Losing Our Amnesia
an interview with John Clute
by David Mathew
While preparing for an interview with the incomparable John Clute -- a man renowned for the intellectual vigour, some would say thuggery, of the reviews he has published -- I swatted away many ideas of how to begin the piece when it was written. Given what Clute has donated, both professionally and to me, personally, (though he didn't know it at the time) nothing less than a striking image would suffice. For as sure as God made little apples, Clute has given us decade after decade of striking images in his non-fiction; and to his credit, he more or less singlehandedly raised the ante of genre reviewing and of essay-writing on genre-specific notions. Among his many publications are Strokes, Look at the Evidence, The Book of End Times... and of course he is the co-editor of the groundbreaking tomes, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. But it was as a reviewer for Interzone that I first, aged sixteen, came into contact with his work, and if in context it is not too trite to say it, I might add that it was there, at that impressionable age, that the seeds for my admiration were sown. And I have acknowledged my debt to his work on many an occasion; for even then I knew that what Clute was saying was in a different language than what the other writers were saying -- about books. His reviews are reprinted, and reprinted again sometimes, because they stand the test of time; they are works of art in themselves, and this is a topic that we would touch on during the interview.
However, my purpose in visiting London on this day was to interview Clute in connection with his first science fiction novel namely Appleseed. And I gave thought, long and hard, on how to introduce this man -- when it became suddenly obvious that the journey to his home would be all the commensuratus that I needed. You expect him, if you've read him, maybe, to live in a garret or on a crag somewhere, devouring books, untouched by the pollution of everyday thought; but of course this is bullshit. Nevertheless, my very first visit to his English home (he also lives in America, and is Canadian by birth), was a bit of an eye-opener. John Clute lives in the teeming melting-pot of London's Camden Town, best known perhaps, for its ethnic diversity, its nice little unconventional bookshops, but above all for its apocalyptic noise. (On the day of my visit, someone had committed suicide on the tracks -- or at least that was the story at the time -- but I had long foreseen problems and had aimed to get to Camden an hour early. So I made it on time, via Swiss Cottage.) And Clute, as it were, is on the front line: in the din. So noise, we might say, is but one obstacle to get to John's place. On arrival at the Tube station, you are but a short walk to his flat, above a clothes shop; and a steep walk up a stairway crowded with a bike and a cat... to the Clute Brain HQ. All of which, and I'm certain that I need not labour the point, is metaphorically how some view his writing. The journey might be difficult, but the destination is a reward.
You make it in. You are offered good coffee and you marvel at the book collection, only a fraction of which is here in the flat. The rest is in storage nearby, or in America; but you feel the leaning stance of the brain with which you are about to become engaged, not for the first time, but for the first time in a professional capacity. But it's fine, of course. Because you know that John Clute is an interesting interlocutor, and a good deal funnier than you might expect. "It's a first novel of sorts," he tells me when I ask why Appleseed has been so long in the coming, "- it's a first science fiction novel. I of course wrote a novel outside the genre, called The Disinheriting Party (1977). But what can I say? I never really had that overwhelming impulse to publish a science fiction novel, although I've published some stories through the years. The other thing was, I didn't have an outline of a novel and I wasn't hugely keen on the idea of doing a book on spec. But then came the idea of the incipit. Are you aware of that term? It's a piece of music terminology, and it refers, principally, to composers like Handel, who, very typically, when they were about to do something very ambitious, would go to their back drawers, rummage around, and they would pick up a piece of music that they wrote - or someone else wrote - and they'll take that incipit, those few bars perhaps; and out of those unpromising beginnings would come a new piece of work." So, a catalyst of sorts; a prodding finger, if we want to be less ornate. "It's in Webster's Second (haven't checked elsewhere), though not as a musical term. There it is a sign used by medieval scribes to indicate: here it begins. But I do know I've seen it used to describe Handel's use of a pre-existing musical tag, which is where he begins..." And Clute had an incipit of his own. "Yes. I had 4 or 5000 words of story, and that struck me as enough to start thinking seriously about a novel. My agent sold it, which meant then I was not exactly in the rag and bone shop" (to which Clute will refer from time to time), "I had this line of story which I knew very well would I not honour, in terms of tone and so on. But I knew it was probably workable."
