Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Horsehappy Values - Andrew Strong

My gap year was very conservative. I sat in a kitchen of my flat above a glaziers in Acton, west London, and read Ulysses. It was a rite of passage. While friends were driving across Nevada, paragliding over the Sahara, or tunnelling out of Broadmoor, I was turning the pages of Joyce’s voluminous book. Each morning, after my flatmates had eaten their breakfasts of last night’s cold kebab or yesterday’s brown rice, I pushed the pizza cartons and the foil containers of chop suey on to the floor, spread out the readers’ guides and set to work. It took me the best part of the twelve months.

A year later, when Pete appeared at door, lean, deep tanned, a far away look in his eyes, I was yelling “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Pete had been all the way around the world and returned to find me where he’d left me. The only part of me that had done any travelling was my eyes.

When I mention to friends that I want to write the Ulysses of children’s novels they look at me as if I’ve just asked them to fire a nail gun into my knee. “What would you want to do that for?”

I used to feel slightly ashamed and embarrassed that I love James Joyce. Finnegans Wake may be the most difficult novel of all time, but its mad ambition thrills me. So now it's time to come clean.

My day job is a headteacher. I spend my weekdays surrounded by young people. I have two teenage children and they regularly fill the house with their tall, grinning friends. They are all super smart, witty, much, much brighter than I was at that age. They simultaneously play computer games, watch TV, write music, design crazy stunts to film and put up on YouTube. They are texting and listening to iPods, having six different conversations. Watch them, shoved together in the same room. They are not just capable of multitasking, but of multi-dimensional multi-tasking. They seem to live permanently on several levels. Their language is a melt of references, of quips and quotes, facts and nonsense from The Simpsons, South Park, QI, and stuff they randomly bite off the internet and from each others’ Facebook pages. Their chatter skims across media, and across decades. They dabble in accents, and throw chunks of Welsh, French or Spanish into their chatter. Yes, it sounds like the incomprehensible noise of Finnegans Wake. It’s clever, funny, and somehow has its own inner logic.

They are, therefore, in a much better position to understand a book as something other than a vehicle for the third person, past tense narrative.

Indeed, the traditional form is something that must seem not just quaint to them, but archaic. In a recent Guardian article a certain Mr Philip Pullman makes a silly fuss about the present tense, suggesting writers should further exploit the richness of the past tense, and so on. A few pages before Mr Pullman’s piece, Tom McCarthy is interviewed about his novel C. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is written in the present tense. Compared to Pullman's dusty lecture, McCarthy sounds thrilled and excited by the possibilities of fiction.

McCarthy clearly wants to reaffirm the case for modernist literature, for something more than the traditional ‘sentimental humanism’ as he puts it. If the vast majority of the adult population doesn't have a taste for experimental fiction, perhaps it is this generation of young people that are the first to be ready for novels that play with notions of voices, persons, perspectives and tenses, of stories that are a tangle of parody, pastiche and genre shifting.

And when e-readers really take off, there will be an infinity of dimensions to explore.

The book is dead. Long live the book.


Katherine Langrish said...

I take off my hat to you - Ulysses is on one of those lists of Great Books I Have Never Read and probably life is now too short for me to spend a year over it. But I love the idea of the multi-layered multi-tense multi-text modern Ulysses for young people. Write it!

Penny Dolan said...

I love your description of all the kids in your school - as well as being totally amazed that you even have the time to do Head Teachering AND write! (Especially when you are thinking in terms of richness and complexity and layered language.)

My worry about the e-book development is that the language will become the lowest denominator - ie the publishers will want maximum and/or global "child reach" - with the visuals being given the highest impact and the reflective thoughts and the music of language counting for little.

I'm reminded of the almost unintelligible spoken word script v. the action script in a Bourne film I saw recently.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I wonder, how long did it take Joyce to write Ulysses? I suppose most writers stay with the conventional form of novel because of possibly two reasons, one of which might be breadth of intellect, with the other one being the time element and the concentration required to keep up with all the tops they have set spinning. Introduce an experimental fiction and there's a lot more tops, to say the least. The same applies to readers. And are younger brains better wired than older brains, who have more awareness of failure and it-can't-be-done, whereas youth has always insited it can? I need to read Ulysses, but it might take me longer than a year. Do you happen to know, Andrew, how long it took Joyce to write it and what he worked at in between? I imagine I will be suitably impressed. Oh, and please write a book to challenge us, only don't think of it as a children's or an adult's novel. See where it takes you first.

Leila said...

Ha ha - I bought Ulysses as Easter holidays reading when I was sixteen. Did I read it? Did I heck as like. Still haven't read it to this day.