Thursday, 28 June 2012

Novel: Baby Marxist.

I didn't know I was allergic to rabbits. The inside corner of my right eye felt as if it was on fire. It was just about possible to avoid reaching up to scratch it if I concentrated the whole of my willpower on resisting, but if I was distracted for a moment, as inevitably happened with all the commotion going on around me, my hand would sneak up to my eye involuntarily. Then there would be a moment of ecstatic relief followed by an explosion of sneezing that carried on for about five minutes. It was not so much sneezing as being sneezed, and once it was over I hardly knew where I was any more.
     'Bless you,' someone said for the seventh or eighth time that evening.
     I was sitting on one of the square cushions;I remembered now that it had fallen vacant just as I was making my way past it, the previous occupant getting up to refill her glass, and I had sunk on to it, glad of the chance to stop my aimless wandering from room to room. I had not seen the rabbit till too late, or the lanky girl who was inseparable from it, even though I had been trying to get away from them all evening.
     'Have you got a cold?' she said,and there was something in her voice that made it sound like an accusation.
     'It's your rabbit.'
     'My birthday present,' she said. 'Her name's Rosa. Unless she's a boy, in which case her name's Leon. They - waving her curly head in a circular motion to indicate her surroundings - 'wanted to dye her blue, but I wasn't having it.' Rosa looked blue anyway in the submarine light, but there was a luminous brilliance to her blueness that suggested her fur was really blue. Or not really, I remembered. There was no really, especially, for some reason, where colours were concerned. She was turning round and round in the girl's lap, snuffling at it as if trying to make a nest for herself in the unyielding denim. There were damp snippets of a blue-green material all round her, which I recognized as half-chewed lettuce. 'You don't like rabbits,' the girl said, accusingly again. 'They've got a right to exist, same as anyone else.'
     'I've got nothing against them. They just make me sneeze. Or this one does, anyway. It must be an allergy.'
     'You're not sneezing now.'
     'That's because I have nothing left to sneeze with.'
     'That's OK then. There are no allergies anyway. They're all in the mind.'
     'You can't sneeze in the mind.'
     'Oh, you can, though. You can do anything in the mind. That's where most things happen, after all.'
     I looked at her: very thin, her sweatshirt, which was probably red in normal circumstances, hanging loose from the points of her shoulders. A small, pale face. She looked like an overgrown child.'What birthday?' I asked.
     'Twenty.'
     Twenty! I felt sick suddenly. She was a baby. Probably a baby Marxist, judging by the names she chose for her rabbit, but still a baby. And to think I had been thinking... never mind.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Novel: Kind of Blue

Most of the food was blue. They had put quite a lot of effort into it - there were Ritz crackers spread with a number of blue pastes (cream cheese, and possibly guacamole, but I didn't recognize the others), and dry-roasted peanuts now wet with a smeary blue food colouring that came off on your fingers; the surface of the baked potatoes was bluish and there was a blue cheese dressing to go on them, its natural blueness boosted by artificial means). They were served with a bowl of a stringy indigo substance that turned out to be braised red cabbage. 'There you are, you see,' Rob said, taking a swig of blue wine. 'This is what I mean about language and colour. There is probably only one really blue food in the world, and we call it red.'
     'It is red, isn't it?' I said, lifting up a forkful or it. It was hard to be sure in the blue light.
     'Not when it's cooked. Cooked red cabbage is definitely blue, and since it's usually cooked when you eat it, it's at least as appropriate to call it blue cabbage. If we called it blue cabbage that might conceivably help you to see it as it really is.'
     'I thought it wasn't really anything. Isn't that essentialism?'
     Rob shrugged. I didn't hear his reply. The room was dark and very crowded, and there were currents of people moving all round me, which made it hard to stand still for long. Even though I was managing that more or less, people kept getting in the way and I found I was being turned slowly until in the end I was facing in the wrong direction. There was a bass-heavy music coming from another room. We were somewhere in the North Slope (Rob had just followed the bass vibrations to get here), in a little arrangement of four rooms and a kitchen opening off a corridor. This was the kitchen, though it had been glamourized for the occasion by hanging blue cloths over the lights. The food and wine was laid out on the work surfaces on both sides of the room, so that you couldn't see all of it at once, and sometimes you couldn't see any of it at all, depending on the flow of people. I had half a blue potato plus the blue cabbage and blue dressing on a blue paper plate that buckled beneath them, and was trying to eat them with a blue plastic fork while holding a glass of the blue wine in my fork hand.
     'Blue Nun,' a female voice said somewhere underneath my right armpit.
     'Oh yes, very good.' But I never got to see who I was talking to, and perhaps the remark hadn't been addressed to me in the first place.
     I realized I was very hungry, but eating was impossible. The fork wouldn't penetrate the potato even when I had room to move it, and the plate was in danger of collapsing every time I tried. I gave up and made an lunge for one of the work surfaces to put the plate down, but it just got further away, and before I could stop myself I was out of the door and standing uncomfortably in the corridor between two rows of people seated on cushions with their backs pressed against the wall and their knees drawn up. The cushions were of the large square chair-seat variety and there was only about six inches of institutional crewcut carpet between them. There was no light here except the blue glow from the open doorways of the other rooms, and it would have been difficult to make my way between the knees and feet and cushions even if dozens of other people had not been trying to do the same thing. What was I going to do when I got rid of the potato? Talk, dance, listen to the music? There seemed to be rooms for each of them, but no one to do any of them with. It was as if fifty or sixty people, with their eating, drinking, love-lives and conversations had been broken into fragments and the challenge was to put at least one of them together again in the blue, throbbing maelstrom.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Notes: Dream Books