Appleseed is a remarkable novel. Not only is its timeframe unconventional -- "The book, really, takes place in a few hours. Once in a while things speed up to save time, but essentially the plot is only a few hours long. We have fifty pages of intense narrative to describe fifteen seconds in the real world. Do I mean 'real world'? Well, you know what I mean" -- but it also busts a gut with its attention to fiery syntax and some incredible flights of fancy. The complexity of language, I venture, might be seen by some as an obstacle. And Clute agrees. "I think it will be an obstacle," he says. "Indeed, I can't see how it can not be an obstacle. It will probably be an obstacle in the way that experimentation for the likes of Chip Delany and Gene Wolfe has been an obstacle -- neither of whom, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, sell in the hundreds of thousands. Aficionados probably follow Chip, for example, because he's black and gay and an activist and a vast tragic figure who has triumphed in his life... and all that kind of stuff... as much as they do for his language. And Gene Wolfe a lot of people cannot get into. But you write the way that you write, and I am interested in copious registers of language; and the real thing that I try to do throughout is to make it seem absolutely truthful, absolutely real, no matter what I do, and no matter how inherently silly a space opera really is. A lot of it is very carefully done so that there is the thread of Story, like Ariadne's thread through the Labyrinth, and stuff is impacted around it -- and levels of language, levels of association, are mercilessly shoved in. Or allowed in. But there's still that thread. So the reader is going to have trouble if he thinks, I've got to understand every single allusion - for a person who is allusion-crazy - on first read. You can't do it. If six months pass between my writing a paragraph and then reading it again, I don't expect to get it, as it were, on a first read, or even a first re-read. Because it's a construction. It's an artefact, and in that artefact there are all sorts of lurches sideways and vertically."
I compare this book with Ulysses, or at least with James Joyce. "The punning parts are Joycean," Clute confirms, "but the connection for me is much more directly to the Elizabethan language. There's an absolute behemoth between you and anything prior to Joyce. Even if you pretend not to read him, or you work very hard not to be influenced by him or sound like him, he's there, and that act of language is there. But I think of myself, kind of, as a lesser sixteenth century writer. I'm not Shakespeare, of course, but a thing which characterizes not all minor Elizabethan writers or even major Elizabethan writers but certainly Shakespeare - and what characterizes at my own level what I do - is the verticality of language. That nothing can or should be taken at face value. That there is something other than the ordinary that is governing the condition of the story, governing the condition the review. The connections between one sentence and another may be a couple of layers down in terms of the metaphors implied, or stated. And that is not the way English tends to be written, but it is the way I tend instinctively to write. When it goes off it can get absurdly pretentious - it's all various lines of harmony and no music - but when it doesn't, it can be the way that somebody who is at the dawn of a language might feel. Somebody else is perhaps, down the line, going to embrace it. Who knows? If it feels as though it's been worked on again and again and again, then it's wrong. It shouldn't feel laboured. Certainly the parts that I spent the most time on are the parts that read the fastest. No matter how difficult any particular paragraph was, it was always within a context of Story. With a lot of books you don't have that. The whole lachrymose twentieth century modernist and post-modernist series of novels often had a real terror of telling a story. And I'm sure there are failures of rhythm here and there in it, but the main rhythm I followed, I think, was to ensure that the reader was convinced that nothing was happening simply for its own sake. It was all part of something else. I'm pretty happy."
After years of handing out reviews, is Clute ready for what might be a critical feeding frenzy? "Yeah, I'm ready." Because for John Clute, it is not a case of getting a good review or getting a bad review, and anyway: "Pure novelists may well disagree with me here, but I think that a novelist is far more aggressive than a critic. Part of their undue aversion to criticism is evidence of their wish to be at the top of the feeding tree. They want to be completely original via ingestion. And reviews should not be about scoring points against an author. You do get some sustained idea of how good reviews are written, and so one looks, not for positive reviews or negative reviews, but instead for a review that has been written in a particular way to do a particular job - to find something of interest in the book. Of course, in a commercial sense, I'm much more interested in having good reviews than bad reviews. That goes without saying, surely, but I'll say it anyway. I was once lambasted for eleven pages in a quarterly journal because of Strokes" -- the grounds of the attack being -- "intellectual incoherence and pretentiousness. On the other hand I've had very good long reviews, and the reviewer has found a bridge and that bridge might be complimentary, but that does not mean the bridge is true. Criticism is a way of making an aesthetic shape out of a piece. It's not really about saying, this book is good and here is my reason. There are plenty of reviewers who should be working a lot harder than that. Good reviewers, casting the various illuminati of Interzone aside, might be Gary Wolfe in Locus, Brian Stableford when he pays attention, Gwyneth Jones when she doesn't. Tom Disch will occasionally write a very good review once in a while."
