I have done a fair few residencies in my time. Writer In Residence you’re called. The remuneration was always good. Life-altering, literally. In one of these gigs in the northern jurisdiction, my duties included off-site visits to some local grammar schools. Read to them, talk, answer questions—the general idea was I would know what to do in these circumstances because I was a writer, a person who had been published professionally, i.e., not by themselves. During a visit, the hope was something unusual might happen. A kind of magical exchange between the writer and the group. Some unnameable beneficial effect on the community due to the writer’s physical presence, even if it were only felt by a shy solitary teenager in the back. (Interestingly, my own school declined to avail of this amazing opportunity.) The one visit which has stuck in my mind from the six months of this taxed employment was to one of the city’s primary school outposts. I remember the fear while being driven by the arts officer across the two-tiered bridge and out into the countryside, the chill in my blood, the damp palms, the mouth gone dry. Who was it I was supposed to be now? Some kind of Jackanory children’s story-teller, a kid’s entertainer, an affable travelling seanchaí? Was I supposed to know what to do because I was a published author of literary fiction? I don’t remember what took place. It’s another blank. Maybe I read them some Irish folk tale while sitting on one of their tiny chairs. We got through it anyway. We must have. Whatever the brunt on the kids, the unquantifiable outcome, I wouldn’t dare say. You just have to hope.
Such is the anxious flashback triggered by reading James Kelman’s new novel, God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena. A book about a writer away from home on a residency with some preposterous crowd called The House of Arts And Aesthetics. Name: Proctor. Age: 66ish. Gender identity: Heterosexual Male. A married father. Soon to be a grandfather. Known mainly for having won the prestigious Banker Prize many moons ago with a book full of sweary words. A few days, or weeks, into the residency, he can’t be sure, Proctor faces a class of young art students. What is the square root of energy? he begins, jumping in at the deep end. A trio of teachers watch with raised eyebrows from the front row, the Arts Control Officer in the back working on a laptop. What he has to tell them, in his own confrontational and chaotic style, is that he too is an artist, that writers are artists too, and that his being there with them, this dialogue happening before their eyes, this is the main thing, this is art.
Painters do not sit around in a corner and think through a bunch of ideas for possible pictures. They pick up a brush… they start drawing. Musicians don’t walk around thinking… they pick up a guitar, a flute… They start tinkering, humming notes… a kind of doodling. Writers work in similar ways. They play themselves into something.
Afterwards, in the car park, the Arts Control Officer makes the comment that it went okay, the talk, the seminar, whatever it was, the students were interested, even if the staff might have been a bit taken back by the bad language and references to breasts and nudes. Proctor won’t humour the man by agreeing. Why wouldn’t it have gone okay? Did the Arts Control Officer think there was some kind of scam in operation? Did he think Proctor wasn’t a real artist, was he out to con people? In one sense, he’s playing devil’s advocate, he doesn’t need the Arts Control Officer’s confirmation of what is a successful event or not, but there’s another struggle being dramatised here, the one between the ageing
working class marginalised writer and a new discourse of arts management.
Take the contract for the residency Proctor doesn’t remember signing: Creative delegates will work within the community/ displaying motivational skills as tutor, mentor, “halfway house” and conduit/ making extensive use of their many contacts within the Art and Thought industry, including areas adjacent to that as may be selected by or on behalf of Creative Delegates from the many areas in which he or she excels. Satirical as this sounds, the language is familiar. And embarrassing. On whose behalf has he been elected a solo travelling delegate? Does the excellence pass through the conduit and out into the atmosphere, increasing the absorbable levels of creativity? Poor Proctor: all he knows is a lifetime of footering with words on the page. Maybe he can help people who feel the same compulsion. The need to think. And make. To find an authentic voice. Liberty has something to do with it, the experience of thinking for yourself. Free imagination… The officers of this new bureaucracy nod along condescendingly to his irate attempts to explain himself.
They stick Proctor in a log cabin in a holiday village in the middle of nowhere, no shop, unreliable internet coverage, problems with the heating, and a bad smell from the cutlery drawer. He misses his wife, her feet in the bed. Lonely, unaccustomed to solitude. And he is trying to write. He has reached a critical point but he can’t get any peace, what with having to plan his routes to county-wide locations of art in the ridiculous dinky car they eventually provide for him. A man of his age has to plan ahead, you see. Needs to factor in food and lubrication, the guts, the bowel movements, the right socks and jumpers, the need to get back in one piece to the safety of the chalet before he makes some rural hostelry glow with his presence.
