Looking In Both Directions, Autumn by Ali Smith

This week I finally got around to reading Autumn by Ali Smith. I have been meaning to read it for a while because over the years I have been hearing an increasing volume of good things about her but because this was known as being her Brexit novel I ended up putting it off. I followed Brexit closely last year and so by the time this book came out I had become a little burnt out on the subject.

Autumn blog pic

I had a similar thing with Howard Jacobson’s Donald Trump novel, Pussy. I went to see him talk at Cambridge literary festival and picked up a copy but still haven’t got around to reading it. There is just such a lot of Donald Trump in my life right now that what I need is a little less.

From what I understand both of these books were written with a lot of immediacy. Jacobson talked about going to his desk in a fury after the US election to get on with his book, like he was trying to get the rawest form of his own reaction to events down on paper before it became diluted. There will be plenty of time for objective analysis, but you can only have your first reaction once.

So I was expecting Autumn to be a bit like this. An outward looking, political sort of a book. An angry product of an angry time. And there is some of that in it. There are little references to real events in the real world that are still fresh in the mind, indeed that are still actively ongoing, and will be for some time. But it isn’t entirely like that. The scope of a novel about a major political event is going to be broad and far reaching, but the scope of Autumn is narrower, focusing as much on the small events of one person’s life. Brexit lurks in the background like a sinister shadow looming over everything, rarely mentioned explicitly, while the story of an old friendship unfolds. It’s a beautiful novel, and deserving of its place on the Booker longlist.

I was thinking recently that you can possibly think of books as either being outward or inward looking. There’s lots of ways categorising books (fiction/non-fiction, genres etc) but that the separation of books by whether they are exploring the world or exploring the person might be useful. Whether politics is the point of the book, or psychoanalysis. Science or meditation. I’m still trying to figure this idea out, it’s still only hazily formed in my head, but I thought it might be a useful way to think about writing at the point of writing. In which direction are you facing when you start putting the words down on the page? Are you writing about the world, or what it is like to be in the world?

But Autumn is a novel that is successfully looking in both directions at once. A book that isn’t just about politics, but the impact of politics on people, and of the impact of people on politics. The big events that inform our little lives. The narrow focus against a wider backdrop.

Who I Discovered Since I Discovered Murakami

I can’t remember exactly when I first discovered Haruki Murakami but it must have been sometime around 2000. There was a video game magazine that I used to read that had a monthly feature on Japanese culture and one of his books – After the Quake – was reviewed in it. I picked a copy up and enjoyed it so a while later I decided to try one of his novels. I bought Norwegian Wood and loved it so much that I started to work my way through his other books.

Having read so much of his work – he takes up almost one full shelf – I decided to try some other Japanese writers too. These are some of the other Japanese books and writers that I have discovered that I think are really good.

Japanese Books

Kobo Abe

I didn’t discover Kobo Abe, someone just posted him through my door. An old friend sent me a copy of The Kangaroo Notebook because they thought I would like it. It was about a man who wakes up to discover he has radishes growing out of his legs, which makes him into a kind of self-sustaining eco-system, and gets sent to a health spa by his doctor. I can’t remember where I heard this but someone said that Kobo Abe writes the kind of books that other people think Kafka wrote. Kangaroo Notebook was weird and had the kind of ambiguous not-what-you-thought-it-was kind of ending that I like, so I read a few others. The one that really did it for me was The Woman in the Dunes. I think this is his most famous book. An entomologist (something of a recurring theme in his characters) accidentally falls down a dune and can’t get back out. There are shadowy figures watching him from above, and a woman living in a house at the bottom. Together the man and the woman spend their days sweeping away the sand that falls down the dune and into their home. So weird, but so good.

Hiromi Kawakami

Kawakami has written three books, and the fact that there is a third is news to me. I just looked her up and found she has had a new one come out that I didn’t know about. Her other two, Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop are both very gentle novels. Strange Weather in Tokyo is about a a slow budding romance between a woman and an older man who used to be her teacher. Nakano Thrift Shop centres on the lives of a group of people working in a little junk shop. Her writing is lovely and delicate and the books have a really sleepy pace that I find so pleasing to read. Can’t wait to read the third, which is called Record of a Night Too Brief.

