Literary fiction as described here is the fiction of a generation which discovered “good” novels via B-format in 1980. It is a fiction so very clearly generic that when I read John Mullan’s description of it (complete with successful business model, strict boundary conditions and committed fanbase which won’t read anything else) as not genre fiction, I weep with laughter at the sheer depth of his self-deception. Still, by the usual Freudian processes he has said what he really means, & that’s a step forward. The sooner literary fiction recognises & accepts its generic identity, the sooner it can get help. One of the more obvious results of generification is that–as with gentrification–blandness sets in, whether you’re knocking out no-fuck vampire romances or contributing to the high-performing post-Austen industry. Mullan’s genre is a generation old & already deep into predictability. There are ways out of this. The more established genres can show literary fiction how to set up the processes of perpetual lightweight detournment that have enabled them to keep churning away generation on generation, despite a restrictive audience & no economic wiggle-room. One of the benefits is that you need not lose your core content. Indeed, by definition, you mustn’t. So the good news is that, along with its liberal humanist programme, the Clapham arm of literary fiction can continue its project of watering down the linguistic fluency and technical agility of its genuinely interesting precursors from the oh-so-distant past of literature (that great age of Picador, King Penguin, and the Virago Modern Classic, which saw not just the invention of women writers but of magic realism & the euronovel too); while the hipster arm gets a bamboo chip & lemon grass latte & tries out its new neighbourhood app.
Monthly Archives: February 2011
Losers. Saps. People who don’t want anything much. Frail people, fragile people. Motiveless people (unless they’re evil). Broken people. People who won’t heal. People who can’t heal. Passive people. Disordered people. People who can’t stop themselves being bullied. People whose bullies don’t come to harm in the final chapter. People whose weaknesses of character aren’t balanced by corresponding opposite characteristics, or who are not redeemed by acceptable chains of events. Unacceptable chains of events. People who are too much this or that. People who won’t reason. People who are too rational. People whose puzzlement never lifts. People whose actions “don’t teach us anything about ourselves”. People I can’t identify with. People who walk away from their own narrative. People who are swept away by events (unless they’re subsidiary characters). Events that are too like reality to be interesting. Events that are too like reality to be true. Events that don’t seem familiar enough, even though they are set in a galaxy far away or in the very far future or in a civilisation of alien beings who look like plastic ducks but are in reality vortices of pure vacuum energy with goals utterly dissimilar to your own. Behaviour you really can’t understand. Sequences that don’t complete. Ideas that don’t ring true. Lack of verisimilitude. Lack of telos (see “dissimilar to your own”). Lack of common sense. Lack of a sense that this story is our story. Genuinely unpredictable events. Genuinely meaningless events. Anything obviously unacceptable that’s also funny. The obviously unacceptable insufficiently critiqued by the text. Directionlessness. Langour. The quality of being a rabbit in a headlight. The quality of being in a Tom Waits song. People the trajectory of whose lives is that of a series of Levy Flights cut short by unpredictable death. People who find the time to be alienated. People who find the time to be miserable. People who find the time to find time. People for whose idle hands the Devil found work. People who clearly haven’t got lives to live & families to bring up. People who should know better. People whose motives aren’t clear. People who should know everything the reader knows or they are clearly too stupid to live. People who aren’t sensible enough to act rationally in a deteriorating situation as if somehow they can’t see themselves doing the wrong thing. People whose ugliness is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. People whose anxiety is not within reasonable bounds or which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no hidden glamour. Doubt which has no outcome. A pistol which appears in act one but remains unfired at the end of act three. Bad people who aren’t on your side. People who are good one minute bad the next. Anything that might offend the reader’s politics. Anything that might offend the diametrically opposed politics of another reader. Irredeemable behaviour. Irredeemable circumstances. Unfathomable circumstances. Unfixable disasters. The actual end of the world, with no survivors. People who aren’t feisty. People who don’t know how to swim against the tide. People who never learn to kick ass. People who stay poor without a sick note from the narrative. People who stay poor without a sick note from the reader. People whose diseases aren’t, after all, going to be cured. People who don’t make a heroic effort. People who stay unhappy. People who don’t act as if they’re the centre of the universe.
