Method In The Madness
Why did you structure Vellum/Ink in that particular way?
And the followup, now that I'm halfway through Ink: given the extreme complexity of this work, where it requires that fourteen year old girl to re-read to understand all of it, did you really set yourself to write for popular appeal?
OK. How to explain? Well, let’s start with the obvious question-as-answer: In what particular way are we talking about here? That is to say…
How Are Vellum and Ink Structured?
Well, formally speaking they’re fragmented. Why they’re fragmented at all is partly answered in my big “Why Do I Infernokrush?” essay, linked in the sidebar to the left. But that doesn’t say it quite all, because it focuses on why we might want to break a narrative into pieces. It doesn’t fully address why we might put those pieces back together in a particular way. In fact, when we’re talking about how Vellum and Ink are structured, well, there’s a fairly rigid pattern followed. The two books are both made up of two volumes, with a prologue, an epilogue, and an “eclogue” in between each volume. Those -logues are, like the seven chapters of each volume, composed of twelve titled sub-chapter/section thingies, each of which is composed of four sub-section/panel thingies. Additionally, after each chapter in one volume and before it in the other, there are two additional Errata sections of four panels.
This level of patterning is, I freely admit, sort of nuts, but there’s a point to it.
The section/panel thing I sorta picked up from Guy Davenport, particularly “On Some Lines of Virgil”, which I first came across in his collection Eclogues. I started using it as a pure formality, just for the sense of… restraint it can give. The regularity can impart a sort of sense of order, of shape, even calm in its formality, useful when you’re taking a more flexible approach in terms of the narrative’s temporality. There are other effects I think you can get from it, but we’ll come to those. Why twelve sections, seven chapters, two errata, four volumes? Well, the actual number isn’t as important as the regularity, but given that the central conceit is a “Book of All Hours”, there are obvious references to the twelve months and twelve hours of the day, the seven days in a week, the two time-periods of day and night, and the four seasons.
But that’s just a structuring in terms of raw text, how many blocks it’s broken up into, how those are broken up into smaller blocks. What we’re really talking about is the structure of the narrative, right? How it’s fucked-up as a story, which you’d normally expect to start at the beginning, finish at the end, and get there by way of the middle. So what we really want to know is exactly how these books are structured as stories and why is it so damned fucking weird? In order to answer that… well, let’s start from a weird angle.
A Brief Digression
The thing is, I’ve been busy the last couple of days on a redraft of Nowhere Town — you know, the gay punk Orpheus musical featuring Jack & Puck in a proper bona fide spectacular spectacular replete with reprises, medleys and love conquering all. This is partly because I’m easily distracted from real work and therefore easily sucked into such fripperies (c.f. this blog). It’s also partly because I’m willing to be distracted since I never underestimate now how such fripperies might suddenly, when you least expect it, transmute into something serious.
Example: a couple of years back I started writing songs. Can’t play an instrument, can’t sing worth a damn, but I can hold a tune in my head and put lyrics to it. After writing a fuckload of silly bouncy punky ditties, I wrote a couple with more serious content, but never saw them as works I could actually do anything with. They were just fripperies. A tune pops into yer head with a line or a phrase to go with it, ye think, what the fuck, let’s run with it; and before you know it you’ve written a song. Hey, it’s a fun way to pass the time and it’s kinda cool to wander around with an earworm of your own invention. But then, a couple of years later, the whole Ballads of the Book project comes along and I get a chance to climb aboard. I fire off a couple of these songs, ones I reckon have actual merit, Aereogramme picks one up, and we end up at “If You Love Me, You’d Destroy Me”, put to music by them and recorded on this album alongside the collaborations of other Scottish musicians with writers like Alasdair Gray. Which is kinda fucking cool!
So, yeah. Frippery becomes serious.
This, incidentally, is not unlike the approach I had to writing way back when I was faffing about with bits and bobs of stories that didn’t go anywhere, ideas for settings, conceits (like the Book of All Hours itself, which I had no real clue what to do with when it came to me as an idea). As a member of the GSFWC I was in a workshop environment that focused on achieving professional publication, so I slowly acquired a more serious attitude to the writing, but my stuff was always a bit… weird, and distinctly non-commercial I rather thought, and frankly it took me long enough to get past that beginner stage of starting something else when you ought to be finishing what you’re working on. It was quite a surprise to me when I sort of took a break from writing anything at all for a year or two, and then came back to it and wrote a story that was a quantum leap beyond the nonsense I’d been doing before. It was the first story I felt happy enough with to submit, and it got picked up by an anthology, much to my delight. I didn’t publish anything else for ten years, so I can’t exactly brag about it. I just throw this in cause it’s another example of the way a willingness to play at something, even when you don’t really rate your abilities, can end up with a wholly unexpected outcome. That story, by the way, was basically the story of the encounter between Metatron, Phreedom and Finnan in Slab City.
Cantos and Stanzas
Anyhow, by a similar process, GarageBand on my Mac is a frippery I’m again easily distracted by. So I got to messing around with it and making some music. In fact, since some of the tunes that have popped into my head over the years have, of course, been those at the heart of Nowhere Town, those are some of the ones that have made me curse my lack of musical ability most colourfully. Shortly after finishing the first draft, with the music in my head fresh and forceful enough to impassion me, and with the spirits of Jack and Puck urging me to surrender to recklessness and whimsy respectively, I was stoked enough to discuss mad drunken pipe-dreams in the pub, aspirations of putting it on at the Edinburgh Fringe, as grandiose and impractical as my imagined staging might be. The poor long-suffering Neil Williamson who has vastly more musical talents than me even tried to help in getting some of the music in my head out of it and onto his piano. It wasn’t a complete failure but I can only admire his perseverance faced with my blathering references to riffs from this or that, like TV Eye, yanno, riffs what were vaguely similar “except it goes more da da da da da than da da da da da” which doesn’t quite work when the differences between each da is a note that you can’t hold. So, with far more important things than this frippery to concern ourselves with, both Neil and I moved on.
But then, along comes GarageBand and, in particular, one Apple Loop on it called “Classic Rock Piano 06” which just happens to be the fucking piano refrain that starts the song the musical is built around. I mean, it may not be exactly the refrain but it’s off only by the inclusion of an extra note at the end, and even that’s simply a da-da where I imagine a daaa, so it works. Two half-beats rather than a beat. It doesn’t really change the basic rhythm and the melody is fucking spot on. So having already fucked around with making up some instrumental stuff simply by laying down tracks of loops, I get to thinking:, can I actually build up this song I already have in my head? Can I use this toolkit to make what’s in my head audible to others simply by finding the right loops and putting them in the right places? And the answer, it turns out, is pretty much yes. As of today I have the two key songs, “Nowhere Town” and “Junkie for the Sound” that are basically Jack’s theme and Puck’s theme, the big finale number, “Love Lost and Found” that medleyfies them, and an Overture that’s brand new, created partly due to the fact that with GarageBand I can now actually play around with those themes audibly rather than simply in my head.
