We applaud Robert Lipscombe for his bravery, ingenuity and passion for publishing his most recent novel as a newspaper and we thank him for taking the time to write this fascinating piece for Broad Conversation.
The English Project is available now from our Fiction Department on our Ground Floor for just £2.99
A newspaper? And yet a literary novel? One hundred and forty-four silkily tabloid pages loaded with contemporary artwork? And why is it called The English Project —somebody’s essay, perchance? Perhaps a social-political initiative in a run-down neighbourhood, on the American model —could it be that? And since it’s a quarter of a million words of text, why is it only £2.99… that’s roughly 800 words per pence, my calculator tells me. Talk about bucking the trend. But is there any point? And why does the flag [is it?], on the cover, that is — appear so faded, khaki-coloured, even tinged with blood? And why is there a sky-blue colour, leaking, as it were, from the panels?
In case you are asking these very reasonable questions, here are some modest attempts to answer them. The flag is faded, yes, perhaps tinged with blood, as you say, to represent the swag wagon of empire, now become a tumbrel, in fact — still on the road but now poorly maintained and somehow hijacked ..or perhaps just so much more obvious as it fades. You’ll see St George rather pitifully fending off an enormous serpent; a weeping angel, gaze averted, but refusing to abandon the nation, hitches a reluctant ride at the back; a unicorn ‘abandons ship’; and while infants labour to turn the heavy wheels of this historic bugaboo as it lumbers towards its end, the reins are firmly in the hands of the diabolical Doctors Pisle and Gisle of The College. As to the sky-blue colour breaking through the khaki panels— this is the promise, still considerably in doubt, true, but of a brighter future for us all— if we can only get the tumbrel stowed and definitively locked away at last.
But a newspaper? Why so? Well, broadly speaking, on the axis which runs from fact to fantasy a newspaper is perceived to be predominantly factual, or at least fact-specific and in its narratives true-to-what-is-in-fact-the-case. A novel, in sharp distinction, is usually a book, and is perceived to be located towards the fantasy, or at least ‘imaginary world’ end of the axis. At best it explores possibilities — possible environments and possible events within those environments only ‘as if’ they were real. A newspaper, by comparison, purports to reveal the true/real hitherto unknown facts of the environments in which we live [especially political, economic and social], and gives detailed descriptions [not always accurate!] of events within those environments which are thought to really matter in the everyday business of life. In short, what’s in the newspaper really matters; what’s in a novel does not. Everybody knows that.
So the newspaper, in that it purports to be the vehicle of truth about the world, conventionally enables and engenders dissent. However, a novel is fictive and does not much matter in terms of everyday needs and is far more easily dismissed — its dangers [if any] generally overlooked, even disregarded. Of the two, naturally enough, power greatly prefers the novel [of course, although ever disdaining to read it], considering it to be a far lesser dog with smaller, duller teeth and a snout that is imprecise in its attack. What better way, then, to smuggle truths into a public space than a fictive, obviously imaginary text dressed up/down as a weekly rag? As Hugo Thayer says on page 24 [column three]‘without truth we sleep in the demon’s lair — a fitful, dangerous sleep.. so art comes at truth by devious ways, enchanting its audience, stealing closer, closer yet — until it is suddenly upon us. .. There! And now it has you marked! Will you scurry away? Or will you stare it in the face?’
Yes, The English Project novel in a newspaper is a true hybrid at the level of information and cannot fit into either column in a truth table. Furthermore, the newspaper is flimsy, throwaway, the price of a pint, a thing to be swiftly browsed and then binned, or left on a seat – as such it is very nearly common property for those very reasons. A novel, especially a literary novel, on the other hand, and especially in its hardback form, is a possession, the property either of an individual or of a library. As an owned object it carries the presumption that its existence has been licensed by the gatekeepers, whether they be literary agents or publishers [except, of course, in the case of self-published publications — and these, no matter how good they may be, for the reason stated suffer inevitably from a certain lightness, perhaps even a perceived spuriousness, a not-quite-adequateness].
Furthermore, a conventional publishing of a book swankily purports to certify and affirm a competitive quality-in-itself in the text so brought to publication and this a self-publication quite blatantly lacks. This is so precisely because the flow of information, of story, of comment, of written discourse is guided, monitored and to a very real extent directed by the status quo, by power made fair-seeming and palatable by ‘authority’, the authority which licenses itself to license text to be. The apparent quality-in-itself of the conventionally published book is actually in most cases little more than a kite mark of the invisible censor and it is this invisible imprimatur, this itself quite spurious mark that lends the book its often quite spurious weight. In the main, however, the kite mark means only this: the writing herein contained has been deemed acceptable to power. Hence the obvious fact that so many unworthy books are conventionally published despite their flooding the bookshops while so many others [who knows how many — it’s anybody’s guess] remain forever manuscripts gathering dust. By comparison with the conventionally ‘kite marked’ book, the newspaper is flimsy by design and by default, charged with fleetingness, with provisoriness, and is always incomplete— is something which typically can be carried away in a wind. It is both subversive by nature and as discountable as shiftless rumour [as long as it does not libel the powerful]. Indeed, the truths of a newspaper are as it were under water; the lies of a conventional novel are so to speak above board.
