car of a thousand gears


Duncan Fallowell



In an interview several years ago, I blithely referred to my way of writing books as ‘cyber longhand’. Since then a few people have asked me to explain in more detail what I meant by it. So, perhaps rather perilously, I gave it a little more thought. Let us then call ‘cyber longhand’ a style; and the first thing to be said is that, for our purpose here, ‘style’ is taken to subsume both form and texture. Some think style is superficial, and denigrate it on that score. But style is instinctive, not contrived. Though style may be the skin of some phenomenon, it is not detached from it, but is a precipitation outwards from an inner nature – or it should be. When it isn’t, it’s called technique.

An artist’s style, being authentic, cannot be adopted and therefore cannot be planned in advance, so any account of its appearance in one’s own work must trace it backwards. In this sense a style is the opposite of a manifesto: an artist’s style is unique and not transferable. Hence the scorn with which derivativeness and fakery are generally treated. For writers, we may say that the style is the vehicle of the voice.

The first intimation of what I call ‘cyber longhand’ was on the dust jacket of Drug Tales (1979), a collection of short stories which I edited. On the back flap, I described myself as ‘the inventor of the electric novel’. I remember that Sebastian Faulks – and he was the only person to do so – asked me what the electric novel was. I didn’t quite know at the time, and indeed it was a sort of joke, but the phrase felt apt. I obviously felt myself to be writing in a way different from anyone else and wished to signal that.

The development of cyber longhand was greatly advanced in my first novel, Satyrday (1986): its chapters divided into numerous short or shortish subsections jumping between plot-strands and time-frames. I remember why I found it convenient to write the novel in this way. I was in my mid-thirties and compared to many of my contemporaries was publishing my first novel late. The pressure of experience, built up by delay, gushed forth in a mass of diverse characters, locations and ideas. Moving abruptly from one strand to the next allowed me to manage the material more easily, with the material reduced to discrete subsections. There was nothing formulaic in this; I was guided by instinct and by the validity of each subsection to the whole. This meant that they varied greatly in length. When I say ‘short’ it should be born in mind that I did once create (in The Underbelly) a cocktail party of thirty unbroken pages (the party itself became a microcosm of the book’s overall, interwoven method). Elsewhere I’ve had a sub-section of a single sentence.

This was years before the use of computers became general and I didn’t start using a computer myself until the late 1990s. I still always write my first draft in longhand. In fact the use of a computer for writing first drafts facilitates not my method but the undifferentiated run-on; and typing directly into a computer from the outset always encourages flabbiness, blandness, sameness. So it should be emphasised that the style which I am calling cyber longhand is therefore an analogue of the cyber world; it is not something which has developed in me through using the computer.

It turned out that there was lots of life in my books, not just in that first novel; many different elements surged through them. So this method of working – juggling numerous strands - must have evolved as a way of dealing with the variety and exuberance of material bubbling up in my mind. It parallels the strategies developed by younger people in the cyber age which has now succeeded modernism and post-modernism. Post-modernism was the age of information overload. Cyberism is characterised by the ability to deal more coolly with information by not permitting an overload, by taking only what you want.

Young people are accused by their elders of having a short attention span. That’s not true. We know they can sit for hours flicking the zapper and changing channels, clicking the mouse and opening windows, tasting morsels of different strands. They do not swallow things whole but take pieces. They are organising their information and entertainment by channel-hopping and window-hopping, synthesising their own coherence out of many often conflicting strands: the many streams of information available to them have become a palette. Recognising the affinity between this state of affairs and certain features of my narrative construction is why I have christened my style ‘cyber longhand’. Its numerous episodes may sometimes clash, but the clash is only temporary; in due course all will be seen to be relevant to the whole.