If you’ve read my fiction, you’ve seen how I tend to use these weird titled sections, usually broken into four sub-sections — call them “cantos” and “stanzas”. The stanzas may be as short as a paragraph, but they could be two or three or more paragraphs wired together. The next stanza may carry on directly where the previous left off, so why break up the action at all? By what criteria is that stanza considered functionally discrete? Actually, it’s not even like the sections map to scenes — a scene in a story may be broken up into multiple sections — so why all this fragmentation, why break the flow? Well, imagine a scene of conversation between characters hostile to each other as like a tennis match. One character serves, there’s a back-and-forth between them until, haha, a point is scored. Stanza. Another serve, another back-and-forth, another point — another stanza. Only difference is this is a weirdly scored type of tennis where each set is “best of four”, so you can end up with a two-all draw, a three-one victory or a four-nil drubbing. And there are as many sets as you need until the game is just… over. The scene is complete. This is a simplification, because it’s not always competitive character interaction we’re dealing with, but it’s all about bringing out the dynamics of the text, the sense of (inter)actions taking place at scales between the paragraph and the scene. Breaking the scene up this way, I think, forces a structuring that you might not get otherwise.
All of which brings us to the reason for the redraft of the musical — because the music coming together got me excited about it all over again, and that got me thinking about how I’ve never quite been happy with the second act. The version that I posted up on the blog isn’t terrible, I think, but I always knew there were problems. The opening scenes were fine. The finale was fine. But in between… not so much. Firstly, it all takes place in one location, with only one distinct scene-break, a fade to several hours later. And mostly what’s going on in both scenes is a battle of wits that devolves into a war of attrition. Result: it all felt kinda shapeless and meandering. Secondly, of the three songs that occur in that zone, one was stylistically dissonant with the general feel of the whole shebang, one was in keeping with the tone but didn’t feel like it emerged naturally out of the action, and one was no more than a stopgap — new lyrics fucking with an existing musical number, the old classic, “When I Was Seventeen”. The second problem only exacerbated the first, and out of it all emerged a third — the meandering feel fed into an inchoateness in terms of the dynamics of character interactions, their motivations, the catalysts of their actions. In short, it didn’t work dramatically. What was missing? What was missing was exactly the sort of structuring imparted by that approach. You get the song that starts it, as a canto, but then there’s all this dialogue that doesn’t parse into cantos or stanzas; it’s just characters talking, arguing, explaining, interacting kinda muddledly. There’s a time-lapse then the stop-gap song opens the next scene as another canto, but that too is followed by unparsed interaction, and because the dynamics is unstructured it doesn’t create the sense of a lead-in to the song that’s meant to bring the drama to its resolution. So having multiple drafts that had all got a bit muddled anyway, with music that suggested some modifications to lyrics, and with the wonders of Scrivener as a much easier way to organise something like this, complete with functionality for formatting it correctly as a script, I thought, fuck it, let’s sit down, roll the sleeves up and try and knock it into shape. The result is a radical revision on all levels that sorts pretty much all of the above problems out to my satisfaction. The only thing I’m still not so happy with is the stylistic dissonance of one song, and that may well be fixable simply by finding a different musical approach to the verses and modifying the lyrics accordingly. Which can and will be done.
The Form of Events
But my point here is not to explain the canto/stanza aspect of the books, why they’re structured that way, cause that’s a technique of writing that could be rendered invisible as it would be in a musical, where the breaks between such units wouldn’t be marked up. If you threw in a PInteresque pause or a bit of stage direction to establish a gap between discrete parts of a scene, it wouldn't be noticeable. Theoretically you could write a work of fiction that way in order to control the flow, to force yourself to structure the dynamics more tightly. And then you could simply rip out the canto headings and breaks between stanzas (leaving in breaks between scenes, natch,) and have a story that read quite normally. But instead I take that canto/stanza schema and make it the basis of structural complexity on a whole other level. In the Faerie chapter of Vellum, I use it to flip back-and-forth in time, alternating between cantos set in the “now” where Jack is mourning Puck and “flashback” cantos showing points in the development of their relationship. The prologue, where Puck’s death is as crucial as the theft of the Book, uses the same approach, the interleaving of past and present, in both cases, an attempt to reflect the excruciating tension between such that lies at the heart of grief. In the prologue, in the second canto, at the stanza level, cutting to the Benedictine theory, to a flashback of Reynard’s uncle, to the Cistercian theory, and then back to Reynard with the physical thing in his possession is also about ramping up the tension and mystery, letting the line out and reeling it in. Neither of these structural techniques are innovations in any way, shape or form. You’ll find them all over the place. I just make them visible, mark them up with headings and breaks.
But, OK, then things do start to get a bit more complicated, with the opening chapters, where the cantos at first, and then, as the chapter progresses, the stanzas, alternate between narrative threads in wholly different folds of the Vellum, between Phreedom in 2017 and Inanna in… some realm of myth that’s not just before our time but… related to it in some other way. With ever more distinct shifts in style and idiom emerging when we turn to Thomas’s story — cuts to WW1 scenes written in a sort of Joycean stream-of-consciousness and other settings, the whole idea of linear time starts to get taken apart, a model of 3D time offered in its place. There’s not just forward and back in time. There’s the “side-to-side” of parallel worlds. And there’s the “up-and-down” of metaphysical realities. (That, of course, is how Inanna’s fold relates to Phreedom’s: one story is not taking place before the other; it’s taking place under it.) And as the book progresses, the jumps between folds are scaled up — hence the sudden shift in the Faerie chapter to a world of conventional fantasy tropes re-imagined somewhat in the manner of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.
Why all these jumps and shifts and cuts? Why all the folding and layering and interweaving of narrative threads? Sure, the story has this multiverse as its backdrop, but why can’t the story be told straightforwardly in that setting, with characters moving forward and back, side to side, up and down, but with the reader following them on that journey in a more conventional manner, that journey told linearly — A to B to C to D? Well, the thing is, what I’m trying to suggest is that the story itself is not linear. The relationship between Phreedom’s narrative and Inanna’s is not one of reiteration. This is not a matter of eternal recurrence, the same sequence of events looping, happening over and over, like the continuity we read into a dotted line made from a series of dashes, the way we read it as a dotted line. Thomas is not dying again and again and again. Rather where you get the linear (forward-and-back time) narratives of Thomas’s death(s) laid down in all those parallel (side-to-side time) worlds, what I’m trying to do is demarcate a plane of story, a shape of story, like where a shading of ink lines mark out a circle by staying within its undrawn circumference. There’s a Big Picture in which those little instantiations of the story are only… brushstrokes. Now factor in the mythic dimension and that planar story becomes stratified. Jumping between folds, telling bits of the story here, other bits there, constructing the pattern of events from fragments of variant versions, becomes a way to say, no, it’s not that this happens again and again, but that it happens everywhere, everywhen, simultaneously and continuously. It’s not just a looped line of events. It’s not even just a shape, an area defined by shading. It’s a form of events in this 3D time.
