Listening to Lydia

I have not been blogging for over a year, this is true. I have been moving home, I wrote a new novel, also the film script for The Panopticon (I will write about that later this week) but the truth is I’ve not been blogging in part because I have had this quite definite sense of silence. Other than the words. The Writing. The seeing friends. The daily living. Sometimes that happens. The world is so curiously round and we as a race so ever-onward, ever-absorbing, what is going on with this planet is not something that moves around me.

I have felt a silence because there is too much out there and I often wish we were all born with a fundamental humanist right to safety, education, food, shelter. The fact that we are so far removed from that and when I turn on the internet all I see is everything and somehow nothing because there is a veil between what is real and true and what is observed, or fetishised, or even passed on as gossip. Anyway. This is a terrible first blog (in a year) my fridge is being overly loud, I have a novel to read by a new writer who I am mentoring. I am off to London next week for meetings about my new novel and the film. I have committed to getting two cats (when I find a home I can settle in) I have a real yearn for a dog called Hank but I think he might be two or three years away.

I read a great article by Lydia Lunch recently, she has been giving empowerment weekends to women and one of the things she said was: Pleasure is The Ultimate Rebellion. I love this! It seems a mantra to living, an antidote to fear, a way of approaching this gift of life. So, I am looking for it, in the sun on trees, attempting to bake, seeing friends in person rather than online, cultivating authentic connection as a way of being, those kinds of moments go a long, long way. 

The other Lydia I listened to recently was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I ran all the way from my house with a wonderful writer friend (Kerry Hudson) we had, just had dinner and a few whiskey’s and I really wanted to see Lydia Davis in talk with Ali Smith. We made it there just as they closed the doors and miraculously (this never happens) they opened up for half a second and ushered us in. Lydia was as amazing to listen to as you might imagine or if you haven’t read her stories do, they are stunning. While I was sitting up the back in the dark watching Lydia and Ali and the audience and listening to everything I wrote two short (extremely short) stories. I will post them below. From me. To you. Back in blog. Bought new books. Getting a train. Playing records. The clock is ticking but it never tells the right time. I’m okay with it.

 

My fridge just went silent ….

 

The writer on the stage does not look up to see the audience listening to her
in the dark room — yet each has a light shining around their head.

The writer does not look behind her, but all across the stage her ancestors
are strewn, drinking and smoking and picking at their nails and they too are
so absorbed in the words that none of them see the eldest of them all, standing

right on the front of the stage.

The eldest of all the ancestors does not look at the writer as she reads, he does
not listen to a single word either. He stands with a little pea shooter poised, and
when someone drifts, he blows a little arrow of light, right into their heart.

 

The other scrawl:

 

Everyday at 6.10am a ship goes out into the fog and honks its horn for
a blare longer than sleep and she is the only one who wakes to hear it.

She gets wearier each morning, and really it is no ship, just a broken
shower upstairs that her neighbour climbs into for the dawn shift at the
hospital, every, single, day.

In reality it is possible her neighbour doesn’t work in a hospital.

Each day when she comes home with her groceries she looks at her
neighbours door and wonders if he will ever move on.

 

 

 

The New York Times

THE NEW YORK TIMES

(Front Page of Literary Supplement)

SURVEILLANCE STATE
‘The Panopticon,’ by Jenni Fagan

By TOM SHONE
Published: July 18, 2013

“I’m a bit unconvinced by reality,” says Anais Hendricks, the heroine of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, “The Panopticon.” “It’s fundamentally lacking in something, and nobody seems bothered.” When we first meet Anais she is handcuffed in the back of a police car, her school uniform covered in blood, on her way to an institution for young offenders. She has no family, and has never seen so much as a photograph of any relatives. Her hobbies include joy riding, tripping on school days, painting CCTV cameras fluorescent pink and hand-delivering the lights from police cars, covered with glitter, to the desk of her local constabulary. Now 15, she still feels “2 years old and ready tae bite.” She is, in summary, “totally and utterly” messed up — “but I like pillbox hats.” She is also the best reason to pick up “The Panopticon,” Fagan’s pugnacious, snub-nosed paean to the highs and lows of juvenile delinquency. A student of Andrew Motion’s with several books of poetry to her name (a name that calls to mind the patron saint of literary street urchins), Fagan has given us one of the most spirited heroines to cuss, kiss, bite and generally break the nose of the English novel in many a moon.

