Friday, 3 February 2012

Good Fortune

full moon - EXPLORED 19/11/2011

A while back, a friend suggested I write something about Fruition - something about clarifying the purpose of the book, or my intentions, or something. Anyway, here goes.

First up - Fruition is all about that classic question –
'If you could live your life over again, knowing what you know now, what would you change?'
I've thought about that a lot. Unlike Piaf I think I can honestly say I regret almost everything. One period in my life especially that I've wished and wished I could go back to and do again is my late teens and early twenties. What a mess!
It’s a period that still haunts me. I could so easily have become one of those sad individuals in his thirties, still living with his parents, with his fish tanks or his model soldiers, unemployable and spurned by women. But I am aware that, under slightly different circumstances, with a less tolerant family, things could have been much worse. I don't think I would ever have killed myself (I didn't have the will and I was always oddly hopeful) but events could have spiralled. I was never into dangerous behaviour, drink or drugs, but I could have just let things fall apart. I could have had an accident, or, without a home to go back to, I could have simply failed to hold down a job, to make friends, to pay the rent. I could imagine that happening to me. In Fruition, this is where Gabriel Fortune’s story starts.
One thing I didn't want the book to be was autobiographical. If I found myself trying to faithfully describe something that actually happened, or a place or person that actually existed, I'd have to chuck in some occurrence or characteristic from somewhere else, just to force myself to create something new. Trying to describe what actually happened to me sounds like an awful chore and what I've written above about it is as far as I want to go with that here. The themes though - of how a person can get into such a mess without resorting to the predictable narrative devices of violence or addiction interests me. It happens all the time - people simply fail to thrive. Without any dramatic gestures they simply fall away and hardly anyone even notices they’re gone. I was very influenced in this by a book called Stuart: A Life Backwards - not so much because of the character (who's life included plenty of violence and addiction) but because its reverse narrative put his earliest experiences (and hence the explanations for what happened) at the end of the book and hence provide a thrilling conclusion. I'm not sure how well I've achieved it, but a question I'd like the reader to be asking almost from the beginning is How on earth does a person end up like this? What has happened to him? The usual suspects - childhood neglect and abuse are hinted at from early on but again I wanted to avoid the usual. Sometimes it is something far less obvious - something that seems ordinary, or at least unexceptional, but which, under certain circumstances can contaminate everything. The full explanation, in as far as there ever is such a thing, is not revealed until book 4.

Books 1 and 2 are basically alternative versions of the same lost life. Books 3 and 4 are about how he changes that. The overall story is not about perfectibility but about the possibility of change. In many ways it is a long meditation on another classic question – ‘What is The Good Life?’ This inevitably (to me) raises all sorts of exciting philosophical and political questions and I give Gabriel plenty of opportunity to debate with the various characters he meets, especially on the boat. On the other hand I’ve (perhaps surprisingly) hardly touched on questions of God and spirituality. The fact that when they die everyone suddenly discovers that the afterlife is nothing like what they expected makes the whole subject somewhat moot and that’s quite subversive enough in my opinion. Ultimately though, Gabriel’s real preoccupations are far less cerebral. Mainly he wants to know how to make a living without selling out (the quaint old 20th Century notion that doing as well as possible and making as much money as possible aren't the same thing), and in particular he wants to find a woman to love. Fruition is very much a love story, although this doesn’t become obvious until book 2 and it is not resolved until the very end. Childhood and parenting are also major themes throughout the book. Remaining anti-autobiographical though, the events in his early life - the descriptions of his family and home, are completely different to mine. I wanted to see what it would be like to have sisters instead of a brother, and to be much younger than everybody else in the family (an unplanned late pregnancy) as my mother was in her family. I couldn't resist using the house we lived in though because it was just such an amazingly ugly old place. Gabriel wants to become a painter where I wanted to be an ecologist. We both like gardening though.

