This is just a blog, not an awards ceremony or a reality show, so I’ll resist the temptation to say I feel blessed to have had another story published, although it’s definitely a honour and a pleasure. (I’ve also just read Colum McCann’s advice to writers at Lithub and ‘Don’t be a dick’ is always a good maxim.) So, thank you to the editors of MIROnline for publishing Unstuck (click to read online), and especially to Sally Larsen for her eagle-eyed copyediting input: I still manage not to stumble through life telling people “I’m an author” – surely a phrase to be delivered in one’s best Leonard Nimoy? – but I feel slightly more like one today. (Thank you too to There Goes The Neighbourhood and ArtsGateway MK for recent opportunities to read my work publically
But it is a strange feeling to read yourself in published form, and this particular story retriggered a recent recurring thought: how rapidly seismic events seem to happening in the world and how unpredictable life feels recently. Most of the stories I write have quite long gestation periods, and cycles of revision – probably not an unusual situation, but one that can catch you on the hop when you re-read a work in progress several months down the line.
Stories may be one form of record of time passing (even if their plots are non-linear, the idea of ‘story’ certain implies a degree of Before and After), but I’m often conscious of the issue of contemporary references in fiction: stories not clearly set in the past where no-one uses a mobile or never checks their email feel as if these aspects are conscious omissions given their ubiquity. As Kevin Pickard wrote at electricliterature,how specifically you use cultural references can effect how specifically you place a story in a time period: everything has to happen at some actual time. But a story that is very knowingly set in 2017 but that doesn’t hint that time passes and things change may feel equally awkward – especially in 2019. While I’m not vain enough to think that I’m developing a timeless canon of investigations of human nature, a degree of timelessness – the way we think of decades having a particular character, perhaps, unless I want to make a specific time/event-related point – strikes me as a good thing, or something not be ashamed of attempting. It’s not that I don’t think a very precisely time-stamped kind of writing doesn’t have a place, it’s more that I think its place is probably somewhere closer to journalism or criticism.
But when social themes, culture and division seem to loom large, an observation or a story detail can feel unexpectedly dated or obsolete. The first draft of Unstuck, whose narrator is a young Slovak woman living in an English new town, was written in the autumn of 2015. Free movement of people was a reality that had yet to be seriously called in question, and an assumption: in a way, the story is partly built on it. Dorota’s reference to customers in her call centre voicing their wish that she might ‘go home soon’ was, then at least, a reflection of the background noise of racism and xenophobia that has always hummed in corners of English life. In the spring of 2017, with the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK currently unsecured, that background note sounds louder – the words haven’t changed, but the reading of them probably has. If mobiles and email are things you need a reason not to mention, are Brexit, Trump, populism and the national mood joining them on the list of things a ‘contemporary’ story needs to reflect – or find plausible ways to omit?
Edouard Louis – The End of Eddy
A book about growing up poor and gay in a passed over, post-industrial village in Northern France, this has caused quite a stir in its homeland. Knowingly unflinching, it covers a lot of very contemporary themes, not least the culture and politics of the white working class and the difficulty of social mobility (not least as it is frowned upon as a further abandonment). As a depiction of growing up gay in an environment where coming out will lead to shame, public humiliation or physical abuse (all of which he endures anyway), this is powerful and insightful writing, although the book blurbs slightly oversell the originality of these insights. (The book may lack the saccharine coating of Billy Elliott, but it’s not so far removed from it.) It is also a strong read in its descriptions of the circumstances that make populist political movements appealing to ‘the left behind’ – an acknowledged intention of the author. If there is blame here, it is directed to the circumstances that create the behaviours and attitudes the young protagonist must endure from those around him and from which he escapes not just geographically but by reinventing himself (hence the title and the author’s dropping of his birth name).
What good the bookmay do them is more difficult to discern: they seem unlikely to read this unless, given this is billed as autobiography as much as fiction, they are the authors’ family or former neighbours: French press coverage suggests some have not taken kindly to their depiction, or dispute aspects of it. (As a reader, even a gay one from a working class background, there were moments were the ethics of writing about the living worried me a little). A book that raises a host of questions and has sparked debate across the Channel. As a book with more than a whiff of social purpose that its author maintains was expected to sell poorly, “Why write this?” is just one of them. A book I’ll call important more than great, but good certainly
Another ‘growing up gay in a small place’ novel, but a very different barrel of cod. Set in 1918, we are in Reykjavik at the end of The Great War, the coming of Icelandic independence (but greater interaction with the world) and the arrival of Spanish Influenza.The city is as much a character here as the principal – the isolated young Mani, who lives for the cinema where he can study human behaviour under cover of darkness (having paid for his tickets by selling his services to older men, similarly in real or metaphorical darkness). All of which sounds very Scandi-noir, but which is belied by the writing and the dreamy detachment of the narrator for whom Reykjavik sometimes feels as much a passing fiction as the films that so fascinate him. Like The End of Eddy, the story ends in an act of departure and reinvention through a chosen exile (as Mani, like Iceland, begins to embrace the wider horizon), but there is no real sense of hatred for the place he has escaped: he is more the fascinated observer. The mood here is more hypnotic (especially in sections where the prose reflects the narrator’s flu-induced delirium), even if Mani is well aware that a rent-boy is not a figure of admiration. A novella more than a novel, there is a hard to define delight in the reading of this: a small gem, but brilliant for all that.
Sebastian Barry – Days Without End
Much heralded as an award winner, I wonder how many of its purchasers will actually finish the book. (Maybe, like DM Thomas’ The White Hotel, this will be one of the great unread.) Much of the publicity it has generated has focused on a male love affair, conducted during the American Civil War: its certainly not absent here, but there is a lot of war – and a lot of violence, bloodshed and death. The gaiety – apply the word as you will – of the opening section as Thomas and John Cole work as dancing girls soon disappears in mud, blood and a steady rain of lead. While some have struggled with the plausibility of the lack of hostility towards the couple (there were moments that reminded me of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter), there is general lawless, pioneer-era spirit here that would, I suspect, make a spot of cross-dressing the least of anyone’s concerns. The couple’s adoption of a young Indian girl and their devotion to her also act as a counterbalance to the mayhem and destruction that take up the majority of the pages. Ultimately a tale, for me, of striving for personal decency in the most pressing circumstances (a theme that could be applied equally to Moonstone) and of the ultimate redeeming value of love, the simile-heavy poetic prose is a joy throughout. A slow read, and a harrowing one, but rewarding.