This approach is probably coming from an attraction to the idea that the universe might be holographic, Bohm’s notion of implicate order and suchlike. As Wikipedia puts it: Bohm employed the hologram as a means of characterising implicate order, noting that each region of a photographic plate in which a hologram is observable contains within it the whole three-dimensional image, which can be viewed from a range of perspectives. That is, each region contains a whole and undivided image. In Bohm’s words: "There is the germ of a new notion of order here. This order is not to be understood solely in terms of a regular arrangement of objects (e.g.., in rows) or as a regular arrangement of events (e.g. in a series). Rather, a total order is contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time. Now, the word 'implicit' is based on the verb 'to implicate'. This means 'to fold inward' ... so we may be led to explore the notion that in some sense each region contains a total structure 'enfolded' within it".
Fragments of a Broken Hologram
As I understand it, fragments of a broken hologram all contain the basic image, but they don’t contain all the detail of that image which, having been spread throughout the hologram, will be spread throughout the fragments. Only a part of that image will be in clear focus. Reading TBoAH could maybe be thought of as a little like being given hologram fragments one at a time. We look at them and see, in each stanza or canto, the part of the image that’s in focus. As we get more and more we see how they fit together, form a scene. On the level of the prologue, while you’re getting the parts that make up one scene — Reynard stealing the Book — you’re also being given parts that make up other scenes — Reynard with his uncle, Jack and Puck outside the library, Jack going crazy after Puck’s death. By the end of it those scenes have been fitted together into a story — the image of the holograph as a whole. Or, at least, you might think so. Actually, that “story” is still only a part of the whole image, fitted together like the corner of a jigsaw puzzle. And actually what you’ll learn is that, with some of those other scenes, you haven’t actually got all the pieces. How did Puck die? What happened to Jack after? In fact, the lack of detail in that respect is because that’s a much larger part of the image as a whole. The Book itself functions as a pointer to that, to the idea that the reader’s going to have to look at things on a much larger scale.
Reading on from the prologue, into the first chapter, these two distinct and yet parallel scenes come together from the stanzas and cantos — Phreedom and Inanna. We’re faced with two quite different parts of that image, parts that situate themselves as in wildly different locations — the North Carolina of 2017 and the Sumer of ancient myth. But there’s clearly a story shared between them; it’s the same story being told in both, distinguished largely by the details of setting. It’s like there’s an underlying pattern of events in both locations, a “total order contained, in some implicit sense,” in both of these “folds”. You don’t really have to get your head round that at this point; you could imagine it just some sort of eternal recurrence idea, Phreedom re-enacting Inanna’s story, the story happening again. But after a little more setup of what’s going on here, in yer Slab City encounter between Metatron and Finnan, when we hit Thomas’s narrative the reader is basically told, no, you’re going to have to use your imagination here. The way Thomas is also Tammuz and Dumuzi and Adonis and Tommy and a Thomson’s Gazelle, the way the character’s identity suddenly overflows the boundaries of instantiation — if you haven’t already clicked into the ramifications of the whole setup then you’re going to slam face-first into a pretty fundamental paradigm shift here. It’s one that’s pretty openly road-signed, actually, in the description of the cave paintings that precedes our first sight of Tommy in the trenches of WW1. In the representations of animals not bound within a frame of reference.
Anyway, with this paradigm shift what the reader is being asked to get their head around is the whole “eternity in a grain of sand” idea. Ultimately, they’re being led to the notion of “the passion of every Thomas”, of how the deaths of all these fictive scapegoats — historical or mythical, my invention or that of others — form a Big Picture. How any such murder, every such murder is, in a way, a facet of a single event, one that doesn’t just happen over and over but is, in some sense, always happening. Shown Thomas’s death in the future, in the past, in a fold to this side or that of our own, above or below, the reader is gradually being boxed in. If you can imagine that story in any context, not bound within a frame of reference, maybe you can’t help but imagine it in your own context? No? Well, let me help you out with a Faerie chapter, where we get a variant that parallels and then directly points us to the very real murder of Matthew Shepard. Slams it in the reader’s face as the actuality of the here and now. This story, it’s saying, can and does also take place within the frame of reference you call reality. Don’t think you’re safe from it because it’s just a story.
That crazy fragmented structure is ultimately about reducing the distance we have from such a “story”, in a book or even on the news. It’s not “all OK really” cause the murder is just an ancient myth. It’s not “all OK really” cause the murder is just a fantasy story set in Faerie. It’s not “all OK really” cause the murder is just a grim tale of the sort things that happened in WW1 but, well, the past is another country. It’s not “all OK really” cause the murder happened and it was really terrible but, well, it took place in Laramie, Wyoming, so we can blame it on a less tolerant culture there and feel all safe and cosy in a here where that sort of thing doesn’t happen. That’s just us using that frame of reference as a fence. The point of taking the story out of that frame of reference is to tear down that fence. It’s not “all OK really”. It’s never “all OK really”. People die. And that fucking matters. And if you’re still thinking linearly, if you’re thinking, yeah, but Puck “comes back”, he always “comes back”, popping up somewhen else in the Vellum, so why should I care? If you think that means it’s “all OK really”, then you’re kind of missing the point that he’s only going to die all over again. It’s kind of like looking on the bright side of a jackboot stomping on a face forever. Hey, the jackboot’s got to be lifted off that face, right? So that’s, like, all this time when that face isn’t being stomped on! Whoopee fuckin doo, that makes it so much better! Although there is, of course, that cryptic assurance from Thomas at the very end of the volume, just before we see him being dragged away to his death, that somehow, somewhen, it is going to be OK. Which is not, of course, to say that he’s right.
How the Story Unfolds
But, OK… So this explains the scatter-pattern, why the stanzas, cantos and chapters that build up into this Big Picture of a story have to be distributed so widely through such variant folds. But a lot of readers seem to see that scattering as entirely arbitrary. Even if we’re trying to box the reader in like this, wouldn’t it work just as well if we saw the course of events unravelling in an order easier to make sense of? Thomas going off to get his graving changed, becoming Tammuz and therefore dissolving into the Vellum. Puck’s death becoming a huge big tear in the fabric of reality, one that changes Jack completely, radically destabilising him. Phreedom trying to find him, to make things right, only to be changed herself. That one incarnation of Jack, the unkin spearcarrier being sent in to rescue her, the resultant conflagration turning both him and Joey into something completely new, at the same time as it unleashes the bitmites on the world. Couldn’t the story be told that way?
