No Dancing, No Music

Alex Clark

  • All Hail the New Puritans edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne
    Fourth Estate, 204 pp, £10.00, September 2000, ISBN 1 84115 345 1

The New Puritans are not, one of their founder members assures us, ‘a religious movement’. Phew. It is unwise for novelists to become too involved in formulating creeds, and very few of them are good at evangelism, mass worship or group suicides. We don’t look to writers to tell us how to behave or what to believe. New Puritanism is not a religion, then, but it might, according to Nicholas Blincoe, be ‘the beginning of a new wave’ and present its adherents with ‘a chance to blow the dinosaurs out of the water’. This tongue-in-cheekiness, which from time to time comes across as a swaggering disrespect for all other contemporary writers, infects and distorts the editors’ ‘Pledge’, or manifesto, which opens the book and frames its 15 specially commissioned stories. The Pledge consists of 10 rules and is loosely modelled on the manifesto of Dogme 95, the collective of film-makers headed by Lars von Trier who took on the excesses of Hollywood with a ‘vow of chastity’ that included the use of hand-held cameras and the rejection of elaborate costumes, lighting and music. The rules contain nothing especially outlandish; nor do they seem likely to act as a blue touchpaper that will light the firework of new, radical fiction. Essentially a guide to writing blank, uninflected prose, they urge writers to ‘shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms’, argue for ‘textual simplicity’ – this encompasses the strict avoidance of flashbacks and tricksy time schemes, ‘elaborate punctuation’ and ‘unknowable speculation about the past or future’ – and demand that stories be located in a ‘recognisable ethical reality’. This anthology, one quickly realises, will not boast the jokey, fantastical contortions of the Oulipo collective, with its lipograms and combinatorics, nor the politicised austerity of Dogme: rather it aims to dismantle the scaffolding of literary fiction in order to see what the building underneath looks like.

Put that way, and understood as an experiment with the aim of discouraging writerly pretension or self-indulgence, the Pledge doesn’t sound so bad. Indeed, when one gets to the stories themselves, it is not the restrictions of the manifesto that are the problem: any of these pieces could find its way into any number of anthologies and not excite particular notice, certainly not on the grounds of being artificially limited. None of them is especially good, and none, bar a couple, especially bad. It is, however, difficult, verging on the impossible, to see any of them as the beginning of a new wave.

If one is looking for amusement, though, the editors’ introductory dialogue, in which they elaborate on the rules, might be the place to start (though the potted biographies at the end of the book are quite good, too.) The publisher – or, come to think of it, a friend, relative or passerby – would have done Blincoe and Thorne a great service by discouraging them from setting down what read like unstructured musings in which each tries to outdo the other in sounding at once authoritative and portentous. Here, for example, is Thorne on the primacy of the narrative form:

Whenever people have tried to defend storytelling in the past, they have turned to ‘supposed traditions’. Parables and folktales; fables, jokes and moral instruction. But we aren’t using history as a justification. Storytelling does not need the validation of tradition. New Puritanism is about looking to the future.

That ‘looking to the future’, taken with Blincoe’s casual remark that, in seeking contributors, the editors tried to assemble ‘like-minded writers’, has the smack of group therapy about it: this project seems to favour clubbability rather than iconoclasm, and chin-jutting adolescent defiance rather than an engagement with form or content.

Proceeding by a combination of platitudes, truisms and look-at-me mud-slinging, the introduction throws up some extraordinary assertions. Tackling the evils of poetic licence – which, on closer inspection, means nothing more than flowery language or purple prose – Blincoe unwisely notes that although poetry ‘aspires to pure meaning’ – the kind of directness he elsewhere applauds – ‘it is so different to prose, it has nothing to offer or to teach the prose writer.’ The likening of the metre of poetry to ‘the stomp of jackboots’ perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of teenage pontificating that drowns out the more sensible, if hardly profound, point that although fiction can be escapist, its power comes from the embodiment of a desire for freedom.