Yoko Ogawa

I have only read a couple by Yoko Ogawa but The Housekeeper and the Professor really stands out. It is about a housekeeper who looks after the home of a mathematics professor who suffers from acute short term memory loss. He can only remember the last eighty minutes. The story seems to spiral around and around, getting nowhere, but slowly the effect of this arrangement on the housekeeper and on her son, who somehow manages to form a friendship with him, emerges. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking book.

There are also a number of one-offs that I have read that I liked enough that I will likely read some more by these writers again in the future. There is Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, an enormous, Steig Larssen-esque crime novel. It’s like a police procedural but from the perspective of an officer working in the press-office. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is about the murder of two prostitutes. A novel that seems like it is going to a bit of a pulpy crime novel, but that turns into quite a thoughtful, deeper book than it might seem like it’s going to be. There is Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto, a couple of short novels in one that is reminiscent of the Hiromi Kawakami novels I already talked about, and some of the shorter, gentler books that Murakami wrote, like South of the Border, West of the Sun, or Sputnik Sweetheart.

So there you are, if you like Haruki Murakami and want to try some other Japanese writers, maybe give some of those a go.

Go Wide Or Go Deep

Is it better to read a wide variety of writers, or to read a small number of writers more deeply? When I was in my early twenties I was starting to take writing very seriously and so I figured I needed to take my reading very seriously as well. I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near well-read enough so I stopped reading the same writer two books in a row thinking that reading as wide a variety of writers as possible was the best way to get caught up, and I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. For a while I wasn’t reading the same writer twice in a year. I covered a lot of ground that way but I couldn’t really get a deep understanding of any one writer. In that time I read one Salman Rushdie novel, one Dostoyevsky novel, one JD Salinger novel. Lots and lots of one off’s.

There were a few writers I read more often simply because I liked them so much. Jeffrey Eugenides, for example. I have read all of his books but he has only written three and there are such long gaps between them when the next one comes along (should be soon*) it won’t count as binge reading any more. Haruki Murakami too. I love his books so much that of course I read new ones instantly but for a long time I had his back catalogue to make my way through and so there was a lot of Murakami in my life for a long while. But mostly, even if I really loved a book or really felt interested in a particular writer, I would space the books out so that I wouldn’t be saturated with any one writer.

Do you know what book it was that caused me to break my own rule? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read the second one about two years after the first just because someone told me I ought to keep reading them (I had enjoyed the first one but not enough to go straight to the second and after a while I just lost interest). But a friend insisted I go back to them so I read the second and then instantly read the third and then a little while after that the new one by David Lagercrantz came out and I read that too. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t exactly the sort of thing I normally go for but it was fun reading those books all at once. So I started doing it with other writers too. I had loved The Lighthouse by Alison Moore a lot, so I just went out and got all three of her other books and read them all in a relatively short space of time.

Obviously what you get from doing this is a deeper understanding of a writers work. A deeper sense of what they are all about. Naturally with a series like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you get a coherent single narrative, but even outside of a series you can start to see the little trends that emerge in their work. The themes that keep coming up, the tricks and tropes that they use. The voice starts to sound a little clearer.

There have been a couple of writers I discovered recently and I’m not even bothering to try and space out their books. I did that for a long time so I don’t feel like I have to do it any more. One of these writers, Cormac McCarthy, has a big back catalogue and I don’t want to wait to read them. So I’m not. Same with Tom Drury. I read his trilogy and he has a couple of others which I would have read by now, if they were a little easier to get hold of.

I have no idea if reading a wide range of writers is better for fuelling my own writing than deeply reading a few. I am sure that to be a serious writer you need to be a serious reader, and that probably you should be a reader first and a writer second. At least that’s how I feel. For a long time spreading out and reading widely felt right, now I am enjoying sinking into a handful of writers.

 

* I googled Jeffrey Eugenides while I was writing this because it occurred to me that he might have something new coming out. His books tend to come out about seven years apart, roughly, and I figured he was due. Sure enough, new one is coming out this October. I’m excited already. I’m having a holiday in November and if I can resist I might make it my holiday reading.

Where Inspiration Comes From

Recently I have been reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. And by recently I mean on and off over an extended period of time, but also recently as well. I often read more than one book at once and big, 900 page bricks like Gravity’s Rainbow tend to last a while. I have read eight other books since I started, and I still have a lot of it to go.