Not really. Because the narrative dynamics simply didn’t work that way. I mean, let’s say we just chopped the chapters about. Bring Thomas’s narrative (chapters 3 and 5) to the start of the book. Follow this with the Faerie chapter (6), then the Slab City chapter (2). And at the end we have all the stuff with Phreedom in North Carolina (chapters 1, 4 and 7). Well, then you have a broken narrative. You dump the reader in at the deep end with all the fold-jumping of the Thomas/Dumuzi chapters before they have any idea what he’s on the run from. If they’re not completely lost by that, they’re baffled by the Faerie chapter. As the thematic climax of the volume that chapter is now too early. You’ve blown your wad. Plus it brings Jack in as a POV character which completely fucks with his slow emergence from spearcarrier to hero. Then you completely switch protagonist to his sister, only now introducing the main antagonist and explaining what the deal is with the unkin and their graving thingies, however many hundred pages in. And then skip forward to three chapters in a row with her trying to find out what exactly happened to her brother, what this all really means, when we already know. It simply doesn’t work.
Now the structure we have takes Phreedom’s narrative as the backbone. OK, it says, this is all about getting our head round this character Thomas’s… absence from reality. So we put the viewcam over his sister’s shoulder as she sets out with exactly that in mind. We’ll make that the start, middle and end points of the volume, chapters 1, 4 and 7. This way we can start in media res and grab the reader’s attention, throw in enough of the weirdness to intrigue them but not so much they’re swamped. In fact, because those questions are going to kick off pretty quickly, given the high weirdness quotient, we need to pause and take stock as soon as it makes sense to. So, having introduced the character on her mission, shown her arrival and set her standing at the gates of Hell (the underworld of the tattoo parlour and the psychological perdition of her bitter grief), now is the time to lay out the backstory, tell the reader what set her on this path in the first place. Hence chapter 2, and its introduction of the core conceit of the unkin, the Covenant, Metatron, Finnan and so forth. Now we’ve equipped the reader with some of the ideas they need to make sense of it, we can begin to weave in Thomas’s story. Show him on the run through all these realities, through time, and we redefine her quest: it’s not just answers she wants; she thinks she might be able to save him. How? Flip back to Phreedom in the tattoo parlour, her transformation the pivot of the narrative. She’s going to do what he did, bind herself into his story, fuck with her very identity, rewrite her own history, her own future.
But we’ve now seen what happened to Thomas so we understand the danger. And as we see Inanna being written into her, we may well think this is a Bad Move. But now the existence of a back-up plan is revealed. There’s more going on than meets the eye. And time in the Vellum “isn’t that simple”. We don’t know exactly what that means, but maybe it means she can save Thomas. Right? Wrong, says the next chapter. She can’t because she didn’t. She can’t because that’s not the story. Now we see the actual outcome of what Thomas tried to do. Thomas dies. He gets caught, transforms, escapes, time after time, but in the end he dies. And, suddenly we’re thrown into another world as we step from that chapter to the next. Even the POV character is different — Jack, and in first person. As I said above, the Faerie chapter is the thematic climax. It’s a boulder dropped in a pond, an impact crater in the narrative. It should read as a more brutal rip than any of the shifts and transitions that have taken place up till now. If we thought we were in for a nice adventure fantasy about a couple of renegade angels outwitting the Powers-That-Be, it’s time to re-evaluate that opinion. So we return to Phreedom who we’ve left in a position of peril for two chapters (cause suspense is a big part of what narrative dynamics is all about), and we get the resolution of her physical entrapment, her rescue, her escape, but with the death of Eresh, the transformation of Carter and Pechorin, and the unleashing of the bitmites, it’s gotta be pretty clear that the situation is now royally fucked up.
Making a Musical
I was talking about Nowhere Town earlier on, yes? Well the origin of that madcap project has some relevance here. It may not seem so at first, but bear with me. See, the whole thing is sort of built around one song, the song that gives it its title, though it was originally called “This Nowhere Town”. I wrote that song as a frippery, and simply as a stand-alone song outwith any grand spectacular spectacular context. A while later I wrote another song called “Junky for the Sound”. Somewhere along the way it did sort of occur to me that they were sorta themes for these characters in my fiction. I could see Jack Flash as the fiery punk kid growing up in Shitsville, singing about “burning” it to the ground. I could see Puck as the dreamier punk kid for whom the local record shop was like a fucking church. Heh, I thought.
But then I begin to realise: actually, some of those other songs fit here. All those daft bouncy punk numbers — three of which were “Suck Me, Fuck Me, Chuck Me”, “Dicks, Pricks and Fucking Hicks” and “Best Days of My Death” — they’re so totally the sort of songs Jack would sing in his band. Hell, when I was writing them and half-arsedly mucking about with a mate who could play guitar, amid the empty blather about actually putting a proper band together to perform, the fiction writer in me couldn’t help but imagine them as the work of this hypothetical band, this pretend band, this band which didn’t exist and which I honestly knew never would, which I could thereby use my imagination freely upon and christen Fagsmoke. So we have this swirling set of independent aesthetic entities which nevertheless have tenuous intertextual links between them. I gots these fripperies that are, in some ways, character sketches of Jack and Puck. There’s even one of those old daft bouncy punk numbers called “The Boy With Green Hair” that cries out to be read as a song by Jack about Puck. And it was written far enough back that I can’t actually remember which Puck came first — the one in the fiction or the one in the song. It’s entirely possible that’s the first appearance of the character in my writing.
Anyway, then comes the impetus. I’ve written Vellum and Ink, the first is out, the second on its way. And, well, I get together with a guy and fall for him in three days flat but he doesn’t fall for me. I mean, we’re tight for the full three days and it really seems to be going somewhere, and being a complete romantic I’m already writing sonnets, but after that he just doesn’t return my calls. After a few days of a reasonable non-stalker level of attempts to get through to him, I reckon all indications are that he just ain’t into me, so I give him a chance to do the contacting and then write it all off as a Big Fat Failure. Being the resilient soul that I am I hit the absinthe in a concerted effort to drown my sorrows. And suddenly, somehow, I find myself writing a musical. Because if I’m going to be maudlin and bitter and wryly performative about the sad drama of my tragic love life, why the fuck not go the whole hog and make a fucking musical? What part of the idea came first, I can’t honestly recall now, at what point Fagsmoke went in my head from being an imaginary band to a fictive band, when the small town shitsville scenario of Jack and Puck’s doomed love meshed with a drink-sodden hell-journey scenario of Jack being led to redemption by an Aeschylus-quoting, absinthe-downing waster in the service of Death and strangely all the more trustworthy for it. Hell, I can’t even remember whether one of the songs that set the tone for that descent, “Tango for the Dead”, was written before that or as the idea came together.
