? Glibly again, those moments of great discovery? It seems to me that a distracted focus is the best way to avoid the very head-on collision with your subject matter that destroys it, or at least loses it. And of course had I tackled love and loss more directly I'd never have finished the book.
I think I ended up with the particular academic background I have because I was always felt there was a bigger picture, that what was to hand was just the fluff. So a love story like this is really about love not the story, which is not a maxim at all, just something I bore in mind while writing, to keep me in check.
I'm very struck by shifts in the passing of time in the novel. At one moment, it feels as if you -- or rather, your narrator -- is super-impatient; in a huge rush. At others, he's the loiterer supreme -- spending longer on certain themes than... well, than a reader might expect. There's also literal loitering -- in cafes, bars, parks, shops... Any comment?
I like speed because it taxes writing in particular ways. And I like dwelling, because it does the same in other ways. The resultant tempo is dictated by the narrative -- sometimes the narrator is in a panic and the world is collapsing inwards, others he's thinking, worrying, remembering, and the world upon which he dwells opens out. Celebration and oblivion, two sides of the same coin if you let them happen.
There's probably an inverse relationship between the fast and the slow as well. For a character quite clearly prone to overwhelming, dwelling is a welcome "brake." The settings are the materials with which to get these passings and unfoldings going, to set them in motion so they say more about a state of being than a sociology or a psychology ever could. So the literal loitering you mention becomes less about seediness or sluttishness (which I imagine is the easy critique of the novel's second section) than a kind of trenchant analysis of where the character is at, the things he ends up doing, and much more so, the things he's not quite thinking as he's doing them. After this opening chapter the character's head is never fully present anyway, which is what eventually gets him into trouble.
Another way to think of that might be in relation to the book as very "mentalised"; very concerned with time only as mediated by thought. Do novels with a strong sense of the internal, the mental especially appeal to you?
They do if the internal is as big as the world, or something. The trouble with existentialism is that it got appropriated and lost its largesse. I tend to find the internal is only any good as an approach if it's treated moment-to-moment, if it brings its world to life and sets everything off, as in, if it's not actually inside at all. Again this is obviously an old idea but it's been put so awkwardly and theoretically so many times (oblique slashes drive me mad -- inside/outside!) I've just felt compelled to take it back to where it seems to me it came from in the first, where the existentialists were before they became a tool, for example. This is a very personal emphasis I think, given my academic background, because of course it's barely an issue for writers who just get on with it -- being exactly my point.
As far as novels I like in this way, I think I'm more comfortable thinking about it in terms of intensity than mentalism. I like intense prose. It's maybe a provocation to say, as Busi did, that if the reader can grasp it upon first reading then it wasn't worth writing, but I like the type of writing such a statement is clearly in mind of. I do like writing that's not entirely comprehensible. And I like writing that's incomprehensible so long as it's true. But that's not the only way to do intensity, or mentalism. No doubt there are as many ways as there are writers to write. A commonality though is probably the feeling you get for the moment of creation, the pace or the involvement, maybe the tenacity, indicative of a spark always ready to go out and a state of mind that was there before the pen.
What I like about this (though it's exhausting) is that you can be breathless from finally having captured such a moment, say, something of the traffic between inside and out, and you can feel assured and even sated either by yourself as a writer or by literature as a reader, but then it's gone come morning and you have to do the same all over again. The thoughts still come and the sun still rises. Edmund Wilson was spot on when he said writing is a daily ritual -- and he didn't mean for productivity's sake! The unrelenting nature of it gives me confidence that something is being done, intensively, existentially, or otherwise.
There's a cherishing of time abused or wasted too -- the alcoholic afternoons...
...a middle-finger to the production-line. Gaston Bachelard's instruction, "rediscover your boredom" was to me an instant ethic, given the fact that academics, politicians, and journalists were all hyper-busy saying and doing absolutely nothing very very loudly. So as the world sped, I slowed the narrator down, just to piss people off in supermarkets really. Reverie is dismissed as effete, but it's not -- it's hardcore.
And "the alcoholic afternoons" is just a wail that came to me mid-flow from The Smiths' "These things take time." Stray bits of song lyrics ended up dotting their way throughout the novel. There are many I didn't even realise until I'd had some distance. And no I don't think of it as sampling.