So how long did it take to write?
"How long it took me to work on is a complicated question. The initial 5000 words, which I don't think I have now, would show you something very different, and something very straightforward. I don't exactly remember when I got the contract, to be honest. But I do know that I finished up on a book called The Book of End Times, which is not a good book, and then I set to work on seriously finishing Appleseed. I was delayed by about a year, but most of the writing took about nine months. I'm actually pretty fast, once I get my head around it, once I get started, once I get going. And of course the computer's marvellous. If I came up, while writing, with a structure of language that seemed to suit, repeating those structures is very fast on a computer. Even the reviews are written pretty quickly... But I absolutely don't remember when the idea of Johnny Appleseed came from. In the very early work towards the book I don't remember what I called him, or even if I had a name. However, there was clearly a series of puns. As soon as I thought of Appleseed I thought of Johnny Appleseed, I thought Seed, I thought this germinating thing, I thought the Tree of Life: and all of these things came together. And ultimately of course there's going to be more than one volume. There is some kind of quest for a godless Eden.
"I had a character that had this song and story, and I turned him into a Moses character. With emotions vaster than he can express. The reason the language is complicated is because I am always saying, it is always bigger than you think. In other words, there are more ways to describe it; there are more levels of description. And there's a kind of play in the novel -- every time there is a revelation, or every time the revelation is settled, everybody has known it forever, as it were. So on a science fiction level what I say, and what I undoubtedly will be saying in later volumes, is that we have characters who are gradually losing their amnesia. And that could be a way of describing the book." The very title of this piece will do just that, I tell him; and Clute goes on to remark upon how the novel has been received so far. He says: "It's beginning to get some interesting quotes. Neil rang -- Neil Gaiman rang -- yesterday and he'd read the book, and I'll quote him, because what the hell, this is an interview about me, although this is not the kind of thing I would normally talk about -- Neil said that it felt like the first book to express a twenty-first century paradigm. And he said it was the first significant shift in paradigms since William Gibson's Neuromancer. Now if he writes that down I'll be very happy. Very happy indeed. They can use that. How much I believe it I don't know."
Believe it, I venture. Clute smiles and nods. "Why not believe it? Why not puff yourself up for a moment? And thank you -- but I don't frankly think I'm going to make that kind of difference in the world, the same sort of difference that Gibson made. Gibson opened up a lot of doors, if you like, and Neuromancer is a really fine book, but it had its magic time, and of course that helped. That's very important. Paradigms open up when people are opening paradigms up. They don't open up in a vacuum. What's the sound of one paradigm clapping?"
I ask Clute to compare Appleseed with The Disinheriting Party, and to delineate his fictional future. "Well, The Disinheriting Party was terribly convoluted, it did not have a simple story -- but it had a story so the connection is there. But I wouldn't exactly call The Disinheriting Party a page-turner... I don't think one can identify much connection between, say, the protagonists. In the one, the protagonist is impotent, and in this one -- he isn't! The impotence was entirely artefactual: I didn't know then or now what it felt like to be impotent, a medical condition, but it certainly fit that book." The clear idea that one takes from Appleseed is that human beings are, in Clute's words, "engines of sex." Clute is now busying himself with two further novels, "and they're connected to this one. The second one in particular will refer to the whiffs of Eden, a godless Eden. It will probably turn out to be an analysis on what it means not to be with someone else. And as far as the story is concerned, I have to figure out how to get rid of God. The first volume will be set very much closer to the present, and on this planet. What fits in rather nicely is a story I wrote called 'Eden Sounding' -- but it will be used in a transformative way. Basically, the next book, Earth Bound, is a quest. Once and if they are all finished, completed, published and in the market place, then I will have no objection to their being called a trilogy, but at the moment it seems more sensible to think of Appleseed as essentially a standalone. There's not going to be any sequelitis here! You might want to think of the books in terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis; there's this, and then the second volume will also end in a kind of slingshot."
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