Jai Arjun Singh: Dead write

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 07, 2012 21:00 hrs

pIn another few days every town and street corner will be hosting a Big Literature Festival It is natural then around this time of year to hear murmurings about smug back-patting liquor-guzzling intellectuals Along with some less-than-tasteful suggestions it may be remarked for instance that a giant Godzilla foot squelching down on the Jaipur festival lawns on a weekend evening would wipe out our literary community in one swell foop Importantly most such comments come from insiders themselves and therefore have a certain amount of wistful self-loathing built into them &mdash the last time I heard the Godzilla one it was said at Jaipur on a weekend evening and by someone who is himself sometimes regarded as being part of this putative &ldquocommunity&rdquo He of course denies it vigorously He also denies being the present writerppCreatively executed such self-commentaries &ndash litterateurs sniffing or whining about litterateurs &ndash can be a form of metafiction and metafiction is all the rage these days Much contemporary literature is explicitly about writers and writing in the same way that much contemporary cinema is explicitly about cinema giving the impression that the Novel is not so much dead as trapped in a giant hall of mirrors Self-reflexive writing of this sort can become tedious but heading into December I found it almost comforting to read Howard Jacobson&rsquos new novel emZoo Time emwith its comically apocalyptic vision of the publishing world &mdash a vision that almost makes our lit-fest and book-launch season seem stable and saneppHere are some of the things that happen in emZoo Timeem&rsquos hysterical universe A publisher shoots himself in the mouth shortly after a meal with an author during which they talked about a literary world forever altered by Twitter blogs and vampire-replete bestsellers Terrified agents lock themselves in lavatories &ldquorather than have a manuscript handed to them personally like a subpoena&rdquo and one of them is lost on the Hindu Kush with a manuscript in his backpack &ldquoHad the novel itself sent him mad The question wasn&rsquot much discussed A literary agent going missing was much too common an occurrence to attract speculation&rdquo The marriage of the book&rsquos narrator &ndash a novelist named Guy Ableman &ndash is in trouble partly because the sound of his writing drives his wife to madness &ldquoBut so did the sound of my not writing&rdquoppIn this strangely familiar dystopia literary parties are like funeral wakes &ldquoexcept that at a wake there&rsquod have been more to drink&rdquo and a car exhaust backfiring might cause passers-by to wonder if another publisher had taken his life within their earshot The few remaining readers quiver with rage whenever they meet a writer &ldquowas it because reading as a civilised activity was over that the last people doing it were reduced to such fury Was this the final paroxysm before expiry&rdquo and the best chance a young author has of producing a hit is to write a memoir about losing his sight when his adoptive mother&rsquos silicone breasts exploded in his faceppBeyond all these things the book&rsquos threadbare &ldquoplot&rdquo is about Ableman&rsquos deep attraction for his wife&rsquos mother Poppy but he uses a literary analogy to describe even this is sleeping with your mother-in-law like stealing your own book Throughout he is a self-conscious wordsmith in the act of constructing his own story correcting himself mid-sentence giving us glimpses &ndash whether reliable or not &ndash of how his real life intersects with his fiction And in doing this Mr Jacobson&rsquos novel asks that pertinent question should a writer exist for the reader beyond the page It is a question that was raised memorably in Jaipur two years ago when J M Coetzee &ndash among the last of the truly taciturn big-name authors &ndash read a long extract from his work but didn&rsquot otherwise say a word Mr Jacobson may or may not have had Mr Coetzee in mind when he writes about a Nobel-winning Dutch author who simply sat on the stage in front of his festival audience &ldquoSo the hour would have passed each staring at the other in silence had someone not thought of showing slides of the bridges of Amsterdam When it was over they gave him a standing ovation&rdquoppemZoo Time emis among the most tongue-in-cheek doomsday books I have read It is about the long-awaited demise of writing and reading and therefore about the end of everything since it is narrated by a man obsessed with these things but it is also a reminder that good metafiction can help keep literature alive in the very process of sounding its death knell If writers absolutely emhave emto write solipsistic books about writing and really one wishes they wouldn&rsquot this is a good way to do it One hopes though that Mr Jacobson is careful in choosing what passages to read at his many impending appearances at clubby literary festivalsp

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