|Carl Shuker, photo courtesy of Aaron Smale|
I first encountered David Coventry five years ago – I was in London and external assessor of a project he’d been working on at Victoria that year for his MA in creative writing. When his novel arrived the package was roughly the same size and shape as a 14” cathode-ray TV. On final extraction from the courierbag the massive thing showered me like a destination wedding in the confetti from the grotesquely oversized spiral binding that was pitifully struggling to hold it together. Which is to say it was big. It was also brilliant. I wrote on it at the time: “Shipton-Pearce is a grand, colossal, twilit thing of astonishing range and scope.”
I kept in touch with him and know that David worked on this book for years. There’s a sort of trope that another David – Foster Wallace – lifted from Don Delillo in an essay called “The Nature of the Fun”: it’s about your unfinished book being a damaged infant for which you’re responsible. It’s unfinishedness and flawedness is your fault and responsibility and is directly attributable to your incompetence as a writer. The child follows you around, refusing to let you go out, sleep, eat your dinner in peace. You love it, and are devoted to it. It moans inconsolably, dribbles on your french fries, thus ensuring your undivided attention to making it whole.
It takes a lot of guts and discipline to raise a child; to write and revise just one novel. It takes a whole other order of guts and discipline, when publishers are lazy, frightened and unsure, to say, well that kid’s just going to have to go in the naughty cupboard, and I’m starting a new one. It takes more than discipline and persistence; as David writes, it takes a marvelous, transformatory kind of madness. He shelved that book to work on the book we launch today: The Invisible Mile. In 2012 David wrote to describe the new book to me: “1928 Tour de France. Lots of drugs, lots of religion. I’m thinking of introducing spacecraft and spacemen.”
The book you’re holding in your hands shows how he held true – almost – to that vision. The Tour de France in its chaotic years post-World War I: raced on cobblestones and shingle tracks, riding wooden-rimmed, fixed-gear bikes. To change gear when they hit the mountains a rider has to remove his rear wheel, flip it and refix the chain to the larger cog prepped beforehand on the other side. You’ve got two options and in the Pyrenees you know neither of them are good.
Not only did David shelve a brilliant novel, he went and wrote another brilliant novel, and this about the damn Tour de France. The Listener called The Invisible Mile: “A truly extraordinary first novel.” Stuff wrote, “brilliant … an important and impressive debut.” So much of our contemporary literature avoids the high style, and is damned with the faint praise, “quietly astonishing.” The Invisible Mile is high as a kite and loudly and profoundly astonishing. This is a book full of blood, darkness, speed, injury, insight, comedy, warmth, and bashfulness too. This is the kind of book where the narrator can say: “I find myself thinking of Harry’s wife as he writes to her of our day. Back home she is so pregnant we get shy when her name is mentioned.”
Then he can say: “I’m sweating like old dynamite.”
Here’s the NZ-Australia team sipping drinks and watching two riders from the Belgian team brawling in the street in a tiny village in the south of France:
Harry drinks the brandy and winces. He wipes at his mouth. “You know, if we were Greeks and we were back in the age.”
“They’d be starkers.”
“And we’d be doing this race starkers,” he says.
“Lord,” Percy says. “The Lord’s mercy.”
“Our bits waggling about.”
“And they’d kill us afterwards,” I say. “Lions they haven’t fed for two months.”
“That was the Romans.”
“Romans, lions. Who cares? The point is we’d be starkers.”
“And then, they’d put us in a corner and stone us,” Harry says. “They’d stand around throwing rocks.”
David’s prose is always doing this: he’s funny, he’s dry, he’s dark. But there is always a mature artist’s warmth and rhythm, and a glow of discovery. David’s narrator, and thus David, is constantly talking and thinking about awe and thus he’s able to write the aria of awe that’s fitting for a 3000-mile race to the top of the Pyrenees.
Because prose is a competitive sport, and an endurance sport too. From a writers’ perspective, the problem with a project like the Tour de France is that with this material you’ve got a long way to go and simultaneously nowhere to go. 300 pages in the present tense about a race with finite boundaries – not just a beginning and an end but a whole lot of predetermined French towns to hit along the way. You’ve got nowhere to go. Characters race, they stop, they’re tired, they talk. Nice French town looks like this. They race, they stop, they talk.
How do you approach such a task and how do you approach the Tour? The ambition simply to write an event of this gravitas is one thing. Doing justice to it is another. The pressure this externally imposed structure puts on a work of art is immense: but I think some of the answer is you have to play the changes, to show your secret list of gear inches for each stage. You have to show what you can do. With lists, memories, geography, arcs within arcs, dialogue, research, pacing, poetry, action, insight. This is the challenge and David revels in it.
The rest of the answer to how you get this book done is – and it subsumes the variations you can play and it helps nobody, really – is talent.
David writes about it too, about talent, when his unnamed narrator thinks finally, finally he’s going to win a stage. He’s going to pass the Yellow Jersey, current champion of the Tour, unbeatable freak of nature Nicolas Frantz of Luxemburg. Narrator is grunting, spitting, shouldering his way through the peloton, dying for this. Suddenly he’s neck and neck with Frantz. Beside him Frantz shouts, “Look at me. Look at my bike.” The narrator passes him. The narrator wins.
They coast together a while. Here’s David’s narrator:
Finally he dismounts and I too step from my machine and I go to him and stand beside him. We both look at his bike, it is not an Alcyon bike. It is not a man’s bike. It seems half-sized, though it’s not. It is a woman’s bike with small cogs made for the village, its handle bars a simple set for riding upright, its seat sprung for comfort and its frame angled so a lady might not undo her honour as she dismounts. A hollow there, and a hollow in my body and I know not how to fill it until I remember to breathe and what the man in Colombo had said. Breathe, be mindful of breathing.
The thing with Frantz is just talent. It doesn’t matter about the constraints. You just have to be good enough. It’s the same with prose. I’d like to proudly welcome this talent and this amazing book into Unity, and the literature. The Invisible Mile by this chap, David Coventry.
The Invisible Mile is available now at all good bookshops and through our online bookstore.