It's very hard to place your prose style -- at least in relation to any British fiction tradition. Are there influences you feel prepared to name?
I'd be prepared to if I had any. There are lots of influences on the narrative structure, as in, writers who completely opened my eyes to narrative possibility and hence (given this pre-occupation with elsewhere) convinced me I was actually interested in narrative, which I never thought I was, though you could still argue I'm not because of the holes in it. These more structural influences become apparent (to me at any rate) as the novel progresses and the stresses and strains of rejection tell less on the narrator himself than on the narrative structure -- he gets colder as the structure gets...er...weirder. Vital names here are Goytisolo, Arenas, Puig's Pubis Angelical, Lezama Lima's Paradiso. Bowles came after the novel was finished really. But he landed so hard because I recognised something in him, magick really.
But the style itself is inspired not by writing at all but by ideas. My guess is that it's how I've had to evolve in order to broach my chosen (?) themes. The theorists who to me (though it's ridiculous) had a wonderful sense of ownership of these ideas were all hopeless for tips on writing, sustained writing anyway. So instead I took off with the ideas and set to, over years of a PhD thesis, academic papers, a previous non-fiction manuscript, and then the various false starts of this one. All I knew was I didn't want to write academically but I did want to rewind many academic ideas. I didn't know it but ultimately I was approaching the body.
It's very sensual writing, yet you seem to enjoy pitching your narrator as sort of clumsy in sensory terms -- an idiot savant, almost; prone to getting things right through intuition, but not through sensory experience... Can you comment?
I think he's easily overwhelmed in sensory terms. If he appears clumsy it's because I wanted to emphasise the delirium when it's upon him, to do it not just say it, which again is a faddish idea I seem to have spent more time reading about ("performativity") than actually seeing done in any convincing or pre-conscious way. I think he pays attention to the sum total of his sensory experience, to what it does in the world, and sometimes it adds up, sometimes it doesn't. Either way it makes, as you say, for a wilfully sensual style. It's what I need to do to get where I want to be, I think.
On the other hand, the "mentalised" detail is very precise, often: shapes, colours, distances, moments in time...
The detail is the raw material. It's what makes the sensuality turn. Like the polarity of fast and slow, the minutiae are on their way to something grand. Actually I've thought for a while that many of my geometries -- and I seem to work with quite a few, as above then so below, for example -- are rooted in philosophies I've long since forgotten about, which I'm happy to have forgotten about because that just leaves the traces, being the bits that register somewhere good, dare I say it, somewhere authentic.
You've got a particular love too of narrative counterpoint; spinning one story "plate," that is, and then starting another, to see how they juxtapose. Is that done consciously?
It's done tangentially, as in the feel for a tangent comes first, way before I'm aware of anything analytical like counterpoint or layering. It just feels right to re-route it, to start the point again from another angle, ending up where I just left off but with totally different stuff. It's like working my way round to it, sometimes right around it until the actual emotion or event is virtually a suspension in the middle, held up to the light to get a better look. It's never my intention to be as layered as this (although I have lost total innocence by now), that's just the end result of what to me is a more intimate, even essentialist way into something, Cubism really, things unfold, perspectives intersect. It's prismatic maybe.
There's a lot of amusing and delicate play with language. But you also seem to enjoy ridiculing the banality of our discourse; our customary resort to cliché... I suppose I'm again commenting on a sense of turbulence: the prose will humiliate itself almost with banalities, and then soar with originality.
There should be a different word for clichés that are clichés because they're so true and clichés that are clichés because they're idle. The idle ones frighten me. To venture into therapy-speak, they're so incongruent. You can just tell they have no substance, no relation to the person that utters them, that they're habitual and they come out like ghostly nervous ticks, and they spew out seriously on the six o'clock news as much as violently in town on a Friday night. I reckon this is why sexual fantasies with the vilest stupidest homophobes are so appealing (?!), they ridicule banality.
As far as language play, my PhD supervisor was a casual but creative etymologist. He'd unwrap a word until you didn't know where you were except to say that something had come undone. I don't do it with individual words but I like to spin sentences out and see where they end up. It happens rhythmically, that's to say, rhythm is the determinant -- and the resonance with House music philosophy in this definitely appeals. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said once you have the right rhythm you can't help but write the right words, which is flawed of course but she was onto something.
