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.