The Three Rs: Simon Okotie

March 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week’s interviewee, Simon Okotie, has Master’s degrees in philosophy and transport planning. He has worked as a consultant on all of the major rail schemes from and through London in the last twenty years. Simon’s first novel, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, is a detective story set on a Routemaster bus. It was published by Salt in the UK in October, and will be available electronically in April. Simon is currently working as a consultant on the UK’s High Speed 2 rail project – the largest infrastructure project in Europe – and writing his second novel.
When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I loved reading and writing as a child, but went through a long phase, through high school and university, of seeing myself as a scientific rather than a literary being. Music became a passion, and I studied acoustics in a failed attempt to reconcile my artistic and scientific interests. A friend who was studying English Literature recommended The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird to me in my final year at university and my love of literature was rekindled. I started writing creatively, albeit tentatively, in Copenhagen, Denmark, whilst working as a technical author for an acoustics company there. But my writing life really started in the mid-nineties from the ruins of a failed relationship.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?
It’s all about setting up conditions so that I can become absorbed in the writing. I write in the morning, two days a week, in local cafes. I find it helpful to be around others when I’m writing…as long as nobody tries to talk to me! I have a number of rituals and routines on my writing days – drinking coffee, listening to white noise to mask others’ conversations, writing down whatever is in my mind as a way into the work, gently but persistently turning away from self-criticism – all of which are designed to get myself out of the way sufficiently to enable the writing to flow.
Do you type or write?
I usually type. I bought an Olivetti manual typewriter on the Plaza de Santa Domingo (known as ‘the square of the scribes’) in Mexico City in 1998. I loved using it; a typewriter is conducive, I think, because it helps separate writing and editing, which can interfere with each other.  Word processors work less well because they come attached to an infinity of potential distractions. These days, though, I turn off the internet and type into my laptop without revising, which comes later.
What do you read while you’re writing?
Reading others’ words when I write infects me with others’ voices. I engage, instead, with film, landscape, visual arts or music, finding inspiration that can be transmuted into my own work.
What have you read recently that you really loved?
I am currently in India reading, and loving, Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa, which I am finding fascinating – a real inspiration. Recent novelistic loves include Infinity by Gabriel Josipovici, L’Amante Anglaise by Marguerite Duras, which Josipovici referred to in his wonderful What Ever Happened to Modernism?, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (a Salt publishing stable mate) and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.
What are your all-time favourites?
Don Quixote has everything. I go back to it again and again in different translations, and always find something new to admire and amuse. It is, I think, a book of great insight and wisdom.
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
I would write in the hope that, like Borges’ ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, I could re-create that novel, word for word, in the original seventeenth-century Spanish.
What’s your third R, and why?
Railways: the ideal place to read, write and reflect.

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to post for a very long time indeed about Hawthorn & Child, which I bought in the UK edition a year ago. Now that the North American publishing date has been and gone it seems only appropriate to jot down some random thoughts and send them belatedly out to the internet with no timely hook whatsoever.


One of the first things I liked about this book was the cover, which reminded me of one of my favourite albums (Earth Vs The Wildhearts). Possibly this resemblance, which, upon actually looking at the two images next to one another, turned out to be not as strong as I might have hoped, was heightened for me because until recently I thought that the large brown insect was in fact a sausage and therefore much more closely related to the fruit on the Ridgway cover. What can I say; I bought this album on cassette tape: the picture was tiny. In addition, my love of sausages is all-conquering.

Hawthorn and Child are a pair of detectives living and working in London. When the book opens with a possible drive-by shooting, it seems fairly certain that we’re on reliable detective fiction ground. The victim claims to have been shot from a vintage car, despite the fact that no nearby witnesses saw any vehicle matching this description. When Hawthorn starts to obsess over this, it feels like the first clue, or the first clue-hunt. But soon this story is dropped, just as we’re keen to find out what really happened, and we’re shunted over to other voices, other close-up third-person perspectives. It’s a bit like reality TV—highly edited, highly crafted fragmented narratives that purport to be fly-on-the-wall. And yet if this truly was reality TV there’d be a much stronger sense of narrative as boss, of the need for conflict and obstacles, conclusion and resolution and final answers.