But as soon as I had that I had the way-in, with this Chorus character as the MC at an absinthe-sodden cabaret, raising a glass to all the broken pipe-dreams of unrequited lovers, slugging ‘em back and singing of “That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky” in a blackly comic way, you know, wry and louche and cynical and mischievous, but shot through with darkness like all cabaret should be, that comedy bitter and bleak as the Dresden Dolls at times, and just as serious, and I guess I started thinking, wait, wait, wait, if it’s a story of love then it’s a tale of Jack and Puck, of Jack’s loss of Puck, Pucks’s death, shit, and I’ve got all these daft bouncy punk songs already, and Jack’s theme and Puck’s theme, and yes, this could be a long night journey through a decadent’s Hell, with Tom Waits as Jack’s spirit guide, and his love lost not to a phone call but to Death, and fuck, this isn’t actually about some trivial going-nowhere infatuation at all, but about real loss, about hope and despair, about being nowhere, and the torture of grief, fuck, it’s about Puck singing Junky for the Sound because music is his escape from the shithole he’s stuck in, this living metaphorical hell of a parochial backwater, this fucking Nowhere Town that Jack fucking sings about that’s fucking written as a fucking message to exactly the sort of kid that Puck is, that is in fact him reaching out his fucking hand and trying to say, fuck that shit, it doesn’t matter, and holy crap, those two songs actually work together, the themes can be turned into a medley and reconfigured as reprises, the emotional tone flipped and switched, and OK, now I’m actually doing just that, and all of this is just completely coming together into an actual fucking musical called Nowhere Town. And, lo, the frippery of a notion ends up with something serious. Crazy but serious.
The Wacky World of the Musical
The point is that a musical is a fucking weird kind of narrative that’s largely made up of songs of entirely different types — a tango, a waltz, a march, a rock song, a piano pop song, a medley — songs that, a lot of the time, you’d never see on the same album if they weren’t in that musical. Those songs often have radically different styles because they’re doing different things that are necessary at different points in the drama. Take Hedwig, the intro of “Tear Me Down” that sets the tone, defines the characters and their relationships, the poignancy of “Origin of Love” that crystallises the very human level, the bawdy humour of “Sugar Daddy” that lifts the viewer up just in time for them to be shocked by the botched sex-op, the horror of which is realised in “Angry Inch”, and so on, through the love song that is “Wicked Little Town” to the anthemic, jubilant ending of “Midnight Radio”. Outside the musical it’s not that easy to imagine many bands who’d have “Wig in a Box” in their repertoire alongside “Exquisite Corpse”. Not impossible but not that easy. With many musicals, sure, there’s a consistency of style across the whole shebang, but it’s not unusual to get some jarring juxtapositions on a musical soundtrack album, where a heart-wrenching solo of lonesome misery might be immediately followed by some wacky “Hupla! Hupla! Step right upla!” nonsense sung by the whole ensemble in celebration of the joy of the carnival.
And think about it. Musicals are weirder still. Cause those radically different songs aren’t just the non-diegetic backing music you get in film soundtracks to add an extra layer of communication in terms of emotional tone. You actually have this straightforward narrative being played out, the story being enacted as a mundane drama, and then suddenly the characters in it actually burst into these songs. People sing in harmony. They dance on the streets. Reality is suspended. The world transforms around them. Anything could happen in a musical when the music starts. Of course, it’s not surprising when you look at the history of drama, with operas, and verse plays and Greek Tragedies and the masked, stylised, almost ritualistic theatres of other cultures in the present day. But when you look at it in terms of narrative as the acting out of a story, in terms of a mimesis of events, actors up there on stage or on the screen pretending to be other people and supposedly inviting us to suspend our disbelief and play along with them, it’s pretty fucking whacko that we buy into it so easily. But we do. For most of us — with the obvious exceptions of those freaks who just don’t like musicals because they have no soul — the blatant disruption of the narrative is something we take in our stride. And see, the reason for all of this blather about musicals is that because I’ve had Nowhere Town on my mind these last few days, when SphericalTime lobbed that question about the structure of Vellum and Ink at me, and why I might think something like that could have popular appeal, well, it occurred to me that the wackiness of the world of The Book of All Hours wasn’t that much worse than the wackiness of the world of a musical. In Vellum we jump around from here to there, this world to that, but are the jumps really that much more radical than we get with, say, that Che Guevara song in Evita — “Oh, What a Circus”, I think — the one where, in the movie version, Antonio Banderas steps from this time and place to that one, singing direct to camera, telling us of Evita’s rise to power, as we see the whole course of it in moments spliced together into a montage?
This may sound crazy, but think of the first half of Vellum as the first act of a musical where the key dramatic point is Puck’s death, where the Faerie chapter is Jack’s Big Solo Number. Reality is suspended. The whole idiom of storytelling changes. It’s almost as radical this shift in idiom, as a shift from spoken dialogue to sung verse. Suddenly we’re in a world where the characters have wings! Why, it’s almost as crazy as Gene Kelly suddenly dancing with Jerry the mouse! Think of the Jack Flash chapters in the second half as another key song and its reprise, standing out from the base narrative of Finnan’s past and present as boldly as if a thumping rock opera riff from Tommy had just kicked in. Think of each canto in that chapter as a different part of that song, the back-and-forth of Jack being interviewed as slow, quiet verses that build-up to the wild unleashing of the chorus cantos — Jack on the rampage. Extend this. Think of the weaving of the narrative threads of Phreedom and Inanna in the opening chapter as a duet between two singers, a tenor and a soprano, each canto of four stanzas a verse of four lines. Inanna sings one verse. Phreedom sings the next. They alternate for a while, then slowly start to come together, alternating lines rather than verses (i.e. stanzas rather than cantos), until finally they’re singing different versions of the same line, with each other, over each other. When we hear a duet we don’t find it weird. When we listen to “Fairytale of New York” we’re not thrown by the fact that one moment it’s Kirsty MacColl singing and the next it’s Shane McGowan and then, by God, in the choruses it’s the two of them together and how the hell are we meant to make sense of that? Listen to the actual complexity of that song, the shifting melodies, the changes in tone and tenor that go with it, the irregular pattern of who’s performing when, the sudden transitions from miserable to hopeful to joyful to ironically upbeat music with bitter insults for lyrics — none of this structural complexity makes us throw our hands up in the air and shout, “It’s bloody chaos!”
