Novel review - Living with the Truth

There’s a terrible problem that strikes any writer who tries to convey their reality to others, it’s the dilemma of qualia, or – to be less philosophical about it – the ‘thingness’ of things. Can I tell what you taste when you eat buttered toast? No. Can I adequately depict to you the colour of the Atlantic in a force five wind? No. Not to the level that I can be sure what you taste or you can be certain what I see.

And so it is that when I tried to express the way Jim Murdoch’s novel, Living with the Truth, struck me, I had an immediate ‘quale’ or thingness and an equally immediate sense that my thingness wasn’t going to be universal enough to convey its essential nature to everybody else. And yet it is still the best way I’ve found to pin down the nature of this novel and it is this: cross a novel by Barbara Pym with one by Tom Robbins (preferably Jitterbug Perfume) and that’s the essential nature of ‘Living with the Truth’ … and so, as a reviewer, I probably fail totally.

Let me try and unpick it a little. What I’m trying to convey is that this is a comedy of manners, but with a surrealist bent. It explores the innate nature of the Western European male (a bit more melancholy in Scandinavia, a bit more boisterous in Italy, but generally that same mixture of bemusement at the female of the species, disappointment with life in general and a low-key adaptability that conceals the misery of a stale life) in a highly introspective domestic fashion (a la Pym) but with the interlocutor who provokes the introspection turning out to be the literal embodiment of The Truth (a la Robbins). Thus the elegant phrase ‘No one was smoking, but the smell of stale tobacco hung in the air like a tactless comment at a dinner party’ which could have come straight from the mistress of domestic observation, prefaces a lecture, from Truth, on the limitations of humanity in having only five senses and four dimensions.

One issue I had with the early part of the novel was that I sometimes struggled to work out which ‘he’ was being referred to, the protagonist, Jonathan Payne or his antagonist, the ineffable, and frequently insufferable, Truth, and that did lead to a bit of to-ing and fro-ing while I worked out who was saying (or doing) what to whom. It wasn’t bad enough to become tedious though, and once Jonathan and Truth get out and about (which they do in a very Pymian or Pymesque domestic fashion) it became easier to keep track of them.

In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not ‘hard’ enough to be spec fic, not ‘weird’ enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it’s a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. Qualia again, you see. But I can recommend that you try it – if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me.

I asked Jim to explain how inspiration struck and what it was like to be a poet writing a novel ...

1. Living with the Truth is a novel in itself, but has a sequel too. What made you decide to write two linked novels rather than one large novel and how long did it take for the structure of the work to become clear to you?

I didn't intend to write one novel let alone two. I was a poet. What business did I have footering around with novels? But in 1991 I hit a dry spell and I didn't write a word for two years. I'm not sure if it was desperation or what but I sat down one day to try and write a something, an anything, just to enjoy the pleasure of putting down words on a page. There was no plan, only an idea. A few weeks later I had a 34,000 word draft. The responses to it were far more encouraging than I had any right to expect and it was obvious with a bit of time and effort I might have a decent novel on my hands.

Living with the Truth was complete in my mind. Frankly I was surprised I had one book in me. But those who saw my early drafts had questions, questions that I personally didn't think needed answering but they started me thinking. So, in exactly the same way as I approached the first book – i.e. put a guy in a situation, watch him squirm and take notes – I thought about how I could answer their questions without sacrificing the integrity of the first book.

2. It’s been a long journey to novel publication for you – can you give us some details of this particular experience?

That's a good question. Basically I wrote the drafts of both novels over a six month period at the tail-end of 1993 but it took me another five years to tweak and polish them. I made a half-hearted attempt to find an agent then but I had begun a new and very demanding job and it devoured chunks of my life. After a few years I moved to what I hoped would be a quieter job but it turned out to be worse than the first one. Time marched on. I kept scribbling away in dribs and drabs. The next thing I knew "ten years had gone behind [me]" to misquote Pink Floyd and I realised if I wasn't going to grasp the thistle now then when? I had an open offer from Fandango Virtual and so I took Carrie up on it.

3. Poets who write novels seem to have more of a tooth-pulling, vein-opening, angst-inducing experience than other writers, and I’m not quite sure whether that’s because the structure of a novel (piling words on words to make mountains of narrative) is particularly daunting for those who spend most of their time choosing each word to fit perfectly in its place, or because poets, by nature, find writing painful anyway. How do the two forms of writing affect you?

