Novelist Adam Thirlwell on the challenge of keeping plots interestingly messy
Adam Thirlwell was named one of Granta's best young British novelists in 2003, before he had even written a book. Born in 1978, he grew up in north London and read English at Oxford. His first novel, Politics (2003), was followed by The Escape (2009) and an avant-garde novella, Kapow! (2012), which was nominated for a Design Museum award in 2013. His third novel, Lurid & Cute , came out last week. He talks to Alex Clark.
Lurid & Cute starts with an unnamed narrator waking up in a hotel room with a woman who's not his wife and might even be dead. And things go downhill from there. What were you trying to do with this one?
One problem with writing is to find something that survives its finishing, that still feels as ruthless or nasty or mischievous as when it was begun. The finished object is always neater than expected. The dream is of this entirely impolite object, a gruesome and difficult toy. And then always once you've finished it, it turns out to be a normal novel. With this one, I was trying to push myself even further, thinking: how do I make this more truthful, messier? What do I even mean by trying to make it more truthful?
It's certainly not neat: we can't even work out which country he's in, can we?
He's in a nameless suburbia. It's deliberately a kind of non-place, slightly LA, slightly London, slightly South America - a kind of tropical London. A deliberately all-over-the-place place, and slightly dreamlike. I was definitely thinking of those narratives where someone wakes up, and everything is not quite right, like Kafka, or novels where your wife turns out to be a dog, or you turn out to be a beetle.
And the narrator is all over the place too - married but in a hotel room with someone else, living with his parents, not working. Where did he come from?
The real thing I wanted to write about was corruption. This voice is always talking about his sense of moral responsibility. What's interesting to me is this idea of someone who is always saying that justice is not being done to them, even while they do terrible injustices to other people.
The novel is also a sort of confession?
The risk is in that kind of confessional tone. The problem with confession as a literary form is, do you ever go far enough? You always end up on just the right side of likeability. So the real risk is of becoming genuinely unlikeable.
And if a character's truly dreadful, why keep reading - or even writing?
Exactly. I was playing around with that, I think.
Have any writers managed it?
Romantic writers, such as (Thomas) de Quincey or Baudelaire. And now there's obviously a resurgence; someone like (Norwegian novelist Karl Ove) Knausgaard is trying something very similar. And I think the issue is: are you telling everyone you're bad when in fact you're not looking that bad?
The book also captures something of the era.
I was interested in a general sense of mass unemployment, of a generation that basically doesn't have enough to do, and the strange things that does to your sense of time, to your sense of what there is to be done in a day.
Why "lurid and cute"?
There's a misconception about what is truly shocking - that the shocking is the purely explicit. It seems to me that that's easy, and it's been done in literature for centuries. What's problematic, the real way to be shocking, is to have an unstable tone, or to use the wrong tone, the tone that's not appropriate or that's deemed inappropriate. Both lurid and cute are completely inappropriate literary tones or adjectives. Neither of them is good. You shouldn't be writing either luridly or cutely - but I quite liked the idea that maybe you could.
Speaking of the explicit, your first two novels, and , are also fairly concerned with sexuality, aren't they?
A thing that has obviously always interested me is how to write about desire and pleasure. And especially about repression. These novels are so explicit that they look like they're all about desire and sex, but actually one of the things I almost find depressing about my characters is that they are lacerated by self-reproach. None of these characters ever really enjoy themselves. They're always slightly hobbled in their careers as libertines.
You were selected for the Granta best of young British novelists list in 2003, before your first novel was even published - and then again in 2013. How has that felt to you?
The first time it was just terrifying; the manuscript had only been accepted about a month earlier. The second time was more like a relief. I think if you're any good as a writer you're going to be so constantly dissatisfied that being on a list is not going to make you suddenly think everything's fine. But it definitely did make me feel very old. It made me feel grizzled, which I quite liked. And pure relief that I can't be on it a third time. The way to torture a novelist is to find a 19-year-old who could then be on it three times. That would be an art performance that I would like to be part of.
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