Three or four radical approaches to narrative

Posted by Ken Edwards on Saturday, November 5, 2011 Under: Reality Street
This week Reality Street launches three titles in its Narrative series: Dwelling by Richard Makin, The Raft by Leopold Haas and Gero Nimo by Johan de Wit. We're also giving a belated launch to Head of a Man by John Gilmore, which was published earlier in the year.


The Narrative series does not represent a retreat from poetry for the press - rather the contrary, it's a bold venture, an opening out of poetry, by which I mean the art of language, into the realm of imaginative prose. 

Narrative prose, particularly in the UK, has been stultified by expectation and marketing to the extent that every book now has to follow appropriate norms, fit into selling niches. In effect, literary fiction is now a genre like any other: romance, thriller, SF. Nothing wrong with genre in itself, unless it stifles innovation; which it tends to do. The other day I picked up an old Calder paperback of Samuel Beckett's later prose from my shelves. It was a shock to see it again: I thought, what major publisher today would publish anything like this? And what about from an unknown writer?

I want to do something about this rather deplorable state of affairs in which readers are palmed off with empty "if you liked this you will like that" moves. I don't pretend Reality Street is the only publisher feeling this way - there are other small outfits out there not primarily motivated by profit that are trying to show there a million ways of telling stories, or of NOT telling stories. But because of its history as a poetry press I think Reality Street has a special contribution to make.

The thing that all our above mentioned books have in common - and they are extremely various in their approaches - is that they start off from the basis of the imaginative possibilities of language, that is to say poetry. Two of the authors have previously published verse as well as prose, one is a published poet under a pseudonym. The fourth has no track record other than as a writer on music, yet his novel has strong poetic resonance.

There is probably a genre-in-the-making comprising narrative fiction written by those who started out as poets. Beckett I've already mentioned. Muriel Spark was a published poet before achieving fame as a fiction writer. Some authors better known as poets have ventured into fiction: Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, John Ashbery. (And next year we plan to publish an anthology on just this theme, edited by David Miller - but more of that another time.)

In some ways - in some ways only - the most radical of our new books is Dwelling. I can't imagine any other publisher in this country taking it on (and to be honest, before the advent of print-on-demand it would have been economically impossible for a small press like Reality Street to do so).

Dwelling started life as a monthly serial publication. A chapter a month for 30 months. I love this idea - it's a direct link to Dickens, and the book - let's call it a "novel", the author, Richard Makin, has - in its 672 pages has the compendiousness of a Dickens opus. There the similarities begin to end. That original serial was online of course - originally titled "St Leonards" (where the author lives), at Peter Philpott's innovative Great Works website (it seems to have been taken down recently). 

The book went through an extensive period of revision before reaching its final form - a huge transition from the weightlessness of electronic text to the massiveness of print, its extent increasing along the way to nearly 300,000 words. It looks like a novel - but is it? The first chapter includes the sentence "There’s no story although a great many things happen" - which pretty well nails it. In a perceptive commentary on Intercapillary Space, the writer and critic Michael Peverett observed that the work appears to be "an experimental prose that connects, at its extremes, with both the novel and the installation". And of course it is no accident that Richard Makin is, as well as a poet, a visual artist by training.

How do you write such a book? How do you read it? The list of "unreadable" books of such extent is not long: Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans. Actually, it's not as unreadable as all that. The sentences are mostly as impeccably formed as any in Henry James - just a little jiggery-pokery here and there. There is abundant humour. Suddenly, at one point, the text breaks out into a Bob Cobbing game involving words beginning with "sea-", zigzagging from margin to margin. There is ritual of many kinds, obsessively described, obliquely suggesting religious observance, pornography, computer games, science fiction. There are mysteries, though no denouements. There is exquisite beauty. When you get to the end of it (as I have - somehow) you acquire the feeling of immensity. "Desert, dazzling light" is the final verbless sentence, picking up on "dazzling light balanced by impenetrable shadows" on the first page and "The stadium floods with white light and a cry goes up o very beauty" (one of many unexpected football images) on the second. The white light of the void, then, that encompasses, well, everything

Without plot, without characters, how the book is structured is one of its many mysteries, though there are clues in the references that recur throughout. But the plotlessness means you can access or leave it at any point, and this is where its relation to the art installation becomes evident. There must be almost infinite ways of experiencing Dwelling without getting to the end of it. There isn't really an ending.

Contrast with Head of a Man. A novel a fraction of the length, with a lot of white space, but ostensibly with a story. Of a kind. The narrator arrives at a backpacker hostel overlooking a terraced valley in an unidentified Asian country. He is clearly from Europe or America, but suffering from some kind of memory loss, and although this seems to involve trauma, there is no more denouement to be found here than in Dwelling.

Th traveller stays where he has arrived. He is ministered to. He interacts superficially with the backpackers who come and go - their quotidian concerns seem bizarre, and not of the real world. Which is...?

The Homeric references suggest a parallel with Odysseus' entrapment by Circe. The traveller aspires to a point of dynamic stasis ("If I can be still, and still moving."). He is in the Underworld, the world of the dream. It increasingly seems irrelevant whether or not he can recall his trauma. No development is possible, therefore an acceptance of what is is all that remains. 

Questioning of "development" was one of the great themes of twentieth century literature. The sense of events unfolding rationally towards a resolution was radically interrogated by Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Woolf, Kafka and many others. The certainties of the Enlightenment were history. Robinson Crusoe's belief that if he used his faculties and applied his skills God would provide and all would be well no longer stood up to scrutiny. In the world conjured by Kafka, for example, irrationality prevails and goals are shown to be delusionary.

