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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
Outside the British Council, before the announcement.