You could, I reckon, think of every chapter of Vellum as like a song in that way, the distinct narrative threads as melodic themes, as voices singing different tunes. With the Thomas/Dumuzi chapters what you have is slightly more complex than a duet. You have your Dumuzi and your 2017 Thomas but instead of sticking with these two, we veer off into a number of alternative Toms and Tommys and whatnots, his variant incarnations throughout the Vellum. The Dumuzi thread remains constant, a melodic backbone, but we get Thomas in WW1, as a runaway slave, and so on. Why, it’s an ensemble number! It’s one of those songs that takes place somewhere with lots of extras in the background and starts off as a solo or duet, only for other, often minor, characters to join in for a line. Some of those characters may never be heard from again, may only emerge from the background for that line and disappear back into afterwards. Think “Blame Canada”. We don’t bother about these sort of shenanigans in a musical number. It doesn’t make the structure incomprehensible, this fact that a spearcarrier has inexplicably stepped into the limelight for a second. Hell, in the performative unreality of the song they might even be addressing us directly. Musicals seem to inherit from burlesque or pantomime or somewhere this informal variant of the soliloquy, the sly aside that breaks the fourth wall, steps out of the frame to engage with the audience directly. You have figures like the Narrator of Rocky Horror, in fact, whose entire role is one of such direct engagement. We’re cool with that. Think of the Errata sections in Vellum as a reflection of that sort of structure, Reynard’s first person journals a direct address to the reader, breaking up the narrative just as the Narrator does in Rocky Horror. Entirely comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of the wacky world of the musical, we barely even register structural complexities that in written fiction are likely to be seen as rampant experimentalism.
Making a Monster
Vellum and Ink emerged out of a similar realisation to that which spawned Nowhere Town. Where “That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky” sparked off a notion of the drink-sodden character of Chorus singing it in a seedy dive as the entry-point of Jack’s journey through Hell, where that notion sort of reached out and cemented all this pre-existing material, demanding that more songs be written as lockpoints for the key dramatic moments, demanding that the spoken dialogue of the story be created from scratch to weave it all together, so the prologue of Vellum sparked off a notion of the start of Reynard’s journey as the entry-point for the story of The Book of All Hours. And it reached out in the exact same way to various sets of short stories and novellas all written with the same characters, sometimes in the same world (e.g. the Kentigern of multiple Jack Flash stories) or mythos (e.g. of the unkin), sometimes not, fictions with threads of shared narrative like themes in the musical sense rather than the literary sense, melodies that this story or that was… a variant of, a reprise in a different key, at a different tempo, with different lyrics, to a different effect. It reached out to those and said, OK, there’s a larger story to be told here. These need to be fitted into place and that story built around them.
Where Nowhere Town came together instantly because musicals are a familiar convention, the unorthodoxy of applying that approach in novelistic fiction probably kept me from seeing so quickly that this is what needed to be done with that material. My first thought was fairly orthodox — a collection of these works arranged so that the story unfolded as the reader read them in sequence. I reckoned I could use the big overarching cycle-of-seasons structure that I was going to fit the idea of The Book of All Hours into way back when the conceit first popped into my head had I not lacked the skill to even attempt to match my crazybig ambitions for it. So the four-volume superstructure was an immediate choice. But in musical terms what I was thinking was more comparable to a concept album, I guess. I knew that in many of the narratives I had I was telling variants of the same story, but it was only in the process of trying and failing to find an arrangement for them as stand-alone pieces that I realised these were… fragments of a broken hologram that had been put together wrong. I needed to take those existing fictions apart to make them fit together into a whole.
So, I’m trying to fit these pieces of the puzzle together and, at first, all I know is that I want it to have this grand thematic structure — Summer/Day, Fall/Dusk, Winter/Night, Spring/Dawn. Why so? Well, that’s a good narrative arc. You start with things nice and sunny in some respects, heat mounting in others. Think of everything Summer means in the works of Ray Bradbury, for one example. Summer is the parched desert town praying for rain, sweltering under the fierce heat of the sun, the heat of the baked clay of Mesopotamia. Summer is the idyll of children at play in the fields, the Elysian fields of myth, the poppy-strewn fields of Flanders. It’s the tension between idyll and drought in a heatwave where children play on, not knowing how dangerous a fierce sun can be. Summer is those lost days of innocence, as Dumuzi, in his death as an innocent, is the lost deus of Sumer. And, for me, summer is the shimmer of hot air over tarmac, sunlight coming through tousled blond hair — like it would through leaves — and blinding a brother just for a second so that, in that shimmer of hot air, he doesn’t see the car coming as he steps out onto the road. Summer ends.
Summer ends, and everything falls apart. First comes the greyness, the dying of the light. But even as the evening, the fall, the evenfall, closes in on us, even as meaning dissolves into the gloom of… not quite nihilism, no… more fatalism, the knowledge of defeat, of the death of the sun, even as it all falls apart, the struggle begins. The fires are lit. The lamps are switched on. We’re humans, right? We can make our own suns. So, into the darkness and the cold we descend, but the darker and colder it gets, by fuck, the higher those fires are built. The world has fallen into darkness? Coldness? Emptiness? Absurdity? Well, fuck that shit, motherfucker! We will fucking dance! We will build the biggest fucking bonfires you ever saw! We will have revels wild as the pagan mysteries! We will let the fool be king! Turn order on its head! Halloween! Christmas! Walpurgisnacht! Hogmanay! Fucker, we will party like it’s the end of the world, not just the end of the year! And in the end, in the end, we will win. After the fires have burned down, we will see the first light of sunrise on the horizon, the first buds on the trees, the first flowers shooting up from the ground, and we will know that we’ve made it through to the revitalising warm-yet-fresh new beginning, the rebirth of Spring or dawn. Dissolution and regeneration. It’s the story of a year, the story of a day, every year, every day. It’s a fairly abstract structure. But that’s because it’s just a frame, the outer edges of a jigsaw puzzle made from fragments of a broken hologram. With those pieces in place the whole image is there but only its boundary is clearly detailed. Still, as structures go, this is a pretty good starting point.
But What’s the Plot?!