Here's a delight in opposites, or contradictoriness: "Because he looked so at home in the sun I tried to imagine him in winter. But because he was so rekindled by the heat he easily became it and occluded all other climates."
That's His power to override. Winter has never existed and will never exist again all the while He's stood there looking summery. Total presence can be just as big as absence. Again if you let them happen they're two sides of the same coin.
There's a reference to your narrator reading... but very elliptical. We are left to wonder whether the Panther edition with the half-naked sailor on the cover is Genet or a pulp novel... Then, suddenly, he races through a personal library: Cernuda, Olson, Gysin, Orton, Guibert, Woolf, Spender, Bataille, Pasolini... I'm intrigued by the idiosyncrasy. But why name-check at all? Also, can you speak about the sort of torrent-dearth movement in the book? Things proliferate, and then disappear. I suppose it feels a bit manic -- in a good way!
It's maybe a hangover from my academic days, referencing. I'm inclined to ask the question myself, but maybe it's not name-checking at all. I think in this case the names are just a part of the relentless detail that gets things turning and devolving, no different really to the shapes, colours, and distances you mentioned earlier. Like angles and memories the names come in, again as you say, really to disappear. It's another opposition that makes intuitive sense -- stuff/void.
Ethically I was always keen to let things be without them going to waste, particularly when it came to environments I thought offered a lot in terms of learning or diversity but at the same time had to be treated with respect -- not ram-raided as is the academic way. The same is true of ideas and good books. It seems a shame just to re-shelve them, but then again bastardisation is such a common practice it's perhaps safest to let them gather dust. I sometimes try to middle it, to pitch something forward without violating it in the process, letting it be by turning a great writer into a fictional character, or narrating their writing somehow, instead of analysing it. Sublimity is the thing, but I've only ever read one person (Lyotard) who uses that word properly.
The Pasolini reference is in the second section. The narrator is reading Petrolio when a guy picks him up in the middle of his first phase of self-destruction. Pasolini's anti-hero then becomes a distraction from the pick-up, a presence in the back of this narrator's mind. It was an arbitrary reference -- I happened to be reading it while writing that bit. Other references are less arbitrary, like the third section in which the narrator runs away from England to San Francisco. There's this whole scene where the SF poets and the Beats fulfil a similar tangential purpose. Having gone looking for some of their old hangouts the ghosts of these poets nag away at the back of the character's mind, constantly broaching what he's running away from, apparitions at windows and on street corners, places that are actually mentioned in various diaries of the time -- I give the page references.
But because I couldn't bear to write about all these luminaries straight, not even in ellipsis, I just used all the pseudonyms Kerouac gave them in his novels. It was a way of writing about Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Snyder, Rexroth, Whalen, etc. without writing about them, folding a fiction into a fiction to do something felicitous with it. I did pretty much the same with the great writers on San Francisco itself, and those on its AIDS of course. It's intense but it works because the appropriating narrative is so impending -- Ginsberg's tragic obsession with Orlovsky sending ghostly signals via the mid-fifties diaries the present character is reading on his travels.
You have Proust. It's... vital nowadays, isn't it? Or are there pseudo-references; ironized ones?
I have no idea if Proust is vital. And my guess is that I'd be none the wiser even if I had a literary background. This quite terminal idea of him was on my mind -- that thing about it being pointless to write about memory since Proust -- when I wrote pages and pages on "false memories" in the first section, desires that very nearly happened and should have happened, so much so that when they were frustrated at the last it seemed like they actually had happened -- false memories and nearly-places. I was a bit antagonised, not by Proust but by his "nowadays," so I wrote about memory a lot and mentioned the madeleines just the once! The irony was probably directed at his reputation, which is another old hang-up about philosophers being done to death.
There are also musical references of course -- at first, sounds described but without attribution. Then... something specific; I think the Velvet Underground is the first specific reference... Do you write to music?
I've just written three short stories in a row and titled them by the sound art/drone work I was listening to when the idea first arrived. When I extracted the story included here I edited it and thought it resonated with a middle period album by the English panambient outfit, Zoviet*France, so I borrowed their title, A Flock of Rotations, which is pretty much what happens when I listen to their stuff out and about.
