writingsmog

mostly fiction, sometimes fact

When writing becomes reading: notes on The Occupants

I was thrilled when I learned my story The Occupants had made it into the top three for the London Short Story Prize in 2016.

But the moment also came with the kind of double take – the sort that happens in life when you come under a spotlight and feel slightly like an imposter. There’s been some kind of mistake. Surely, it wasn’t my story that had made the grade.

The judges’ responses only made this feeling more acute. It wasn’t just the praise I found difficult to tally, but the way they described what I had written.

The mirror they held up to me showed a picture of my story that I had been blind to during the writing process. They categorised it as a “nicely disturbing piece of Sci-Fi”, “an unnerving, intoxicating dystopian nightmare” and a “piquant, unsettling, dystopian tale”. (Their full comments appear at the end of this blog.)

They were right, of course. The Occupants is a dystopian story, and by definition is quite unsettling. Yet, up until the point of reading these comments, I hadn’t thought of the story in any sort of category. I certainly hadn’t ventured to construct a tale in any of the moulds reflected back at me by the judges (which I think are brilliant, by the way!).

This probably speaks to my inexperience as a published writer. I’ve never had anyone else describe my work in any sense at all. Sure, I have particular styles of writing that I admire and steal from (I was a massive JB Ballard fan in the late 1990s, for example, which might explain why I sometimes err towards dystopian writing). But I’ve never consciously aligned myself with a particular school, whether it be sci-fi or minimalism or romance. Whatever I have produced has been far more intuitive and has been an expression of a mood or feeling about the world, obviously using the tools that I have assimilated over years of reading and writing. Borrowing from an idea from Ballard, my fictions seem to be enunciations of how I apprehend my lived experience.

When writing this story I was conscious of a few things in my immediate environment. Food waste. The rise of robots. The inexorable spread of low and mid-rise housing across South East London, where I live. My kids’ school being developed to the point where each child has less playground space than that required to meet the standards of being a free-range chicken. Those were the issues at the back of my mind.

But really what I set out to do was write a piece of flash fictions – a story in under 500 words. I failed within a day of writing (the story is about 3,000 words), but this aim alone meant that temporally the story moved along quite quickly and I tried to avoid superfluous details. In an odd way, this gave the story a fairy tale quality and if anything I was writing to that genre over any other. A fairytale complete with the sense of menace and horror that is part and parcel of that genre.

Pretty soon, character took over. Danny, whose point of view the story follows, has very little awareness of himself or the world around him. His lack of self-awareness was something I played with, sometimes to the point of absurdity (I was a massive Harold Pinter fan in the early 1990s). After he gruesomely disposes of his father’s cadaver by sliding the body out of his apartment window into a large rubbish bin waiting below, Danny’s first thought is to worry that his sister will be distressed to hear he’d lost his job at the local supermarket. Irrational. Absurd. Comical.

Dystopian fiction is a wide category and each story from this presents a different vision of the world – post nuclear or climatic disasters, or the apocalypse of the self, a typically Ballardian form where affluence leads to strange behaviour, using in relation to technology or within gated communities. Dystopian fiction is a form of speculative fiction, often where an element of the present world is exaggerated. What would happen if, say, the world was flooded (as in Ballard’s The Drowned World) or humans hooked into cyberworlds (as in William Gibson’s Neuromancer).

In The Occupants Danny’s milieu is overtly dystopian. He lives in a city of uniform apartment blocks (like the 500 Barrett apartments being built near where I live in Catford) and lives in a fractured society. If I were to put a label to this dystopian world, I’d say it was a post-epiphanic world.

Scripture presented the original epiphanies. Joyce then introduced to secular epiphanies. Now twitter has reduced the notion of epiphany to a type of pornography. The narrative build up to the moment of epiphany has been stripped away, leaving just its shell, devoid of any real meaning. Self-awareness is bankrupted – many people now frame everyday experience as a potential tweet – seeking a potential moment of fame as they strive to create the most appropriate epiphany for that second in time. Danny’s is a world where this habit has run its course and has robbed the world of meaning, secular or otherwise. Not just in terms of question about our purpose on this planet, but also about our everyday existence – how we get money to buy food. He comes close to experiencing epiphanies – of glancing through a window into some deeper meaning about his life – but they are never fulfilled.