In Western music, "resolution" has a special meaning: cadence towards the tonic, the home note that ends the piece. Harmonic "development" was the rational process of change through related keys to that end. But in the late 19th century, in the music of such composers as Wagner, "development" seemed to go crazy, with key signatures blurring and the resolution being postponed further and further into the future. 

The intervention of Arnold Schönberg, so influential on later music, was to "democratise" harmony by inventing a system in which key signatures were abolished and all 12 notes of the chromatic scale were given equal importance. There was no longer a "home note" to head for - instead, the particular intervals between the configuration of 12 notes chosen (the "tone row") would give the piece its flavour and its structure.

A side effect of this was that harmonic development was no longer possible. Using this method, composers could only indicate change by manipulating the duration of the notes, changes in tempo, timbre and dynamics, use of silence and so on.

There is a parallel here with literary questioning of development, and intriguingly Leopold Haas uses an adaptation of Schönberg's method to construct the narrative of The Raft. The 12 (of course) characters who have been cast adrift from the doomed ship the Medusa - the incident of 1816 was made iconic by Géricault's celebrated painting, sampled on the cover of this book - are, like the protagonist of Head of a Man, going nowhere and will always be going nowhere.

Leopold Haas' meticulous method, within which the 12 characters speak in turn according to a prearranged order, also encompasses 12 chapters, each depicting one day in the ordeal, and, crucially, a determined syllabic count across a long line with 12 tab-stops. This tour de force of 12-tone poetry reaches a point of extreme condensation and stunning virtuosity in the opening of the Seventh Day, when all 12 characters speak simultaneously, their discourses being equally readable down 12 columns and across each 12-stopped row.

As in music, the serial method ensures that there is no development in the traditional sense. Even the expectation that some of the characters may start dying off is subverted (though the Dog's sudden silence is at times telling, provoking the suspicion he has been eaten or fallen overboard). The characters need always to be there to preserve the system that generated them, stuck with each other in a version of Hell, sometimes attempting to amuse each other (and us), in a ghastly stasis that bears an uncanny resemblance to the state of our real world at times.

In some ways, The Raft is the most conventional of the four books discussed here in that it has recognisable characters with particular traits who interact, squabble, undermine and ignore each other in stylised idiolects. The orphan boy Wills speaks in a breathless, naive rush; the veteran singer Norma has Edna Everage-ish turns of phrase and her relationship with her husband Chippie, who is alternately venal and senile, has comical ups and downs; the despicable politicians Ern and Lope attempt to take control with absurd management-speak; the ship's cook Mon Suet is evasive in juicy Franglais (but why, if he is French, is it suggested he comes from Darmstadt? well, Darmstadt was the post-war home of post-Schönberg serialism...); and so on.

In other ways, however, it's the least conventional. While Dwelling, Head of a Man and Gero Nimo can all be referred back to the novel as a kind of design template, it's hard to relate The Raft to any literary form. It has speaking characters, but it's not a play or a film script. Appropriately, it has affinities with opera, but is far too wordy to make it as an opera libretto (still, an adaptation perhaps?). It's full of rich poetry, but isn't a poem.

Its presentation caused the most technical problems of all four for Reality Street. A long line always presents a challenge, and so it was necessary to adopt an extra wide format and a condensed typeface to preserve the structure of the piece. Its appearance resembles an orchestral musical score more than anything, which is kind of appropriate.

With Gero Nimo, we return to the appearance of a conventional novel. But appearances can be deceptive. Johan de Wit, a Dutch-born poet who writes exclusively in English, has been a familiar name on the London post-avant poetry scene for 25 years. His "unalloyed language" style is instantly distinctive.

The opening of his new book suggests a comic novel of manners: "Had it not been for today Gero Nimo would never have relented. Released from prison on a date and time when most people celebrate their national communion with a guard of honour..." but what on earth is going on? Before long, poor Gero Nimo has disappeared, re-imprisoned in a bewildering network of language: in Alan Halsey's memorable analysis, "baffled by the warps and swerves of the sentences which conjured [him] up while heading elsewhere". Or "a never-ending stream of verbal liquorice". He resurfaces briefly in the next four paragraphs of the opening chapter before vanishing completely.

The next chapter introduces another character, Casa Blanca, but his appearance proves equally brief and illusory. And so it goes on: 60 chapters, 60 characters, all equally conjured up out of Johan de Wit's extraordinarily fractured language, all meeting the same fate in the same way. Maybe they are all the same person? Even those with apparently feminine names - Mari Posa, Pacha Mama and Waga Mama - are male. Paso Lini and Kuro Sawa don't appear to have much to do with film directing, and Paga Nini doesn't play the violin.

The whole thing is deadpan, absolutely serious and impeccably performed, a prerequisite for true absurdity.

And after 180 or so pages the author himself politely takes his leave ("It's time to say goodbye to all of you who are still here.") We are no further forward in discovering the fate of Gero Nimo and all his cohorts or alter egos. They have gone. Once again, there has been no development or resolution and we are exactly where we started.

Well, not quite. I hope these books make a difference. I published them because I like them. They inspire me with possibilities. It isn't necessary to follow established modes of narration. You can invent new ways to hold a reader's attention and to create pleasure that way. You can invent your own structures and invite your readers in to inhabit them, maybe participate in the invention. They may not all appeal to everyone, but I hope they will find sympathetic readers who have been wondering why the world is full of the same tired tropes. There is more elsewhere  than you can even dream of.

The London launch of Head of a Man and Dwelling takes place at the Small Publishers Fair on Saturday 12 November at 4:00pm, with John Gilmore and Richard Makin reading. Johan de Wit launches Gero Nimo (with my help) at Xing the Line, The Apple Tree, London, on Wednesday 16 November at 8:00pm.

In : Reality Street 

Tags: "innovative fiction" "narrative series" "avant garde fiction" 
blog comments powered by Disqus

About ...

Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at