Music does things for me. It's more contrived than synaesthesia. It's just the drive to get closer. And I've learned to encourage it. The Velvets reference was entirely lucid, the supersensualism of Lou Reed's own reference to Sacher-Masoch. But there are loads dotted throughout the novel that are more intensive, beamed in or channelled; fragments of lyric-poetry and slogans, often just completely free-associated. I like the phase-effect, the drifting bandwidth. But as with my reading I have to make sure what I'm listening to is not going to be wholly inappropriate for the stage I'm at with the writing, should any refrains make their way through.
Do you like puns? A few creep in, like something that "made the suspension whine like glass"...
I never realised! I didn't realise even when you just said it, it took me a second or two. No I don't like puns. And now I might have to change that one! The image of a wet finger on a wine glass came specifically from the French electroacoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani; it's on one of his sleeves. He's so sonorific I was fixed on the sound effect and missed my own pun!
The body is clearly central to the book. I'm struck by (mostly) your refusal to allow for the old mind-body dichotomy... Your narrator's skin seems to think; his mind flexes, bristles, and so on. He's... all of a whole.
I think my episteme here has its origins in a particular strand of sociology. But the theory of it only stuck with me because I'd intuited the same long before it was ever an issue. It just seems intuitive that you can't have a mind without a body and that the body does its own thing a lot of the time -- ergo, the skin thinks, the mind flexes...and poetic reversal is a powerful tool. It just so happens the body has many registers and each register inspires a hundred adjectives. In this regard I prefer to work with blood rather than the poetry that has more traditionally spilled it. Less romantic maybe, more contemporary, certainly much juicier. And blood these days has the added resonance with machines.
There's a similar collapsing of the boundaries between literal and figurative language, as in "He was turning to stone in the car park." Funny!
It's just whatever it takes. I wanted an image of utter stuckness, of him becoming petrified as a result of that hideous conflict between ego and desire, what he wants and what he's allowed. I could have just said it, but then I would have written a coming out novel; I'd have made the messages conscious when the worst of them are so obviously not. I wanted an image in order to elevate it and make his mind as big as the world, which seems much truer to the inside of that particular situation, truer certainly than anger, which would have been more obvious as well but by then the actual moment would have passed and I definitely wanted the moment not the politics. Frink's "Goggleheads" were the image I had originally for him, and the "Running Men" -- visors over the eyes and zombie's with arms outstretched, empty humanity as she put it. They make an appearance later in relation to CCTV. But the image of him across the car park just suddenly turned to stone not bronze so I went with that, although there's a further transmogrification because I then distribute him between the troubled pose of "The Thinker" and the serene supremacy of "David," neither of which are stone of course: "...as statuesque as David with more than a hint of the Rodin." It all just happened while I was with his image.
Things become people too. "The gym was short of breath": nice!
Genet. I couldn't believe it when I first read one of his sailors driving back the ocean with his conquering thighs, chest laden with waves. I never knew you could do that, turn a chest into an ocean. I nearly dropped the book, my first miracle. And I still goosebump when I read it. All that stuff about the word being flesh and language being cut-up and into -- much as I love Gysin and Burroughs to bits, it's all a bit machinic, whereas Genet's reversals, predicated on the same notion of language as a living thing, were pure literature, much more graceful and deft of touch. Rather than cut into language's associations to open them up, Genet just swapped them over, gave a sailor's chest some waves -- amazing. I think it's in Our Lady of the Flowers where he talks about lovers stealing gestures from one another, mimicking without realising -- intimacy. He did exactly the same with the words he wanted to make intimates of the poetic image, had them stealing semantic properties from each other, which is great for the image -- the true image born of the false spectacle, which was just Picasso's lying in order to tell the truth. But for me it was absolutely perplexing in relation to the stuff of language. He imbued words with the physical properties they ordinarily only referred to, collapsing sign and signified with a density Cultural Studies can only dream of. And the genderism of the resulting muscular prose is a superficial critique and a complete blind alley. There are worlds in Genet's words. His were the first books I had to have in my pocket banging against my leg. For different reasons but Bowles was the same much later. I've dared venture into it a little in the novel. At this level certain books are artefacts. Amazing.
This is a taxing book, isn't it? Not too many concessions to the reader... Intellectually ambitious, I suppose, but also narratively dense. Do the possible dangers of pretentiousness or apparent superiority concern you? What do you think of your reader? (Or do you think of her/them/him?).