I suppose that was part of my dystopian vision for this story.

Hmm, quite dark…

Judges’ comments

AL Kennedy says: “The Occupants by Aaron Cox is nicely disturbing piece of Sci-Fi, doing what Sci-Fi does best, using metaphor and altered reality to produce deep resonance.”

Irenosen Okojie says: “The Occupants is gloriously dark. A surprising, tautly written tale full of slow horror. An unnerving, intoxicating dystopian nightmare. Fearlessly holding a lens up to life’s bleaker moments. A compelling read.”

Juliet Mabey says: “Aaron Cox has created a piquant, unsettling, dystopian tale. Here is an immersive grey world of displacement, hunger, and want, with surprising twists and an incongruously resilient, almost cheerful hero who is oddly out of step in this strange setting. A thoughtful, discomforting story.”

The Occupants will be available in the summer of 2017 as part of the anthology of the short-listed stories for the London Short Story Prize 2016.

Breaking the narrative circuit

In today’s blog I am going to briefly discuss the relationship between narrator and character by looking again at Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows. Taking a structuralist view of fiction, it is possible to identify key narrative levels (author/reader, narrator/narrate, characters) that create narrative circuits. Pulling apart a story into its various narratological components can provide some really useful analysis of how a story hangs together. In particular it can help you identify and understand moments of transgression between narrative levels, whether intended or not, and what effects they might have.

Today, I am going to look at the division narration and the direct speech of a character. Of course this division is a fabrication. The narrator (arguably, as a proxy of the author) provides the situations and events and the architecture of the world in which a character speaks. However, it is a line that shouldn’t be crossed if the suspension of disbelief is going to succeed and the narrative believable as a realis100_2687t text. If this division is broken, you inadvertently foreshadow the artifice of the story. It loses a sense of plausibility. Direct speech should seem to be the words uttered by the character. If it isn’t the character speaking, the risk is that it may seem that the character is not embedded inside the text but is rather saying what the narrator wants him or her to say. As such, the character can seem like a reader of the story he or she is meant to be part of with a kind of met-awareness of the narrative itself. That’s all well and good if you are interested in Brecht’s A-effect or plan to write meta-fiction that messes about with how a story is framed, but it can otherwise make a realist story seem contrived.

As discussed in my last blog, Favel Parrett uses close third person narration in Past the Shallows to great effect, splitting the narrator’s gaze between two key characters, Harry and Miles. Although this form of narration sees the world pretty much through the eyes of one character (or in the case of Parrett’s book, one character at a time), when it comes to direct speech it is still important that the division between narrator and character voices remains clear. Direct speech is the purest expression of a character’s voice, thoughts, attitudes, point of view etc.

In the opening scene of the book, Harry is at the beach with his two older brothers Miles and Joe. While the others are out surfing, Harry forages and has an epiphany that I find quite jarring because it seemed like an observation of a much older character and seems heavily laden with an ideological point of view from outside the story.

Harry picked up an abalone shell, the edges loose and dusty in his hands. And every cell in his body stopped. Felt it. This place. Felt the people who had been here before, breathing and standing alive where he stood. People who were long dead now. Long gone. And Harry understood, right down in his guts, that time ran on forever and that one day he would die.[1]

A few moments later he tells Joe: “This place is old.”[2]

On the one hand, this could be read as a boy feeling a sense of his own mortality. Death is present in his world. His mother has died. However, there is more to this revelation than that. He seems to feel as though he is an interloper, made other by the history of landscape. It seems to me unlikely that picking up a shell would trigger such an observation in a boy of his age (I assume he is younger than ten, possibly as young as seven).

He seems to perceive something bigger in a kind of spiritual sense of place that is more akin to indigenous mythology than the musing of a young boy on a beach. Although not overt, there does seem to be a nod here towards the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a place beyond time and space accessed during dreaming and altered states of consciousness.[3] It is not just the story, which is relatively straight forward, but of it sense of place and how it confirms something about the Australian identity or how Australianess is conveyed in literary and artistic works.

