Inspiration Station: Books That Stick

A key part of my BA Creative Writing was wider reading. We were give course excerpt readers for class discussion and usually quite exhaustive lists of suggested texts for reading around the subject, which I was apparently the only person to actually bother to read. These were usually intended to highlight things: how episodic fiction works, the difference between the episodic and the transformative, the nature of modernist vs postmodernist writing, different approaches to poetry, and so on. The following books were largely not on the reading list, but are just books which–for reasons other than the narrative they contained–have stuck with me and influenced me in some way.

Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker. I have reread these books many times and I still can’t quite put my finger on why they work so well for me when the rest of Barker’s novels, including ones in similar settings with similar themes, don’t. But initially I think I was taken by her use of language–specifically the incredible balance she strikes between clean, clear description that never goes overboard, poetic turns of phrase at moments of intense emotion, and not allowing the action to ever take place in what’s usually called a “white room”, even when she devotes only a sentence to scene-setting.

As Meat Loves Salt, Maria McCann. I have a great and powerful weakness for strong character voice, particularly first-person narrators, and particularly unreliable ones. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who plans to read it (and I definitely urge people to read it, with the caveat that it is frequently brutal and the narrator’s voice is a lot to handle), but the timing of exposure of information, the distortion produced by the emotions of the narrator, and his acute unreliability are all things I aspire to in terms of literary courage. I think I came closest to achieving that in Heavy, but no writer is ever satisfied fully with their past work.

The Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester. This was recommended to me (by A.K. Larkwood, author of The Unspoken Name, in fact) on the basis of my voluble and impassioned reviews of As Meat Loves Salt. She (rightly) grasped that I liked narrators who were “unreliable, full of their own bullshit, and absolute dicks”, and pointed me at this debut novella by a culinary writer. It treads the line between literary murder mystery and cookbook memoirs, and I have never read anything else like it. In terms of showing me how to use narrator preoccupations to absolutely manipulate the audience and frame the story in a manner that I’d never have considered doing myself, it was an eye-opener. In a very odd way, a little like Matt Fraction’s celebrated dog’s-eye view issue of Hawkeye, or even that one Agatha Christie novel whose title I shan’t mention lest I spoil the plot. Linguistically this is also wonderful–writing a pretentious, self-involved asshole as a protagonist/narrator frees the author to go absolutely mad with language and really unleash the purple prose and pompous opinions. Again, something I am working up to finding the courage for myself.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Like the Regeneration books this is one I have returned to repeatedly and like them it is one that I consider a touchstone of literary aspiration. Every man and his dog has written about Nabokov’s borderline self-indulgent description, his anatomisation of a specific time and place in history, his eloquence. What fascinated me on first reading, and which now just impresses me with the skill with which it is done, is again the use of the perspective of a reprehensible person to tell you one thing, but to show you something else. Following the emotional narrative of Humbert Humbert, he “falls in love” with a very young girl and obsessively “courts” her and she “breaks his heart”. Following the physical narrative of the behaviour he himself observes, Dolores Haze is abducted and abused by the man who emotionally tormented her mother, until she escapes. A genuinely inspiring demonstration of how to use the narrator to conduct the same grooming behaviour on the reader as he does on the characters, and one which unsettles a lot of readers to the point of anger when they realise they’re complicit somehow.

It’s not solely unreliable first-person narrators, but I admit I am going to return to that theme.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault. Another regular reread, and one that I treat like getting a particularly nice cake. I have the greatest respect for many of her works, but I think this one is probably the best. The characters are the most fully fleshed-out, the locational descriptions the most immersive and recognisible–although I can see that’s also because they’re more familiar, both due to personal experience and to ritual rereading.

One of the hallmarks of Renault’s work is implication: as a queer writer, she has the very particular talent of leaving things unsaid, but carefully hinted at. Not writing things, but writing around them, so that they appear inevitably in the white space in the centre–a bit like drawing only the shadows cast by physical objects, rather than the objects themselves. Some of this is delicacy–she got away with writing a gay romance in the 1950s by creating gaps for the sex and kissing that could be filled by the mind but were not even alluded to in ways people without the “code” would notice. Some of it is layers. Many of her sentences, dialogue in particular, are laden with multiple strata of meaning. Which ought to be a given, but is rarely the case. And because everything happens through the eyes of the point-of-view protagonist, in initial read-throughs the image of other characters is distorted. Is so-and-so really a horrible person or does the protagonist not like them because he considers them competition? Is so-and-so really a selfless paragon or is he just in love? And so on.

