Monday, October 24, 2016

The extreme of literature: Stuff by Charlie Hill

In 1986, the New Musical Express described Maurice Blanchot's The Madness of the Day as a '14-page micro novel' rather than a short story, or even a récit, the form Blanchot had redefined. Thirty years later, the choice of genre appears only obscure and uncontroversial, except, on closer examination, it raises questions about our hopes and expectations for writing, which is why I raise it now.


To be fair to the NME, this book is difficult to summarise in generic terms because, while it appears to be a valedictory commentary on a life in which events promise the familiarity of anecdotal episodes leading to a satisfying conclusion, it also floats free into something like allegory:
I have loved people, I have lost them. I went mad when that blow struck me, because it is hell. But there was no witness to my madness, my frenzy was not evident; only my innermost being was mad. Sometimes I became enraged. People would say to me, "Why are you so calm?" But I was scorched from head to foot; at night I would run through the streets and howl; during the day I would work calmly.
There are no names or dates and the frequency of loves and losses unspecified, so the subject is not the singularity of a life but the gulf between inside and outside, as if narration is trapped and speaking of its confinement. Writing subsumes all names and dates, all frenzy and madness. No matter how fast it runs, how loudly it howls, tranquility prevails. So, by labelling The Madness of the Day a 'micro-novel', the NME's reviewer seeks to turn attention to what it calls 'urban ruin', to what is outside, a process of empirical history and the happy territory of the realist novel, despite the horrifying erasure of time.

One might say then that The Madness of the Day seeks to express madness in the form of reason itself, and what the novel can only evade in plentiful narrative.


This is also the paradox of Charlie Hill's 30-page 'micro-novel' Stuff, which is otherwise very different in its content. It begins with the narrator describing his route to a supermarket in a town in the English midlands. He walks via roads called Woodthorpe, Livingstone and Hazelhurst. Tree roots have broken through pavement, skips outside redevelopments are piled high in rubble, a house on Hazelhurst has a UPVC porch and cars displaying patriotic flags – "Berghof re-imagined by the Daily Express".
On either side of their front door they have large fluted plastic plant pots, the sort you see at garden centres in Warwickshire. I think there must be all manner of socio-anthropological connections between garden centres and fascism, I mean this is where it starts, isn’t it? First they came for the cushioned swing seats …
This is Frankie Boyle channeling Frank Bascombe, even down to the American-style street names, and we are at home as readers and provincial Britons. If it is very different, what it has in common with The Madness of the Day and Richard Ford's trilogy is that such descriptions emphasise only distance. "Why am I telling you this?" the narrator asks: "Because this is how it was, this is how I used to be. I used to be alive". The banally compact title is then a sarcastic pointer toward disgust or horror at the stuff of life, and which projects into a 450-page industry-friendly tome that refuses to exist.

"I burned with the life of it all" he says, but now there is only disenchantment, emptiness. In desperation and confusion he tries to break the routine, which leads to an argument with his girlfriend. He behaves oddly with his boss, skips work and tries to recover carefree youth in a bowling alley. But every act is willed from distance. There is no genuine spark. While Stuff maintains itself in a recognisable story with such action, drama and pathos, its own stuffness becomes part of the problem of distance. It also must find a way out. On a whim that is also willed, the narrator gets on a train away from the landlocked midlands and toward the very north of Scotland:
There was nothing but grass and bog and sky and sea. When I saw the pictures of the cliffs at Dunnet Head, I thought I would run across the grass that led to the sheer drop into the sea and just keep running. It takes a particular sort of person to throw themselves off a cliff and I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I thought that this must have been the purpose of my trip, this must have been why I’d come to Scotland, to become a part of stuff, of the sea, of a force wearing away at things, turning them into dust.
Except he holds back and instead begins to write. Each attempt to return, perhaps to burn again, ends in a remote location, in writing – in a perennial failure to arrive. Zeno's arrow becomes a pen. 


Existential dislocation is a common theme in modern fiction. Sartre's Nausea is the prime example, but there is also Joseph in Saul Bellow's Dangling Man falling into a 'narcotic dullness' between losing his job and getting a call-up into the army, and the narrator of Maupassant's The Horla suspecting something from the metaphysical outside is destroying his otherwise happy, ordered life. In each case, the everyday loses its strength or meaning, and the world reveals a different order, something "deeper than the day can comprehend" as Nietzsche's Zarathustra puts it.

While existential dislocation might be a common theme for contemporary fiction, it isn't often a common problem. All three narratives mentioned above adopt the diary form and, in doing so, retain a hold on the day even as it tells a story of the night. And so does Charlie Hill's Stuff: it begins on Monday and ends six days later. Which brings us back to the question of genre. In The Space of Literature, written soon after The Madness of the Day, Blanchot claims that "writers who keep a journal are the most literary of all" because from the moment a work becomes literature "the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself". It enables the writer to avoid "the extreme of literature, if literature is ultimately the fascinating realm of time’s absence". By fictionalising the resort to the diary then, these narratives seek to humanise the extreme of literature; or, to put it another way, to resist or deny the inhumanity they have discovered at the core of what is apparently most human.

In a superb essay on Blanchot theory of the récit, Daniel Just aligns this extremity to the Odyssey's story of the Sirens, in which Odysseus binds himself to the ship's mast and blocks his ears with wax in order to navigate beyond their lure:
Where the novel finds recourse in the infinite detours of the 'histoire [story and history] humaine,' the récit decides to devote itself solely to the Siren’s song. Rather than leaving the lure behind and reporting other events, the récit remains open to the song and...tries to sustain its destructive beauty.
But how can this be done? Just points to Blanchot's preoccupation "with the kind of language that would be able to suspend the tendency of language to signify and, therefore, would create an effect of silence" and that for him only the récit is able to achieve this. Signification and silence are the two outstanding characteristics of Stuff. From cracked pavements to supermarkets, from suburban fascists to grass blowing in the wind, we know where we are, on the way to a full-length novel. But then there is the brevity, the blank pages, the lure of the sea, and we don't.

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