Sunday, 27 March 2016
Midland and the Anthropocene
Happy Easter everyone. To mark the day, a traditional time of renewal and rebirth, I thought I’d share some thoughts.
As I posted to Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I recently read Oliver Morton’s marvellous book The Planet Remade. Ollie was my editor back when I was a tyro journalist working on Wired UK, and we still keep in touch. He works for the Economist now, and his books on Mars and photosynthesis are both excellent. But The Planet Remade is something really special.
The book elaborates the pitfalls and potentials of geoengineering the Earth’s climate, a subject in which Oliver is something of an expert having reported on it for many years. He argues that mankind has in fact been engaging in geoengineering for some time: by releasing vast amounts of greenhouses gases through the burning of fossil fuels, obviously, but also (and more purposefully) by “speeding up and rerouting” the nitrogen cycle by fixing nitrogen into synthetic fertilisers on an industrial scale.
I’m not going summarise the book here; all that matters for this post is that it elegantly describes those human activities sufficiently pervasive and impactful upon the environment to have created an identifiable “layer” in the geological record, and thus to have (arguably) kicked off a new geological period: the Anthropocene.
What’s this got to do with Midland? Well, Midland - like Habitus and The Book of Ash before it - is a novel that tries to map some of emotional dynamics taking place as humanity tries to deal with this.
A country boy who moved to the city, the relationship between the natural and the technological has always preoccupied me. It has informed all of my writing since I wrote my first half decent poem aged 17, penned one night as I sat up manning the corn dryer on the local farm where I worked during my teenage summers. And it still does - those same concerns and that same farm feature in Midland, as in the extract I recently posted to the Shed (only accessible by pledged supporters).
If you’ve read Habitus these concerns are quite explicit - the hyperreal techniques I used in that book, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and Kafka's The Metamorphosis), allowed me to have the characters quite literally transform into the symbols they had begun to represent.
In The Book of Ash I fictionalised the story of the nuclear artist James Acord because I could address these concerns through his life and work. Interestingly, Acord’s art - along with the work of Simon Faithfull and Olafur Eliasson, other artists whose work I find very inspiring - is being included, posthumously, in a forthcoming exhibition on the Anthropocene to be staged in Ostend later this year to coincide with World Ocean Day.
Midland begins with its characters confronting nature as a sublime force, nature as overarching “other”. This is the sublimity of the Romantics, which Alex likes to think he experiences in the first section of the book, Whale (see the extract on the Midland homepage), and which his environmentalist brother Matthew has devoted his life to trying to protect.
The book ends with Alex starting to look on the earth’s environment in a different way: as always mediated by the human. It’s an understanding symbolised, not by the whale lost in the Thames, but by the giant mechanical elephant brought to London by the Royal de Luxe theatre company in 2006.
When I started the novel back in 2006 I very consciously chose to bookend it with those images, as it seemed to me that they captured something essential about the locus of change in the times that we’re living in. The book’s narrative was then developed as a kind of filigree or tracing of an imagined topology charted as one symbol morphed into the other in London’s carnival of spectacle over a period of around five months.
It was a technique I adapted from one developed by the French writer Raymond Roussel around a century ago. Roussel would begin with two almost but not quite identical sentences - one to start and one to end the work - and then try and find the tale that connected them, hoping to capture something meaningful in the locus of the narrative arc thus described (the mathematical term itself features in the title of his most famous such novel, Locus Solus).
Roussel’s works are brilliant but weird (or, rather, brilliantly weird). Though not much read in his lifetime - fortunately for him he inherited a fairly large fortune and was able to self-fund his work - his writing later became a big influence on the Surrealists, Oulipo and the poets of the New York School. The writing style of Midland has little in common with that of Roussel’s books (though here I am crowdfunding my novel, so maybe I have more in common with Roussel than I think. Hopefully I won't overdose on barbiturates in a Palermo hotel room when I finally run out of money, as he did). But what it does share is the ambition that by exploding the moment between two images a wider truth can be captured, like a holographic fragment of a much larger picture. And when I read The Planet Remade it brought three decades’ worth of concerns about what we are doing to the Earth and how that is changing our society into sharp focus for me. It was, if you like, the best description I’d read of my book’s (and my books') context. This was the story a particular arc of which I was trying to describe.
We live at a moment in history when mankind’s very success has rebounded on it, disorienting us and rendering us rudderless and confused. Midland tries to capture something about the subjective experience of being alive, of what it’s like to try to make sense of your life, at this time. The Planet Remade presents a much more objective account of what this moment is and what it means.
Do read them both!
And have a great Easter.