Blincoe and Thorne find much more to tut about and little to praise in the artform they seek to subvert and redefine. A plea for ‘textual simplicity’ involves not merely the avoidance of rhetoric and authorial asides, or ‘grandstanding in the debating chambers’, but also the rejection of all ‘devices of voice’. It could be argued that without such devices fiction could not exist: but once again, it appears that the editors mean merely that that voice should not draw too much attention to itself.

The New Puritans also dislike authors fiddling about with time, specifically by employing flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and the ominous sounding ‘foreshadowing’. There is more than one strand to this particular aversion. One has to do with a distrust of memory, which, like ‘devices of voice’, could be seen as an integral part of the fictional project, but which, the editors correctly note, ‘is a much misunderstood phenomenon’. Flashbacks try to imitate memory but make a poor job of it, being simply ‘parachuted in from above’ and, therefore, ‘essentially undramatic’. This is a fair point, but maybe we should just avoid sub-standard writing rather than jettisoning an entire creative approach.

If flashbacks are undramatic, then the present, apparently, offers a speedy and failsafe route to high drama. Attempting to convey a character’s psychology through an account of his or her past is ‘artificial’, Thorne states, adding that ‘if the characters are strong, we need only know what they’re doing now. Leave the psychoanalysis to the literary critics.’ Knowing what a character is doing is only the half of it – according to the rule that demands present-day settings, and real ‘products, places, artists and objects’ – we must also know what they are wearing, eating, listening and sitting on, the better to be able to ground ourselves in their reality. Blincoe comes close to making an interesting point here, because he is right that the creation of an altered version of reality – one in which specifics are slightly modified in a kind of consumer roman à clef – is both irritating and distracting, and makes a monkey out of the reader rather than creating complicity. On the other hand, to suggest as he does that writers who engage in this oddly unrealistic scene-setting are ‘showing contempt not just for the everyday, but for everyone now alive’ is a piece of pompous hyperbole.

This insistence on material realism is not merely a matter of style, but an indispensable element in the New Puritans’ attempt to remove fiction’s pretensions to timelessness or universality. In demanding that all these stories painstakingly date themselves, the editors in effect ensure that their shelf-life is short. This is the opening paragraph of Scarlett Thomas’s ‘Mind Control’, the story that starts the collection:

Mark got his Dreamcast five minutes before he died. His mother wanted it buried with him.

The story is narrated by Mark’s girlfriend, who is living with his parents, and acting as a nursemaid-cum-housekeeper to both of them. The subsequent pages unfold in a welter of contemporary references – Somerfield sparkling peach spring water, The Bill, Chunky Monkey ice-cream – and a contrived kookiness that attempts to convey the atmosphere of a bereft household without actually telling us anything about its inhabitants or circumstances.

By contrast, Anna Davis’s excellent ‘Facing the Music’, which describes a teenager whose mundane obsession with a local band called Citizen Duane conjures an entire world of frustration, longing and bravado, thrives on minutiae. It is full of lovely touches, from the narrator’s nerve-wracking attempts to escape for her doomed night out to the misery she feels when things have gone wrong:

Despair. Deepest despair like I’ve never known before. There’s a real physical pain behind my ribs. There will be no dancing, no music, no dreaming tonight. There will only be a bollocking.

Here, the small scale of the story is its point, its tiny observations a strength. Even more important, it shows no signs of having been written to order.

A sense that the writers were not at work with a photocopied manifesto tacked up above their desks marks out the other successful stories here. Geoff Dyer’s ‘Skunk’, a tale of drug-induced paranoia and psychogeography in Paris, is effortlessly recounted and nicely suggestive. Its narrator persuades a funky young woman (she dresses ‘like a gas-pump attendant on a space station’) whom he has just met to accompany him on a dérive which he intends to write up for the Time Out Book of Paris Walks, and to get stoned in the process, on the grounds that getting out of it ‘enables one to enter the dream-space of the city’. Not as funky as she seems, Marie freaks out and skedaddles, leaving her uneasy companion to speculate about her fate as he criss-crosses arrondissements and finally, after negotiating an inquisitive gendarme, arrives home. It is not a piece of writing that either attempts or achieves a great deal, but it is at least well written and enjoyable. Like Alex Garland’s ‘Monaco’, in which a photographer trying to take an action picture during a Grand Prix finds himself witness to a female spectator’s erotic floorshow, it makes a virtue out of the understatement and pared-down prose that the Pledge demands.