My warped idea of reincarnation is of course just a narrative device, not a belief system of mine (although it seems no less plausible than the alternatives. Who's to tell?) I'm always intrigued by the things people come to believe in and I made this system up partly as a sort of mischievous 'See? I can play that game too'. I also wanted The Afterlife to be a whole huge other world – one that would involve an immense journey overland, alone or with just a few companions. This had two purposes - one was to provide a place where Gabriel could think about and talk about his lives through a sort of quasi-therapeutic conversation. (I like books that use therapy as a device to tell us what our hero thinks is going on.) The other purpose was to give Gabriel an enormous and extraordinary landscape to travel through – and one that doesn't work by the usual rules. Having this apparently limitless new world to play with meant I could set my characters in the landscapes I'd had swimming about in my brain for decades - places I'd been to and stories I'd told myself to stop the 'real world' colonising my mind completely. As Gabriel says in book 1:
“Everybody said I ... was always ‘off in my own little world’, but they were wrong. It wasn’t a little world at all. It was enormous. There were landscapes and characters they wouldn’t even have come across in their weirdest dreams. I spent a lot of time getting it all down on paper – writing about it or drawing and painting. I did some huge scenes – part map, part landscape, with gargantuan shaggy beasts and archaic birds, engaged in incomprehensible behaviours among misshapen trees and alien fungi. Offshore, vast dead-eyed fish and primitive whales turned among forests of coral and kelp. I don’t know where it all came from. Nobody ever asked me about it. Dad and mum just shook their heads and tutted and went away. In my world there were settlements too, some of exquisite architecture and peopled by gentle and tolerant souls. Others bristled with armaments and dripped with pollution. And always there was a woman, and she looked past all the crap and saw me as I really was, and we’d be happy together.”
It’s difficult to pin-point any direct literary influences here but one unlikely source was Peter Jackson’s three films of The Lord of the Rings (I find the books unreadable.) They have just this sense of the tiny figure moving through a huge and ancient landscape. There’s a lot of ecology in Fruition too. The animals and plants we find there are all real or plausible, though they might not appear so to the non-biologist.

At the same time I hope my book doesn’t fall into the standard genres of 'fantasy' or 'science fiction' or 'horror'. I have trouble with these sorts of books because often they don't seem to feel the need to be even a bit rooted in real experiences and emotions, hence they can have anything happen and I’m left not caring. To really feel the otherness of these strange places, I think we need to be regularly reminded of what it’s like to live in normal everyday life. I always liked the wardrobe device in the Narnia books but I felt they should have gone back and forth more, to refresh the feeling of wonder. Doctor Who seems to amaze someone with the Tardis every other episode.
On the other hand, I find the entirely 'realistic' novel - historical or contemporary, just too pedestrian for words. They say that the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction must make sense, but I’m not so sure. Life does not always make sense, and fiction should be able to reflect that. I hope any books I write (I have two more on the way - one almost complete, the other still in my head) will always feel as if they could be partly dreamed or hallucinated but always set alongside everyday life. The novelist should not feel the need to explain every incongruity. Children's books don't seem to feel this need to tie up every loose end. (I sometimes like to think of Fruition as a children’s book for adults. Is it just me or do modern authors seem very reluctant to make stuff up?) ‘Magic realism’ always seemed too self-consciously clever. Something’s missing... Perhaps I don't read as much as writers are supposed to but I so rarely find anything I want to read these days, unless you count non-fiction, which I read a lot. That feels like a terrible thing to have to admit. Mind you, I don't like most of the music I come across either but I can usually find something new to listen to. Perhaps I'm just out of the loop.
I think I'm a very 'visual' person, and very affected by music too - Fruition seems very connected in my mind to the Fauré Requiem (which will definitely be the record I'll be running into the waves to save when they have me on Desert Island Discs. Gabriel Fortune - Gabriel Faure? I hadn't noticed that before. How curious.) TV and film seem more free to invent things without going all post-modern on us (I particularly like the work of Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and Jos Whedon.) On reflection, I think the books that have had the most (subconscious) influence on Fruition would probably be Cider With Rosie, The Time Traveller's Wife and Moominland Midwinter.

I've also become discouraged from reading other people’s books by the fact that so many seem to have such a knowing, world-weary take on the human condition, where nobody really seems to like anyone very much and there's nothing anyone can do to change anything. (I'd love some recommendations to prove me wrong on all this by the way.) I really wanted to give Gabriel not exactly a happy ending, but something hopeful – something redemptive. I wanted him to find himself among friends in a way he never did in life. Although personally I’ve always found people difficult I do believe in generosity and humanity when I think a lot of writers don’t. Apart from anything I actually don’t think their pessimism is very realistic. It feels lazy and smug – why bother to try when everything will probably go badly anyway? Better to just enjoy the spectacle. So I also wanted to avoid what I suspect would be the normal cynical ending where he would find that no matter how he tries to change, something new inevitably springs up to thwart him. How drab. How very predictable. At the same time of course there can be no simple, clean happy-ever-after, but those aren't the only two options.
In short, what I wanted to write was the book that I’d always wanted to read but could never find.