The novel takes its title from the imposing rehab facility, located deep in a forest, that waits for Anais at the end of that car ride: four floors high, in the shape of a C, and in the center a hidden core that looks out, through one-way glass, onto every cell, every landing, every bathroom. Students of 18th-century English penology will instantly recognize the reformer Jeremy Bentham’s infamous plans for an omniscient prison, never built but later turned by the French philosopher Michel Foucault into a metaphor for the oppressive gaze of late capitalism. Students of 21st-century reality television will, on the other hand, instantly recognize the layout from the program “Big Brother,” in which a bunch of undesirables argue, in close quarters, over who redecorated the living room lampshade with a pair of underpants.

Where does Fagan’s structure rest on the Bentham-to-“Big Brother” scale? Somewhere in the middle. The inmates are locked up at night, but during the day are free to roam a lounge area, dining space and game room, all painted magnolia by well-meaning staff members who say things like “we practice a holistic approach tae client care at the Panopticon.” Winston Smith never had it so good. Anais lands there after she’s suspected of putting a policewoman into a coma, a crime for which she is regularly hauled into the interrogation room — but she cannot remember anything, having been on the tail-end of a four-day ketamine bender at the time. “I didnae tell the polis that,” she confides. She also does not tell them she was so wrecked on drugs at the time, “I couldnae even mind my own name.”

She is soon bonding with her fellow inmates, swapping stories and swinging joints attached to shoelaces between the cells after lights out. There’s the sicko who raped a dog, the boy who burned down the special-needs school where his foster mother taught. “We send e-mails, start legends — create myths,” she says. “It’s the same in the nick or the nuthouse: notoriety is respect.” What we have here is a fine example of Caledonian grunge, wherein writers north of the River Tweed grab the English language by the lapels, dunk it in the gutter and kick it into filthy, idiomatic life, thus leaving terrified book reviewers with no option but to find them “gritty” or “authentic.”

I have no way of knowing if the acid trip described here — which starts on the walk to school, then lurches sideways to a tower block for another drug run before concluding with a police bust — is authentic, having spent most of my school years protecting my privates from oncoming soccer balls, but there is no resisting the tidal rollout of Fagan’s imagery. Her prose beats behind your eyelids, the flow of images widening to a glittering delta whenever Anais approaches the vexed issue of her origins: “Born in the bushes by a motorway. Born in a VW with its doors open to the sea. Born in Harvey Nichols between the fur coats and the perfume, aghast store staff faint. . . . Born in an igloo. Born in a castle. Born in a tepee while the moon rises and a midsummer powwow pounds the ground outside.”

Solving this mystery — cracking Anais open — soon supplants the cop-in-a-coma as the book’s main narrative focus, as is only right, since “The Panopticon” is primarily, and triumphantly, a voice-driven novel.

Fagan’s prose rhythm and use of the demotic may owe something to Irvine Welsh, but there is a poet’s precision to some of the novel’s more plumed excursions. I, for one, was as grateful for those fur coats and that perfume as I was for the acid trips and dog rapes, the school of Welsh having long ago seized up, sclerotically, with its own druggie braggadocio. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” Updike said. Reading Welsh’s most recent work, you sense a writer trying, but unable, to break out of the rough bark in which early success has encased him.

He could do worse than to study the warmer emotional temperature of Fagan’s book, or the way she uses it to defrost her battle-hardened heroine — the “girl with a shark’s heart” who cleaves to her own moral code (“you dinnae bully people, ever”) and who finds herself fighting back unaccustomed tears when a fellow inmate commits suicide. “I wish that would stop,” she says of this “teary” stuff. But it won’t. Under the guidance of Angus, the one support worker she likes — possibly because of his green dreadlocks and Doc Marten boots — Anais retraces her tangled journey: her 147 criminal charges, her years in foster care, her possible birth in an asylum, where they find a mad old monk, guarded by gargoyles, who claims to have laid eyes on her “bio mum,” although Anais remains convinced that “in all actuality they grew me — from a bit of bacteria in a petri dish. An experiment, created and raised just to see exactly how much . . . a nobody from nowhere can take.”