I have never stopped writing poetry and I still regard myself as a poet who has branched out; everything I do is rooted in poetry. That said I'm no Elizabeth Smart. When I started working on that first novel it was purely an exercise, something to get the creative juices flowing. What I tapped into was a different aspect of writing. I had been a sprinter up until then – I produced short bursts of poetry – and the next thing I knew I was running a marathon and it was different but it was still putting words on a page. Later on, when I was stuck half-way through my third novel, I got an idea for a bunch of thematically-linked short stories (a form I hadn't touched since I was at school), and voilà I had discovered middle distance running and another voice. My poems are nothing like my stories and my stories are nothing like my novels. When I get an idea these days I know immediately what form it will take. Thankfully I've not had an idea for a musical yet.

4. On your blog you talk about autobiography and fiction in great depth and make the distinction that in exploring the life and nature of your protagonist, Jonathan Payne, you are not investigating ‘your’ life but ‘a’ life which is influenced and coloured by your own experiences and interests. The ‘write what you know’ dictum is one that depresses me profoundly because it seems to deny the imaginative leap that you have made (and made very well, in my view) in moving from Jonathan’s daily life to an event of such profound strangeness. This event, heralded by a knock on the door, is the appearance of Truth itself (or himself) and the way that the embodiment of Truth affects Jonathan is the meat of the rest of the novel. How long did it take you to decide to use such a bold jumping off point to explore the nature of a life barely lived and the illusions it contains?

I'm a great believer in the 'write what you think you know' and 'write what you want to know' schools of thought. Writing for me is all about discovery. I suspect this is why I've never been able to plot a book except in the vaguest of terms. I knew where Milligan and Murphy had to end up before I'd finished the first chapter of that book and so I wrote the last chapter and all I had to do was get them there.

There are moments in all our lives where we have to take stock, to face up to the truth about ourselves. I have strained to remember where the idea of Truth came from and I haven't a clue, not the foggiest. What I can tell you is that I had tried to read Patrick Süskind's novella The Pigeon and never got past the scene early on in the book where his protagonist, also named Jonathan, is transfixed by a pigeon in the hall outside his flat. He is terrified of the thing but not because he's ornithophobic or anything that obvious; the bird is clearly symbolic, a physical representation of something that Süskind's Jonathan couldn't face. Turning a pigeon into the personification of Truth isn't that much of a leap once you've gotten that far.

5. Tell us a bit about FV and how it came to publish your novel …

FV is Fandango Virtual (emphasis on the 'al'). It began life fourteen years ago as an on-line poetry magazine that developed a small but faithful following. Eventually the on-line journal slipped seamlessly into the real world, first with one magazine Gator Springs Gazette and then a second Bonfire. Unfortunately the publisher's health took a turn for the worse and she had to abandon both ventures. She had always intended to move into book publication and now she has.

Print-on-demand technology has been a double-edged sword. It has enabled a lot of people to see their work in print but it has also resulted in a marked decline in the quality of new books flooding the marketplace because so few have any quality editorial attention. Fandango Virtual uses an established printer who utilises offset and print-on-demand technology allowing it to keep to small print runs. This keeps costs down and makes being an independent publisher a practical consideration and not simply a hobby.

The publishing world is also changing and, apart from the lucky few, even an acceptance from a big publisher guarantees nothing; so much of the burden for promoting the product falls on the author's shoulders. I've even heard it suggested that it's an act of vanity to hang out for a 'real' publisher. Fandango Virtual, while maintaining high editorial standards, gave me a high degree of control over how the book was presented, right down to the cover. That, I liked.

6. I was very struck by something you mentioned on your blog in relation to poetry: All the poet hands over are words, no notes, no hand signals. It is the reader who works with those words and makes something of them. Every poem comes that way, no user's manual and batteries not included. One of the poems that will appear in the print edition is 'Your Statutory Rights are not Affected' during which the reader is asked to insert 'a moment of meaningful silence' into the poem. In other words, they need to contribute to the poem for it to work properly. Does the same seem true to you for novels? My gut feeling is that novelists do provide more notes, and in fact, the thing that stops many first-time novelists completing a novel is that they can never get past the notes to the narrative!

Absolutely. I think having spent years writing the kind of compact poems that I've become good at I've learned not to waffle on about things. I'm a great admirer of writers like Beckett, especially Beckett the playwright, who provide their audiences with just enough tools for them to work with and allows them to use their imaginations. I don't think it's a bad thing to finish a book without all the answers as long as the reader has enough of them.

Living With The Truth by Jim Murdoch is available from Fandango Virtual

P.S. If, like me, you buy books by covers (why not? It widens my reading) then this cover is one of the best and most beautiful I've seen this year, but you have to buy the book to find out why ...

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