Thus each of my sub-sections can be considered ‘a window’ belonging to a channel which interweaves with other channels into a narrative. And like ‘a window’ each sub-section is rendered vividly, distinctly, to avoid confusion. The process is always purposive because for me a book is a deliberate sequence. In this sense cyber longhand is akin to Chinese plate-spinning on tall sticks. You have to rush from one to another to keep them all alive and part of a functioning, incorporated whole. The old avant-garde experiments of shuffling chapters, or of cut-up/fold-in, were designed to randomise, to break down the tradition of authorial control. I am doing the opposite: a diffusion is being drawn into an intentional unity. For me, nothing is random; every apparent divagation is there for a purpose, is contributing to the whole. The artist is taking charge and the outcome is clearly a book written by him and no one else.

New beauty in art  is usually strange and uncomfortable. Traditional readers may find my jumps disconcerting – where is he off to now? Traditional readers are still wedded to the long, singular drone in an undeviating tone of voice. This is not only the method of the present-day confessional novel written in the first person but also of the ‘objective’ Henry James method, and the ‘subjective’ Proustian method (two authors dear to me incidentally). A chapter which runs on without a break must have a uniform texture, otherwise it falls apart – so this is what we mostly get. The old idea was that you wrote the entire book in first or third person and in the past tense only, and divided it into unbroken chapters in which blocks of standardised description alternated with standardised dialogue. This remains the formula which straitjackets the fiction market.

That is why books so often seem leaden to a younger generation accustomed to rapid variegation. Younger people have no problems with my variegated, contrapuntal texts, though they may dislike them for other reasons. The narrative, proceeding via dislocating sub-sections, suits them perfectly. The story emerges - but in a spiral. A forward-moving spiral viewed from one end, and stirring a finite number of elements, would look like a kaleidoscope and people have described my writing as ‘kaleidoscopic’. In other words, a kaleidoscope operating through time forms a spiral of images, all interrelated but constantly evolving. The beauty of cyber longhand is its flexibility and powers of inclusion.

Usually my subsections are created by breaks within chapters but in A History of Facelifting for example I decided to number each one. There were 124 of them. It was in this book that the number of characters and number of plots reached a kind of acme of what is possible in 350 pages. This was indeed one of the book’s fundamentalcharacteristics which cyber longhand allowed me to bring off. That, and rewriting. The novel went through twelve major drafts to ensure that all those plates were kept spinning and all the various story lines and themes were drawn together to a total resolution. The computer is perfect for rewriting: reducing, refining, rebalancing. But I repeat: I do write the initial drafts of all my books in longhand. The act of inscription is very important in order to confer a sense of reality on what I’m doing.

So cyber longhand deploys movements between first, second and third persons, between the inner and outer worlds of many characters, between locations and tenses, between the mandarin and the demotic, with changes of texture as well as content. Like a car of a thousand gears, cyber longhand navigates the jumbled world in which we live. It is a way of capturing the complex interactions of modern life in a sequential text. I repeat: though it echoes the cyber world, the virtual world, the interactive world, it is different from it. It is a work of art. It exists not in simultaneity or in randomness but is a fixed prism for the readers responses.

But let’s not overplay this. Nothing is ever ousted. The repertoire of possibilities is augmented. I am in the first instance noticing something about my own work, not recommending how other writers should operate. And again - one notices these things afterwards, not before. The process, whereby a style becomes apparent, must be organic and arise naturally out of one’s sensibility. Then the style can continue to develop  and perhaps evolve into something quite different again. In my most recent book for example, How To Disappear, which is non-fiction, cyber longhand has been intensely refined into a sequence of explorations which take on the character of visionary voyages; and the switches between the various components are softened and blended in the manner of reverie. This was facilitated by writing it entirely in the first person. I have just used a similar method to write a novel, my first to be written in the first person. Again cyber longhand’s spiral form of unfolding a story, drawing more and more elements into the vortex, has been an ideal method since this is not a confessional novel but one in which I explore a crime in the external world. But I must stop here – because I’ve registered the wobble. All writers will know what I mean: you reach a point where either you must say less, or say a great deal more. In this instance here, it is because one’s definitions of what one is doing in the literary art – one’s ‘poetics’ - are constantly shifting. Perhaps indeed one’s poetics are for others to discern. And it has to be said that having written this short essay, I feel distinctly uneasy about it, as though I’ve set a trap for myself from which I must now escape.