So there came a time when my embryonic career in ecology was aborted and I was about forty years old and I had all this in my head. I looked at my life and realised that although I wasn't exactly old, I really was at the end of my main attempt at life. I didn't know what I was going to do next - I was single, homeless and unemployed again.  Although I guessed it was some way off I had a very strong sense of the end of my life being out there somewhere. It wasn't a bad feeling. I just knew it was there in a way that I hadn't before. So this book is also about death, but not in a morbid way (or only in the literal sense.) I don't believe in any Afterlife but I'd quite like to think that when death comes I'll find myself in a sleeping bag in a deck chair on a boat heading out into a frozen ocean...


Vincent said...

I think this is an excellent reminder summarising all the things I’ve liked about Fruition. And it gives a background as well. The difficulty I’ve had with the book as a reader - perhaps I should say the frustration - is that I expected more from a novel. It still reads like an autobiography, albeit a fictional one. Robinson Crusoe is I believe the first of this genre, and its singular point of view hasn’t been a frustration to the readers. But as far as I can recall he wasn’t on a quest like Gabriel’s. I think the difference is in providing a universality which means that the reader can identify with the situation at all times.

Defoe pretends to be Crusoe, but actually he isn’t. Defoe is on the reader’s side, helping the reader experience the island through Crusoe’s eyes. As a reader I want to see through Gabriel’s eyes, but the author doesn’t facilitate this enough, because he is Gabriel. The author is puzzled when Gabriel is puzzled. I need an author who can see Gabriel from all sides – his virtues and limitations, his folly and his genius. The author needs full knowledge of Gabriel, a vision which is broader than Gabriel’s, from the start. Then Gabriel’s journey up to the end of book 4 will be more fun. I will enjoy Gabriel’s struggles more if I don’t have to be him. I will sympathise with him fully if I see him from the outside as well as the inside.

This criticism doesn’t in the slightest invalidate the immensity and quality of what you have achieved. But like you I read very few novels, and for similar reasons, though I read lots of other things. So my taste is suspect so far as the modern market for the novel is concerned. I think you have it in you to write a powerful blockbuster of a novel, once you’ve gone beyond the memoir genre and are ready to tackle an interplay of characters in which different points of view are examined.

Yesterday I watched the DVD of Meantime, a film by Mike Leigh. Its topic is not dissimilar to what you mention in your piece. It’s about a family in which everyone is unemployed and everyone fails to thrive. I think Leigh made it (1983) as a counterblast to Thatcherism, but its improvisational development, based totally on the actors building their own characters and interacting accordingly, raises it to the level of high poignant tragicomedy far beyond politics. We feel for the characters precisely because at every twist and turn of this simple working-class drama, we can see what the characters can’t. They are stuck in their situation, stuck with their unfulfilment, so unable to do anything that they can only make futile gestures. But there are glimmers all the time of their potential.

So I’m saying that Steve Law will be able to write Gabriel Fortune when he has transcended Gabriel’s fortune. I believe that this will happen when you have processed the meaning of your journey to the point where you no longer have those regrets. It will then be possible to condense the Fruition quadrilogy into one exciting tragicomic book in which the author sees Gabriel as someone else, and loves him like a brother at every step.

Steve Law said...

I can definitely see what you're saying. I can't extricate myself from Gabriel - we have way too much in common.
I was hoping that I'd written it so that the reader could see Gabriel from outside and spot where he's mistaken or deluding himself and be cheering him on or groaning with embarrassment of frustration, as appropriate. It was to some extent deliberate though. There were times when I'd write something that gave him a broader perspective and it just seemed wrong. He just didn't have that. To make him more knowing than he was would have invalidated a lot of what i was trying to say. Isn't Robinson Crusoe written as if from a future date, so we know it's all over and he survived? (I can't remember - it's been such a long time.) I didn't want that for Gabriel. I needed us to be in there with him, not viewing from a safe distance. I know it's uncomfortable reading but in book one he really is helpless (and a teenager of course), and in book two he's been on his own too long. Giving him more insight would lessen his predicament. Is this making any sense?
Are we perhaps too reliant on 'the artist' taking an ironic self-deprecating side-long glance at himself to be comfortable with listening to people who genuinely can't see out? I know it can be heavy going but I was hoping that interspersing the journey overland with the therapy would help. Maybe it's asking too much of the reader to stick with such a struggling character. I was hoping there'd be enough flashes of promise here and there to keep people going.