Another hallmark is rhythm. It’s hard to pinpoint and harder still to replicate (as a recent attempt at practicing iambic prose revealed, writing with an ear to spoken rhythm is not something I find easy at all), but there are passages of description in The Charioteer which read like poetry not only in their pastoral or romantic content but in their very stresses and alliterations and that is the lodestar by which I would very much like to steer the unforgivably ugly pedalo of my own prose.

Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, is another instance of “in it for the language”, in this case solely for the language. The social commentary bores me and the plot is tissue-thin: the real fascination comes from discovering how quickly Burgess can teach the reader to read an entirely new slang, purely through immersion and context. And, of course, it has a reprehensible, self-involved narrator with a strong voice, and we know by now that I like those.

The next three books all feature what I’d call location horror, or bad houses if you want to be really technical about it.

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski. I don’t really know where to start with this. Narratively it deals with the uncanny, and with emotional landscapes reflected as physical landscapes, and about distortions of reality; it runs three levels of narrative simultaneously, really milking the “found manuscript” trope of late 19th/early 20th century SciFi with breathtaking chutzpah. I don’t think I quite had the spleen to pull off my attempts with that in The Circle. Danielewski’s eye-catching USP is of playing with what can be achieved with the form, something that I think as novellists we probably do the least of all the narrative media, and it’s a shame–because what he does with it absolutely works. Again, the borderline abuse of the reader in terms of using every method possible to unsettle, distract, and disorientate, from switching “level” of narrative to uncanny content to the degeneration in narration by the two narrators and their ultimate subject, is like an ad infinitum demonstration of those particular skills, and ones which I would like to cultivate. I am not sure, however, that I have the patience for the typesetting complexities of House of Leaves!

The House, Bentley Little. Another bad house book, this generally standard horror novel was my introduction to multiple ideas: unsexy sex, threatening sexuality, and the use of sexual threat/menace to confer discomfort and unease onto entirely nonsexual subjects.

Drawing Blood, Poppy Z Brite. A better example of bad house and sexual horror, the prose in this book sat at the hinterland between “atrociously purple” and “appropriately mauve”; it somehow fitted the settings, and the revoltingly lush descriptions worked well with the sense of rot both internal and external, as well as containing quite a poetic and evocative description of an orgasm.

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall. Recommended to me on the basis of the noisy appreciation of House of Leaves, this does indeed have characteristics in common: a disoriented and, as we learn, grief-stricken protagonist; a permeable kind of reality; inventive typography which creates a sense of threat to the reader by rubbing thin the membrane between fiction and reality (perhaps an attempt at the equivalent of an actor in a Brechtian production making aggressive eye contact and saying, This may be a play, but if I hit you, it will hurt); and an underlying unfurling mystery. It’s a lot more palatable to consume and has a definite narrative somewhere in there, however. I’ll leave a link to the Wikipedia summary, which I’m not sure fully does it justice, but which uses all the correct terms. 

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, G W Dahlquist. A compelling read with, as I’ll explain, an odd structural/pacing similarity to Annihilation, below. What I wanted to take from this, apart from the character-driven narration in multiple-PoV fiction, and the elaborate world-building (which was sketched out from three different perspectives to provide a fuller picture than one one allow for), was the sensation of constant movement. Glass Books is a long book that it is easy to race through because there is never any let-up in the action. Dahlquist appears to have taken the Chandler have a man enter with a gun edict very seriously, and claimed himself that his method was to “write characters into a hole, and force them to squirm out of it”; for someone who has a problem with extremely passive protagonists (which I only really think I began to break around Architects of the Flesh), this is a real goal. 

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Moore & Gibbons’ restriction in format and parallel narratives, with one illuminating the other are what I want to take from this, primarily. The response to restrictions is often considerable creativity (Lee Barnett’s Fast Fiction Challenge is one example, the fannish “drabble” format and the even more restrictive fifty-word micro-saga preceding the microfiction of Twitter accounts like T R Darling‘s falling into the same kind of restrictive category to intensifying degrees), or at the very least a way to break out of a rut.