Sometimes Anais catches glimpses of men behind the prison windows, men with no noses in shiny shoes and black wide-rimmed hats — or are they just an acid flashback? Do we really believe she is being watched? Anais and her fellows are too free to come and go (there are boat trips and double dates, even spending money) for the Panopticon to strike a truly Orwellian note. If this is Orwellianism it’s the well-meaning Orwellianism of the modern European welfare state. With its orphaned heroine, retro prison design and Gothic accouterments, “The Panopticon” glances instead back to “Jane Eyre” and all those other 19th-century novels in which children trace their parentage through a perilous maze of orphanages and poorhouses, those hulking, soot-stained establishments now having made way for the bright, Formica-covered spaces of the modern-day detention center and rehab facility.

Like Stieg Larsson, to whose Lisbeth Salander the spunky Anais also owes a small debt, Fagan plugs into our fears of youth brutalized by the very system that is supposed to care for it, while upending those fears with a heroine who would rather choke than ask for our pity: “I hate saying please,” Anais tells us. “It makes me feel cheap. I hate saying thank you. I hate saying I need anything.” But Fagan’s voice is her own, a pure descant, rising from the fray like a chorister in a scrum. “Vive le girls,” she writes, with “hips and perfumes and perfumers. Vive absinthe and cobbled streets, vive le sea! Vive riots and old porn, and dragonflies; vive rooms with huge windows and unlockable doors. Vive flying cats and cigarillo-smoking Outcast Queens!” Vive them all, yes indeed, and vive Jenni Fagan, too, whose next book just moved into my “eagerly anticipated” pile.

Tom Shone’s new book, “Scorsese: A Retrospective,” will be published next year.

A version of this review appears in print on July 21, 2013, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Surveillance State.

Good luck from Guerilla Books …

OUR BLOG

3 terrific books - one sees all

3 terrific books – one sees all

The Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced tomorrow. With no contender from our own stable this year, we’ve been able to enjoy an impartial wander through the literary paddock. To push a metaphor too far, one dark horse has ridden away with us.

I’m not going to do a full review here. There are enough out there and, besides, I don’t think I can do the book justice. Someone whose own world has been chaffed, grazed or full-on immersed in the merciless life fat-fryer, as this central heroine’s, is the more qualified candidate. Instead, here’s a bullet list as to why everyone should read Jenni Fagan’s ‘The Panopticon’:

  • The writing: so vivid, so visceral and unrepentent – like a bootstrapped Scottish army erupting from an acid-soaked gattling gun – yet with moments of aching, poignant lucidity. Wherever you’re from, Jenni paints an ink-blood-bile world you’ll be richer for visiting.
  • The boldness: prose, themes, characters – no prisoners, ta. Face the beast’s underbelly, our ‘free society’s’ filthy diaper-wrapped suppurating arse, lean in and inhale as it pins you to, then scrapes you along the wall. This book wakes us from our ‘Wifi & latte’-like trance.
  • Anais Hendricks. ‘Nuff said. But I’ll say it again: Anais Hendricks.
  • How we treat kids: as parents; as care-workers; legal officers; teachers; fellow kids; relatives; foster parents and as strangers. Everything that’s wrong with our world as adults started with an adult failing a child. The Panopticon reminds us of this important fact.
  • Speaking of facts – non-fiction, we share facts, observations, records, opinions, knowledge. Fiction: we share stories, which means we share experience through a faculty other than simply the intellect. If we’re lucky, we’re graced with insight and understanding. Into others – and the obvious. Here, we’re very, very lucky. Fact.
  • Anais Hendricks – anyone?
  • ‘The experiment': ’cause this is everyone’s question, once you’re stripped and crunched and naked. Isn’t it? Keep stripping.
  • If you finish this book without wanting to shout for Anais, without wishing to send a prayer or quantum truckload of solace to every kid you’ve just met and, moreover, to their real counterparts out there – start digging. When you find your heart again, beat it till it does.