Now it may well prove to be the case that newspapers are in fact as much fictive as novels are true to the facts [or if you prefer it: the newspaper lies to the same degree that a novel tells the truth]. Either way, it is a truth that a literary novel published as a newspaper endows the writing with a quite peculiar relationship to truth.
But there is a further, more important reason why The English Project is deeply, inescapably ambiguous and equivocal.
It would have to fiction, Hugo Thayer tells the Good Men and True [those cruel executioners]…. ‘You’d need to put a real man into a real situation which is um, it’d have to be horrible, yes, but everyday, even quite banal. Fathers fighting for the right to see their children, for example, in the secret family courts. A national scandal which everyone knows about. I mean a real blot on our record as a society, as a post-modern, basically Christian society, a really damning scandal that no one can deny.’
‘Things as they are,’ she said. ‘Your real situation.’
‘Yes. And then you’d have to expose your character to something fantastical, notional, generic, I guess… perhaps with roots in earlier traditions.. something obviously and completely farfetched but which people can make sense of somehow. Purely for purposes of entertainment, for the fun of story really. And then, once that was in place, you could present your character with this other thing, your thing, this third thing, I suppose, which would read like crime fiction on the page, or some kind of mystery thriller component… And, you see, the reader would then have the problem…’ He was thinking on his feet.
‘Yes? The reader would have the problem..?’
‘— wouldn’t know quite how to deal with the stuff, your stuff, I mean. Wouldn’t know how to relate to it.’
‘Why? Because you’d be changing the texture of the book. You’d be mixing genres. People would get confused. And the spell of suspended disbelief would be broken, which would probably kill the book, unless you linked this stuff to the other thing, the entertainment thing, the fantastical notional thing – then the one would buoy the other up, you see.. Or each would give the other a bit of camouflage, a bit more merging with reality, especially if you were able to bring them together, link them, link by link.. I don’t know.’ He paused, pondered, shook his head. ‘Either way,’ he went on, ‘with a bit of luck people would keep reading, could in fact keep reading without having to take a clear position…’
‘Do you mean a moral position? A political position?’
‘Well, I meant actually, they wouldn’t have to take a position on whether or not it was fiction. They could – relatively comfortably, I suppose – they could let the book just take them along.’
‘So people would not know whether what they were reading was fiction or not?’
‘No, no. In fact the reader would need to be able to say that it was fiction, and so probably would the author, if he could be persuaded to put his name to the book in the first place.’
‘It’s fiction?’ she asked, with undertones of anger and disbelief. ‘You’re saying it would be fiction? You?’
‘It would have to be fiction,’ he said firmly, as though coming to the realisation for the first time. ‘The kind of fiction that makes you feel very uncomfortable. A fiction which has an awful undercurrent of truth, but is nonetheless fiction. That way, you see, you’d get it past the powers that be, and then, if you were lucky, it would start to resonate, as a sort of suggestion device. And once that happened people in the know would start to blow the whistle…’
The English Project suggests that it is, in its newspaper form, itself a solution to the problems of sayability [can you really write this down and publish it?] and validity [do you really expect us to believe it is true?]. For this reason The English Project is a thing which cannot rest, cannot settle, its tensions cannot subside. For how is one to speak where no speech is licensed, none permitted to be heard? How much truth or at least countervailing reality can be articulated, uttered or written where consensus is sham and prevalent and ubiquitous – and by what means? How could a grown man declare that the emperor has no clothes? It is almost inconceivable; indeed, only a child, a naïf, a callow youth could be allowed to say such a thing precisely because the truth uttered is almost completely negated and annulled by the wholly deniable yet mildly favoured status of the person who speaks it. And so there remains a jot, a jot of truth after the subtraction of status has been made. In the case of The English Project , too, the awful things that carry the appearance of truth are purveyed through the experiences of a fictional character, by which I mean to say a character invented in a different book, a clear fictional character created many years before. This greatly reduces the danger of the narrative and burns away its awful charge, almost completely.. and yet, as with the child and the naked emperor, there remains a jot. There remains more than a jot, which taken with the newspaper format ramifies in peculiar ways. Just as was hoped.
Yes, Hugo Thayer is a character from The Salamander Tree, an earlier novel, and at all times he is treated as such — he is a fictional character as character, not a fictional character who the reader is expected to believe to be real. He asks of George Herbert [another fictional character from a different book as well as the narrator of The English Project]
.. ‘Is art a power? ..Or is it just a power to delude?’