Hawthorn and Child, it turns out, are much more human than other police detectives, in the sense that they seem about as acclimatised to the job—its boredoms and its horrors—as any random person off the street, which is to say, not very. Not for them the strict separation of work and life. Child is just about done with the job; Hawthorn should perhaps never have started in the first place. There’s very little of the hardboiled about either of them, which could have made them farcical but doesn’t.

I’ve seen suggestions that this book, described by the publishers (Granta in the UK, New Directions in the US) as a novel, is really a collection of short stories. I partially sympathise with this position, but to describe Hawthorn and Child as short stories fundamentally alters the way you read it and think about it, and a considerable part of the pleasure of this book comes from the subconscious’s attempts to sort things into patterns, make the numbers add up, and solve the mystery.  This is, however, really not the point of Hawthorn & Child. Mysteries are not solved so much as set aside to join the random pile of questions floating around in the ether and sometimes overlapping with all the unanswered questions filling—and yet ignored by—our own individual brains. Those black and white images that could be vases and could be human faces, depending on the precise location our eyes rest on as well as on the information our brains so desperately want to fill in, might be a good way of thinking about Hawthorn & Child.

Reading it is as much as experiment on one’s own mind about how we read, and about the yearning for structure and closure that sends our minds zipping off into frenzies of connection-making. It reminds me of the experience of reading The Unfortunates, BS Johnson’s 1969 book in a box. There, the fact that the story is in randomly ordered bound sections is supposed to derail the linear narrative, but behind the scenes my (clearly very conventional) brain was keen to solve the puzzle—if not going as far as to demand a precise order, at least assigning each new section to a vague period of time. Apart from this, The Unfortunates is a fairly conventional novel, but both it and Hawthorn & Child create, in their respective ways, a reading experience that is much closer to our lived experience of reality. People don’t tell you their life history in neat chronological order, they dole out random episodes at irregular intervals. As you go about your business, the business of the rest of the world comes in and out of focus, raising questions which are rarely resolved.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

As I was writing about Hawthorn & Child, I thought of another great book that might also fit into some vague category of subversive detective fiction. John Goldbach’s The Devil and the Detective, set in Montreal, is an intriguing tale about a private detective hired to investigate the death of a beautiful woman’s husband. Bob James, the incompetent, or perhaps altogether too competent and this aware of his limitations, detective assigned to investigate a man’s murder starts off on the wrong foot by having sex with the not-particularly-grieving widow within hours of his death.


It’s all completely improbable buffoonery and great fun, written in what might best be described as a second-guessing, double-bluffing stream-of-consciousness style. The extended ruminations and the endless self- and universe-questioning reminded me of Simon Okotie’s fascinating Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? Both of these books and Hawthorn & Child do something well that Alex Estes, in his detailed and extensive review of Hawthorn & Child in Quarterly Conversation, describes thus:

Books are published all the time that rely on the classic novelistic tropes that guarantee a satisfying emotional experience. Alternatively, plenty of books rely on the “non-traditional” tropes of experimental literature that guarantee a satisfying intellectual experience. Somehow, Ridgway has written a book that accomplishes both.

Some readers insist that this is always an either/or scenario, in which formal experiment obliviously celebrates its Pyrrhic victory over content. But like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (another BS Johnson novel),  both Hawthorn & Child and The Devil and the Detective tell you real things about people via the medium of a novel that forces the realistic and the non-realistic into a head-on collision without producing writing that is difficult or inaccessible. The results are most pleasurable.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Four books, four countries

June 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been so busy recently that it’s no longer the to-be-read pile staring balefully at me from the shelves, but also the to-be-reviewed pile. Shoving the read books in a cupboard solved the problem only temporarily, so I promised myself I’d post an omnibus edition of mini-reviews before I started the next big novel.

