Patrick Evan's new novel The Back of His Head explores ideas about art and genius through the story of Raymond Lawrence, a true literary 'monster'.
Lawrence is New Zealand's only Nobel Prize for Literature winner, and the novel traces his rise and decline, and the effects of his terrible behaviour on the trustees who are charged with memorialising him and his work.
The Back of His Head is at once a satire, and a troubling exploration of what it means to make fiction.
The Back of His Head is a novel that really deeply questions what fiction is, and how it is made. It’s a game-playing novel right through to the final page; even the author’s Acknowledgements puts question marks around who created this thing. It’s a very effective way to steer the reader. Did you worry about accusations of manipulation while writing it? Or is that part of the point?
No; I expect readers to feel manipulated because that’s what novels do; they manipulate, and that’s something I wanted to show as I wrote – the ‘made-upness’ of fiction and how we buy into that aspect by ‘willingly suspending disbelief,’ and how fiction relies on our doing that, how writing/reading is a collaborative project. The ‘apparent’ authorship of The Back of His Head moves as you read it, from ‘me’ to ‘Peter Orr’ to ‘Thom Ham’ to ‘Patrick’ (whoever he is) to (possibly) the Master himself, in the text and knocking on the door of the Residence later on, when the tapes have been stolen (or is it just the police, called in to restore Order?). Above all, The Back of His Head is a reading experience in which the reader is moved around as s/he turns the pages.
Writing the novel, I had a strong sense of the authorship moving away from me and of myself just going along with that process: I don’t know who’s knocking at the door any more than the reader does, or where Peter and the boy with spina bifida are going near the end, but I know it’s someone important that’s knocking and somewhere important that they’re going. The authorship of the novel has dissolved at this point, and is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and the ‘tail’ of the book has simply become layers of text, none of them describing a ‘fixed,’ ‘real’ reality ‘back there’. Another way of saying this is that the novel has become ‘de-Oedipalized’ (cf. the bone people after the destruction of the tower two-thirds of the way through: everything changes after that).
An aspect of this recession of the idea of Authorship is the emergence of what I call in the novel ‘the oceanic processes of literature,’ in which the idea of the Author as Master is replaced by the notion of Writing as Master – in which (effectively) all writing is a form of plagiarism and nothing is absolutely new (a notion which itself is not new; cf. the Borges story in which a Frenchman decides to write Don Quixote). And of course you have to ask the obvious questions if you believe this: what use is any literary trust that exists to give permission to quote from writing that is taken from the Ocean of Literature? Who ‘owns’ a book once it’s written – a trustee more than anyone else who hasn’t written it?
Do you think that’s what literature – as opposed to ‘pulp fiction’ – is best at doing: asking questions? This assumes a certain degree of open-hearted and open-mindedness in its readers – do you agree?
Literary fiction requires both those qualities in the reader, as well as a willingness to be taken somewhere new and strange; otherwise, why read it – why write it?
I think readers of literary fiction self-select to some degree, and therefore know what they’re getting themselves into and, at their best and in their Ideal Reader mode, are open to being shaken up and even (at the far end of the process) shocked and disgusted if they think that is a part of their own enlargement as human beings.
To open oneself up to such possibilities requires not only a willing suspension of disbelief by the reader but a refusal to judge, and, particularly – and above all – a putting-aside of notions of political correctness. This in turn requires an acceptance that a writer knows what s/he is doing and why s/he is taking you to certain places – in other words, that s/he isn’t just being grubby or self-indulgent. All this requires a sophisticated readership, one which (for example) can distinguish between the material being who has written the work and the work’s narrating author and characters, and can understand a creative work as being about certain ideas and not simply as yet one more attack on particular people in the material world.
The book kicks western culture’s received idea of the author up its complacent backside. It is also a satire, on one level, of the prize-culture around books and writers. How possible do you think it is for a reader to get away from the hype, for a good book to be quietly discoverable?
The Back of His Head is about a Dead White Male Author (think Hemingway, White, Durrell, Lowry and many others of the twentieth century) who is now a dinosaur as a new era of writing evolves that is organized in new ways and for a completely different kind of readership from before. To some extent this involves the return of a colonial Repressed (think of the Master’s replacement in the bookshop’s advertising by the young former refugee/writer and his new bestseller).
But this new era, it seems to me, involves new modes of hype, most obviously the prize system Raymond Lawrence turns away from after landing The Big One. That’s why he wants to blow up the creative writing school, and at this point I have to say I’m close to his way of thinking – not that I think we should blow up creative writing schools (after all, I’ve taught in one for ten years), but I do think we should become aware of what we’re getting into as literature becomes increasingly commodified by global capitalism. Maintaining locally-rooted literatures, supported by active small publishers, with alert, educated and open-minded local readerships and informed, intelligent critical structures and readerships are (I think) the way to resist the ‘post-colonial exotic’ and the hyper-real hollowing-out of ‘the product’ in a world of superficial display.
As to getting away from the hype: in my experience, the truth will out either way – that a ‘successful’ work isn’t really up to much, really, or a little-known work is. I have first-hand evidence that good books can be discovered, recognized and appreciated without getting a prize: David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968) was completely ignored when it appeared and long after; now it is widely recognized as a masterpiece, not least by the second-year university students I recently taught it to. All that was needed was that we catch up to it (actually reading it helps). There are further, more recent examples of the way word-of-mouth can ‘get it right’ in the long term – to some extent the bone people began like that: I heard it was being written and was important in 1969, long before it was published.
Raymond Lawrence, the writer at the heart of the new novel, is a colossus of a writer, a man who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but who is an appalling human being. Other characters describe him as a monster, yet they indulge him throughout his life. They enable his monstrous qualities to some degree. Is the novel at least partly a comment on a society that looks the other way if an artist is at work?
