Grasping the ‘Contemporary’ in Contemporary Fiction
by Mark P. Williams
To grasp the contemporary is to make a statement about the future. From the New Puritans to the avant-pulp, from psycho-geography to the New Weird, the representation of ‘now’ is a central concern of contemporary fiction. It entails a concern with drawing distinctions, and making arguments for directions into the future. In 2008, Gordon Burn published a book called Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel which took recent newspaper stories and current affairs and restructured them into a novelistic form, linking the by-lines and headlines of the contemporary via their common motifs. Margaret Thatcher walking in a park became a launching pad for meditations on the New Labour project and on the public persona of Tony Blair – via circumlocutions of missing persons stories, and celebrity scandal. The novel seemed to aspire to taking part in the media discourse that was its subject. It partly succeeded, becoming a talking point in the pages of the newspapers which formed the background noise of its scenes. Some reviews argued for its success as a project of renewal, others suggested that it was more like a novelty that would always be flawed in what it attempted. Born Yesterday is as much a question as a text, asking what we expect from contemporary fiction.
To consider it another way: What makes a fiction about the ‘contemporary’? We can consider texts contemporary in terms of how they break with traditions to represent the present or how they adapt traditions from their historical sources to the demands of the present. The question can be understood in terms of – for instance – grouping writers into modernism, inter-modernism, postmodernism and the contemporary, charting the stylistic and conceptual shifts against other cultural and political trends. Equally, we might study the development of a single writer across a particular period, using their work as a guideline for gaining perspective on shifts in popular cultural tastes. Then again, we might find it much more informative to study the development of a specific fictional mode or genre within a particular period.
A strong case has been made by Darko Suvin, Frederic Jameson and others in favour of viewing science fiction as the primary literature of ideas for the contemporary moment. For Suvin, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) and Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (1988), science fiction represents the contemporary moment in its orientation towards the future; the contemporary is a moment of potential that might be extrapolated or negated as a way of creating a possible future from the present.
Ken MacLeod’s approach to science fiction is particularly informative on this point in his collection of poetry, essays and miscellaneous writings Giant Lizards from Another Star (2006). MacLeod’s essay ‘Trends in Science Fiction, or, SF after the Future Went Away’ charts some of the general movements of ideas within SF : from writers like Paul J. McCauley speculating on the immediate future to more distant post-human futures; William Gibson’s movement away from cyberpunk and towards a species of realism; while space opera narratives have ceased being something of an anachronism and have been being revitalised and reinvigorated by writers like M. John Harrison and Iain M. Banks. MacLeod’s survey operates as something of a companion piece to his own Fall Revolution Quartet.
The Fall Revolution novels, The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road, form a sequence unified by a single history moving from near future to distant far future settings and from cyberpunk to space opera narrative strategies. Key characters recur from book to book, offering differing interpretations as to their own place in history and proposing different political solutions to the problems of their society.
Each character stamps their own authority on their narrative but MacLeod leaves the reader of all four books to decide on whose ideas were ultimately closest to understanding and creating a workable way of living in the universe. The most important themes revolve around the ways people grasp their history, and turn it towards the contemporary moment. MacLeod’s sequence employs multiple contemporary moments—dominant, emergent and residual— and are focalised around different characters, each attempting to create a viable future for themselves. The Fall Revolution novels produce a four-part kaleidoscopic way of addressing key concepts about politics and liberation. Although these novels are not allegories of the times in which they are written, they are nevertheless very strongly concerned with people, and the act of grasping the contemporary moment.
Another, equally kaleidoscopic, approach is taken by Hal Duncan in his fantasy novels Vellum (2005) and Ink (2007). Duncan combines alternate histories and alternate universes within a vast overarching multiverse where characters recur and interact, echoing the stories of ancient myths and early dramatic conventions. The two novels are essentially two parts of a single text, ‘The Book of All Hours’, and they encompass metafiction and intertextual allusions to the history of pulp publishing, within the multiverse. It is a technique which allows Duncan to incorporate Sumerian myth, Aeschylus, Euripides and the Old Testament alongside true stories taken from news reports, histories of war and pulp fiction. Narratives based on true stories – such as homophobic murders in mid-West America and Iraqi invasion narratives and Spanish Civil War – co-exist with much more elliptical narratives set in uncertain, changeable fantasy lands called the Hinter, and battles between angels and demons known as ‘Unkin’.