You see, he takes these visits and appearances very seriously. He rehearses, prepares, chooses his reading material, fixes exact times, counts the breath pauses. He can account for every tick of the clock. He is no amateur. On a visit to a secondary school on another day, he is informed that the duration of the talk or whatever it was to be, has been halved. They think this would be such good news for him they failed to inform him beforehand. If they had told him it was only to be fifty minutes he would have prepared for fifty minutes, he tells them, but they seem not to understand. Did they not think he prepared? What did they think he did? The all-pervasive Arts Control Officer stands in front of the assembled school kids and talks at length about what they are about to hear as if he already knows what Proctor will say, that he delivers the same speech to all and sundry, any place, any time, any length and to any audience, at the drop of a hat.
It doesn’t go well.
These were youthful sensitive souls. They knew they were stuck in one of life’s big moments. In years to come they would meet for a coffee: remember that time the old guy journeyed from far distant Bony Scallin and all the mountains, the rivers and glens and had a nervous breakdown right in front of our eyes?
(Got the chance to read with Kelman once, in Wigtown, Scotland. He insisted on reading first. Wouldn’t tolerate me playing the timid support act. When it was my turn, I faced an audience united in a remarkable seriousness.)
Since the appearance of his first book of stories in the 1970s, James Kelman has been making fiction in which, often enough, a character is pitted against some type of authority or social institution. The interior monologue is the ground of the struggle in these stories, the crucible, the psychological crime scene, and the voice doing the thinking carved out of a
working class economically deprived Glaswegian linguistic heritage. It is hard to think, that’s Kelman’s point, but you have to. Your freedom depends on it. The problem is that when you start to think, which is usually when the bad stuff starts to happen, when you fuck up or you get fucked, and who can say which comes first, you realise that the words you use to think are not your own, they have been shoved down your throat. You have to learn to think for yourself. In your own terms. Or for the writer, the working class parochial writer from a disadvantaged community, not only the words but even the architecture of a story, how it gets told, who is doing the telling, reveals itself as a structure liable to privilege the inner experience of some over others less culturally visible. Not just content, the form of story writing is political.
In prose fiction I saw the distinction between dialogue and narration as a summation of the political system; it was simply another method of exclusion, of marginalising different peoples, cultures and communities.
(And the Judges Said, 2002)
Marginalisation, and resistance to it, has been a persistent theme in Kelman’s work. (A statement which in itself sounds patronising, as if to describe is an attempt to segregate and downplay…) For example, the 1994 novel, A Disaffection, his first long-length experiment in removing the control narrator, the objective eye on the action. Therein, Patrick Doyle a young school teacher has become sick to the teeth of his job at a local inner-city secondary school. He veers between seeing himself as a plain-clothes prison guard and a downright hypocrite, someone putting useless ideas into the heads of kids destined for the dole queue. More authentic for Pat—his growing obsession with blowing through a pair of metal builders’ pipes he has found out the back of the arts centre. He blows and listens. For the pure sound. The deep pure unclassifiable note. He blows and thinks, tries to think. His own liberal arts education, all those philosophers and writers can’t help him. The thought machine is busted. Pat’s desperate private monologues begin to overflow into the public sphere. Dialogue tangled up with thought. Things over before they’ve begun, if they’ve even happened in the first place. Any glimpse of a third person narrator might as well be hallucination. No one in charge of the story. That which wants to narrate, that space between you and it, me and them, the space it keeps fabricating, that’s your own grave.
It was a good day, and that was a surprise; and it exemplified much of what was going on. It went side by side with things. There were two things always and just now one of them was this being a good day. Ideally Patrick could have had the two things out in the open so that he could compare them—even just to see them side by side, that he could have known he had seen them so that in the future there would be these two things that had happened and he had known and borne witness to them.
Maybe you could say Kelman came to question whether the revolution in literature known as the free indirect point of view had gone far enough. Letting a character’s thoughts and diction into the control sentence, that was a fine ambition, including and respecting them, and thereby displacing the narrator’s moral hegemony. Whether that revolution began with Flaubert, Jane Austen, or even earlier with Büchner’s Lenz, or further back still to Wieland’s Agathon, 1766, whether there had always been some quality to the objective narrative sentence which got in the way of really seeing—Kelman took it that bit further, letting the voice swamp the sentence altogether, the character’s thinking mind which just so happens in his case to be a
working-class culturally disenfranchised individual, the post-war Scottish version, steeped in the demotic, the vernacular, call it what you want. That’s all he had to work with. Dig where you stand.
(Gräv där du står, 1978, a book by Sven Lindkvist advocating the use of local history as a means for people to understand and implicate themselves in their own environment. Autonomy. Inter-connectedness. For example, factory workers form a study group to learn more about the history of the building they labour in, the land it occupies, the workforce, and the company employing them. Said to have started an international movement. A new translation, Dig Where You Stand, forthcoming from Repeater Books.)