In his NYT piece about Reid Stowe, Adam Sternberg describes a classic detournment performed by Bernard Moitessier during the Golden Globe round-the-world race in 1968–
‘…he was well in the lead when he decided to change course and simply keep sailing. He explained this in a note, which he flung by slingshot onto the deck of a passing ship, that read in part: “I am continuing non-stop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.” He later wrote that, looking back on his decision, he only regretted the inclusion in the note of the word “perhaps.”’
Moitessier himself writes, in The Long Way–
‘The geography of the sailor is not always the one of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape with its longitude and latitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both very simple and extremely complex, with rocks, currents, furling seas, beautiful oceans, good winds and gusts, moments of happiness and of fright, fatigue, dreams, aching hands, an empty stomach, marvelous minutes and sometimes suffering. A great cape, for us, cannot be translated only into a latitude and a longitude. A great cape has a soul, with shadows and colours, very soft, very violent. A soul as smooth as that of a child, as hard as that of a criminal.’
Primrose Hill, that hour when things get hold of you, five o’ clock on a dull Saturday afternoon. Single fathers are leading their little girls up and down the wet pathways and you can see the Regents Park birdhouse draped like fruit netting across the nearer trees. A systems manager walks away from his first wife. All she was doing was making a phonecall, answering a text. She looks up and he’s gone. He’s taken the children with him.
Where is she supposed to start looking for him ? The world’s full of harassed men his age, with two daughters and a suitcase. The trains and buses are full of them.
Eventually someone puts her on to me. She’s upset. It’s new to her, but frankly I’m used to it. People do this all the time. They’re trying to get away from themselves. They’re trying to reinvent, and why not ? London’s kind to the confident. Otherwise, what is there ? Get on the tube in the morning and people stare straight into your face from less than one foot distance. That’s no way to live. So they go missing, and I find them. I find kiddies and criminals, and people who would do crimes if they knew how. I find the people who paint themselves on to your walls, play their favourite music over and over again then leave you nothing but a picture in the night.
I never look for the ordinary ones. They’re too easy to find. They’ve cashed in on the housing differential, abandoned Islington. They’re off to the Cotswolds: no mortgage, walk the children to school, grow your own vegetables. They’ve disqualified themselves.
Listen to this, though–
A man lives in Putney, Barnes, East Sheen, one of those places along the river. He’s an actor, an investment banker, a publisher’s editor–it doesn’t matter. Or he sells something, say mobile phones. Say he sells mobile phones. One day he gets tired of that. He decides to write a travel book about the area he lives in. This area is two miles on a side, roughly square, no hard boundaries. That is, it’s bounded on its north and west by the curve of the Thames: but he can cross that if he wants, and enjoy the other bank–willows, a couple of muddy playing fields and an old bandstand. A little road with allotments on one side which in the spring looks like a lane in the country. Over there it doesn’t look like London at all.
This man buys several notebooks of the brand the famous Bruce Chatwin used to use for his writing. He buys some gel pens of different colours. He buys a Nikon 775 digital camera. Then he sets off into the streets which surround his house, intending to record everything he sees.
Winter. Late afternoon. Christmas is close. It’s on his heels. The streets are dark and at the same time comfortable, narrowed by cars and a sense of warmth, a sense of drawing-together which seems to come from the houses on either side. The women have fetched their kids from playschool and finished parking their SUVs. In one street of little workingmen’s cottages they close the curtains; in the next there are gleams of light from every window. Every street has its own culture. Here it’s more BMWs than Audis; there, they’ll keep a pedigree dog but a pedigree cat is extravagant. Wood floors, a child sitting on a sofa with its knees up, watching something you can’t see. She stares out, startled by the flash of the Nikon. The traveller smiles, waves, moves on. Is that the river at the end of the street ? Is that a Toyota ? He’s already lost.
To begin with, he brings all this back. From the Nikon he downloads smoky still images of Barnes bridge, taken a few hundred yards downriver on an afternoon that makes it look like industrial archeology in Manchester or Bremen. His notes say: “Every rivet stands out.”
When I claim some people are too easy to find, what do I mean ?
