The last of Reality Street's publications for 2012 have now been launched and distributed to subscribers. I don't have anything more to say about The Alchemist's Mind, David Miller's admirable and fascinating selection of narrative prose by 28 writers from the UK and North America who are more widely known as poets. The poetic sensibility manifests itself in a diversity of ways in these extraordinarily varied texts, but the best introduction to the book is - er - the introduction itself, by David Miller. If this interests you, then please buy the book!


Now, I'd like to talk about the other book we just launched. White is the first novel (and first book of any kind) by Sean Pemberton, a writer dwelling in Derry, Northern Ireland. 

It is a novel in the generic sense of an imaginative prose work of a certain length, but like at least one of Reality Street's other recent books (Dwelling by Richard Makin) it in no way fulfils expectations of plot, narrative development, identifiable characters, etc. Like Makin's work, too, it is long - 500 pages, although the form it takes means it is not quite as long as you'd expect from the extent (it's actually about 73,000 words - Dwelling is closer to 300,000 in its 670 pages). White has two narrative modes: simple, declarative prose sections, alternating with what I've called "open field" sections, where fragmentary, impressionistic words and phrases are scattered across the page. Here's an example.

Using these two modes throughout, the novel explores a single day in a contemporary city. It is clearly high summer - there are numerous references to heat - and internal evidence (red buses, black taxis) suggest it may be London. The events of the day are not narrated in a chronological order, though there are references to early morning activity at the beginning (emerging from "white") and a suggestion of undressing for bed before the end (before it fades to "black"). However, the white of the blank page waiting to be written on is a focus right before the final open field section ("He looks at the white" is the final declarative sentence).

The activities described throughout are mostly mundane, yet documented in exhaustive, if not obsessive detail. Traffic queues. Someone comes in from work, to be greeted by a dog. Someone checks out shopping at a supermarket till. There is dressing, undressing, cooking, peeing, smoking. A man tries to fix a computer. Photocopying is done.

It could be the world described through the eyes of someone with autism, or of a child. In fact, a small child could probably read the whole thing with pleasure and understanding. There is at least one sex scene described, which is as comic and/or disturbing as it might be to a child witnessing it. Between the opening white and the closing black there is a child-like fascination with colours (when a TV set is turned on, the screen contents are often described simply as "the colours") and they are usually primary or rainbow colours - red, blue, yellow, green. No nuance. A friend speculated the other day that this might be the first avant-garde novel to be appreciated by small children, but then we concluded small children might appreciate having Finnegans Wake read to them even if they couldn't manage it themselves. But not Madame Bovary.

Or it could be a report on a day on Planet Earth by an alien. Much more convincing than that awful craze for "Martian" poetry of a few years ago, because it doesn't make any assumptions. Or does it?

What's especially fascinating is that this seems a doomed quest for a "plain language". The text continually tries to strip itself down to essentials, revealing how impossible it is to escape decision-making about what is known and what is unknown. I am reminded a little of Stefan Themerson's "Semantic Poetry" in the 1960s, where he attempted to disassemble language into meta-language, substituting dictionary definitions for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and thereby revealed an endless recursion of meaning. Suddenly, we glimpse the void at the heart of declarative utterance. "It is the street. It is hot." So "it" is both "the street" and "hot"? What exactly is "it", then?

Although the narrative never advances, our expectations as readers mean that a curious tension develops. Speaking for myself, I found myself at first reading turning the pages waiting for a revelation, for meaning to coalesce, and of course it never happens. Towards the end (SPOILER ALERT!), the imperturbable series of descriptions suddenly includes a brief scene of violence. This scene has no antecedents, and there appears to be no consequence. It takes its place among all the other events, the feeding of babies, the fixing of photocopiers, the watching of football, the taking of showers. Before, as I said, fading to black.

I wanted to publish this book because I had never read anything like it, because few other publishers would ever be likely to consider it, and because I found it strangely fascinating and beautiful in its rigorous and exhaustive and largely successful programme of avoiding what most people call "poetry". And thereby achieving a poetry of its own.