Nearly a month since my last Starling City update. Anyone involved in academia will understand why: it's been the marking season, when all our undergraduates produce end-of-year work at the same time, and lecturers can't think of anything else. I finished my marking yesterday. Ahead is the season of meetings, when all the admin connected with that marking has to be got through, but, while that's not the most exciting thing in the world, it doesn't take over your brain in quite the same way. Already I'm thinking of the summer, when I hope to spend quite a lot of time in the National Library of Wales, working on a critical book. Maybe I'll write some poetry, too.

The less time I have to write, the more I fantasize about writing. And it tends to be dream books, rather than projects that are actually under way. In the last few days, I have dreamed up two novels, a collection of poems and a collection of linked short stories. Maybe one or more of them will actually be written some day. Most of the books I have written started off as daydreams - I remember, for example, going over Mandeville in my head for years before I actually sat down to write it. I kept repeating to myself the following unpromising opening:
My name is Sir John Mandeville.
The world is a T in an O.
(The reference being to the shape of the world as depicted in medieval maps.) I knew this sounded terrible, and that the implied form of a ballad would be wrong for the book, but it continued to nag at me anyway. It was a sort of writer's block in itself, an unshakable pattern in my head that prevented me from seeing the possibility of any other form or opening for the book. In the same way, some of the other dream books I carry round with me have fixed patterns or preconceptions associated with them that I can't shake and that are the main reason that I can't actually write them. Sometimes a dream book becomes a project at the moment I rid myself of one of those preconceptions.

Starling City, on the other hand, didn't really have one of those dream existences; I started it because I had a bit of time to fill before teaching started and my other projects were either finished (a book of poems) or hadn't worked out (a novel), and it seemed a practical thing to try. Unlike most of my other projects, successful or otherwise, it didn't start from a Big Idea. It isn't the kind of book you can describe to someone who hasn't read it and still sound impressive: 'Well, it's set in a fictional version of Brighton in the early 80s, and I think his friend dies.' The only Big Idea was doing it in blog form. The fact that it sounds so ordinary makes it hard for me to continue to believe in it - it doesn't sound like something that will win the Booker or allow me to retire on the proceeds, the kind of fantasy outcomes that have sustained my other writing over the years. But then maybe I've been too much in thrall to the Big Idea and the fantasy outcome. Perhaps I should just write and hope that the writing comes through on its own. The blog form, by getting rid of the normal obstacles that prevent writers getting through to their readers, makes it seem less necessary to shout and wave your arms.

At one point during the marking, I did start a new posting. I was trying to get Rob and Daniel to a party, largely so I could introduce some other characters, because it has been bothering me that the novel so far is mostly two people talking to each other. They got as far as the Adorno Arms on campus, which proved to be deserted. And then I couldn't think how to get them any further, nor did I want to continue the conversation. Even if I could get them to a party, what would happen? I had no idea, and in my stressed state I knew there wasn't much point racking my brains. Now, however, my mind is clearer, and the answer seems obvious. I've remembered the small episode from my life which was the main reason I wanted to write about Rob in the first place. I've been holding it back, as I tend to, waiting for the right moment to introduce it, and even managed to forget all about it for a while. Tomorrow I'll get back to the novel (minus the non-event of the Adorno Arms, I think) and get things moving at last. This novel needs some love interest.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Novel: No Such Thing as Snow