Looking at this scene in the context of events to come, I am also concerned that he seems to foreshadowing his own death, which makes the epiphany seem especially contrived and offers that sense I mentioned earlier about a character being a reader of the story itself. Again, it seems to show overt intervention rather than something born out of the story organically.

Is this short scene an example of authorial intervention? Is this an example indigenous Australian culture being appropriated by the mainstream? There were enough of these qualities on the page to make me step back and wonder about these things. Rather than coming organically from the story, the sense of place and its inherent cultural identity seem somewhat forced upon Harry. But I am aware that my reading is just that, my reading. Others may beg to differ. I am an interloper here too, reading the book through my own lens.

I guess it hits home to me that when writing, maintaining a sense of authenticity about a character’s perspective, no matter how artificial, can be very challenging and there are lots of paper-thin walls that you can inadvertently pass through.

[1] Favel Parrett, past the shallows, published by John Murray, 2011, pg. 4

[2] Ibid., pg.5

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreamtime

Past the Shallows – when seeing through two eyes can be better than one

When it comes to writing fiction, few choices are as important than the choice of point of view. Who is telling the story? If they are a character in the story, what is their role and how to do they perceive events? If the third person is adopted, what is the narrator’s attitude to the story or it’s characters? Does the narrator see over the shoulder of one character (i.e. close third person) or is the narrator an omniscient god-like figure?

The answers to these questions will help inform the sort of voice that is adopted. It will influence the tone of the narration, how narrow or expansive the narrator’s worldview will be and therefore how much the reader sees. It can have an impact on issues of a narrator’s reliability and whether dramatic irony might be used.

From my experience, it’s not an easy decision. Getting point of view wrong can really kill the writing. But when you get it right, the narrative possibilities can really open up before you.

Favel Perrett’s uses point of view to great effect in her novel Past the Shallows and that’s the topic of today’s blog. She adopts a “close third person” style. This form of point of view involves looking over the shoulder of a character and is thus more limited in vision than an omniscient style of narration. Close third person creates intimacy. Flaubert, the great innovator, famously used this style to great effect in Madame Bovary.

What is interesting about Parrett’s use of the close third person is that she employs it with two characters rather than one and this point of view shifts between chapters.

Before going on, a rough outline of the book may be necessary for those of you who haven’t read it. And I must warn you: I’m going to talk about the end of the novel, so you may not want to read this blog if you plan to read the book.

Past tpast-the-shallows-by-favel-parretthe Shallows is a harrowing story of two boys, Harry and Miles, who live with a violent father, an abalone fisherman in southern Tasmania. Harry is the younger of the two and I figure he is around eight years old. Miles is presumably a teenager. The story chart’s the boy’s quest for survival and to find out more about the suspicious death of their mother, who died in a car accident. Questions remain about whether Harry is in fact the child of their mother’s lover, which adds to the sense of risk for him in the household: the father figure treats him more disdainfully than he treats Miles. Their harsh domestic existence is matched by the precariousness of life on the sea.

The close third person point of view shifts between Harry and Miles (they have an elder brother, Joe, although he has a more minor role than the other two). This works really well to control the flow of information and how their domestic experience is viewed by each of the characters. The contrasting lenses also convey tension, for example, when Harry defies Miles’s wishes and disappears to find solace at the home of George, an ambiguous character who lives simply in a house in the bush. The dual points of view also work well with ellipses, another device Parrett uses to great effect (although she may be too elliptical at times, leaving some characters underdeveloped). Many events occur off screen, including the potential death (or otherwise) of Dad in the climatic fishing accident in which Harry dies. Interestingly, we are left hanging about Dad’s fate.

However, the device is most powerful when Harry dies at the end. By implication, one of the points of view is killed off. As a reader, I felt the loss of a narrative position gave his death greater immediacy. I no longer had access to his point of view.

Parrett could have achieved something similar by using two first person points of view. This might have been quite effective. Given how young the boys are in the story, Parrett could have exploited dramatic irony, allowing the reader to understand more than the characters. However, the Parrett’s evocative, dreamlike narrative voice would have been lost if she’d chosen to write in first person and field of vision of each character more limited (a third person, even a close one, allows a certain amount of peripheral vision). Overall, I believe Parrett’s use of dual close third person points of view works.

