The Lonely Man by Chris Power

British writer Chris Power

I was intrigued by a review of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man by Zoë Apostolides in the May 5 edition of The Financial Times for two reasons: the reviewer dubbed it ‘a literary thriller’ and used the word ‘postmodern’. I downloaded it immediately.

postmodernism: a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art”.

Oxford Dictionary

Literary theorists, usually critics, search for patterns in the literary output of the recent past. In simple terms what they found was a tendency ‘away’ from the well-plotted naturalistic narrative to a freer, less neat product. One of the postmodern techniques is incorporating the world of the writer into the world of the written; for example auto-fiction. Other examples of literary postmodernism are parody, unreliable narrators, and the abandonment of a single theme.

Although I’m not a great believer in genres, I am interested in how writers write, what the literary industry will allow, its latest trends, and how best to tell a story, but always with the reader in mind. Postmodernism, I think, lets the reader slip from the top position of the writer’s responsibilities; to be replaced by the writer.

Robert Prowe (anagram of Power), with his wife Karijn, live in Berlin. He is a writer trying to write a novel but it isn’t going well. He meets Patrick, who appears to be a rather dishevelled drunk, in a bookshop and then on a few other occasions until they form a friendship, of sorts. Patrick is a writer too and also struggling, but as a ghostwriter for a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin, who “pissed of Putin and had to get out of Russia” and so wants to write his memoir to clear his name, but, it seems, at Putin’s expense. Robert finds Patrick’s story of his meeting with Vanyashin not only fascinating but also inspiring. The meeting is described in novelistic detail until you, the reader, realise that what you have just read is not narrated by Power’s third-person narrator of A Lonely Man, but narrated by Robert and is his first attempt at novelising Patrick’s story. Robert’s dilemma is what can a writer use? Is Robert thieving or creating? The ‘thriller’ element is the threat felt by Patrick from Putin’s henchmen is transferred to Robert, but this only works if you, the reader, finds this transference plausible. This reader didn’t.

The other postmodern element is the incredibly un-neat ending: the henchmen certainly make their threatening presence felt, but then just walk away. This blunt ending feels less postmodern and more like a literary waterfall full of the expectation of a sequel.

I always enjoy writers writing about writing, and here the writing is assured and competent, but this ‘literary thriller’ did not, for this reader, live up to the hype.

You can watch an interview with Chris Power here.

And here you can buy the book in various formats.

What I have Learnt about Writing a Novel by Writing a Novel.

  1. To write novels you have to read novels, a LOT of novels.
  2. The best way to write a novel is to start.
  3. Don’t be waylaid by family, friends, and lunch invitations. You’re the writer. Write.
  4. Know how the language works. If you hate grammar take up knitting. 
  5. Genre is something that agents, publishers, booksellers, and readers think about; write what interests you. Let them work it out.
  6. Don’t try to be too clever with your narrator.
  7. Spew the whole story onto the screen, or page. This is the first draft: 90,000 words +
  8. Be disciplined. Give yourself a daily goal, i.e., 2000 words. If necessary write anything. Any writing (except the shopping list) counts.
  9. You don’t necessarily need to write what you know. How many witches, snakes, and house-elves did J.K. Rowling interview before she wrote Harry Potter?
  10. You don’t need to know the ending when you start; in fact, it’s best if you don’t.
  11. The three elements of a novel are narration, description, and dialogue.
  12. Narration is what your narrator says.
  13. Description doesn’t need to be exhaustive. A few apt words can paint hundreds more. Let the reader fill in the gaps.
  14. Dialogue is the best way to create believable and distinguishable characters.
  15. Verisimilitude (creating truth) is the writer’s goal; you do that with detail.
  16. Don’t think about your muse. They take the focus off you.
  17. A cure for writer’s block: put two clear but different characters in an adversarial situation and make them talk to each other. You will be amazed what happens.
  18. Somewhere towards the end of the 1st draft you need to know what it is about. What is the point of it? What does it all mean. This will lead you to the ending.
  19. Not every idea you have while writing this novel is right for this novel; it may be better for the next novel.
  20. After you’ve finished the 1st draft put it away for a few weeks and write some other stuff.
  21. The best person to tell you the real truth about the 1st draft is (almost always) the person who shares your bed. This is true and a whole lot cheaper.
  22. The second draft is cleaning up and consolidating the timeline, characters, relationships, lose ends, and getting rid of your (the writer’s) voice. 
  23. You should lose about 10% of the 1st draft. You can add or cut, but it’s mainly cut. Be brutal. If you don’t know about “Murder Your Darlings!” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said it first, find out.
  24. The 3rd draft should be printed out. Read it on paper. You’ll be surprised what ‘other’ stuff you see and that may need to go too.
  25. Once it’s ‘out there’ it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader and it means what the reader thinks it means. You’re irrelevant.
  26. Start the next one.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

This is a masterful work as well as a bloody good story. Boyne uses several narrators, first person, third person, even second person to tell the blackening ambitious story of Maurice Swift, handsome, clever, manipulative, ruthless, and fiercely driven to be a writer. The only problem is his talent is limited, very limited; but this doesn’t stop him, although at great cost to those around him. At each section you wonder, ‘where is Boyne taking me now?’ It’s exhilarating to let yourself go, to totally trust the writer to never let you down; to give you insights into his literary world, and into the mechanisms of novel writing itself.

John Boyne is an Irish writer of some experience. He writes for young readers and for adults. His greatest success was his young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). I discovered him via his previous novel for adults, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017 ) another accomplished work of tragedy, love, and humour. He’s great with the comic, laugh-out-loud stuff. Check out my blog post on this remarkable book here.

Every book, by anyone, has its own universe. Most of the time the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader: our universe. However, this is not always the case. In ….Pyjamas, the central relationship is between the son of a Nazi Concentration Camp Commandant, and a prisoner-boy on the other side of the fence, the boy in the striped pyjamas. Some critics have accused Boyne of inaccuracies: in German death camps during WWII inmates would never come into contact with the families of the staff, as Boyne describes, even given a fence. This may be so in our universe, but in the universe as created by Boyne it is what happens. It is a universe of a different internal and external geography. Similarly the same criticism could be dished out to Boyne here, in Ladder … , but Boyne makes it easy to trust him. In the heady atmosphere of reading fiction there is an element of suspension of disbelief, exactly in the same way as it works in the theatre; as readers we need to let ourselves be beguiled. One of the signs of bad writing is when the writer does not do this. Good writing will always set you up effortlessly to allow you to boldly go where you have never been before; where you accept what may be unacceptable, or unknown, in your own universe.

And with so many narrators the reader is rewarded when the narrator becomes Maurice himself, but … beware! … you almost start to like him!

You won’t forget Maurice Swift for a very long time, but don’t get him confused with Highsmith’s Ripley; it could be easily done.

You can read a Q&A with John Boyne about this new book here.

It was released in many countries, including Australia, in August, 2018.

You can buy the ebook here.

I am keen to read whatever Boyne has written, and will write. I need to make some room on my shelves.