‘I believe it to be a power,’ I conceded. ‘It can help change the world.’
‘I agree with you,’ he said, ‘It is a power, yes, but only as long as it restricts itself to make-believe.’
‘I’m not sure I follow…’
‘It must allow itself to know that it deludes. It is ludic, ironic even when epic or deadly serious, apparently, or it loses its power to change the world.’
‘So if art takes itself too seriously,’ I started..
‘Or, which is the same thing, of course — if it too closely follows so-called reality, even when reality is funny – having one of its comic turns…’
‘Then it loses its power. And the light disappears.’
‘The light disappears?’
‘Pulled back. The light falls back. It falls back down into the black hole of the real.’
‘The real is a black hole?’
‘Yes. In a sense it most definitely is.’ He gave me a sudden, bright smile. ‘But we don’t have to worry, George,’ he appeared to wink. ‘Because we’re both characters in a book.’
I smiled back, notionally. I was bored with it, quite naturally. But then, as ever, he took me out into the deep, deep water and again I grew afraid.
‘Remember the Ancient Mariner? Who stoppeth one in three…’
‘The poem, yes.’
‘The man, the character — who had seen too much, who simply had to speak… that’s me. Except I cannot speak, I mustn’t speak. Not just because they threatened me with prison if I spoke.. there’s the other thing, too, you know.’ He paused, waiting for me to take it up.
‘What other thing?’
‘When you see something,’ he said, ‘something pernicious, even wicked, that gives the lie to everything that decent people cherish and desperately need to believe in… and the evidence is secret, only barely glimpsed, hard to put together, incredibly complicated and almost impossible to give an effective account of… because veiled, fair-seeming, carefully managed.. Then, if you are alone in what you see, how can you speak? The culture is a force, a tide, a rushing river. You cannot stand against it. You must do something else.’
Interestingly, in The English Project you will find the most satisfying comic moments in close association with the most awful things of all in the text [what you might refer to as the very hard edge of political veracity in the work]. These flow from the character of a family court judge, now a spirit engaged in case study work in Hell, whose overwhelming intention is to get out of Hell by collaboration with one of his own former victims.. Now, this character does not purport to be fictional nor does the narrative suggest that he is, despite the fact that he is a spirit. Indeed, not for nothing has it been promised to him that he is to be the Spirit of England. And yet, as the novel draws to an end there is a further suggestion to the effect that the whole thing was simply feverishly dreamt up by a person in a cave. Ah, but this takes us back to Plato, does it not?
So we can ask of this newspaper novel What is being said? Who speaks? What is their status and how does this affect their plausibility, their credibility? George Herbert writes [after all, he is the narrator of The English Project ]… if you want to know the truth
.. you’ll need a man like me; In the general run of things, if you want to know something that really matters you’ll be needing a person like myself — a person of no consequence, a person with nothing to lose. You’ll get my drift soon enough. You’ll see the need for parables, for coded talk, not a blurred babble that entertains but does not challenge. And by happy chance I am free; free of the claw roots of income and repute, free of respectability. I am of an age and state to lay me down in a cardboard box, companionable and loyal to my peers, that commonwealth of citizens under all the bridges in all the cities of the world. And Hugo Thayer, I reckon, saw all of this straight off. He was probably paranoid, yes, but he was very perceptive. He had my card marked right from the start.
The novel in the newspaper is really about the challenge of writing in its purest, most ardent form.. the challenge to power [as Thayer himself says], and its search for a gestalt, a story which has sufficient power in itself to carry the challenge to the inmost court of power itself.
And of course there is the proposition that The English Project is only a thrown spark from The English Project itself, which is a spiritual configuration of energies in evolutionary space, a challenge laid upon the nation in its journey towards evolution. Hence the association with Stauffenberg, who took the bomb in a briefcase to a meeting with Hitler, and with The German Project, a similar spiritual challenge which was laid upon the nation of Germany in the twentieth century and which was hijacked by gangsters to become The Third Reich.
The novel asks very seriously, are we truly spiritual beings? Is there a process underway, an unviewed, unimagined enactment of which we know nothing and yet such that it is the only important reality in our lives— which are otherwise shadowy, notional, even imaginary? Can story enable evolutionary energies; can it liberate populations from the delusions, false beliefs and manipulated consciousness visited on them by means of their rulers and their helpmeets? Does each nation really face evolutionary challenges, tailor-made and of the utmost significance and import?
The English Project does have an objective correlative, which is a father child story in its environment of the nefarious secret courts. But what this novel in a newspaper is really about is whether writers can make a spiritual contribution to the nation’s fate. Do please have a browse and get in early on the debate.
Robert Lipscombe February 2014