1. ‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour,’ Maggie Nelson writes in the first of 240 numbered paragraphs. ‘Suppose I were to speak this as if it were a confession’. Already there is a nugget here, a knot, a twist of thought containing strands that are both related and dissimilar. We confess to love, but rarely to loving a colour as if it were a romantic passion. But this is the springboard for her poetic exploration into a strange but profound attachment to the colour blue, a colour that evokes divine beauty, depression and ribald explicitness in equal measure.
2. Blue now appears in all sorts of ways, as a magical element of the natural world, as the infinite variation in a huge and disparate assortment of objets trouvés that Maggie Nelson’s magpie eye has found and coveted, and as a word full of rich associations in songs, poems, works of philosophy. Nelson probes the deep emotional bond that ties her to the colour, and spreads her out into the world as a curious but sometimes mystified spectator. ‘When I talk about colour and hope, or colour and despair,’ she writes, ‘I am not talking about the red of a spotlight, a periwinkle line on the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.’
3. What it means apart from meaning seems to be blue’s capacity as foil for, diversion from, and mask over a failed love affair that Nelson is grieving. We never learn much about this lost love, except for the lostness, and the harshly evoked misery that she feels. She quotes Thoreau, in the wake of his falling out from Emerson: ‘When our companion fails us we transfer our love instantaneously to a worthy object.’ Whether this is exactly what she has done or not is, like everything else in this text, offered as a suggestion that flowers momentarily with possibility and meaning before drifting off into the white space of uncertainty.
4. This is what the numbered paragraphs contain: blossoms of thought, startlingly bright and vivid as the cornflowers (bluets) whose name they evoke. Each little paragraph a kind of standalone prose poem in a field thick with them. Although the proper origin of the numbered paragraph is the philosophical proposition as offered by thinkers like Wittgenstein. In this case, each proposition builds towards a profound truth by way of these individual building blocks. The white space in philosophy is like a pause in music, a moment for the mind to digest what has preceded and to ready itself for further ingestion. But the white space in prose poetry is the place for the mind to give itself over to speculation, dreaming, the lazy mingling of ideas and emotions. Is this the effect of Maggie Nelson’s white spaces? Or do they work to undermine the coherence of any message she might be offering the reader?
5. Nelson is not the only person speaking in this text by a long shot. Her voice is plaited through a rich and diverse network of cultural geniuses (nothing but pure art gets cited here). I started a list, but gave up because the non-Greek chorus of commentators became just too unwieldy. Mallarmé, Goethe, Wittgenstein, Newton, Gertrude Stein, William Gass, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Marguerite Duras (who I am always pleasantly surprised to see mentioned), Billie Holiday, Derek Jarman, Novais, Van Gogh, even William Carlos William’s grandmother gets a name check (ah, so of course, not all geniuses then, not even this can become a stable rule or certainty). They all have something to say about the colour blue, for the most part, or suffering, sorrow and the mysteries of vision.
6. What are we to make of this web of creativity, spun around Maggie Nelson and her pain and passion? Perhaps she is akin to the male satin bowerbird she describes, who spends weeks hunting down blue objects with which to weave an enticing nest for his female. ‘He builds competitively, stealing treasures from other birds, sometimes trashing their bowers entirely.’ Goethe, Mallarmé et al are surely robust enough to withstand the nicking of little bits of blue from their collected works, in the good cause of creating a blue nest woven around the seductive Nelson, who lures her reader in.
7. I should mention also the paraplegic friend Maggie Nelson talks about often, whose life was ruined by an accident and whose courage is immense but not always equal to her pain. Nelson cares for her tenderly, seeing in her suffering perhaps an echo of her own, or maybe seeing in her situation the chilling affirmation that some accidents of life have everlasting consequences.
8. But by this point in the book we may well be asking ourselves where we are actually going with all this. In the absence of a full narrative arc, standing like a rainbow over the text and pointing towards a pot of gold, will this meandering river of blueness ever deliver us to a destination? Or are we to question what ‘getting somewhere’ in a narrative means? Whether we can ever find a solution to the questions of Bluets, if indeed any questions have ever been properly posed?