There is more to be said about how point of view works in Past the Shallows, which I will leave until my next blog. That discussion will look at point of view in terms the particular way a character sees the world. I will look at a section early in the book where I feel the narrator seems to impose a certain perspective on Harry, making his way of seeing appear somewhat contrived rather than an observation he might make himself. It will hopefully be an interesting discussion. Thanks for reading.

What Barthelme told me about time…

I’ve become a little obsessed by narrative time lately and have revisited a few writers to work out its function and ways it can be manipulated.

I guess the default understanding of story time as taught through children’s stories is that events happen chronologically. This happened and then this happened and then this happened then we got to here and this happened, etc.: laid out with overtly obvious causal structure. There might be variations in pace, long sections of description (of say a painting or a room) where not much seems to happen and the time on the page (or fabula time as narratologists tend to call it) seems to stretch out far longer than the story time that the imaginary characters might experience. Then on the flipside: a phrase like “five years later” might indicate a massive jump in time, an ellipsis, or “five years later, she had learned to play the piano and was preparing for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall” might be considered a summary where time on the page moves much faster than experienced by our piano player.

I recommend Mieke Bal’s discussion of time in her book Narratology (I believe this book can offer a great deal to writers and artists searching for different ways of understanding their craft). At one point she talks about how time appears slow in Madame Bovary to express Emma Bovary’s boredom. Even when describing her affairs, scenes have a slow paced, seemingly to underscore her dissatisfaction and entrapment. This is at the expense of pivotal scenes (or what in film language are plot points), which are summarized and thus given less fabula time.

I find that following a strict chronology without a clear purpose can be a little boring for readers. They don’t get to do much of the work, rooting around in the elisions for hidden depths and meanings. Being too faithful to time can also result in a lot of excess baggage that readers may feel compelled to skim over. And I know that in my writing I tend to struggle when it comes to deciding which events only require a brief sentence and those that warrant a couple of pages.

When thinking about time, I tend to go back to short stories for inspiration. This is a form where economy and time are acutely important and it has been a great place for experimentation over the years.

So this morning I picked up Donald Barthelme’s anthology 40 Stories. As can be expected from Barthelme, I was immediately dazzled by all that he brings to the page. He takes readers on quite a journey, one that is both familiar and surreal. In only a few pages, characters cover vast physical, emotion and philosophical territory.

I could pick out many stories from the collection to discuss time, but one that strikes me most is his story ‘On the Deck.’ It runs to just less than three pages.

For the first page and a half Barthelme describes an eclectic mix of characters on the deck of a boat: a lion, a Christian motorcycle gang, a man in a car named Mitch who leaves the motor running, a man with a nosebleed, a steel basin under his chin, a tree between his legs, the captain, a young woman, a dog named Scotty, the boat owner and her boyfriend and a man with a bucket full of liver for the lion. These characters are introduced as though the writer is scanning a picture and has an odd circularity, starting with the lion and ending with the man looking after his food. Apart from the swaying of the boat, there is minimal movement and conversation is brief and non sequitur. It’s a claustrophobic scene of great tension and there seems an interesting symbolism in the way all the other characters appear to be between the lion and its food, even if this is only a trick of the narrator’s eye. Is it a metaphor for urban life? Primacy versus cosmopolitanism? Who knows? In a classic surrealist twist, a postman arrives and they all get mail: “Everyone likes mail, except those who are afraid of it.”

Then time speeds up dramatically and the seasons pass in two lines:

“Winter on deck. All of the above covered with snow. Christmas music.

Then, spring. A weak sun, then a stronger sun.”

On one level, you could say that like in Madame Bovary, this leap in time shows characters in stasis, trapped by circumstance. On another, it seems like a great trick on the reader to show just how artificial narrative time really is.

Zoo Station – some lessons in historical fiction

by Aaron Cox

I’ve been reading David Downing’s Zoo Station. On the book’s cover, C J Sansom describes it as “an extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war…” He’s right. Downing has done a tremendous amount of research to create a vivid and dare I say it realistic picture of Berlin in the months leading up to the Second World War.