In God’s Teeth, Kelman has decided to open the ground under his own feet. The satire, aimed as much at himself as anything else. This time it’s a first-hand account. A disastrous residency somewhere unnamed. Forty-five chapters, numbered, with sarcastic titles like, I could have been a Dance Troupe! or Agatha Christie to Gertrude Stein, which just about manage to appear chronological. Some steady and descriptive, some more states of mind, dreams, rants, memories, some breaking into song lyric. Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ ( 1835) must be an influence, the battle with an absurd bureaucracy, the overwrought pettiness, the tightening grip of farce. The special authority we love to bestow on the first person speaker soon begins to disintegrate. The once militant witness to disenfranchisement now reduced to being a pensioner on a soapbox. Inner dialogues come at him like flocks of ducks. Half the time he doesn’t know what he’s said, or not. Whoever thought this inner voice spoke the truth? Who is in there anyway, under the skin, behind the eyes? That which shadows you, tails you in and out of every situation, that baseless confidentiality, that bogus intimacy, that which cannot explain its origin, maybe you are just overhearing it talk to somebody else? Proctor fears at points he might be possessed. An imp of the perverse in the passenger seat among the empty crisp packets. At one point he sees the face of Pan in a sideboard, the dreaded goat head. He is afraid of the mirror, the haunted rustic dark. Alone among the furniture in the log cabin, night smearing the windows, he stews in his own absurdity, brewing the lunatic pot.
The old fellow boiled the water, dropped in a green teabag, a green tea teabag, then twitted a tweet, the twat, shat a sheet and twitted a shite. One peers into the dark. He of the devilish grin, peering back at me. Who was he peering at?
The great outdoors offers some relief from the mental tumult. Fresh air, physical exertion revive his spirits. Initially, this child of concrete is uneasy on his walks along the mucky canal towpath. The way the ducks in the weeds pay no heed to his passing. The embankments are slippery, rank and nauseating. Who knows what might lurk beneath the oily canal water. Lacking any pretence of a descriptive vocabulary for the wetlands and its creatures, a duck is just a duck, quack quack, nevertheless the writing manages to simulate his awkward, growing esteem for this other watery world, and he will stop in admiration before a canal bridge and declare it simply beautiful. As time passes, he seems to be out there more, even in the dead of night when the muck seems to be on the move. He can’t keep track of himself anymore, it seems. The night-time panic trickles through the cracks in the late year’s brief daylight hours. Threatened by intimations of the supernatural, this other sodden dimension beyond his precious common sense empiricism, his mind is reduced to thoughts of zombie ducks and vampires, sheer anthropomorphic nonsense, and, eventually, to the serious urge to write a fable.
Instead, at his wits’ end, Proctor gets an idea. A vision comes to him about the nature of the creative act. Imagine a lively gang of children at play, chased by another group that includes diversities of ghouls and monsters. This first gang are approaching a bit of water. They must get across or be captured. A few stones visible in the water. They might do as stepping stones but some look unsafe, treacherous. So be it. The sheer impetus of their flight propels them onwards and lightly, thoughtlessly, they dance over the stones, to the other side, and away. Those in pursuit stop at the water’s edge, try to work out how they did it, the pattern of footfalls. And they can’t.
Look he is doing it! Oh I am doing it. But it is dangerous; cries from behind, who cares, on ye go because if you don’t, but you are making it you are making it, oh from here to here from here to here greasy greasy oh for fucks sake nearly slipping in there and even your foot splashing and stumbling again, your ankle twisting but righted again by the agility of the movement and you pound on, the speed of the flight carrying you on, on through assorted dangers.
Whether there’s a name for what you’re doing or not, whether you can explain or justify it, don’t be intimidated. Those in pursuit of you, be it only yourself, they don’t understand the source of your momentum. Don’t let them into your mind. Or your body. In the final sequence of the book, Fuck em all, Proctor, having overcome the shame of failure and booked a flight home, returns to the same art college for one last attempt at communication. This time there will be only four students for his thing, his class, his session, talk, whatever it is. He demands to know why only four. Wasn’t it meant to be for everybody? Humiliated, he loses the rag again, claims the disappointment is still with him about university, that it was far from the hotbed of thought he had hoped. Accuses the head of department of overseeing the same freedom-sapping agenda. We don’t get to hear what he says that last day to those four apprentice artists. Scene and dialogue abandoned in favour of another mental outpouring, an exhortation now, a plea to the young not to give up, not to let the system destroy them.
Find that original voice and fucking read it, look at it for that is the source, the seminal voice; one human being in the act of discovery, coming to terms, finding the terms, creating the terms.