I have to admit, when I come across readers with the total inability to discern any structure whatsoever in The Book of All Hours, I find it kind of… weird. The volume titles make this four-act superstructure explicit with their seasonal and diurnal word plays, with the tonal qualities associated with each period repeatedly evoked by one method or other in the relevant volume. The translation of that structure into a plot seems pretty much of a no-brainer to me. It’s the night journey, the descent through Hell, destruction and restoration. On a grand scale, you have the unleashing of the catastrophe in the shape of the Evenfall in one book, and the struggle of the survivors to make things right in the other. Consider the two books as a whole from Jack’s POV and we have that played out on a protagonistic level of plot. In Act 1, Puck dies and this spearcarrier is elevated to a player, partly because his role in that death locks him into an eternal dance (as lover, killer, the lion to Puck’s gazelle) and partly because Metatron uses him as a pawn in the game between himself and Phreedom kicked off by that death. We have the situation, the disruption, and the ramifications of the disruption — a new situation (Evenfall) and a new agency (Jack). In Act 2, as the Evenfall spreads out, humans and unkin alike dragged down into the ongoing wreckage of reality, we see that new agency react, actively on the attack in one fold, passively drawn deeper into the mystery in another, hooking up with Puck and Guy in the Errata, until, in his meeting with Finnan at the end, he’s anointed into the role of champion that Finnan refused — a refusal that is honourably motivated by his reaction to Thomas’s death, we should note, but also the key act which leads to Phreedom stepping up to take on Metatron, thus starting the chain of events that leads to Jack’s elevation. In Act 3, the revolution begins in earnest, the war of fire against that darkness, chaos against false order. We have a try/fail loop in which the hero, Jack, along with the rogues and renegades who now constitute a loose “rebel alliance”, makes a number of attempts to restore equilibrium but mostly exacerbates the situation; these partial successes and failures are played out simultaneously, but that’s just what happens in a war on multiple fronts. Finally, in Act 4, we have the endgame, the rallying of forces along lines that are, by now, a bit more complex than “good” versus “evil” but nonetheless pretty clearly delineated: it’s “chaos” versus “order”, “freedom” against “authority”; and Jack is pure protagonist here, pulp hero extraordinaire. Through all this, power/authority has been concretised in the Cant, in the Book that binds it into certainty, and in the bitmites that tear down certainty as a flood dissolves mud-brick buildings. Naturally then, the endgame is over ultimate control of the Book, with the allegiance of the bitmites as a deciding factor. Oh, and along with this politico-metaphysical plot, we have the romantic plotline of Jack’s relationship with Puck, the eternal dance that comes to a crisis-point in Eastern Mourning where Jack’s accepting his desire and denying Tamuz’s eternal death is the linchpin of his rejection of predestination. From the prologue of Vellum to the epilogue of Ink that emotional plotline is a sort of… secret heart of it all, actually, the entire work readable as a psychodrama of a shattered soul, its archetypes in turmoil. Simple, no?
Now, within that schema, each of the volumes does take a different set of narrative foci, which no doubt affects the surface visibility of that four-book narrative arc. Jack’s narrative trajectory only brings him to protagonist status at the end of Vellum; a crucial point is being made here with regards to humanity and heroism, a rejection of the Darling of Destiny role, which Jack must assume rather than be born to like some orphan prince; but this means the first book can’t focus on this larger arc, as Ink does. Instead it must focus on his “creators”, so to speak, as the agents of the narrative. Metaphorically speaking, it gives us the stories of his “mother” and his “father”, markedly separated between the two volumes with the shift from Phreedom’s POV to Finnan’s, but interwoven by their involvements in each other’s tales and by the unifying thread of Thomas and his death. On a politico-metaphysical level the book becomes about their struggle with Metatron, while at a personal level it becomes about their relationship, from Finnan’s graving of Phreedom in the Slab City of one fold, to his reconciliation with her in the Inchgillan of another. Between them they enact a drama of engagement versus disengagement, rebellion versus refusal, activism versus pacifism, with those two points as disruption and resolution. It is the revelation, in the latter, of what child is “greater than its father” that offers humanism as a bridge, allowing each to take the other’s stance on board, mediate their own attitude via that bridge, and ultimately select a path which partakes of the other’s philosophy — Phreedom journeying into the Vellum, Finnan taking up arms in the Spanish Civil War. That “third” possibility is, of course, also the ultimate choice of the bitmites in the climax of the politico-metaphysical plot. (The Errata, with Reynard as a sort of exteriorised guide for the reader, form another structural bridge between the two volumes, one which transitions, on the larger scale, into the in-road to Ink.)
On the next scale down then, that of the individual volumes, there is yet more concrete plot. All but the last volume — with its straightforward (if temporally complex) pulp Mystery/Adventure narrative of Jack trying to find out “what happened to Hobbsbaum?” — takes as its core story an existing ancient drama — Inanna’s Descent/Dumuzi’s Dream, Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and Euripides’s The Bacchae. Those texts are retrofitted, woven round and through with other narrative threads, but each volume surely contains the plot of that text as its underlying skeleton of action given that it contains the full text of that text. Certainly, the skeleton is fleshed-out with all manner of multiversal shifts and switches of time and place, but this isn’t Joyce’s Ulysses here; the characters are not just mapped to but repeatedly and literally identified with the particular mythic figures whose stories they’re enacting. You don’t know those stories? I give you them, the full text, rewritten (often radically) but unabridged. The plot-structure of Inanna’s Descent/Dumuzi’s Dream is a bit awkward by modern standards, the second part sort of a sequel with a different protagonist, Dumuzi having been fingered by Inanna as the one to replace her in the underworld, which is another part of why I’ve spliced it up and rewired it into a loop. But it’s a fairly archetypal story-pattern in other respects. Prometheus Bound is maybe also a little unusual to a modern eye, with its protagonist being approached by one figure after another, in a very episodic manner, each trying to persuade him to see the error of his ways, culminating in his confrontation with Hermes. But it’s ultimately a formal structure as cohesive as a “Three Little Pigs” style fairy tale. And The Bacchae (up until the post-climactic speeches of the fallen royals of Thebes, maybe) has, I’d argue, a dramatic structure that’s eminently readable, deeply tense in its tale of a tyrant being inevitably undone when he crosses that Man With No Name style drifter newly arrived in town. With both of the Greek Tragedies, by the way, the linear unfolding of the events which are their backbones has been followed quite rigidly, from opening scene to climactic finale.