Elsewhere, the would-be Puritans have interpreted the editors’ prohibitions as a challenge to their facility for experiment. At times, this has disastrous results. Bo Fowler comes up with three fragments, or ‘Love Stories’, that it is hard to believe took more than a few minutes to scribble down. The middle section, entitled ‘Were We Married?’ is reproduced here in full:

I met this girl I hadn’t seen since school in a bar. We talked about things. She had more spots than before. Her boyfriend was a sculptor. One thing we talked about was a play we’d both been in. We couldn’t remember if, in the play, I had been her husband or not. We said things like: ‘Were we married? I can’t remember, it’s been so long.’

I hope someone heard us talking like that.

One is reminded here of Blincoe’s remarks on the nature of authorial contempt. A similar impatience is provoked by Daren King’s repetitive, circular meditation on taking Prozac (‘Nothing stood between his sight and the room. He did not need to analyse the room to see it: to see the room all he had to do was look.’) The idea that one would trade the poetic, textually complicated brilliances of the more accomplished contemporary short-story writers – Lorrie Moore, say, or Helen Simpson – for this wilful impoverishment might prove too much for many readers.

In general, All Hail the New Puritans has an extraordinary lack of humour or lightness of touch. An exception is Blincoe’s own story, ‘Short Guide to Game Theory’, a witty and imaginative tale of rivalry and tactics between a board-game supremo and a vengeful old friend keen to develop his own game. Blincoe, as his crossover thrillers show, is a sharp and canny writer, skilled at creating darkly manipulative situations. His sense of irony would have been welcome in some of the more ambitious stories elsewhere in the collection: for example, in Ben Richards’s ‘A Ghost Story (Director’s Cut)’ and Matthew Branton’s ‘Monkey See’. Branton, though, must have been relieved that his piece qualified, flouting as it does ‘temporal linearity’ by fast-forwarding six months in order to deliver its coup de grâce.

A lost belt presents opportunities for farce in Simon Lewis’s ‘Two Holes’, but it falls short of the mark, and its comedic pay-off is unearned; in a similar vein, Tony White’s story of a love-lorn husband resolutely missing the point by planning to send his wife a sonnet every day for a year fails to capture the pathos of self-delusion. There’s a much more sinister black humour at work in Toby Litt’s ‘The Puritans’, in which a couple making a fast buck copying porn films are unwittingly drawn into a dangerous situation. Litt makes the best of the minimalism imposed on him by achieving a bleak, nervy atmosphere, but, again, the story seems too cooked up.

Many of the writers here appear to be struggling with what is, perhaps, the manifesto’s most bizarre rule: that all texts should feature ‘a recognisable ethical reality’ forcing the authors to become moralists. This peculiar exhortation quite properly has most of the contributors foxed, and results in quick-fix endings and oddly strained scenarios. Urged to make the plot-line their main concern, the authors’ observance of this additional demand results in a lessening of depth, a wilful repudiation of complexity. The introduction touches on the relative prominence of film and ‘visual culture’ in half-admiring, half-envious tones, and one can only suppose that the accessibility of mainstream cinema is what the writing is meant to be aping.

Blincoe writes at the end of the introduction that the stories present ‘a real challenge to the critic to explain just why they work so well’. He’s not wrong there. When one considers them as a group, it is not easy to determine what their editors had in mind. The clue lies in that call to the ‘critic’. This is an anthology that arrived on literary editors’ desks with a wealth of pre-publicity preening, and whose very existence was devised to elicit maximum coverage at the same time as furthering its editors’ and contributors’ careers. It has worked to the extent that more column inches have been devoted to discussing its merits and shortfalls than would be accorded to any other collection of comparable quality. But will anyone who buys this book not feel that they’ve wasted their money?