The Filth, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine. I could just have easily said The Invisibles, but The Filth demonstrates the same factor that I’m interested in without requiring an enormous and almost equally confusing companion book to make sense of it all (yes, I have read them both. No, I can’t say with any certainty that I have unpacked every aspect of the work, and no, I don’t think I even meant to).

When I talked further up this post about Danielewski being one of the few authors I’d encountered who really played with the specifics of the form, I was thinking back on comics like The Filth, like Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, which use fourth-wall breaking as a technique–one which is especially effective in the comics medium. Other tricks from these books have been used elsewhere, in particular playing with the convention that in comics, space is time, and therefore it is possible for characters to step out of their constraints and affect their own actions and experiences by reaching into the past or future (an idea which in novels is exemplified by The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger). In common with other visual narrative media such as film, animation, and television, comics can also use visual narratives in parallel with verbal ones, something which Michael Moorcock, in conversation with Alan Moore (and referenced here) claimed influenced his own attempts to ensure multiple narratives were taking place within each sentence.

Discovering and working with the specific capacities of novels and short stories (and not episodic fiction unfortunately, despite the popularity of that form across multiple media including Twitter) is something I would also like to get back to, rather than fixating so much on plot-driven stories and standard narrative formats.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer. I read this because I saw the film and was highly intrigued by it. The book and the film are at best second cousins. Elements of the novella which I found especially compelling/attractive: intense sense of place, a similar compelling pace and unfurling mystery to Glass Books, married with the rising emotional intensity and uncanny nature of House of Leaves, with a highly detached and even nameless narrator; and, in terms of thematic content itself, I was pleased by how little interest the book had in explaining or taming the phenomena it describes. Although it provides humanising insight into the protagonist which breaks up and also heightens the weirdness of the current events, the events themselves are doggedly, confrontationally alien, something which I absolutely yearn for on the rare occasions I read science fiction.

Most of the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. When I was reviewing Jojo Rabbit for a friend, I said that I didn’t think that it was so much a comedy as a story which used comedic tropes and colours to force the viewer not to  disengage and to lull them into a sense of tonal security so that they would be unable to defend their psyche against the actual message of the film. This is something I think that I first saw in the Discworld novels, as they began to go along: I always found them incredible funny as a teenager, but often that humour was a wedge to having a pertinent moral message firmly inserted. 

Diseasemaker’s Croup, Neil Gaiman. A short fiction piece which featured in Fragile Things, which experiments with the expectations of informative writing in a similar manner to House of Leaves’ annotations, or found manuscript format fiction in general (Documents in the Case, by Dorothy L Sayers, is a grand example of the epistolic approach to that form–wrapped of course in a murder mystery, my favourite kind of plot). In this instance, it takes the form of a recursive idea: it is a disease suffered by those who write about fictional diseases, written by someone with the fictional disease on which they are writing, and whose degeneration in the text mirrors the description as it is being written. This, I think, is one of the strengths of novels and short stories which is harder to replicate in other media.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in four parts, Douglas Adams (and, to an extent, the Dirk Gently books). From Douglas Adams, I learnt that you can break just about every conceivable “rule” of fiction if you do it hard enough and well enough. I learnt about zeugma, I learnt to love the present-but-detached narrator who also features in my childhood favourites, the Narnian Chronicles; and I learnt an enormous amount about comedic timing, litotes, comedic understatement and overstatement, contrasts–the real Anglo-Saxon and Greek nuts and bolts of writing. In future, I would like to bring back that playfulness, that metacommentary, and that committed, well-practiced but seemingly casual disregard and even contempt for “the rules” of writing.

Where from here?

To summarise: what I want to get back to. Unreliable narrators, always. Conflicting descriptions, always. Non-linear narrative is something I have played with very little outside of fanfic and would like to really indulge in. Meta-textuality, linguistic/rhetorical mirroring, and osmotic language teaching are things I would like to find ways of working into stories.

I am reminded by this list that Pass the Parcel, the longest and also first fully complete novel I wrote as an adult (I wrote two as a teenager and they were, as you might expect, not good), was something that I initially began as a way of working through a question I had about the way novels were structured. I didn’t answer it in that book, but what I did do was enjoy and explore creating a work of fiction without the preconceptions that had shackled me before and made it so hard to complete longer works.

There are a lot of questions to be raised about how stories work, how to tell them, and how I want to tell them.

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