Viviane Elisabeth Fauville, by Julia Deck, was published last year in France and is currently being translated for an American publisher. It’s the kind of book that will do well in English-speaking markets—it’s a dark novel that combines the terrifying insanity of new motherhood with an intriguing crime mystery; the sort of intellectual European export, like The Killing or The Dinner, that we seem to eat up. The novel opens with the protagonist, Viviane, waking up the day after a visit to her psychiatrist—a man whose dead body is discovered in his office shortly afterwards. Viviane Elisabeth Fauville is an interesting exploration of mental health and human relationships, as the stories Viviane tells herself and the police are proved false over and over again. Viviane convinces the police of her alibi to begin with, but she can’t keep away from the crime scene or the other suspects, and her lies start to catch up with her. An intriguing novel.

Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is like no book I have ever read before. We all know people who talk in exhaustive detail about the minutiae of their lives; we have ways of distracting them or cutting them off. But there’s no distracting the private detective and former colleague of the titular Harold Absalon. Everything is analysed at extreme length. This takes some getting used to, but then starts to become poetic. It’s like Proust going through a teenage existential crisis, stating the obvious, but then interrogating the literal meaning of every single word and phrase until it loses all meaning. The narrator is supposed to be tracking down Harold Absalon, his former colleague and transport advisor to the mayor, but appears rather to be trailing Harold’s wife, the beautiful Isobel. Harold never does turn up, but through the seemingly random footnotes we start to work out why this might be the case. Several weeks after finishing the book, I can actually no longer recall the precise details of how it all works out, but the tortuous (and sometimes torturous) meanderings of the narrator’s brain are fixed in my mind. It’s experimental in the sense of literally trying to apply a theory to practice: how far can you go—how far do you have to go—before you can be truly sure that the words you say are genuinely communicating the message you want them to?

The lead title from House of Anansi this season is Saleema Nawaz’s Bone & Bread. This novel takes Beena and Sadhana, sisters from a short story in Nawaz’s collection Mother Superior, and makes them the subject of her debut novel. The novel is far from happy and upbeat all the time—the sisters lose first their father, then their beloved mother, and Sadhana suffers from anorexia from her teens until her premature death—but something about it feels fresh and spring-like. The writing is alive, lyrical without being cluttered. For a first novel it’s very well done: it’s well structured and fully rounded out, and it neither skips over the tricky bits or skimps on essentials such as character or plot.

A recent One Story offering was an extract from Amity Gaige’s new novel, Schroder. The extract was pretty much perfect in terms of pacing, structure and depth, and it stood on its own as a short story. In the novel, which charts the marriage and separation of Eric Kennedy (the protagonist) and Laura, his ex-wife and the mother of his daughter, Meadow, Eric is driven close to despair by the thought of losing his child. The two of them disappear for several days, but are ultimately forced to return, and Eric has to face the very serious consequences of abducting his own daughter. While they are on the road Gaige ruminates on the meaning of loss, the grief of the non-cohabiting parent after a separation, and how to have a relationship. Gaige also introduces a secondary plot–the fact that Eric has been concealing his identity for many years. He thought his past was over, but it’s about to catch up with him. Unfortunately for me, the One Story extract was so good (and so successfully encapsulated a much larger story) that the novel itself was a little disappointing, feeling sometimes like a longer version—diluted, even though it contained a great deal of new information—of things I already knew. It’s quite an achievement to make a novel extract work well as a shorter piece (as some of the less successful extracts in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists make clear), but it’s made it surprisingly difficult to comment on how well Schroder works as a novel.

Granta Best of Young British Novelists 2013

April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here’s hoping that some of my Three Rs guests will be on Granta’s list, which will be announced next week. I don’t know if all are eligible, and I’m pretty sure one is too old, but he looks young in his author photo so I’ll put him in anyway. Best of British to them all.

Alison Moore

Anjali Joseph

Joe Dunthorne

Naomi Alderman

Sam Byers

Sam Thompson

Simon Okotie

Edited to add: two of these writers miss the age cut off, it turns out.

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