I’ve always been fascinated by people who are appalling human beings but have a peculiar charm and magnetism that cause other people to love them and even lay down their lives for them, acolytes who – yes, I agree – enable them and without whom the psychopath in question would be nothing. Our belief creates and sustains them: they’re ‘our’ monsters – think of Hitler Youths shooting themselves after Hitler’s suicide, think of Stalin’s victims weeping when he died.
Raymond Lawrence is just such a being, a man who has sucked the life out of everyone around him and yet is loved and cared for by them – even Thom the dimwitted weightlifter can see him as lovable late in the old man’s life, when Lawrence has been ravaged by Parkinson’s. Peter Orr has been all but destroyed as an individual, yet sits in the darkened Residence calling out to the dead Master, the man who has destroyed him.
The Back of His Head explores the notion that art can come from really unpleasant places, the relationship between art and pathology, and the well-known fact that many writers/artists are at best not very nice people and at worst in the grips of some kind of sickness. This is the sort of thing Joyce Cary wrote about with his potty artist Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth (1944), but in my novel it’s less cute – Jimson is your standard Corbyn-ish anti-capitalist/anti-bourgeois; what I’m writing about is someone who really might have tortured and murdered a young Arab boy in the desert – and worse. All in order to qualify as an artist, the Master says, all in order to find inspiration: a man who really does believe that a successful work of art should conceal a crime.
It might be fair to say that the plot of The Back of His Head doesn’t deliver a set ‘truth’ about what happens, but at the same time, the sense I got on finishing the novel was that a truth about the creation of fiction and an ethical statement had been made. What do you think?
This is a sharp insight into the novel and mirrors my own feeling as I wrote - it’s exactly the response I hoped for, a sensing of something that’s there but can’t be defined, leaving the reading experience itself as the most important part of the text.
Writing Gifted was easy but with The Back of His Head I really did wrestle with the angel; in writing both, though, I experienced a sense of increasing detachment as if I’d surrendered to the writing process in some way. In a review of David Hare’s recent autobiography The Blue Touch Paper the playwright is quoted as saying that, because his writing comes so independently from his subconscious, it is, “at the deepest level, out of my hands” (New Statesman, September 2015).
This process is very familiar to me, in which the writing seems to begin to write itself and the writer becomes, quite genuinely, a reader of his own work as it is written, as puzzled and intrigued as anyone else by what is emerging in front of him. Starting from the basic situation of a famous artist-uncle and his nephew (a scenario that has been with me for forty years), I am as surprised as anyone by what has emerged. It leaves me not with a Message but with a trace, like a dream after waking (The Luminaries did this to me, too): in the case of The Back of His Head, something I can’t spell out but which has to do with the importance of life outside literature. I don’t know where the little boy in the wheelchair near the end came from, but it must be somewhere important; and look what happens to Peter, Marjorie and Robert when they fall under the spell of Literature. There is a right way to live your life, and the Master isn’t an example of that.
Your two novels are about literary writers who are, to borrow the title of your first novel, gifted. What has made you want to continue exploring the idea of genius?
Henry James (somewhere) said that no work of art was worthwhile if it didn’t say something about the form in which it was written, and since (like the Master) I have reservations about how much any novel can make the world change ‘out there,’ I agree that writing, to a very large extent, has to be inward-looking and aware of itself as a form – ‘in here’. The most interesting recent writer in New Zealand, for me, is Carl Shuker, each of whose novels and novellas challenges the reader to put all his/her assumptions to one side and learn to read it as something new in the world of writing.
As far as I’m concerned, when looking ‘in here,’ where better to start than at that curiosity of curiosities, the inspirational moment itself, the unanswerable question of ‘where it all comes from’? The Back of His Head was written as the third in a trilogy of novels begun by Gifted; no guarantee, of course, that I’ll be able to write the second, but if I do, the trilogy thus completed will be in honour of Janet Frame’s influence on my thinking as a writer and on my life, and in particular in her fascination with ‘where it comes from’ and the place of language in writerly ‘inspiration’. The Back of His Head is particularly influenced by Living in the Maniototo (1979), the novel some consider to be Frame’s master-work. She never leaves me.
Why do you think literary estates, like the one represented in your novel, are often such fraught organisations?
What comes immediately to mind here is Henry Kissinger’s suggestion that academic politics are as vicious as they are because the stakes are so low. There’s an aspect of the literary world that is the obverse of those soaring humanitarian ideals behind the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in The Back of His Head I’ve been fascinated to explore this kind of heroic pettiness – which isn’t particular simply to literary trusts but extends into reviewing and the awarding of prizes and writing residencies and even behaviour in public readings. By and large, the smaller and more isolated the literary culture, the more (I’m told) this nonsense goes on: issues of personal insecurity seem to be paramount as we all vie to be Top Bitch At Crufts.
I’ve always been interested in the a writer’s ‘corpus and corpse’ – what s/he writes, and then what happens to the Body of Writing and the Body of the Author afterwards – hence my fascination (after helping a friend with Parkinson’s for a few years) with the corruption and dissolution of both the writer’s body and his sense of Self – in this novel, of the Master’s Mastery: who is it who blows up the creative writing school? (And, anyway, is that really what happens?) And who inherits the Master’s Mastery after he’s gone?
The posthumous ‘secularisation’ of a particular writer’s achievement after his/her death and the use of his/her status and power have always fascinated me, along with the question how a literary guardianship might qualify an author’s heritage and even be argued, in some cases, to have worked against the values espoused in the author’s work and the posthumous reputation of the writer.
The Back of His Head is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.