By the time we boarded the train it was already dark. It felt wrong to be going to university at this hour instead of coming from it. I was used to the train being full of undergraduates with dyed hair and Oxfam-shop coats. Now it was largely empty except for a few returning commuters and middle-aged county women going home to the tame countryside north of Fulmar. Rob and I sat opposite each other, each holding a bottle of red Piat d'Or. 'Anyone will let you in,' he had told me, 'so long as you have a bottle of this stuff with you. No, I don't know where we're going, and it doesn't matter. Have faith, Daniel, have faith.'
     The non-sequiturs of the afternoon had faded, leaving behind a dull continuous unpleasantness behind my eyes that was either a mild headache or just the rubbing my thoughts made going through my brain. I probably felt this all the time without being aware of it. I had tried telling Rob I didn't feel up to going, but he said a party would take me out of myself, and I had to agree that that was what I needed. Now, as the train moved off, he continued to talk cheerfully about literary theory, ignoring my sullenness. I would rather have gone to sleep, but it was probably just as well he didn't let me, as the journey was only about twenty minutes.
     'I thought I was ignorant,' Rob said, 'but you take the biscuit. And you're supposed to be doing a PhD. Personally I'd kill to do one of those.' He picked up the copy of The Maximus Poems from the seat beside him and leafed through it again. 'It all comes down to language, doesn't it?'
     'Well, of course,' I said, 'I know that .'
     'It's not just the unconscious that's structured like a language, it's the whole bloody universe. And when I say structured like a language, I mean it is a language, because when you come to think of it, Daniel, there isn't any difference between being structured like something and being something, is there? Not that being is the right word, I suppose. Not that something is the right word either. I'm just trying to make it simpler for you.'
     'Don't bother,' I said. We had reached the first stop, Blackburn Circus. A startled looking man in a grey suit squeezed out between Rob's legs and mine, banging me on the knee with the corner of one of those hard plastic briefcases. He had to open the window to get at the door handle on the outside, and it remained open thereafter. He was the only passenger to get out, but the train was in no hurry to move off, and I stared at the Illuminated stretch of concrete with lights dotted behind it like stars. My walks had never taken me as far as Blackburn Circus, and I didn't know anyone who lived there. I had a sudden sense of vertigo, perhaps triggered by the fact that Rob had just been talking about the universe. We moved off again.
     '...because the fact that they have a hundred words for snow,' Rob was saying, 'means that there is, ultimately, no such thing as snow at all.'
     'I thought it was fifty words for snow.'
     'Fifty words, a hundred words, who's counting? Who can count, come to that? The point is that there is no automatic correspondence between the number of words they use and the thing, whatever it is, that the words are supposed to signify. The word tree is not a tree.'
     'I never thought it was.'
     'And colours, as well. If you were Welsh, for example, you would think the tree was blue instead of green. Or rather you'd think it was blue as well as green, because they only have one word for what we think of as two colours. I can't believe I'm having to tell you all this, Daniel. So if you were Welsh a tree would be the same colour as the sky.'
     I shook my head, which was still feeling uncomfortable. 'About this snow thing...'
     'Yes?'
     'Do you think I should put it into my thesis in some way? Snow comes into Polar texts, and I think, on the whole they just call it snow. Scott and Shackleton, and so on. Some of them went north, and came into contact with the Inuit, but I haven't read much about them yet. I don't know whether they said anything about Inuit words for it.'
     'You are so literal minded,' Rob said. 'It could be fifty words for anything, any number of words for anything. Who cares about snow, anyway? This is Helmston. It hardly ever snows here.'
     At that moment, as if to contradict him, a sign slid past the open window bearing the word FULMAR. A kind of seabird, I remembered - I'd never really thought about the oddity of naming a village after a bird. If you could call it a village - there was nothing there, except the station, the underpass, the university and the sign that unified them all under the unlikely emblem of a creature best known for its habit of spitting a foul-smelling oil over anyone that came too close. There were little dancing flecks under the station lights that looked at first like insects. It was not until I got out and they started to flick at my face and the backs of my hands that I realized it actually was snowing.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Novel: Non-Sequiturs