Books 3 and 4 are different I think. He does acquire more insight and perspective and there are more characters for him to interact with.
The new book (which i think now is going to be called Near Darkness)is a third-person narrative but still focussing on the one main character but with a girlfriend, his ex, his sons and a few colleagues, house-mates etc. I'm not sure how much I'll ever be any good at "an interplay of characters in which different points of view are examined" as i'm still a bit of a loner myself, but then so are a lot of authors I suppose. I certainly enjoy writing dialogue and have been told i write it well so there's potential. The other book that's still in my head has a female lead and i'd like to give her a proper social life.

I think finally this is very much a first novel and i had a lot to get off my chest. I don't know anything else like it so had no idea how people might react to it. There's been no reaction on Kindle or Lulu, even from friends (with one exception) but that might be just a matter of marketing. There's just no way of knowing.
Near Darkness is a more straight-forward (and much shorter) read. Maybe if people like it they'll come back to this one.

It's funny - my admission here that I can't find anything much to read these days seemed almost worse than confessing my hang-ups last time. I suspect there are more of us than one might suppose. An editor I met up with a while back simply stopped speaking to me when i told her. We were in a pub at the time and she simply left. I think it might be a kind of snobbery. ("Not into books!? What's wrong with you?")
I didn't have you pegged for a Mike Leigh fan. I've not seen Meantime, but I think Life is Sweet is in the same vein and is a big favourite of mine. I loved Topsy-Turvy and Secrets and Lies. Naked was harsh but impressive.

Steve Law said...

Ok - not Near Darkness - there's no books with that title but this vampire film - Near Dark comes up on Google (presumably for people who can't remember the exact title) I really don't know what to call it

Vincent said...

I haven't heard you mention Near Darkness till now!

I am a total fan of Mike Leigh. He calls Meantime his favourite.

Steve Law said...

I've heard Meantime is considered his best. I must track it down some time.

As for the new book - It's been called Way Out, Crawl Space, Warm Shadow and Dead End. I still like Warm Shadow - it's a song by Fink and quite appropriate. I'm trying to think how to describe it...
I need to work on the blurb

Steve Law said...

I'd like to pursue this not reading fiction thread - should I save it for another Witter I wonder? I'm sure there must be some good stuff out there somewhere. I do the occasional trip to a book shop (not keen on Amazon - anyone should be able to write a good first few pages) but come away empty-handed. Likewise the public library.

paulgrand said...

Loved your explanation, very insightful!

I don't agree with the first comment about it being like Robinson Crusoe and then critiquing Steve's writing because he didn't write it like Defo!

I thought Steve's writing style produced a series of books to be proud of, both easily read and believable.

If anything I think they more closely resemble Gulliver's Travels with their politics.

Steve Law said...

Just a thought - Paul, you read the whole thing in an earlier draft some time ago. How long do you think it took you? Vincent - you I know have only seen the first two parts and that in dribs and drabs. I wonder if it needs reading quickly - so that the rather dreary beginning(s) are over quickly and the whole thing is more up-beat, which is how it was supposed to be.

paulgrand said...

I read them fairly s l o w l y, as I don't like to rush a really good read! :-)
I also bought and downloaded the first novel from amazon and intend to re-read on ipad, that will be my 3rd time!
I'm desperate to have the whole lot between one hard cover and read all at once!

Steve Law said...

Ok steady on - everyone'll think you're my agent

Steve Law said...

Julie Miller - a friend on Facebook just posted the question "I need good recommendations for some great, non-mainstream fiction. I love a creepy tale, with odd characters and really gorgeous prose. I'm a sucker for poetic writing. Anyone?"
Exactly what i want to know.
Recommendations included :-
"Boy's Life," "Gone South," & "Swan Song," by Robert McCammon
Flannery O'Conner
Neil Gaiman
"Someplace to be Flying" by Charles de Lint
Any more anyone?

paulgrand said...

Would being your agent make me such a bad person?
I think when somebody bothers to give you a compliment you should accept it with the same that grace it was given, and not do a bitch-slap!:-D

Steve Law said...

I was trying to be funny.
No bitch slap intended.
Maybe I'm not good at taking praise. Forgive me