Good luck all 3 tomorrow. Of course the prize is already in the writing. Thank you DEP for introducing us to some soul-scrambling literature. We’ll see you next year, for a carnival.

Thank you, Jenni – can’t wait to see what comes next. Begin today.

http://www.guerillabooks.com

The Sunlight Pilgrims

So I was in the garden with some friends talking about the moon. It turns out the earth came first (did everyone know this but me?) and the moon was just a hunk of matter that broke away from the earth — I like to think this bit of matter was so impressed with itself — so taken with its own beauty that it created the most flattering light to illuminate and admire — to hold an adoring mirror up to itself each day.

A writer I met through Granta (Helen Oyeyemi — read her books) recently informed me that time is different on the moon and there is a clock in Prague that tells you what time it is on the moon. I love this! I want a clock that tells me what time it is on the moon. I don’t care if it is absolutely useless to my daily life down here — on the subject of Prague — why didn’t they just keep her as the lovely Bohemia? What happened to Siam? Or Babylon? Rhodesia. Of course, ex-colonial, other such things, just — pretty names you know.

If I had to choose the sun or moon — well, I’d be a creature with glowing eyes and a serious vitamin D deficiency. I don’t know why I think of these things. There is a chapter in my current novel entitled dinosaurs vs robots. The working title of my new novel is The Sunlight Pilgrims. I will walk around with it. Think about it. Is it right? The characters in my novel know the moon is cold as bone — the head of a pin never danced upon by angels and yes, they are moon gazers as all good characters should be but in all truth they’re seeking light. Not a flattering muted light. One that is clear as early morning where you can see every line, every flaw, and you can feel the earth and all its voices and sorrows and insanity and beauty but all you can do is brush your teeth and make a cup of tea and begin your day.

I am beginning to realise that for me the process of characterisation (in novels) involves a series of eradications. Taking the author out of it. Taking me out of it. My characters have absolutely no interest in my wants and what they are focused upon is becoming themselves. This is highly useful.I am grateful for this kind of tidal effect — the editing — a wave that keeps coming in and going out and eventually it leaves the right shells on the shore? Okay that’s a clunky sentence and there is no such thing as a right shell but this process of refining the rough edges makes a grain of sand of unique.

Metaphor much?

:)

Anyway, the characters are in a place where sunlight is going to break away (unreliable novelist confused by rain outside) or it already has. Can you tell I have not been talking about The Sunlight Pilgrims? That’s why I’m being more evasive than a politician with a murky past. I’ve not let anyone see my new novel yet, nobody has heard anything from it, it is just me and the words and that is how I like it. I keep telling my agent — another few weeks — I will send it over and I will and something else will happen then and it will begin to make its way in the world and define itself. That’s what novels do. It is not quite ready for that process yet though and neither am I but I will need to stop this rewriting at some point and you know (wo)man up — grow a pair — click send.

I got my first ‘kill fee’ this week. I felt most grown up. A jobbing writer. I was asked to write an article which a newspaper had entitled ‘girl in care’ and try as I might I just couldn’t seem to deliver what they were looking for. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not been a ‘girl in care’ for nearly twenty years now — JESUS — I must be prehistoric right, or perhaps that part of my life is prehistoric and I’m not too keen on the triggers that trawling back through it brings. A film director (my life is getting strange) recently said — well — you wrote a book about a girl in care, you know, people are going to ask about your life in care. He has a point. So do I. I’m a writer though, not a celebrity, even although an ex of mine texted recently and said he saw my grinning mug at some conference (on a huge poster) he said you’re a celebrity now — nada — I’m a word pilgrim! These two things are different!

