Here’s a first look at my new novel, The Edge of the Object, which is being published by the Half Pint Press on 1st December in a three-volume limited edition with a handmade case. While the middle part is traditionally typeset, parts one and three form sequences of shaped text, or calligrams.
A dedicated website for the book is now live at www.theedgeoftheobject.com, including info on how to order a copy. And I’m delighted to say that we’re having a physical launch event at the Prince Arthur pub near Old Street station in London on 1st December. If you’re in London or within striking distance of the City, it would be great to see you. Full details on the new website.
By Daniel Williams Published by the Half Pint Press, autumn 2021 (publication date to be confirmed) Three-volume limited edition with letterpress-printed wraparound slipcase
For more information or to be added to my mailing list, please contact me.
A visually arresting triptych, Daniel Williams’ first novel is a playful exploration of words and space, and of presence and absence, both on the page and in the mind of the narrator: a young photographer who has swapped a London high-rise and the city’s music scene and for a storm-damaged cottage in Normandy.
Escaping his solitary confinement, the Leica-less photographer heads off on a tour with two up-and-coming indie bands, Solar Plexus and the Faceless Saints. In Bordeaux he is introduced to Sophie, a meeting that shapes the rest of his stay…
Set in the 1990s, and written predominantly in striking second person prose, The Edge of the Object is a study of love, music, alienation, and of France through the lens of a Francophile, captured in a sequence of stunning calligrams.
‘She smiled. You’re deconstructing my face into a set of lines, reducing me to a mathematical equation that will make sense to you.’
A drawing is a set of lines. So is a letter. In S.D. Stewart’s prescient novel (published by Ghost Paper Archives), both are evidence of a reality which has been compromised and corrupted. The setting is a sunless future in which the earth has undergone ‘the Change’. It’s a claustrophobic world of enclosed cities and tunnels, of censors and fragmented memories, of artificial air and birdsong, and of Code Red days and masks. In an effort to retrieve what seem vital elements of his corrupted, compromised memory, the novel’s isolated and introverted central character keeps a dream journal, and looks for a way out of the nightmare in which he finds himself.
If the novel is dystopian, it’s because we are already facing multiple dystopian situations. It anticipates our near future, and the present which has come to pass even as the novel was having its finishing touches applied. In mostly simple sentences – themselves a set of lines – it generates mysteries which are both quotidian and complex, drawing you into the puzzling web of a world and a mind gone badly wrong; mysteries that neither its central character nor we as readers can ever quite hope to solve. The novel’s terrain lies somewhere between the surreal, labyrinthine hell of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and the apocalyptic imagery of Anna Kavan’s Ice, and the end result is worthy of being filed on your bookshelves alongside those two immersive, unsettling fables.
I’ve just completed a series of stories called Missing letters. Together they make up an alphabet of lipograms, a lipogram being a piece of writing composed entirely without a particular letter (or group of letters). I’m relieved to have finished, and now that I have, I thought it might be interesting to write about the experience of writing lipograms.
‘My work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.’
Obviously there are some items in that list which most if not all of us would sign up to, but others – well, ouch. I can’t help feeling Franzen is being more than a touch prescriptive about his approach to writing. He himself is guilty of at least a couple of the items with that very statement, let alone the essay as a whole. I loved The corrections, but ‘negative’ is the word here. We all come to writing from different places with differing intentions and motives. It’s not hard to imagine that Franzen has no truck with or time for the Oulipians. That’s authors like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, who provided themselves with constraints which inspired the works they then went on to create. Perec it was who wrote La Disparition entirely without the letter ‘e’; not the first lipogrammatic novel, but probably the most famous, along with Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby. Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, written with a full complement of letters, has a complex set of structural constraints based on a chess knight’s tour around a 10 x 10 grid, the squares of which represent rooms in flats in a Parisian apartment block. What the constraint serves to render is a beautiful book full of very human stories, some simple and sorrowful, others humorously fantastical or extreme. Life A User’s Manual or Calvino’s Invisible cities are just two answers to Franzen’s reductive critique.