Afternoons, according to Rob, were not much good for anything. Just when lunchtime had worked up a head of steam and seemed to be well on the way to evening, it suddenly stopped, leaving you with this continuation of daylight which was, frankly, unnecessary. 'I mean, why is there so much daylight? What's it for? You can see perfectly well at night. Daylight just seems exaggerated, a bit literal-minded, if you know what I mean, Daniel.'
     I decided he was drunk, though he was still speaking clearly enough, and striding down Gosling Rise so fast I could hardly keep up with him. Ahead of us, the sea was a chilly pale blue that made it look further away than it actually was. 'I don't feel that at all. I don't like the dark.'
     'That's because you're the sort of well-behaved person who has nothing very much to gain from the darkness, Daniel. Three beers and three women and you're happy. You can go back to your Arctic and your corned beef, what was it?'
     'Three and a half,' I said, running a few strides to catch up, 'beers, I mean.'
     'Oh, so you're extra happy now, are you? You don't look it, just your usual studious self. So what do you do with your afternoons, read Derrida?'
     The hiccup had come back in a more solid form, a fist-sized lump of peanut-mulch in my gullet. I only had time to breathe every two or three steps, and when I did the frosty air tasted of peanuts. 'I walk. And go to, go to bookshops.'
     'That sounds very intellectual. I fancy that. And then we can get on the train to Fulmar and go to the party.'
     'What, what party is this, Rob? I don't remember any party.'
     He had stopped and was appraising the streets and shops round about, which caused me to career right past, finding it difficult to adjust my pace on the steep hill. When I came back, Rob was staring into a window-display of trusses, incontinence pads and prosthetic limbs, all pink plastic, beige canvas, straps and buckles. 'So this is Helmston,' he said, as if he had never been here before. 'Remarkable. Why do you think they put this place on a hill? Must be a bit of a poser for the customers. Why are you in such a hurry, Daniel? We've got the afternoon ahead of us, haven't we?'
     'I don't... remember... party.'
     'There's always a party if you look hard enough. It's a university, isn't it? But why am I telling you this, Daniel? You're the student.'
     That afternoon was a series of non-sequiturs. Sometimes we were in bookshops, sometimes walking. At one time we were in a cafe because Rob had told me he was worried about my condition, and I needed to sober up. 'I can't understand it,' he said, 'unless you'd been drinking before I arrived. Have the hot chocolate with whipped cream. You need something on your stomach. Which is more - ' patting his own stomach - 'than I do. But I never eat anything, so it's hardly my fault.' Another time we were crunching along the beach, Rob still talking all the time, though I could hardly hear him for the wind and the grinding of the waves. He had bought a copy of Charles Olson's Maximus poems, an outsize yellow hardback, in one of the bookshops and was reading me bits of it as he walked. 'Projective verse, Daniel. What do you think?' He put the book on one of the drier mounds of shingle, picked up a stone and ran with it into the shallows, the water drenching his socks, before launching it into the waves and turning to me with a mock-triumphant look. 'Seven bounces, what you do think of that?'
     I felt a sort of shadow pass over me, inside my head or outside it, I wasn't sure. I put my hand up to my forehead, as if to wipe it away.
     'You know, Daniel, I like you. You're so easy to talk to. But you don't do much, do you?' He looked at me curiously, the way he had looked at the trusses. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
     'It's the starlings,' I said. Or maybe I didn't. He didn't seem to hear me, anyway.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Novel: What did I do?

'It's undeniably crap,' Rob said, looking down at his plate, which supported a canvassy pancake rolled round a filling that was mostly chunks of carrot. 'That is a given. And all right, I admit it, I'd rather be eating a steak. But you don't eat steak in Helmston, do you?'
     'What do you mean? Of course you do. They have every kind of restaurant you can think of.' I took a sip of my beer, only a half this time, much to Rob's disgust.
     'You can get it, Daniel, I grant you that, but you don't eat it. It's just for the tourists, along with the fake Indian and the fake Chinese and the fake Italian, and the fake, God knows, Mongolian or Romanian or what have you. Even you don't eat steak, and you're hardly a typical Helmstonian - I believe that's the word - hardly a typical Helmstonian, are you?'
     'I don't know what you mean.' Somewhere in the exhausting climb up Gosling Rise between the Shakespeare's Head and Wholesomeness, my hiccup had disappeared and been replaced by an all-over burning sensation that was either a symptom of a dangerous illness or a sort of exhilarating rage. I no longer cared about having to explain my sex-life to Rob; I would lie or tell him to mind his own business - it didn't matter which. Who was he, anyway? An overweight, married, part-time market researcher, from Kent of all places. 'I'm not a tourist, I live here.'
     Rob leaned forward across the table. 'You don't come from here, though, do you? Nobody really comes from here, I've noticed that.'
     I shook my head. 'You talk some utter, I mean some unmitigated...'
     'What's that you're eating?' He gestured at my plate.
     'It seems to be mostly peanuts.'
     'See, you could have had peanuts at the pub, and I wouldn't have had to suffer the carrot pancake. Anyway - ' he took a long gulp of his beer as a sign that he was changing the subject - 'you were going to tell about your lovers. I just have so much to learn.' Rob's habitually ironic mode of speaking cancelled itself out, I decided. Coming from anyone else, the way he had said that last phrase would have been insulting, but there was something innocent about Rob's irony.
     'I don't really have any,' I said. Or rather it was said for me - I seemed to have reached that stage.'
     'Yes, well, I can see that. But you have had, the three women you mentioned.'
     'They weren't really - it was nothing much. I mean I don't think I'm very good at... relationships.'
     Rob nodded, weightily. 'Understood, Daniel. Who is? Not me, anyway.'
     I wondered for a moment if I found that reassuring. There were degrees of not being good, just as there were degrees of frustration, the nine-hundred and ninety-ninth degree and the rest. But, to be honest, I wasn't even on the chart yet. 'You? But you're married.'
     He gave a sigh, or was it a laugh? 'I know. Embarrassing, isn't it? You want to see a picture? I might as well do the whole bourgeois thing.'
     She was tall with a Mediterranean tan, high cheekbones, and long dark hair, holding the baby awkwardly at shoulder-height as though she wasn't sure what to do with it, with her. Beautiful? Yes, probably. The main thing I thought, though was that she seemed grown-up. I wasn't sure why that should surprise me - Rob was hardly a child, after all. Come to think of it, the baby looked exactly like him, minus the beard and earring, a small plump-faced Rob in a pink tracksuit of the kind they favoured for babies these days. 'What did I do? Rob said, shaking his head. 'What did I do?' I waited for the end of the question, but there didn't seem to be one.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Novel: Hiccup