Difficulty, density, and pretentiousness are three issues I sit at the back of the seminar on and wonder what everyone is talking about, which is maybe yet more pretentiousness but there lies my uncomprehending! And to compound the matter, I can honestly say I find Goytisolo and Sarduy easier to read than Francis King or David Rees -- the muscles relax, they have to.
I think of the reader but I don't patronise him. I think of her maybe as someone of considerable depth. If I wasn't in mind of reception I wouldn't be so concerned with sound and voice, with resonance, the frequencies of the thing, sonar into the subconscious, stuff like that. Actually now I come to think of it, there's a band I like who spend more time in post-production (distressing their sound) than they do making it in the first place. It's because they want it to sound like a Polaroid photograph from 1973. Evocation.
It seems to me a book more purely informed by sexual desire, the sexual pursuit than almost any other. Your narrator generally fights shy of detail, though -- or allegorises or metaphoricizes sex relentlessly. It's not that sex itself is a non-event exactly... but the build-up, or absence is more central... Would writing more directly about sex, its mechanics etc., be difficult; does it not appeal; or am I missing the point? You're perhaps only interested in consequences, not events anyhow. Sometimes I feel that; you can almost afford to skip the plot, provided you detail its consequences.
I never thought of it like that, but yes, consequences over events. That's my interest in elsewhere, plot as ash. To ignore certain inevitable reactions for a moment, the sex of part two is really not the issue, relentless but so not the issue it's funny. It was a neat...er...device, almost. I wanted three tidy sections and sex was just a catchall for what I wanted to be happening more integrally in the background and just out of frame in the middle one. Part one is the supermarket, part two is sex, and part three is San Francisco, each running further away. Sex is him going off the rails. The detail -- all these anatomies, architectures, and theories of sex -- is partly to empty him out so I can pitch his emotional wrangle into the narrative structure rather than attempt a miniscule psychology; and partly, as you say, it's to centralise what's going on at the sides all the time he's at it, which is his memory of what he's running away from. (In the third part where the utter denial of risky behaviour comes in as well, his subconscious is played out across various closed-circuit TV screens, behind the bar where he can't see, for example.) But just as writing about his pain more directly would have made it a coming out novel, writing about the sex in a more engaged way would, given the detail, have constantly verged on porn. I've actually turned this dialogue between pornography and literary sex into part of the narrative, another half-digression from what's really going on. I just didn't want to write straight sex. I hate it when art and porn are blurred, it's frustrating, confusing -- those eyes when the last thing you want is to fall in love. If I began an erection while writing I knew I was missing the point, which is a trick I don't imagine they teach in creative writing class.
Regarding the peripheralism, the corners of the room while he's at it on the bed -- Coil's music as ELpH was a constant guide, "GLIMPSE" and "pHILM#1" in particular.
You've been through the mill (several mills) of higher education. It stands out that you describe "teaching" students as "processing" them. What do you mean? You also describe the campus as primarily interesting to locals on account of its students' sex lives. That's just naughty!
It's multifaceted, the dumbing down of education, and you could pick it apart forever and end up quite depressed. But I guess there are two broad strands to it: the evolutionary ones that have been ongoing from one generation to the next, and the specifics along the way, particular to time and place. In England right now it just seems logical that if you get rid of student grants and increase the fees then students become pragmatic about getting through and out the other side as fast as possible so they can pay back all their loans -- ticks in boxes, no questions asked, processing. And the bureaucracy from the other side means teachers aren't required to challenge this either, especially when even their own research is relentlessly "exercised." It's the trend that's terminal. Individuals state their objections, all day everyday, students and teachers alike. But the machinery rolls on, reality shifts, quantification becomes the norm. If I was a generation older I might have wondered where alternative politics would go once the student body stopped embracing them -- they went to single-issue causes. Now though I'm wondering where thinking goes as universities defer to their marketing departments. It's dire.
My supervisor always referred to himself as "processor" not Professor.
The reference to students' sex lives was partly tasty given the narrator's pre-occupations, naughty as you say, which made me laugh. But mainly it was an appeal to something subconscious, overtly Freudian about the exotica of the student hoards around university towns and cities, their distinctiveness, which always comes back to the stereotypes about their drinking and not-studying, presumptions about their lifestyle, and, ultimately, fantasies about the rampant fucking of a sector of the population whose vice and virtue is supposedly its vitality if not actually its youth.