I will get better at disclosing my space, time, location though (as Burroughs advised) articulating the old without it impacting so much on now — speaking of film directors — it looks like the film adaptation is imminent for The Panopticon. The offers I really want to consider are in at the same time and I am excited about placing Anais & co with the right people (unlike shells there is such a thing especially in film) to take her to the screen. It’s a lot like sending your kid off to university in some remote country called chance — hoping you’ve done what you can to give them some kind of future.

I am off to London this week for a party at Fortnum & Mason where the winner of The Desmond Elliott prize will be announced, one of the other authors told me he had a dream where I had won and he was furious at me, could not even look me in the eye. He said his dream self is clearly more competitive than he is. It’s anyones chance and I just want to enjoy an evening to remember, champagne, canapies, see friends, I hear there is a hamper for each of the shortlisted authors and I have really liked hearing about Desmond Elliott as a person, he sounds like my kind of care leaver.

Last week it was my first official Granta reading at York Festival of Ideas and I had a great lunch beforehand with some writer friends who showed me around York. I’ve not been there for years but I really liked it, great bookshops, pretty streets — so many drunk people! It was the races that weekend and I arrived on ladies day. My next Granta outings will be at Edinburgh Festival and then it looks like I am going to Bangkok in October with the British Council. The title for that blog will be very easy — Burntisland to Bangkok! I need to get a wee camera and a phrase book and bribe my toddler with tales of elephants and promises and it will be hard to not be with him for more than two days (our longest yet) but I’d like him to be proud of having a working mum and know that despite my lack of high school education I went onto find and pour my life into something that makes me happy.

I’m currently reading Straight White Male by John Niven, which I love, already, he is one of the funniest and most caustic of writers — while still being tangibly, insanely, humane. Also I hear there is a good film out about the life of Elizabeth Bishop, can’t wait for that. What about the lack of great horror films in the last few years! I love a great horror, perhaps I should write one.  Other than that I’m having a Scottish season in literature again, revisiting old works, ordered the few Alan Warner books I’ve not read — trawling to catch up on things I’ve missed.

This month I also ordered Iain Banks last novel The Quarry, and some of the other ones that I’ve not read. I loved his interview in The Scotsman, his last interview where he explained his cancer was the result of a cosmic ray, a bad ray out in the universe whose origins were old as millenia. An extraordinarily gifted human being  — I am inspired by his ethic and his work and I will continue to learn from it and be a fan for a long time to come. He has certainly left enough novels and poetry and music behind to make sure this is possible and every-time I drive across the Forth Road Bridge (I live near there) I will salute him — the powers that be must sort out their cultural compass and name the new bridge, or rename the old one — the Iain (M) Banks Other The Bridge Bridge — it has my vote for sure.

Salut, salut, Jx

Ida Keeps Falling

She is to be awake throughout the entire procedure. They’ll slice the top of her head open, saw through the bone (make it like an attic hatch — so they can peer in) and she was told to bring a friend.

- It’s important you chat to someone through the procedure, so we can see which areas of the brain light up.

- This will help you diagnose why I’m falling over all the time?

- Yes, we hope so.

All they know so far is that it is not a cancer, nor a tumour, she’s had a CAT scan, been to oncology, it is not Meniere’s disease, nor is it benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, no acoustic neroma, no vestibular neuritis, no herpes zoster oticus. Inner ear fine.

- This will be worth it, Ida, if it means you stop falling over.

It’s not possible to nod in agreement so Ida blinks. Her friend blinks back and they are smiling then. It will be. It’s so awkward, falling over in front of everyone, in the office, the water cooler shaking, bruises, arnica, staying home more and more. There is a tugging above her, then the surgeons fall momentarily silent.

- Well, Ida, we appear to have found the problem — the reason, for your balance issues.

- What is it?

- It’s a little man, bout as big as your pinky nail.

- What?

- Yup, tiny little thing he is, and he’s drunk, on a bicycle, cycling round and around.

- Okay — so, what do we do with him?

-Well, with your permission, Ida, we’d like to cut him out.

Signing a form then, a disclaimer, a dizziness and the surgeons working quickly so the anaesthesia does not wear off and wondering what he’ll look like, if they’ll let her take him home in a jar.