Poll tax gave rise to a generation which lived in other people’s houses. They formed strong personal ties yet remained evasive, incurious about one another. As a result, never fully sited, they suffered mild depressions and moved on. I”m not looking for them.
A train ride with someone you met yesterday. The smell of diesel fuel in carriage air. You look sideways at her face, you’re not even sure you like her. The plain fact is she looks more grown up than you. Her house is cold and needs work. She has a kid. She says things like, “I’ve always got by on my wits.” That’s exciting but eventually you interpret it as a judgement. Later you see that’s how she lives her life, as a judgement, as an ideological act. It’s too forceful. It’s too blunt. Worse, it doesn’t work. She’s just as compromised and vulnerable as you. Later still the pathos of that hits you, but by then she’s long gone and you are too.
I’m not looking for her.
Afternoon, Old Compton Street. Rain makes it like an older version of itself. I’m doing the bars with a photograph. “Can I just show you this ? This is a sixteen year old boy who’s gone missing. You haven’t seen him round here have you ? No ? Can I just leave this with you ?” Meanwhile in some other street–Ghost Town, Croydon, UK–the boy’s parents have consulted a clairvoyant. She has a vision of him washed up in the waiting room at St Thomas’ Hospital, Waterloo. Easy enough to check. I find he called there using a false name, but “became frightened” and left without treatment. Treatment for what ? They can’t say. That’s a bit more interesting to me, especially the clairvoyant, but it’s still not quite what I mean.
Facts are the easiest things to come by. From age fourteen upwards, girls run away more often than boys. Yet twice as many adult men go missing as adult women. Men aged twenty four to thirty are likelier to disappear than any other group. More people go missing from the South East than any other region in the UK. What did they leave ? Well, they left home. Why did they go ? They can’t tell you. People run away. They relocate, they go missing, as we’ve said. That’s a geographical statement as much as a social one. It’s what makes them easy to find.
The challenge is in the ones who go missing in their own lives. There’s less to know about those people. They live inside us. They have very simple ideas. We rarely hear their voices before it’s too late.
What does he want, this man from Barnes, whatever his name is ? His intention is still unclear. Is he a traveller or only a tourist ? Worse, is he a psychogeographer ? To start with, he brings it all back. He comes home, seven every evening, just as if he’s been to work. He’s diligent. He keys his notes into the Sony; he downloads his pictures. It’s an act of capture. For now, at least, his is the narrative of a man who begins to write a book about the immediate area he lives in–a radius of a few ordinary London streets–with every oriel window and garden ornament, every spalled brick wall, described as a feature. Then one day, from a narrow corner in “Little Chelsea”, East Sheen, he hears the following dialogue:
“Now she’s begun to claim it’s boring here.”
“Well of course, it is.”
He stands up close, but he can’t see in. He imagines a room smelling of death, with two old people talking their dreary talk beneath the crosses, pietas, and old photographs on the walls.
“What’s her name ?”
“I only know her as Myra.”
A long pause, and then:
“We wanted that war. All of us wanted that war. World War Three was the great imaginative act of its day.”
“Children are better in pairs.”
After that there’s only a sound like someone doing the washing up. A cough. Later, at home, he realises he hasn’t written any of it down. The next morning he takes the Nikon but forgets the notebook. Soon he’s leaving them both behind. He feels relieved. A little guilty. He feels naked. Two years later his wife finds out he doesn’t work in communications any more. That’s when she calls me.
I listen to the family’s ideas. It helps them. I appear receptive but that’s a pretence. All I need is the facts. Who’s missing. When it happened, or when the relatives first noticed it had happened. I don’t want their theories. They come to my office and sit uncomfortably looking at the desk and the dusty filing cabinet and wishing they had gone somewhere else.
Whatever I say they always ask themselves:
“Why did he do this ?”
I could tell them. From age forty he had the feeling of being spread very thin on the world, like a specialised coating. If people weren’t careful with him, he felt, if he wasn’t careful with himself, he’d crack or peel or flake away. Then one day he was trying to understand the instructions for some household appliance, and where it said, “How to set up the timer,” he read instead: “How to let things slip.” In the end, even the correct reading began to seem odd to him.
“Timer ?” he thought.
That would have been the way it was.