But then something else happens. A visual jolt. You turn the page, see a different typeface, and then the heading: Author’s Afterword. Where you learn what you have been reading is a report submitted by Proctor on completion of the residency in order to fulfil a contract. Whether this corresponds to how a final report should look, that’s for those who are paid to care about such matters. You can hear the pop, the bubble of story time bursting. What you have been reading is not quite a satirical novel, not quite a fiction or palliative auto-fiction. The social status of the writing is the real issue. It is now an official document, a tangible material. An object in space. Someone has made this object. Someone’s act of labour under conditions of art manufacture. The question of what it means then is more problematic, just as if you were standing before a painting screwed to a wall in an art gallery.
In this sense, I think, Kelman discovers new ground for himself, similar in ways to the unknown terrain of his 2001 novel, Translated Accounts, a sequence of anonymous, badly translated depositions from a war zone. This new territory, critics like Timothy Bewes are calling post-fiction. Where a novel is more than its particular demonstration of control over narrative conventions, cast and locale, time, plot, the sentences brimming with confidence in their own descriptive power, the chaos of the late post-capitalist world succumbing to their charming, expert straight-aheadness. Literature is changing, as it must, as it always has, confronted by a reality more and more beyond its grasp. A crowded reality in which we can already sense our forgotten absence. Post-fiction conceives of writing as an unclassifiable and problematic mode of thinking. The uncertainty driving the artist’s passion to make, assemble, tell, won’t stay hidden. The cantilevered bones stick out. As for God’s Teeth, I would suggest that the gap between the diary-like narration and the Afterword resembles more the space between items in a collage than a jump in time. A full space, fructive, just as the origin of the word satire, from satura, is the lavish plate. God’s Teeth serves itself up as a satire of the creative writing industry but the dish tastes of something extra.
What do you mean?
More than the dysfunctional clairvoyant one-sided relationship between a narrator and a character’s interiority, or between make-believe and verification, these post-fiction novels resist being read as further examples of the author’s ethical, imaginative prowess. A description of a work’s formal elements, or even the class politics around its idiom use, will fail to capture the peculiar kind of thinking being done in its defunct sentences. The professional reader gets left stranded by the water’s edge, calling for engineers, for a pontoon bridge. Literature, Bewes speculates, has discovered a way to imagine itself as possibly no longer a subjective form at all. Contemporary writing which not only questions the act of narrative description but the assumption that the psychological interior shelters the truth.
Another personal residency story: This time I’m Writer in Residence for Dublin City Council. Again, a long time ago now. 2006? Anyway, the conditions of employment were brashly modern. Do what you want. No conditions, no duties. They gave me a big office in the new purpose-built building called the Lab on Foley street. Do whatever you want, Sean, the cheery blue-suited arts officer told me. And left me to it. Brilliant, I thought and sauntered about on the soft carpets for a while. Umpteen empty plug sockets. Windows, tempered, airtight. The wrapping on the eight legs of the ergonomic desk. Anything you want, Sean. I’ll go out for a walk, I thought. Maybe a week later I returned but the office, a very faint green, honeydew or Russian green, seemed to have extended its dimensions. Growing while my mind had shrunk. Anything you want. I fled again, downtrodden by state-financed freedom. The streets hectic with gleeful tax payers. A new bridge in the shape of an open book, named for James Joyce. I was out of my depth. Busted. As the days passed, that office from which I continued to remain absent would keep growing and growing until it… Luckily, one day, I ran into a big guy called Declan Meade. He needed office space for his magazine, The Stinging Fly. Take mine, I begged him. Take it from me. Wasn’t supporting a struggling literary magazine a good use of a residency? Carte blanche. And, as it transpired, in the Lab on Foley street, that’s where we would host the very first Stinging Fly writing workshop. Such was the unforeseen, accidental beginning. Classes, workshops, seminars, talks, lectures, the summer schools, a decade and more of it now. All those writers, all that impetus. So you never know. Sometimes you have skipped across the river without knowing it. Behind the forms and reports, the officers and managers, the jargon, way behind the attempt to centralise and rationalise, monetise it through tourism or mental health benefits, art
will always continues to happen.
when with a hiss
the bus quaked to a stop
in the middle of nowhere
a man got on long beard and robes
embroidered with the kindest omens
a nod to me
from three rows up
before the footlights dimmed
as if to acknowledge he had come
onboard for my own
word had reached the border/
A few new books from James Kelman, published by PM Press:
Between Thought and Expression Lies a Lifetime (with Noam Chomsky, 2021)
Keep Moving and No Questions: Stories (forthcoming)
Free Indirect: The Novel in a Postfictional Age, Timothy Bewes, (Columbia University Press, 2022)