Fictional Tension

Some might have heard that Jill Sparrow and I are writing a novel. (Don’t ask me what it’s called.) Friends often ask us, “But how could you write a novel that way?” Behind this is the assumption that there is something completely individual about the novelistic art. Well, that may be so. Or it may not. There is a long answer involving collaboration and commercial imperatives, bourgeois art and individualism, and “trash” and literature of ideas, but the short answer is, she and I have complementary strengths.

The novel’s getting toward readable now (though perhaps that’s a value judgement) and I suppose I’m reaching the point where I can reflect on how my thoughts have been exercised by what Jill’s brought to it. A broad and deep knowledge at her fingertips of what political movements eat and drink – and what may poison them. The people living their activism, the trajectories of their lives, and the reasons they rebel or otherwise. The slog. How much of a person’s stance is an accidental collision of history and sensibility; and seemingly in contradiction, how little of one’s relationship to the greater history is untouched by manipulation, how choice can be at once illusory and a matter of conscience. Jill also advocates a fierce naturalism, which I guess is a product of quite an evolved materialism since it eschews the clichés devised by both markets and teleology, no matter whose.

She and I have always argued. About other things! The novel has produced little in the way of fierce disagreement, perhaps because both of us are confident in our areas of strength, mine in the craft of fiction and scientific speculation and Jill’s in historiography and activism. And lack confidence in the other’s areas. We have, however, filled many pages with notes driving characters and situations in electronic chat format and email. We’ve also got years of experience as work mates in other fields, so there’s trust.

And it’s much of that common experience, I now see, out of which we’ve written ourselves. Our old workmates joke with us that they’re in the novel, or that others from our common workplaces are in the novel, and of course we’ve drawn situations and colours from the raw material of our lives, as all writers do, but even if you consciously tried to copy somebody from life, to set them in another context – in this case an ageing, climate changed future, where the nature of political representation reaches discontinuity – renders such alleged portraiture or caricature irrelevant. In any case, what interests me about this process is that Jill and I emerged straight from a bitter industrial battle, during the depths of the Howard government’s exercise of power.

We’ve come from this place emotionally. This is a great deal of the truth of what we’ve depicted, not personalities.

At one stage, Jill asked me what point there might be in attempting an intervention in the form of writing such a novel, when so many things were so bad. I replied that this was the very time people needed this kind of effort. Now, when things may be a little different, and Howard seems not quite so invincible, we see that what might beat him still provides us with the reason for such a project. What it takes to beat Howard is distressing to watch, at times.

Fiction of the future often comes with a Best Before Date. Not only do the dates date, as it were, with people living on Mars in 1999 and everyone wearing Lycra without riding bicycles, but also the social situation provoking the satire or drama of the novel moves on. However, I suspect that it will be a long time before the sort of dire situation provoking the actions of our characters comes about. We mess around at the edges of reform. It seems that once we reach a level of affluence, all hope of assisting ourselves beyond our problematic form of representation – assisting anybody else in other countries with their more clear-cut problems either – is watered down. The ownership of a house, car, mobile phone and computer, aircon, and the treadmill necessary to keep it all going for ourselves and our families, takes the will to change from all but a faithful few, who sacrifice something else to the struggle.

It could be argued that this something is what disables the struggle itself. One must remove oneself from the values that create a society of any kind in order to see how it might be changed. Jill and I have touched upon this process in the novel, as well as a great number of other things. There have been novels about people who want to change the world before, and there have been novels of despair about how fucked things are – there have even been novels of hope about ordinary people who make a difference. Ours is a big novel, about a great number of things, perhaps all of the above things – we tried not to have any one character who could be called the most important. We have written an entertainment, full of drama and comedy, but one which we hope will entertain people we know are not easily captured by the economic imperatives of the lowest common denominator, one with a tension between identification with what gives us the values we wish to change and the objectivity of having removed yourself from those values enough to see what must be changed.

And that creative tension is what you get writing a novel with two people. Hopefully it’s more than either of us could do on our own.

[also posted on Leftwrites]