For the sake of the family I ask all the usual questions. Did he seem to be getting thinner ? Did he have–some evenings and in dim light–a kind of transparency, an abraded look which you could detect one minute but not the next ? For the sake of the family I look through the stuff he left behind: it’s a collection of professional qualifications, Barbour jackets and Australian stable boots. It’s a shelf of music CDs, English light classical. I find his laptop. I find the travel notes and picture files, stored under Personal, and it’s all much as you’d expect–that naive, eviscerating attempt they always make to express their inner life as a record of the outer. I find the garage he sold the Audi to: it was a TT, very nice condition. I get positive responses at the White Hart, the Bull, and the Sun–he was seen in all three, last Boat Race day. But what did those locations mean to him ?
Nothing, compared to the wall he puts his back against now, as, quaking with Thames fever, he rests after the long slog up through the woods from the railway, past Marc Bolan’s memorial and on to the Roehampton Gate. He’s emaciated, stripped down. He’s so far ahead of me! What began as observation became an adventure then a trajectory of relapse, a going-native. The long slow slide into the heartland of his imagination.
Eventually I’m on some windy hill, Richmond Park, early morning. I know he was here before me, quivering like an animal that’s got the scent of distance in its nose, turning his head slowly so he can discover everything with those new eyes of his. But that was two years ago, and even if he was here yesterday I won’t catch him. He’s got his second or third wind by now. He’s used to it. In his mind he’s pushing an old bicycle loaded with his things, first towards Wimbledon then down the long heartbreaking sweep of the A3 to the sea. It’s his space now.
I call the wife.
I say, “He’s in your house but he’s not here anymore.”
I say: “You knew that already.”
I advise her: “If you find the husk, leave it where it is. They’re often in the garden somewhere; or the attic.”
Some of them you track down. Others you don’t, and often that’s the best thing. Because what are you going to do ? Corner them in the loading bay behind a supermarket in Dalston ? Chase them down a muddy path in Stoke Newington cemetery, calling out in a language they can’t remember ? Back them up against themselves until there’s nowhere left to run and whatever dissatisfaction drove them inwards, whatever fire they’re full of, bursts out of the neck and sleeves of their crap old raincoat and they go up in front of you like a bundle of dry sticks ? I’ve seen that happen, believe me it’s not worth it.
Another afternoon, another bar. I’m always on the lookout for the boy who called in at St Thomas’ Hospital then, unable to control his anxieties, left before he could be treated.
“You can’t keep them away,” the barman says. “They’re so bloody anxious to start their lives.” He treats the photo to his oblique, dismissing glance. “They think of this as life,” it makes him say. He laughs. “You should be here in the evenings.” Whatever he’s seeing is so ordinary it’s beyond his power to describe. “Life!” he repeats.
“You run the place,” I remind him.
“Too true,” he admits, turning back to the spirit optic.
A missing person inside your own life.
OK, I’m not sure what I mean by that. But the good detective shares some of those qualities of absence. Qualities of self-disenfranchisement, for instance. He’s a torn place in the web which would otherwise detain him–home, family, profession, culture. I went missing from my own life years ago, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
And what if, in the end, I’m wrong ? What if Missing of Barnes only ran away, the way the majority of them do ?
Well then I’ll know.
One day I’ll stand in an upper room in Harringay, looking out. The rain will be falling almost invisibly on the shiny black branches of the trees, dripping off again in big soft quick drops. At the bottom of the garden next door I’ll see a man working in a shed. It’ll be him.
I see him like this. He’s wearing a blue plaid shirt and safety glasses. His dog sniffs round his feet. Every so often he stops what he’s doing and comes to the door of the shed and looks out into his garden, or across it towards his house. The dog stands by his leg, its head just touching his knee. It’s an old dog with a grey muzzle. After a moment they go back into the shed. He moves the wood from one place to another inside. He puts it up on the workbench. He takes it off again. Everything happens very quietly and comfortingly under the yellow light above the bench, and the afternoon slowly gets dark around him. A growing pile of offcuts appears by the shed door and, absorbing the rain, turns from white to sandy brown.
The Good Detective is copyright M John Harrison 2004, & was originally published in Interzone. More fiction here.