GR book smaller

The reason I started to read it is because of a guy called Jonathan Blow. Jonathan Blow is a programmer and video game designer who has made a couple of games that I really loved. The first, Braid, came out about ten years ago, and the second, The Witness came out last year and I spent a lot of time playing it. I could go on about The Witness for ages, and occasionally do, but suffice it to say that that game has a lot of the qualities that I admire. It is interesting and intelligent, gentle and quiet. A lot of video games are these days, if you know where to look, but The Witness really struck a chord with me.

After playing The Witness I spent a lot of time watching videos on You Tube of Jonathan blow at seminars and conferences talking about game design. A lot of those videos are very specifically about game design and the games industry, but he also talks about the importance of art that is deep, interesting and difficult, because that is where the most profound effects can be had. And somewhere in those hundreds of hours of You Tube videos he mentioned Gravity’s Rainbow.

He talked about wanting to make a game that was like Gravity’s Rainbow. Not like it in the usual way we might think of, like as an adaptation. He wasn’t interesting in the setting or the plot; for want of a better word he wanted its feel. Its grandeur and its seriousness. I think this is a magnificent approach. There is an ambition to wanting to make the most challenging and serious work you can that I really admire. Sticking to your core principals and making a game (or writing a book) that by its own obsession with seriousness will likely mean some people hate it isn’t an easy decision to make.

The Witness ended up being something of a spiritual guide for the book I am trying to write. The Witness is a slow paced, quietly spoken game, and in the hours I was playing it the ideas and themes and tones that I want to capture in my writing started to emerge. And now when I am struggling to keep hold of what this book is I dip back in and remind myself of what it is I am aiming at. And when I am worrying about the ending I have planned (and I do) I remember this idea of committed seriousness and I relax a little.

So reading Gravity’s Rainbow has been an interesting exercise in reading the book that inspired the game that inspired my book. There is a barely a thread that connects them, you might never know it was even there. It would be hard enough to see the connection between Gravity’s Rainbow and The Witness. Gravity’s Rainbow is raucous and loud and chaotic and – in places – filthy. Nothing like The Witness. But inspiration isn’t always obvious. Sometimes the connection is just a feeling. Just a sense of the thing.

My New Editing Trick

My poor neglected blog, sitting here unused for so long. I’d feel bad about it but part of the reason it is neglected is because I have been putting so much time into writing other things that I haven’t been able to do anything here. The reason I am typing anything for it now is because writing a novel is hard and every so often it can feel completely impenetrable and so what I am actually doing right now is procrastinating. I have been trying to work on the novel every day and on the days when I don’t I have been writing short stories instead. I seem to have some good momentum and I want to keep it up. A little while ago I challenged my niece to write 500 words a day about absolutely anything, just so that when it is time to write an essay she would already be in a bit of a groove. So I have been trying to keep my own advice and writing at least 500 words a day – which really isn’t a lot – but some days is easier than others.

The novel that I am working on started as a NanoWriMo project but I think that kind of speed writing doesn’t really suit me. Almost everything I wrote is unusable. The general structure is fine, but the actual words, the actual sentences, there’s hardly anything there at all. So I have pretty much started it from scratch and now, 25,000 words in, I am flagging a little.

So like I said, I wrote some short stories and one of them has turned out pretty well I think. I read it aloud to my wife and she thought it was okay so I spent some time tidying it up and getting it good. I don’t have many writing techniques that I use, mostly I am just winging it, but something happened when I was doing a second sweep of this one that I think I might try and keep in mind for future writing. I was doing a read through and I kept coming across sentences that felt wrong but it was hard to know what was actually wrong with them. I would read them aloud and they would just clang a little. So what I decided to do, because it was late and I was tired and I really wanted to go and play Overwatch before bed, was just highlight them in yellow and then come back them later. So I saved my draft with its dozen yellow sentences and walked away.

The next day I sat down and read through it again and this time I could see instantly and exactly what I needed to do with all of those highlighted sentences. I deleted them. Everything that I had highlighted in yellow just needed to be gone. That was what was bugging me about them the night before, they just didn’t belong there. Instantly the whole story tightened up. It was like it lost weight and now you could see some definition in its shoulders.

So I think I’m going to try this again in the future. Highlight anything that seems off and then delete it in the morning.

Oh and hey, I just went and worked on the novel for half an hour and I figured out a major plot point that had really been causing me problems. I’m on fire. Now I’m going to go and play Overwatch.