Perec thrived on the challenges he set himself. You can impose rules on yourself and deliver something which you might not have achieved in any other way. When Franzen dies and is honoured with a sinecure in literary heaven, perhaps he’ll seek out Perec to debate the issue. And Perec might well wave a Gauloises in his face and say that it’s not a trick for trick’s sake. Likewise, though my stories might have been written another way with a different set of rules or a complete set of twenty-six letters, the resulting fiction still has depth of meaning. Playing a game doesn’t necessarily make the way the work unfolds any less emotionally true.
Would my stories have been better for being written unencumbered? The point is that they might not exist but for the constraint. From the choice of title onwards, the constraint shaped the stories and the stories fought the constraint. There are scores of different ways of saying roughly the same thing, and each of them has its own nuances. You choose the nuance which most closely resembles the truth of the fiction you have in your head. The constraint has also served to make me think that much harder about how to avoid the ease and restraint of clichés.
While Perec was the background inspiration for these 27 pieces of mine (I wrote a second story for U, suggested to do so by how the first unfolded), the immediate inspiration came from being reminded of and reading a more recent novel, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea. Forbiddingly subtitled ‘a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable’, in fact it is as whimsical as it is clever in following the troubles of islanders who successively lose the use of letters of the alphabet, as a result of the irrational authoritarianism of the island’s elders. The islanders themselves battle back as flexibly as Dunn negotiates the ever-increasing constraint, and in so doing reinvents the English language:
‘Such a beguiling sight – your long auburn tresses falling as cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the table top, gathering in swirl upon your note paper – obscuring? framing? your toil.’
I can’t make such claims for myself, of course, but the commoner the letter, the more I found I had to bend the language, and come up with alternative ways of saying what I wanted to say, which often turned out to be better than the sentence I might otherwise have written. Each letter presented a different challenge. For some, conjunctions and definite articles were out; for others, participles and past tenses. Every grammatical construct was at one point or another unavailable to me. But language, like water, can find a way around each obstacle it faces. And there is definitely a creative tension between the story-telling and the being one fork short of a full picnic set.
How Perec managed in the age before computers and word processors, I will never know. When I finished drafting a story, I habitually ran a ‘Find’ search on the letter which was supposed to be missing, only to discover there were often several and sometimes even tens of the little blighters highlighted in fluorescent yellow. S was the only story where none of the letter in question got through the net of my finished draft. I guess it tends to stand out in a sentence.
Along the way, I had a wonderful comment from Lunar Camel Co., which got to the heart of what I was trying to do, and how I viewed the challenge:
‘I’m always interested to see, reading these, whether I’m aware of the missing letter — whether I’m noticing the writerly things you’re doing (not unlike tumbling) or whether I’m too caught up in the narrative to be conscious on that level. Often it’s a mixture of both, but I got too caught up in this one to think for a moment about who, what, wildcats, etc.’
The set of 27 is far from perfect. I only slowly realised that the lipograms were becoming predominantly fictional, and so a few are riddles or non-fiction, and maybe one of these days I’ll have another pass at those letters. Probably some of the narratives need a little more room to breathe, and perhaps if they were appearing in book form rather than here, they would get that.
To which letter would I direct you, if you wanted to sample one in particular? That’s hard. Ironically the last letter of the alphabet is possibly the best story, about a woman leaving a relationship as a result of an ant invasion – but that too would not have come into being but for the suggestion of the missing letter. Combining Perec and Calvino in a two-headed Hydra for U – imagining first an alien poaching and eating her eggs in The reader [u] and then a talking horse in The horseshoe [u] – gave me most satisfaction and fun. On one occasion a single lipogram wasn’t enough to contain a character’s story so she returned in another – I [b]’s anthropologist is a lone survivor on another planet, until she meets her end in We [r]. Another memorialised a pub in my home town – The Cupola House [q] – which sadly burnt down last year. There was a lot of life, death and meaning in these stories.
But if you forced me to settle on just one, perhaps I would suggest the playful love story that is CK & U [F]. That’s what it all probably comes down to. That I am playing with letters, with words, for the sheer joy of it. Perhaps it’s what I like to do most of all. Jonathan Franzen too, I suspect.
And now? I’m not sure what the writing future holds in store. But I am certainly looking forward to being able to use the alphabet’s full range, without constantly double-checking myself for a letter which ought to be missing.
Image of Carington Bowles’ The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master, 1782 via Granger Art on Demand.