Acts of the Assassins is out in paperback in the UK from early March, and the cover is … exactly the same. And why not? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I love everything about this cover, from the red and black to the hint of icon, not to mention the funny. Don’t think I ever had a cover before that made me laugh.
The folk at Vintage have added on some quotes from the reviews and a reminder that the novel was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. I was incredibly happy to be involved with the most interesting novel prize this country has. I know I would say that, but try Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone or Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers. These are books that aren’t scared to say boo to the goose.
In the official wording the prize is for fiction that ‘opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. No-one dares use the word ‘experimental’ because some words in literature are damned by a deterrent hint of French. More importantly, the prize is there to reward experiments that have been successful – as B.S.Johnson once said, if it works it’s a novel; the experiments go in the bin.
My French editor, a poet who’d slipped into publishing because poetry doesn’t pay, was a former colleague from the old Bibliotheque Nationale on the Rue de Richelieu. I worked in the galleries, he was Maps and Stamps, though his true interests were poetry and the spirit of ’68.
He had in mind a verse epic about Paris and life on the Grands Boulevards, the contemporary everyday bursting with ghosts. He had a greedy eye, and could be distracted by fleeting impressions and chance events, so much so that he often forgot to inject himself with insulin. This meant he was forever scurrying into the toilets of a MacDonalds, a syringe between his teeth. Someone would call the police.
When he forgot his insulin his speech slurred and his eyes rolled and the police beat him for being a junkie. Because he was a poet, his soixante-huitard letters of complaint to the Prefecture were full of extravagant words and easy to ignore.
He married late, and for a while displaced his poetic energies into a shop conversion in the ninth arrondissement. He was getting older. The last time I saw him he took me to Chartier, but I had no feel for the poetry of queuing, or the famous cheapness of the Chartier food. I took him to Le Recrutement instead, a rugby bar in the seventh.
We ate much better there, and he told me how married life was a pain to him. His discontent centred on the prosaic failings of a laid table. ‘She puts out a knife’, he said, ‘she puts out a fork. Every single day.’ He was planning an escape to Switzerland, where at the age of nearly sixty he’d get a job washing pots while writing poems about sex workers he’d contacted on the internet.
I could feel his anguish but thought he must be joking. ‘Live the life of a poet,’ I said.
A week later he was found dead in a forest outside Geneva. He’d taken a huge overdose of insulin, or none at all, I don’t know for sure, but he was found by a walker in a closed-off area: No Rambling Beyond This Point. The walker didn’t call in the body for several days because he was scared of getting into trouble.
I remember another friend, from school. I recently looked him up because he was the best of the writers our age. He had the soul of a poet, definitely, but on the internet I found him as a lawyer. Then he left London to run a farm in Yorkshire. It was the new start, the new stanza beloved of poets.
Two years ago, in his mid forties, he was married. Three weeks after the honeymoon he went to an outhouse with a shotgun and shot himself dead.
On the Open Book programme on Radio 4 (I never know what I’m going to say) I said that too much reverence for biblical stories and any refashioning will be tedious. Too little and the updated version becomes facetious. There are observable symptoms for both.
In every over-reverential re-telling of a New Testament story the author cares far too much about what language the characters are speaking.
‘I’ll have the fish,’ said Peter in Aramaic.
The facetious disease is just as easy to recognise – Jesus returns to earth in the present day and smokes dope. Of course he does. Updated, Jesus is always a stoner. It’s just easier to explain him that way.
Luckily there are alternatives. Gospel Noir has antecedents, if not exactly a history. A reader from Canada, Andrew Johnson, sent me this youTube clip of the wonderfully-titled Rinse The Blood off My Toga (1954). The Canadian TV comedy duo Wayne and Shuster wring the Jesus story for gumshoe giggles.
Made me laugh, but the Jesus story also lends itself to an investigation without the facetious topcoat. The story certainly contains a string of mysteries – a missing body, possible false witness, the suspicious death of a collaborator (Judas commits ‘suicide’).
And no question the four gospels are dark with noir – a brutal execution, a confused occupying force, a case that never closes – the mystery remains unsolved to this day.
Hard to say, at this point, whether gospel noir is a new genre or just a single novel in Acts of the Assassins. Something to discuss at Hay Festival this year, where I’ll be talking about this and other biblical fiction subjects on Friday 29th May.
Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
As well may be, but the name of Cambridge is not to be taken lightly. There’s an excellent article here from the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge that identifies this text as a 2003 internet meme, unrelated to any published research carried out in Cambridge. The Brain Sciences people elegantly set out the limits of understanding of scrambled words, and why the words above are easier to decode than, for example:
A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur*
However, the original meme came back to me when I had to think of a few words to say at the book launch for Acts of the Assassins. I wanted to explain how the novel can take place concurrently in the past and the present, yet still be understood and read as a thriller. The device works, I think, because fiction is an elastic medium. As long as certain essential requirements are in place, fiction can be stretched this way and that and the story won’t collapse.
Just as the Cmabrigde rscheearch meme demonstrates that in some cases a reader only needs the first and last letter of individual words, so the equivalent of these anchoring letters can be worked out for the structure of a story. Once those central pillars are in place (which may be easier in a recognisable genre like a police procedural), a novelist can have fun with the seemingly redundant bits of in-betweening narrative.
That’s my theory. I’m going to ask Cambridge to look into it.
*A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.
Start looking and it’s everywhere. Kate Atkinson is at it, and Jenny Offill and Anne Carson. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is full of it, as is the first season of Homeland, and David Lynch has been working on it for years. Jo Nesbo might be, John le Carre is. The poets, some might say, found their way to it first.
Our ideas about the physical world are changing. Quantum particles exist in multiple states simultaneously, they act on each other at a distance and the road not taken is the road taken. Fiction has always reflected the world we inhabit, and in a quantum story individual narrative components behave outrageously.
But as in physics, the overall solidity of the fiction remains intact.
At its simplest, the quantum concept breaks up a narrative into quanta, short bites of information rather than extended narrative passages. These may resist a single objective view of reality. In Lazarus is Dead the story divides into particles of separate fiction and non-fiction, but in Acts of the Assassins the novel isolates particles of time.
The quantum split in Acts merges the past with the present, creating a fiction that reaches for glimpses of the invisible behind the accepted laws of linear narrative. The novel doesn’t conform to a conventional reading of time, but behaves according to quantum theory. What happened then happens now, and vice versa.
Quantum fiction isn’t entirely new. Like the particles, these fictions existed before they were observed and named, but before now we didn’t know what to call them. The Book of Revelation is, but Will Self probably isn’t. Joyce is, but Beckett isn’t, while detective fiction and spy stories are among the most rewarding places to look. Try your own list – nothing more quantum than starting an argument in an empty room.
Acts of the Assassins, Harvill Secker, March 2015