The multiverse concept is borrowed from Michael Moorcock – whose fictions Duncan alludes to, among many other sources, within Vellum and Ink. In Moorcock’s fictions the multiverse began as a device which enabled him to stage interventions and interactions between the populist Sword and Sorcery fictions and his more experimental fiction. It has long since grown into something much more complex and intricate, and all of his writing now has a place within it. Duncan’s multiverse returns again and again to certain key patterns. There are a handful of central characters who are constant, even though they exist in many permutations of themselves: Jack Carter and Jack Flash, Reynard Carter and Reinhart Carter, Don MacChuill and Don Coyote, Joey Pechorin and Joey Narcosis, Seamus Finnan and Phreedom Messenger who is also an avatar of the goddess Inanna. (Duncan organises the shifts between character and archetype by playing on established dramatic form, an important one being the Commedia dell’ arte.) Similarly, there is always a centre – some place or moment that the plot(s) hinge upon, which resonates across the alternative universes. In both Ken MacLeod’s future histories and Hal Duncan’s alternate universes, there are always people attempting to grasp and take control of their own existence in a specific time and place.
Multiverses and histories of the future are sincere attempts to grasp the contemporary moment in a meaningful way. They produce a sense of the sheer excess of the moment – the massive potential latent in any given time, bursting and over-spilling. Creating such lengthy narratives takes time, whether based within a single future history or a sequence of alter-pasts and alter-presents. It also requires commitment to produce the intellectual juxtaposition of ideas and styles crucial to MacLeod’s quartet, and Duncan’s diptych.
A shorter way of achieving a similar effect is within an edited anthology. The manifesto-based anthology All Hail the New Puritans (2001) edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne took a deliberately partisan approach, by making a rigorous set of restrictive but thought-provoking demands for how to write about the contemporary moment. Far less prescriptive and perhaps more interesting are the anthologies Britpulp! (1999), edited by Tony White, Disco 2000 (1998) edited by Sarah Champion and Suspect Device: A Reader in Hard-Edged Fiction (1998) edited by Stewart Home.
Britpulp! brought together a selection of texts from several generations of popular writers whose work is pulp or pulp-inspired, from Ted Lewis – author of Jack’s Return Home, which was filmed as Get Carter starring Michael Caine) – to Richard Allen (James Moffat) author of the 1970s Skinhead novels, which influenced both White and Stewart Home. The Britpulp! anthology also included one of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius fictions and a haunting story about youth and age from China Miéville.
Disco 2000 fused millennial angst and satire with science fiction via contributions from erstwhile cyberpunk Pat Cadigan, alongside stories from Robert Anton Wilson, Bill Drummond, a rare prose story by Grant Morrison, and stories by horror writer Poppy Z. Brite and absurdist Steve Aylett. While Home’s collection Suspect Device, focused around the idea of the physical and generally borrowing from pulp aesthetics – via elliptical philosophical stories from Roger L. Taylor, M. Stasiak and Bertholt Bluel, and provocative narratives playing with notions of masculinity and femininity from Steven Wells and Bridget Penney. Something that these anthologies comment on is the selectiveness of anthologising. Regardless, all three anthologies produce a strong sense of excess and juxtaposition that balances this tendency.
Anthologies remain a powerful means for representing an aesthetic moment of the contemporary. They chart development, make an argument by selection and discussion and open up space fordebate—but this often suggests they are regarding a moment as having passed. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthology The New Weird (2008) treads carefully on this point. It divides itself into sections of texts which have influenced the New Weird, writers whose works are considered to be New Weird, a discussion section incorporating analysis of the New Weird’s diverse reception in different countries and a final ‘experimental’ section where a number of writers produce a round-robin text based on New Weird principles.
The New Weird itself can be broadly characterised by decadent stylisation – and by the use of surrealist imagery in fantasy world narratives which treat their strangeness un-ironically, and which unify pulp and literary practices. The anthology explains the origins of the term ‘New Weird’ as a debate on the online discussion boards of M. John Harrison, and duly reproduces some of its highlights. As a style, it has been primarily associated with the works such as Harrison’s Viriconium sequence, China Miéville’s Bas Lag novels Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council, Steph Swainston’s Fourlands novels, K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City.