For me, it offers a few lessons on how to sow historical fact into fiction, an important aspect of any “naturalist” fiction, which assimilates facts and details about the world to create the artifice of being cut from reality.

I am currently working on a novel set during the financial crisis and often have to wrestle with the research. Facts can sometimes appear so extraordinary as to crowd out the story that I am trying to tell. And I get frustrated. The story becomes a retelling of history rather than characters set in history. The narrative invariably becomes clunky, overburdened by detail and opinions from outside the novel. Falling in love with research can turn the whole project into an essay, telling takes over from showing, characters become pawns.

Reading Zoo Station has reminded me about a few things to do with my project. History (I’d include the present and the imagined future) needs to be used with some purpose to carry the story along and to be framed by events and match the point of view of the character (in the sense the literary sense of who is seeing and his/her bent on what is being seen).

In Zoo Station (and I am aware I could use numerous historical novels, Birdsong, Winter in Madrid), historical information becomes something of a character itself within which human characters interact. It plays a supporting role. Getting it right requires finesse and a clear head about the book you are trying to write.

What got me thinking about all of this was a small event in the middle of the book when Russell, the protagonist, buys the Daily Mail. It is worth getting to know a little more about Russell to understand why this is significant. Russell is an English journalist who lives in Berlin. After agreeing to write a series of propaganda articles for a Russian magazine, he finds himself caught in maze of deceit between the Russians, Germans and Americans. His profession as a journalist is important as it gives him a certain lens for viewing details and events in the lead up to war. It also means he read’s the Daily Mail in a particular way. It therefore makes sense when he contrasts the reportage of the German and English press.

He is also a father of Paul, who is German born and a member of the Hitler Youth, a group Russell has deep suspicions about but is forced to tolerate because of his relationship with his son. In additional to his career as journalist, Russell teaches English to two Jewish teenage girls whose parents hope to send to England. He is therefore a complex and rich character forced to negotiate competing sympathies and we see events from his perspective.

So when his picks up a copy of the Daily Mail (the fact it is available in Berlin at this time is interesting in itself) he reads it not for the headlines, but for what might be interesting to the people in his life.

“This [the Daily Mail] had an article on young English girls collecting stamps, which he knew would interest Ruth and Marthe, and a big piece on the recent loss of the Empire Flying Boat Cavalier, complete with map and diagram, which Paul would love. He saved the best, however, for the very end of the girls’ lesson – a report of a tongue-twister competition on the BBC. Trying to say ‘should such a shapeless sash such shabby stiches show’ soon had Ruth giggling so hard she really was in stitches, and Marthe fared little better with ‘the flesh of freshly fired flying fish.’”*

Rather than focusing on war news, he pulls out normal details, which are poignantly juxtaposed against the horrors to come. It is deftly done. I only wish I could do it so well in my own writing.

Facts or fictions?

Of course, I don’t have that copy of the Daily Mail to validate whether these details are actually correct. And I do wonder how much poetic license Downing took when incorporating these details. I guess doubts about historical accuracy are always going to be part and parcel with a genre called history fiction, despite the reputation of the author as a specialist on his subject. While the detail may seem plausible, readers can never be absolutely certain of their accuracy. In fact, some argue that the artificial devices for creating fiction (being selective with information, embellishing detail to fit the story, and being limited by the particular point of view of characters within the story) combine to play down its own narrative limitations. The fiction is made to seem too real.

This has been a preoccupation of many 20th century writers> Fabulists who trod the shaky grounds where fact meets fiction. Metaphorical writers who dwell on the subject of how views and perceptions are manufactured through the writing and re-writing of history. Laurent Binet’s HHhH comes to mind. While telling the story of Reinhard Heydrich, he tells the story of how difficult it is to write historical fact without using fiction. Milan Kundera’s books also other fine examples. He doesn’t mind incorporating essay into his novels and is upfront about the fact his characters are fabricated. Despite this they never seem derivative or pawn-like. Robert Coover’s tome Public Burning fuses real conversations, historical documents, archetypes and caricatures to present the events leading up to the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1952 in a way that screams out that this story is so horrifically fantastical, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Fact and fiction are indivisible. The styles of these writers don’t match my own. But each is brilliant in his own ways and worthy of a blog at another time.

*Page 122

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