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Future Interrupted – The Hospitality of Bafflement

September 14, 2016

Interzone #266 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

 

This month’s non-fiction begins with an editorial by Stephen Theaker who compares his experiences organising the British Fantasy Awards to the administrative difficulties involved in striking a balance between the need for good, fair, and systematic institutional governance and the need to prevent an organisation like the Hugo Awards from surrendering their identity to a group of easily-manipulated alt-right interlopers. While I no longer pay that much attention to the Hugo Awards, it is interesting to look back over the last couple of years and compare the actions of the World Science Fiction Society with the recent actions of the Labour party. I think the big difference is that while the Labour party have responded to a massive increase in membership by seeking and any all reasons to exclude and disenfranchise their new members, the World Science Fiction Society have used their position to blunt the Puppies’ teeth and funnel them into a form of engagement that is more respectful towards existing power structures and affinity groups. Of course, you might very well ask why any institution should be encouraging fascists to engage, particularly at a time when genre culture is supposed to be addressing its questionable political history but that’s really none of my business.

Elsewhere, Nina Allan‘s column takes in the British folk scene while David Langford announces (somewhat alarmingly) that he has managed to copyright the term “ansible”. Nick Lowe‘s film column finds him being uncharacteristically charitable towards Justin Lin’s shameful Star Trek Beyond and Tony Lee is rather puzzled by Tarkovsky’s Stalker. So much wrongness… so much.

This month’s Book Zone is its usual cavalcade of riches with reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Ian Hunter, Jack Deighton, Elaine Gallagher, Stephen Theaker, Andy Hedgecock, and Wendy Bradley.

 

This issue’s fiction includes:

  • Tade Thompson’s “The Apologists”
  • Georgina Bruce’s “Extraterrestrial Folk Metal Fusion”
  • Ray Cluley’s “Sideways”
  • Aliya Whiteley’s “Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden”
  • Malcolm Devlin’s “The End of Hope Street”

 

There is also my Future Interrupted column considering the merits of Emma Geen’s debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North, which I vigorously recommend to anyone interested in the kind of great science fictional narratives that are currently coming out from mainstream publishers.However, you will have to wait a few months for that review to be republished.

This month’s reprint dates from the beginning of the year when I found myself moved by this piece by Nathalie Luhrs about the Locus Recommended Reading List. The interesting thing about this piece is that rather than limiting itself to the usual hand-wringing about the field’s lack of representation, the piece actually considers how much of this problem is due to factors more fine-grained than simple prejudice. Indeed, the section that really caught my attention features a load of graphs proving that your chances of featuring on the recommended reading list improve vastly once you’ve been included at least once. In other words, while the field does have a representation problem, this problem is at least partly down to the fact that people tend to read and nominate the work of people who are already familiar to them. Historically, this problem would have been addressed by critics going out of their way to find new books by new writers but the progressive marginalisation of critical voices means that new authors wind up entirely at the mercy of their marketing departments. As a result, I decided to spend a year writing exclusively about recent (-ish) first novels with a preference for work published outside of the genre mainstream. I began the series by writing about the Australian author Lisa L. Hannett’s debut novel Lament for the Afterlife, a book I found both impressive and baffling.

 

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Lisa L. Hannett’s long-form debut Lament for the Afterlife recalls Nina Allan’s The Race in so far as it is neither a conventional novel nor a conventional short story collection: Unlike a short story collection, the individual sections make a lot less sense when removed from the context provided by the rest of the book. Unlike a novel, there is no unifying plot and the sense of continuity provided by character and setting is tenuous to say the least.

The links between the book’s chapters feel unstable because Lament for the Afterlife contains almost no conventional exposition. Rather than telling us about people, places, and events, Hannett invites us to construct these things from the detritus of subjective experience as provided in paragraphs like this:

 

Peyt’s legs twitch, left right left right, and he’s got a desperate urge to piss. He’s seen the kind of questioning Cap’s talking about. Back at camp, with some twelve-year old runner they accused of squealing. Peyt carried the kid’s body away on his stretcher. “I’m no Whitey. I can’t read this fucking guy’s mind. Never could.” Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake?

 

What is happening here is that Hannett has positioned her authorial camera so close to the characters’ streams of consciousness that their thoughts and feelings blot out the people and places that inspired them in the first place. Trapped within the event horizon of the characters’ emotional maelstrom, everything we learn about the world of the novel comes from its reflection in streams of consciousness and pages of barely-contextualised dialogue.

The book lacks the unifying effects of narrative and character because of the difficulty involved in extracting these things from the literary equivalent of raw sense data. We may know for a fact that someone is feeling scared or happy, but we can never be sure whether the people and events provoking these reactions are the same as in previous chapters. Certain names and terms may recur but Hannett not only works to destabilise the meanings of words, but also explores particular events from sometimes radically different perspectives. A few hundred pages of this and you cannot help but become aware of how much you take for granted every time you form an opinion. Reading Lament for the Afterlife may be an almost singularly difficult experience, but it is also immensely thought-provoking.