The VanderMeers’ anthology devotes space to writing by all of these writers but also includes proto-New Weird texts from writers like Clive Barker and Michael Moorcock, and discussions of how the style fits into other aesthetic concepts around the world, from American and British, Australasian and European perspectives. Although most of the writers associated with the term have moved away from using it, The New Weird does make a strong case for appreciating the contrariness of the desire to group and the necessity of doing so when attempting to represent the present moment.
We each have our specific tastes and interests, our own axes to grind – but the question of what we mean by contemporary fiction enables us to get a grasp of how our interests intersect with those of others. This is a virtue of the excess implied by juxtaposition, and it is a defining characteristic of Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances (2006).
Iain Sinclair is a significant and intriguing figure in contemporary British fiction, having gone from working as an obscure poet in the 1970s, taking an active role in working with some intensely experimental poetry publications through the 1980s producing work like White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings (1987) exploring the Jack the Ripper mythology which was an important influence on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (1988—1999). He gradually moved towards prose writing of a spectacularly dense and hard to define kind with the publication of novels like Downriver (1991) and Radon Daughters (1994). Creating networks of association between literary figures and the fictionalisation of place, these texts chart and re-chart maps of London based on the linkages of visionary and avant-garde traditions. He takes this on into less fictional (but no less speculative or poetic) territories in London Orbital – which explores the outline of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the psychic and economic hinterlands which surround it. Sinclair’s work unifies fictionalised biography, autobiographical musing and mystical fiction through complex literary allusion and surrealist-inflected usage of found language, like the chance encounters of graffiti and Gothic fiction in a boarded up second-hand bookstore.
City of Disappearances brings together a wide selection of the writers Sinclair has associated himself with in his essays and non-fiction as well as his fiction. They each contribute memories or speculations on lost or neglected areas of London from personal and particular perspectives. Some focus on single neighbourhoods, or the histories of areas, others on personal recollections of family history or friendships, and some speculate on the eccentric Londons of the imagination. The contributors include : the Marxist militant, music critic Ben Watson (author of eccentric critical texts on art theory and Frank Zappa) the activist and artist Rachel Lichtenstein, who collaborated with Sinclair on the haunted and haunting Rodinsky’s Room (2000), and pulp author Derek Raymond, whose stark visions of social corruption in his Factory novels form a key component of Sinclair’s aesthetic.
These are among the 59 contributors to London: City of Disappearances. Alan Moore’s contribution to the text is about his friend Steve Moore, and the area where he lives. Steve Beard’s contribution is a science fictional vision of a London of the mind filtered through computerised future-oriented typography, and references to the occult. Stewart Home relates the circles of Alexander Trocchi with reminiscences on his mother who moved in some of the same circles. Michael Moorcock contributes a selection of fictionalised and semi-fictionalised newspaper by-lines which haunt Sinclair’s book from beginning to end – and are linked to an episodic fantasy story based on his character Sir Seaton Begg, metatemporal detective ( a version of pulp hero Sexton Blake) and his sidekick, one Dr Taffy Sinclair.
The result of the sheer diversity of approach to the themes of the anthology is an epic sprawl that refuses categorisation. It contains an excess of form that constantly reaches out beyond its own boundaries but has a remarkable sense of coherence on its own terms, exploring memory and perception, people and place. (Chasing up literary allusions in the text alone could form the background reading for a course on contemporary fiction.) It foregrounds the necessary and troubling questions of how we can even attempt to grasp a sense of our place in the world for the most fleeting moment – while insisting on the importance of doing so. Placing the very different styles, approaches and interests of such a wide selection of interesting and talented writers into conjunction within the same text serves as much to create a multiverse, as an anthology.
By reflexively challenging their own limits, the anthologies I have mentioned all serve to encourage the reader to reflect on the limitations of their own perspective. By questioning how the contemporary moment is defined, and by whose interests – or by simply offering up a multiplicity of patterns and approaches as equally and contradictorily ‘representative’, such fictions celebrate the sheer exuberance of representing the world. Such texts offer practical means to engage with and relate to the fluctuating status of the contemporary moment; they revel in the diversity of ways of addressing that given moment and demand that we join in.
The attempt to define the present moment of literature and its relationship with social values is an attempt to grasp the grand flux of modernity, a gesture that is both heroic and uncertain, but one that we constantly make and remake. We want to be able to say clearly that this reflects our contemporary moment, even if only fleetingly, to create meaning, to establish communication and to make this moment, ours.
Mark P. Williams
Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher
Research profile: http://independent.academia.edu/MarkPWilliams