This is a short account of the convolutions in the history of what is now called ‘Meridian’. It’s a history that spans over a decade, but most of those years were spent in the abyssal dark of the bottom drawer – literally, as a manuscript. So the active history is quite short.
It started in 2004; having completed my first novel, ‘Vault’, which I wrote in my lunch breaks in Pizza Express, and wanting to try to maintain the rhythm of disciplined daily writing, as opposed to the ad hoc bursts of evening writing that accounted for all the short stories, I embarked on a second novel, again doing the writing ‘in lunch’ and the research and revision at night.
There was a lot of research, as it happened. Since 2004 was the centenary of Bloomsday, I decided on an updated ‘Ulysses’ in that it would be an hour-by-hour account of a single day in a working life of… what? A Post Office clerk would have been too autobiographical, and possibly rendered me liable under the Official Secrets Act. I decided to make him an architect, a profession I knew nothing about but in which I had a long-standing though strictly lay interest. (It had to be a working day, I felt. Too many novelists cop out and make their protagonists mere flaneurs. Besides, work is interesting in a way leisure is not.)
I also wanted to write about randomness. It seems to me, with the development of Chaos Theory, that genuine randomness exists in nature on two levels only: the sub-atomic; and the human/social, where the outcome of chance encounters are further rendered contingent by character, mood, ethical outlook…
So I set to work, sending my architect to work, at his profession and at his self-imposed task of recording that particular day in as much particularity as he could capture.
I reached his midday point… and gave up. It wasn’t going anywhere. Except the abyss.
Six years on, and it was brought back out into the light. Nicholas Royle, the underappreciated éminence grise of British literature, had rescued ‘Vault’ from its similar languishment during that time, and was attempting to place it, with no prospect of success. He, and I, felt its brevity was against it. His solution was for me to come up with a sixty thousand word novel, a length more in tune with publishing demands for value-for-money. ‘Easier to place, then if we do, we can sell ‘Vault’ on the back of it’. I said I would try, and in desperation retrieved the abandoned draft.
I wanted to continue the exploration of randomness. And it needed a lot more life. But how to animate it? Without too much labour? I had no ideas at all for continuing it.I needed an automatic text generator, along the lines of the OuLiPo use of constraints to stimulate production. I wanted to explore randomness. So I needed a Random Text Generator, and had to invent one (there’s a gap in the market there).
I thought of Harrison Birtwistle’s use of computer-generated random numbers in his earlier compositions (one of his pieces, in a South Bank concert in the novel, acts as a cue to the novel). But while mathematical randomness works in music, it doesn’t in literature. What could be an equivalent? Homonyms.
Homonyms embody that random collision of unrelated meanings that release narrative energy, which is what I was looking for. I made a list of them, and set to work.
Picking up where the ms. left off – at midday – I replayed a scene from a different perspective, introducing the first homonym near the end, allowing the alternative meaning to generate a new and unrelated narrative, which, in its end on the next homonym, generated the next, and so on; a narrative nuclear fission, setting off a chain reaction of stories, none of which I had any conception of before the process began.
That chain reaction zips through the alphabet, the ending of the final narrative linking back to the first, completing the chain, whereupon the architect’s hour-by-hour account blithely continues for the rest of the day. I had, however, quite a number of homonyms left, which seemed too good to waste. Pet, for example, which turned out to be Slovenian for five, I thought might come in handy. So for the rest of the architect’s day, homonyms cropping up in his account act as triggers, synchronic switches to any of the other narratives, until another homonym switches back to the master narrative, or yet another of the random narratives. The effect is perhaps like tuning in and out of foreign stations on an old analogue radio.
All well and good – I produced the longer novel we were hoping for; although still short of Nick’s suggested sixty thousand, I felt the complexity would make up for the shortfall. The problem then was that it didn’t work. At least Nick didn’t think it did, couldn’t see how it could be described as a novel – despite being new – and didn’t think anything much could be done with it. Back into the abyss.
Which is where it would be now and evermore, until I happened to mention it in a conversation with the multi-talented Caroline Clark (poet, essayist, Russian translator, now editor…). She asked if she could read it. I sent her the fifteen or so files comprising the complete thing (I write first on a word processor, then transfer to computer, but lack the technical skill to amalgamate files).
Having assembled the files into one, Caroline read it, thought something could be done with it – and went ahead and did it, breaking up the text into three overall sections, and labelling the random narratives alphabetically; all to make it more reader-friendly. She also, rightly, insisted on a better title. I originally filed it as ‘Untitled’, then decided to use that formally, as a shot at those pretentious artworks called things like ‘Untitled 17′, also because I ended with a quotation from Beckett’s The Unnamable (which I have since dispensed with), and conveying, I hoped, the sense of ‘disinherited’. None of which worked. So between us, we came up with ‘Meridian’, which seemed cool and snappy, but also refers to the point in the novel when the action kicks off.
When she had done all that, Caroline put up a post on Facebook about the revised – revived – novel, at which point one or two people asked to read it, one of them being Ashley Stokes, who passed it to Robin Jones, who, under who knows what temporary influence, insisted on publishing it.
One of the others was the esteemed novelist and Emerson College lecturer, Steve Himmer. Actually, he proposed we swap mss., so I got to read the then-unpublished FRAM, which I can wholeheartedly recommend in its published form. On learning of ‘Meridian”s proposed publication, Steve then kindly offered a flattering, and helpful, cover quote.
This history has turned out to be not so short, but at least we have now reached the present state of affairs: the publication of ‘Meridian’ by a series of accidents, interventions, possibly divine, by a number of people.
What now? What next? That depends on a lot more people: the readers, however many, however few. And yet more luck.
‘Meridian: A Day in the Life with Incidental Voices’ will be published by Unthank Books on April 15th.
It’s available to pre-order from the Unthank Books Online Bookstore and for your Kindle.