This year, I have a different experiment I’d like to try on Twitter. What I’ve noticed is that some of the most interesting attempts to write creatively on the medium have come not ambiently (as ‘J’ was intended to do), but in sudden bursts – I’m thinking of Teju Cole‘s older and more recent excursions, and George Szirtes’ various entries in the form and Paraic O’Donnell, who occasionally goes into a riff on a Friday evening.
So I wanted to pick a time every week when I would tweet a story, or a something, and I settled on Wednesday afternoons, from 3-5pm, when – starting next week and for 10 weeks after – I will be always in the same place: sitting on a train from Norwich to London. It’s a train journey I love, for various reasons that may or may not become apparent during the course of the exercise, which will be over by April.
So, if you want to be in on the experiment, please follow @Wednesday3til5 – it is a new Twitter account I have set up, on which I will tweet only during those hours. What it will be exactly is still brewing, and will almost certainly be semi-improvised, at any rate.
Follow it, and something will unfold – I’m not going to guarantee how many tweets during those two hours each week, but clearly I don’t want it to be so many that you’ll want to unfollow.
This will be the third time I have written about JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., a metafictional puzzle book that comes in the form of a faux-retro hardback of a novel, Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by one JM Straka, and that carries further sub- and supra-narratives in its editorial notes, and in the marginalia scrawled on its pages, and inserted between them, by a pair of obsessed students who, improbably, conduct a flirtation using the book as a dead letter office, even as come to fear for their lives.
First I wrote about it on my Friday Book Design Blog, where I commented on its exquisite presentation and sense of fun, and noted its debt to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, before ending with the slightly sniffy enquiry:
What is at the heart of S? I’m not sure anyone knows, yet. Would the first person to solve it please report back and let us know if the destination’s worth the journey?
Left to my own devices, I would probably not have continued the journey. However, I was then asked to review it, for The Independent, and happily took back up the gauntlet, reading through to the very last page (something I wasn’t entirely sure Mark Lawson did for his rather general review in The Guardian).
This time I concluded that, though I was sure I had penetrated only partway to its mysteries, the journey was rewarding nevertheless. Sure, some aspects of the project remain hard to accept:
- in practical terms, that Jen and Eric would keep scribbling in the margins of the book rather than, y’know, texting each other, especially when THEIR LIVES WERE IN DANGER because of it;
- in conceptual terms, that the narrative of their relationship ran more or less chronologically through the book, from front to back, whereas any fule postgrad knows that the text is a two-dimensional space, rather than a temporal continuum, and their notes should have been a lot more confusing to read in tandem with the plot of the novel;
- and, in literary terms, that we were actually supposed to believe there was a clan of dissident-writers fighting evil throughout history in our ‘universe’, whatever we were willing to believe about the ‘universe’ of Straka’ fiction.
Despite all this, then, the ‘novel’ (not a novel-within-a-novel, as some have said, but the opposite: a novel-around-a-novel, over-a-novel, above-a-novel) was kept alive by two things: the positively charming romance that grows in the margins between the two students, Jen and Eric, and the quality of the pastiche of ‘Ship of Theseus’, which reads like a sort of tough existentialist take on the Conrad/ Hemingway tradition, though it keeps slipping towards the fantastical.
If the underlying, background text hadn’t been worth reading – despite the fact that you know its primary, surface meaning is not what you’re supposed to be there for at all – then I’d have had a hard time keeping on with it.
Looking back on my reading experience, now, though, what occurs to me is this: that while Dorst is pastiching a certain strain of mid-century hardboiled quasi-philosophical literature, Abrams (as conceiver-in-chief) is pastiching something else entirely.
He is pastiching, or otherwise playing on, the very postmodern take on meaning and interpretation that has grown up in the past half century, following on from the post-structuralists of the mid-late 60s, that sees intertextuality, marginality and undecidability as central to the literary-critical enterprise.
Postmodern literature loves to play with the possibility of extra- or meta-textual work dominating and even crushing the work-at-source (Pale Fire); it loves the idea of the reader as detective, set loose in the drifting, numinous, authorless world of novel (Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose); in fact it loves this so much it romanticises it to the point where, laughably, ferreting around in dusty libraries becomes a supremely heroic act, and even a dangerous one (Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum [a book I must re-read], Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, and, eventually, as Eco loves pointing out, The Da Vinci Code).
I have just finished running a Creative Writing workshop as part of the LSE’s Literature Festival 2013. In it I wanted to talk about and explore ways of using Twitter creatively. Briefly, I went through four ways of doing so:
1) the standalone one-Tweet narrative, as seen on nanoism.net. This, we found, was hard.
2) we looked at iterative tweets: those that set up parameters and worked within them, in a non-narrative way. I gave as examples the drone stories of Teju Cole, New Proverbs of Hell by George Szirtes, and some dialogue between W and Lars by Lars Iyer – and clicking on their names here will link to a few examples of each I collected via Storify.
3) we looked at narrative stories on Twitter, Jennifer Egan’s Black Box, Rick Moody’s Some Contemporary Characters, Andrew Fitzgerald’s March story on Medium and Litro’s recent #litrostory – which I contributed to, and may have inadvertently damaged – honestly, Litro people, I thought I was bringing the story back to its main narrative. (I also talked about my own Twitter story, J, which you can read more about here, and follow here.)
In fact, the #litrostory – as i saw it – was instructive, because it showed the pitfalls of open sourcing a project like this. People don’t read up what’s gone before, they push it in odd directions, they might even change tense or gender. I wanted to do something a bit like this, but a bit more curated, so as the final exercise we wrote a collaborative piece of non-narrative fiction, a character study, really, called Carly. This was number four. Continue reading
Going out to sit in a doctor’s waiting room I picked up Lars Iyer’s Dogma to keep me company and, in the few minutes the sadly super-efficient NHS kept me waiting, I was reminded quite how enjoyable it is. Just pitched in to the middle and came up with stuff like this:
What is it that keeps him from cutting his own throat?, W. wonders. What is it that keeps me from cutting mine?
We want to see how it all ends, he says. We want to see how it will all turn out. But this is how it ends. This is how it will all turn out.
Wonderful, beautiful stuff, that sticks its neck out, then pans back to see what the rest of the body is doing – it’s twitching convulsively, of course – and to show how much further out the rest of the body is than the poor old neck and head.
When I covered Dogma briefly in my January reading round-up, I said I thought it worked better as tweets or blog posts than a novel. Now I’m not sure. I think it benefits from being on paper – the veneer of respectability it gives – but I still don’t rate it as a novel particularly (though I doubt Iyer is aiming for it to be that kind of novel). It works best as a book picked up and “dipped into” (in that godawful phrase) and put down again. The tantalising thought that all these bits and pieces might coalesce into some kind of fulfilling, developing narrative is present on every page, and is rewarding as such even when you know that no such thing occurs. Continue reading