 

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By making us work for basic elements such as character and internal chronology, Hannett is encouraging us not only to think about the artificiality of conventional narratives but also the tenuous nature of our own identities. Do we experience a coherent self or a stream of emotions and thoughts, which are then stitched together into something that resembles a character from a novel? Lament for the Afterlife is part of a literary tradition that questions the intellectual underpinnings of the conventional novel except that Hannett’s book goes much further than conventional anti-novels.

Works like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie critique the conventional novel by stressing the fallibility of experience and the tenuousness of human identities. However, because the anti-novel is a reaction to traditional novels, it shares mainstream literary culture’s commitment to the real world. This means that while the anti-novel may chronicle streams of consciousness and feature loads of sentence fragments placed out of chronological order, the currents of subjectivity all flow towards the oceanic depths of a world that is both fixed and comprehensible. Lament for the Afterlife does not share this commitment to the idea of a world independent of experience.

Hannett’s book is set in a world that appears to have been devastated by centuries of total warfare pitting the human race against a people known only as the greys. Somewhere along the way, humanity appears to have acquired a mutation that causes its innermost thoughts to become physically manifest in a cloud around the owner’s head. Touching the manifested thoughts causes the thoughts themselves to be changed and so the boundary between interior psychology and external physicality is rendered virtually non-existent. Hannett further explores the blurring of thought and world by pointing out that, while people continue to fight and die, nobody has actually seen or spoken to a grey in living memory. In fact, Hannett even goes so far as to suggest that the greys might be little more than a figment of humanity’s over-active imagination. However, given that this is a world built with genre tools and contained within a book published by a genre imprint, we must question where fallible human perspectives end and unstable metaphysics begin. For example, it is all very well saying that the greys might be the product of human fears but this is a world in which thoughts are physically manifest meaning that the greys could both be real and a product of humanity’s constantly-evolving fears. As Nick Harkaway suggested in The Gone Away World, the boundary between truth and fiction tends not to stick around once you do away with the distinction between thought and reality.

 

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Lament for the Afterlife is a terrifyingly difficult book that takes no prisoners and makes no concessions to accessibility in the form of familiar genre tropes, gripping narratives, or strong characters with whom to empathise. This is high literary art as a towering rock face and the only finger-holds available to readers are those they are able to carve for themselves… and therein resides the problem with this sort of book.

Survey the history of experimental writing and you will find that deconstructive cleverness has always been linked with the belief that formal innovation would serve to open up emotional and intellectual vistas that had been blocked off by the formal conservatism of the modern novel: When Anne Garréta’s Sphinx recounts a love story without gender-specific pronouns, it is out of a desire to explore a romance shorn of all gender dynamics. When Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves moves between stilted academic writing and typographic collage, it is out of a desire to show the limited and fragmentary nature of human comprehension and how cognition can both move us closer to understanding, and divorce us from reality. While experimental fiction can actively mess with form, structure, style and typography, it needs to find a way of connecting with readers or it runs the risk of feeling like an academic exercise. For all its references to war, fear, loss, and forgetting, the intellectual core of Lament for the Afterlife is a feeling of profound bafflement.

 

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Reading this book is like being asked to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle using clues extracted from a plate of alphabet pasta: It’s brilliantly clever and nobody has ever done it before, but only people with very specific tastes are going to want to spend their time wading through a book that is even less comprehensible and forgiving than the world itself. Lament for the Afterlife reads like an intellectual exercise aimed at people who are already in the business of writing; Ambitious stylists will tear the book apart, extract all of its technical brilliance, and channel that cleverness into communicating ideas and emotions that are more compelling and hospitable than bafflement. For all its intellectual power, this is a book that feels destined to provoke passionate debates in hundreds of seminars and shrugs of bemusement everywhere else… and that’s actually kind of okay.

One of the things that experimental work can do is force audiences into fresh relationships with an artistic form. Just as the impressionist painters made us realise that humans see reflected light rather than objects and early literary modernists reminded us that we glimpse the world through a thicket of subjective impressions, writers like Hannett draw our attention to the fact that we still expect our novels to feature characters, coherent worlds and profound meanings that surrender themselves to our interpretative skills. What are demands for profundity if not an echo of the much-derided requests for likeable characters? Where are the strong themes to which we can relate?!

Not everyone reads for the same reason and not everyone relates to books in the same way. Lisa L. Hannett’s debut work of mosaic fiction is a book for people who want to be aware of the broken bones that lie beneath the skin of narrative.

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