interview: Adam Thirlwell
Adam Thirlwell was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003 and has since published two novels, Politics and The Escape, a work of non-fiction and most recently a novella, Kapow! With digressions that explode across the page at angles and in geometric patterns, the narrative itself focuses on a London-based writer whose encounter with an Egyptian cab driver leads to a series of stories about a love affair, half-based on reality and half on our doped-up and caffeinated narrator’s imaginings. Here Adam Thirlwell spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about the pleasures of digression, drawing inspiration from visual arts, cartoons and why his research has given him a wild-eyed stare.
TH: One of the issues in the novella seems to be how the narrator balances out his anxiety over what is both happening on his doorstep in London and over in Egypt, with the answer often being to have another cup of coffee and a joint. Did you want to explore how we fortify ourselves against the anxiety of being so hyper-connected news-wise?
AT: I’m not sure the two are linked. There’s coffee and various cigarettes, just as the usual condition. And then there’s a kind of free-floating anxiety, and that’s the general condition too. I think really I liked the idea of the caffeine and the joints as a kind of miniature allegory: one of them speeding you up, and the other one slowing you down, so you ended up in suspension.
But thinking about it now . . . I suppose it’s that word hyper that I was after: I was trying to find a form for a kind of hyper energy or anxiety, which was maybe two contradictions: that real politics is elsewhere, if you live in the quiet everyday of London – it’s on the street in Cairo or Damascus – but that also real politics is everywhere, and so everything is connected, and London is no less real than Damascus. I think (I think) that this anxiety is quite common. And it also seems to me to be sometimes a kind of trap, or hysteria. Which was why I needed my over-doped and over-caffeinated narrator . . .
The novella is interested in spectacle on a personal and public level – from a riot unfolding to a scene that although private is the major turning point of a relationship. Is part of the pleasure of writing in a more fragmentary way that these moments of spectacle can suddenly explode from within a seemingly tangential sentence?
Totally. The whole game – for myself and, I hope, the reader – was to create something loopy and snakey, so that sometimes a sentence would end up nowhere, and sometimes it’d emerge at the centre of things . . . After all, there are various levels of story in this mini book:
The narrator in London,
listening to Faryaq the cab driver,
describing and imagining the story of Nigora and her husband,
within which story the characters are telling their own stories . . .
And I suppose the real pleasure was to try to make the transitions between these levels as quick as possible.
Did knowing you were going to be splicing the text in this way lead to a different way of composing sentences?
It entirely did. And not just sentences but also paragraphs, and in fact the entire structure, with a narrator anxiously adrift from the real-time story – as it seemed important to make the thing as multiple as possible, since it was going to be so spliced and extended in different directions. So, going chronologically, this meant that as well as having as many stories within stories, either back-stories or stories narrated by people within the story, I tried to make the sentences perhaps more zigzagging than usual – with authorial digressions, or sidesteps of detail, and so on. I’m not sure I want to be composing like that again . . . And then, when it came to the to-and-fro process of Studio Frith setting and designing the first draft, which I already thought was manic enough, there were moments I wasn’t expecting where, for reasons of filling or diminishing space – because the setting was so complicated it had to be done as one continuous flow – I ended up either deleting things or adding digressions that I’d never intended.
One of the questions at the heart of this book seems to be: how do we represent stories truthfully when our daily lives are so constantly interrupted by fragments of narrative by the media? Whilst the novel mimics this experience, it is also an article of faith for the narrator to allow each thought its natural lifespan and trajectory. Is digression for you also an act of resistance?
Well, I do still adore the digression novelists, like Sterne or Musil or even Philip Roth: I think it’s definitely true that the ideal of comprehensive attention is very noble, and maybe more noble now, in the high-speed electronic era. But also I think there’s a madness in that kind of digression. Digression’s something I enjoyed playing with very much in my two novels, and I think with this novelette – or whatever it is, this exploded story – I wanted maybe to do a blow-up of that mode. I think I might now be done with it. Because as well as digression representing an ideal of exhaustive attention, you could turn that upside-down, and say that it also represents a form of thinking that’s so comprehensive it’s no longer true thoughtfulness at all.
But then – there’s nothing wrong with contradicting yourself, after all.
Our hyper narrator perceives the unfolding violence partly through the language of comics. Were comics a formative part of your childhood and perhaps also, for your narrator, a way of bringing context and verbal play to distressing scenes?
I wasn’t so much reading comics as watching cartoons, I think. I could watch a lot of Godzilla or Masters of the Universe or Wacky Races . . . and all the various Superheroes.
As for this book, and this narrator – yes, I think the cartoon represents a sort of weightlessness. I seem to keep writing about people who see sweetness everywhere. But also, I don’t think that’s so strange. Real violence is so frightening and so different to film violence – it’s very difficult to think about: and I suppose cartoons were this book’s way of putting the question of violence.
The book draws inspiration from a variety of art forms, including montage, the dramatic tradition of asides and the paintings of Cy Twombly, with their cascades of text. Did opening up the narrative in every direction make you conscious of being able to embrace a broader range of styles and forms?
Definitely. But then maybe you could put it the other way round, too. Embracing a broader range of styles and forms meant also trying to open up the narrative in every direction. But then, I think it’s also important that everything is still verbal. It doesn’t become a picture – apart from one deliberate moment of abstract polka dots. So it’s more like an equivalent of collage, say, rather than a real collage: a collage where all the materials are words. I think I was trying to find ways of including as much disparate materials and as many disparate forms as possible, while still remaining a (kind of) conventional fiction.
The narrator has some expert knowledge of east London’s coffee bars. Was the research process for this exhaustive?
It’s why six months later I still have this manic wild-eyed stare . . .
Kapow! by Adam Thirlwell is available now from Visual Editions.