Unifying these three levels — the work as a whole, the two novels, the four volumes — we have the characters who enact those dramas, the narrative threads of their evolutions that weave round and through the skeletal source texts, reach across the volumes, gradually wiring themselves together into a Big Picture, albeit a multi-faceted one. Granted they also have to reach across the folds of alternative realities to wire together the characters themselves. I’ve done my best to provide a “base reality” in the mythos of the unkin, the bitmites, the Evenfall and Hinter within which each character has a base history, traceable if the reader peers through all the reflections and refractions, but ultimately two of the key characters, Jack and Puck, are defined by their mercurial and multiplicitous natures, one shattered and scattered across the Vellum, the other dissolved into it. As such, they cannot be rendered consistent. But, really, this is an unmooring of character from context that we deal with happily every time we watch one Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s in the present-day(ish), going up against Elmer Fudd, and then another where he’s in the Wild West, dealing with Yosemite Sam, and then another where he’s whenever, in a battle-of-wits against Marvin the Martian. And in terms of the story, the plot-structure, it’s essential in a work posited upon the rewriting of identity via the alteration of a graving, at least if that work is going to follow through on such a conceit rather than simply use it as a McGuffin. What would it actually mean to rewrite a graving, we’re asked? What if you do it to yourself, as Phreedom does? What if you have it done to you, as Finnan does? If it dissolves your boundaries, as with Thomas, do you become no one? If it shatters your coherence, as with Jack, do you become everyone? Never mind the thematics, in a plot-structure predicated on disruption of identity itself that inconsistency is the root conflict at the heart of the drama.
Tommy, Can You Hear Me?
Which brings us back down to that canto and stanza level of interwoven narrative threads. And it brings us back, I think, to the comparison of these books to musicals. In musical theatre the backbone of the work is the basic story, which is usually told through spoken dialogue, like a play, with the songs only erupting at key points. I’ve already suggested that you can understand some of the more jarring shifts of idiom in The Book of All Hours — like the Jack Flash sequences — as comparable to such numbers, like the cast of a play suddenly bursting into song. It’s a strange and unconventional approach in this medium, I guess, but what I’m trying to suggest is that it’s not innately “difficult”. In fact, I think, a reader’s capacity to follow the work in its sudden change of mode is not dependant on any great intellectual skill but rather on two things: a) their acceptance of that approach in the first place; and b) their ability to understand the drama being communicated through the “musical” features — which is to say the dynamics — of the fiction.
By comparing fictive dynamics to music I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that what I’m talking about is just the pretty and decorative (or spartan and muscled) poetic patternings of prose style. What I’m talking about is the shifts in subjunctivity level and modalities that underpin our whole sense of drama. We appreciate music — as writers of musicals understand and capitalise on — not just because a song is aesthetically pleasing for its snowflake singularity, but because it conveys a drama through the yearnings and sorrows, triumphs and threats resonant in its chords and rhythms. See the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a beautiful (and beautifully ironic) explication of how it’s done. In fiction, as I’ve argued elsewhere, drama is born in the dynamics of similarly low-level effects. See anything by Harold Pinter for a demonstration.
Anyway, some will, no doubt, for a variety of reasons, scorn such disruptions to the flow of story, just as some, for whatever reasons (largely that they have no soul), just do not appreciate musicals. It doesn’t matter if it’s Hedwig or Hair, Sweeney Todd or Little Shop of Horrors, Evita or Oklahoma; they just don’t like the idiom. Tommy, can you hear me? No, fuck off, they say. We can imagine some musical that they actively dislike stripped down to a play, shorn of its songs, those songs translated into spoken dialogue, in an attempt to appeal to these people; but it would not be the same work, and it is a risibly conceited critique to damn a musical for not being the play you’d much prefer. Others will, no doubt, fail to engage because they have the literary equivalent of different tastes in music or a tin ear for music in general. Those who just don’t get the dynamics are a lost cause (and will probably fall into the above category of general haters anyway), but Vellum and Ink cover a fairly broad spectrum of idioms, with a focus on quite popular pulp forms the dynamics of which readers can immediately make sense of. So thinking of the books in this sense makes a certain sense to me of how you can reach the end of Vellum, feel profoundly satisfied but quite sincerely say that you’re not really sure what it’s about at all. Many readers are so conversant with such forms, I suspect, that even where they fail to get their heads round the story on an intellectual level they nonetheless get it completely in their gut. The end of the movie version of Hedwig is kind of opaque and abstract, the suspension of reality leaving us not entirely sure what’s going on in actual terms, but the dynamics of the songs, from “Exquisite Corpse” through “Wicked Little Town (Reprise)” to “Midnight Radio”, still plays out the drama, resolves it in a deeply satisfying way. Similarly, maybe you can be not entirely sure what’s going on in The Book of All Hours, but still be quite able to follow the drama played out in its dynamics.
Looking at all those interweavings of narrative threads as musical theatrics, in fact, it’s probably fair to say that Vellum and Ink are comparable to one particular type of musical. Because the general layering of narratives so as to rewrite, overwrite and entwine themselves around and through the base stories of the text (at the larger level — as a work of four volumes, two novels or one whole)… this is sort of like having the songs submerge the spoken dialogue completely, the book swallowed into the lyrics, the meat of music covering everything, as in Jesus Christ Superstar or Tommy or Evita. That’s what you get with The Book of All Hours, I suppose, something verging on the territory of the rock opera. And this is ultimately, I guess, where the answer to that follow-up question emerges from this (as usual, foolishly long) answer to SphericalTime’s initial question of why the books are structured this way. Because although I’d place a few caveats on the notion of “setting myself to write for popular appeal” — in so far as: a) I don’t consciously write for an imagined reader at all, but rather work on a slightly mad idea that a book sort of “wants” to be a certain shape, that it’s basically a matter of, above all else, working through the dynamics implicit in the idea; and b) I’m far too aware of the vagaries of fate to imagine that theoretical appeal will translate into actual popularity — I would say the idiosyncratic approach I took with the books was about making them appreciable on as many levels as possible. I was conscious of the fact that a certain proportion of readers would be aggressively antagonistic to all the “experimentalist” malarky and complain that it would have worked better as a bunch of individual stories, novellas, novels or whatever, not just failing to see the purpose of the structure but projecting their own imagined purpose onto it. But apart from that subset of the obtuse and obdurate, I was working on the principle that, well, if you make it the fucking good read it “wants” to be then the rest should theoretically be willing to give it a chance. If that paradigm shift is something they just can’t get their heads around intellectually, by fuck, I can make it work on the level of pure drama, pure dynamics, so they get it viscerally. Not so it’ll work for everyone, cause, well, different strokes for different folks, but so that it’ll be… more like Bohemian Rhapsody than a barbershop quartet. Cause where strange fiction spurns pulp sensationalism in favour of literary intellectualism, it can get a bit… well… bourgeois. You appreciate this nicely crafted song of a fiction, the qualities of each individual voice of plot, character, background and theme that comprise it, the way they all come together as a harmonic whole. But it can all be a bit anodyne. So I’d rather do something a bit wilder, something that can be subdued and melancholic here, boldly dramatic there, and rock out like fuck just when it needs to. At the time of writing I certainly wasn’t thinking of those qualities in terms of the qualities you get in a musical or a rock opera, but viscerality has always been a concern and the popular appeal of that sort of musical theatre is probably a good correlation in terms of the popular appeal that viscerality can bring to written fiction.