'Three?' Rob said, adjusting his body on the chair to work his fingers into the pocket of his jeans and draw out the squashed packets of Rizlas and Golden Virginia in preparation for the finciky process of making one of his roll-ups. '(I have to be Imogen for the moment, seeing as she's not here. Want one of these? No? You really have to smoke, Daniel, if you want to be a proper student.) Three. That's very restrained of you.'
     'Yes, well,' I said, 'I'm... choosy.' Never in all the times I had fielded that question had I come up with a remark like that; it could only have been the three pints. I looked defiantly at Rob, but he had his head down over the table and was rearranging individual strands of tobacco. It wasn't clear for a while whether or not he had heard me.
     'Hm,' he said finally, holding the finished cigarette up to the light as if to see whether it was transparent. 'And were they worth it?'
     'What?'
     'These three women you put so much deliberation into. I hope they were worth it? Were the relationships satisfying?'
     'Um.' There was something stuck in the back of my throat that felt like an unfinished hiccup. I couldn't swallow it again, and was concentrating most of my forces on trying to make it emerge in a controlled and discreet way. 'I think I need to eat, Rob. It's almost two o'clock, and I'm not used to drinking so much at lunchtime.'
     'Why this obsession with eating all the time? All right, how about some peanuts?'
     'I was thinking more of lunch.'
     'I can get lunch back home,' Rob said. 'All right, let me finish my cigarette, and we'll go somewhere. I want to hear abut the three women.'
     In between struggling with the hiccup, I was trying to make my mind move in a straight line, but it kept doubling back on itself. It's just language, I kept thinking; if I had slept with a thousand women, like, I don't know, Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias, Frank Sinatra - they're all musicians, aren't they? Is there something about music and sex? Like Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias... Who is Julio Iglesias, anyway? I'm pretty sure he isn't cool, and not a name I ought to be dropping even if he has slept with a thousand women. Is it always exactly a thousand, I wonder, or do they not count after the first thousand? It must be so frustrating to get to, say, nine hundred and ninety-nine, and then you can't manage the thousandth for some reason, they all start saying no for some reason. A different level of frustrating, of course. Eric Clapton... Pull yourself together, Daniel. Even if I had slept with a thousand women, I would have no way of conveying that experience to Rob because it's only language, whatever I say is only language, signifiers without signifieds, because the women aren't here, he can't see them or talk to them, they would just be names, words, language, there's no way of what's the word? No way of reality testing. He doesn't know, I can make up anything I like, because it's only words. As far as words are concerned I am Julio Iglesias. Or three one-thousandths of Julio Iglesias which is a nice conservative, normal thing to be. Only don't mention the name because he isn't cool. Three one-thousandths of, erm, Eric...
     'Are you all right, Daniel?' Rob said. 'You look a bit pale. Perhaps you do need to eat, come to think of it. We can go to that veggie place, Wholesomeness.'
     'I'm OK. I've just got a bit of, of the hiccups.'
     He looked at me, puzzled. 'Are you sure? I haven't actually noticed you hiccuping.'
     'It's just one hiccup,' I told him, 'and it won't move. It's stuck in my throat.'
     He nodded wisely. 'Oh, one of those. Come on, Daniel. We'll go to Wholesomeness and you can tell me about your lovers.'