You wrote a doctorate on something. I suppose there's no strong link between that sort of writing and the novel, but do reflect on this if you think there is. I'm getting at a sort of contempt I suppose for education, learning, deduction: "It is agreed by now that pain, generically speaking, is not all it seems. From sex to art pain is endlessly re-appraised. But what exactly it is when it's not entirely itself is another matter." Well, you'll tell us...
There's no traffic at all between the two types of writing but there's masses in terms of the ideas. I was always frustrated that great ideas were turning to seed on an almost daily basis, just because it's not the academic will to bring them (back) to life like this, which even though I understood why still seemed bizarre, even disingenuous given the life a lot of them had originally had. And there's a sort of implicit idea that academics can't write for toffee and that that's ok because they're academics not writers, which is just irresponsible.
Of course I made a rod for my own back by trying to write a PhD thesis without writing academically, which turned to mush at various points but it was a necessary step along my escape velocity's way. I'd spend pages explaining how something was inexplicable, simply because I was obliged to mutter, because an omission was inadmissible, even though the subject of omission was an arch topic of debate -- the figure-eights of which drive you into either madness or more likely just bad writing.
Do you think of this guy as an unreliable narrator? Most of the time I have no idea what to believe. But when he writes, "I don't remember much of the terminal detail," I don't believe it at all. He's anal, isn't he? He keeps all the bits of card, draft letters, and so on.
If he is anal it's because he's naturally, neurologically always on the edge of oblivion. Anality is hanging on, collecting and documenting, it's along the autism-continuum or something. Upon rejection I think he momentarily loses it. There is detail but it's all blurred -- "a dozen pairs of arms like a raving Hindu god." It's just that the narrator chooses not to celebrate the terminal delirium in the way he obviously did the delirium of their first meeting, when his circuits were similarly overloaded and the supermarket became almost a mandala. I think he's reliable, it's just that he's not always focused on the best thing, which is the essence of the self-destructive impulse underpinning the whole narrative from this point on onwards -- that the terminus is right at the beginning of the book is indicative of the kind of book it is. He's unreliable in terms of maintaining his own safety, yes. And he's unreliable to the point of stupidity in terms of the length of time he allows this impulse to go on (one year is the time-frame, bang on in fact). But along the way at any rate I think he's in touch. Too in touch is the obvious charge, and where the issue of reliability gets slippery.
He talks often of the struggle of writing -- "manhandling a sentence," all that. The prose is very self-aware in that way. Tell me how you learnt to write -- is that even the right expression?
No idea, other than by heading away from a place I knew I didn't want to be, and not just academically either, so I set to and knuckled down and carved a way through. It's pathological, writing I mean. It's so not normal. Of course I'm bound to say that writing is not about writing at all, but it's true, and there is a higher power, absolutely. I just can't believe that anyone who says "I want to be a writer" or goes to writing class ever actually writes anything that's any good. It's like Pop Idol, how they all they say they really really want it because they really really want to be famous and that's why you should give them a chance when you're sat there thinking, er...shouldn't it be the power of voice and the enormity of music or something you're talking about, or even better, struggling to talk about. There has to be a motivation, doesn't there? A bigger picture for the urge to last, be any good? A big fat wedge under your skull irking you every day. There's the dark side of course, the Ugly Spirit and all that. But I have this really bright side (regardless of how dark it ends up) where I'm compelled to take an image or a dynamic to task, or a great raft of some part of history, and land it exactly on the page in all its glory, which is not about faithful translation at all, because the mediums are different and the truth is rarely as it looks.
It's transmutation. Transmutation is hugely satisfying once it's done and completely compelling until it is -- the cure-all for lethargy and depression. The three short stories I've just written are each set in highly specific locations, and once I'd written each one I found myself back at the original models ticking them off as if to say, brutishly, yep that's done, then walking off, completely happy at the skewed resemblance because transmutation is not surface. The urge to transmute, is that how I came to write? Anyway I always thought writing was a great subject for a writer to write about.
We never got to favourite colours, sandwich fillings or men we both like (Danny Dyer, obviously). But thanks so much for your time.
Rob Beeston lives in ex-industrial Sheffield, England. He has a PhD in social theory and technology. He is just emerging from an intensive period of his first fiction writing, the steely fruits of which are about to be let loose.