9. Bluets spirals around its concerns, touching upon them in turn and moving restlessly on. It has no interest in closure, nor in explanation. Although it takes a form that was once linked with the original understanding of philosophy, which strove to identify what exactly we could know with complete certainty, its heart beats with the more modern understanding, in which philosophy seeks to track down a truthful experience of life as it is lived. It is a shift from cognitive mastery of the world, to close observation in service of a life whose mysteries will to some extent remain intact.
10. And so, in this rich, frustrating, beautiful, poignant union of philosophy and poetry, the objective proposition yields to the subjective insight. Life cannot be cured, love cannot be explained, pain cannot be deconstructed. Together they form the skein of an emotional life that is as tightly tangled as it is powerfully binding. Maggie Nelson and her friends evoke the potency of both passion and suffering, and the glorious distractions of art, thought and beauty that act as insufficient but dazzling palliatives.
What makes a novel difficult? Well, just about anything that doesn’t conform to the conventional unfolding of plot and character. And yet the whole point of convention is to produce a book that tricks us, that we can read as if it weren’t a book at all but an alternate reality into which we had slipped. ‘Easy’ books hide their very bookishness with artifice and illusion, and the reader willingly accepts being duped. You could think of a book, then, as being to life what a dream is to a waking state. We know we are dreaming, but the experience is so uncannily life-like and intriguing that we forget. So-called ‘difficult’ books are like lucid dreams, into which a different level of consciousness intrudes; we are made aware of the fact of dreaming, aware that this is not the same as reality, aware of the constructed and arbitrary nature of the whole experience. And why would we want to encounter this supposed ‘difficulty’? Because being aware of the hidden truth of creativity makes it even richer and more intriguing than before.
J.R. Crook’s beguiling novella, Sleeping Patterns, is one of the most original little experiments in fiction that I’ve come across in a while and the strangest hopscotch of a love story. It’s dedicated to the memory of the author, J. R. Crook, who is, never fear, alive and kicking. And then introduced by one of the principle characters, Annelie Strandli, known mostly in the narrative as Gretha. She has received the following narrative through the post, in chapters that have been shuffled like a deck of cards into the wrong order. This (dis)order is maintained, though the numbered chapters give the reader a clue as to whereabouts in the chronology of the story we are.
The location is a student hall of residence in South London, where the Finnish Gretha has come to study, leaving her boyfriend, Gunnar, behind her. She becomes curious about a shy, withdrawn student, Berry Walker, who is an insomniac and an aspiring writer. With the help of her friend, Jamie Crook, she manages to steal into his room occasionally to filch pages of a work in progress out of his desk drawer. The manuscript pages tell the parable of Boy One and his friend Boy Two, who are in early adolescence. Boy One is a dreamer who cannot help falling asleep in lessons, much to the rage of his teacher and despite his friend’s attempts to keep him awake. But Boy One believes in the power of dreams to tell a different kind of story, and one more significant than that contained in the real world. He’s encouraged and abetted in this by the cranky prophet who runs the sweetshop, and whose crazy philosophies entice him. Is this, then, the prequel to Berry Walker’s appearance in Gretha’s life, is it his fictionalised backstory? Does it explain his inability to sleep and the importance Gretha holds for him?
Gretha eagerly pores over the pages she discovers, avidly seeking for the meaning they contain, just as the readers of Sleeping Patterns are obliged to search out small details in the mixed-up chapters of the narrative in order to orient themselves in the events of the story. Mimicking the disrupted sleeping patterns of Berry Walker, the unfolding narrative is broken up and scattered. Both inside the story and from the reader’s perspective we begin to question what’s real and what’s fictional, and to find different sorts of patterns to help us. The story itself is not complicated, and the language is pure and simple, so this is not a book that confuses, despite its structure. But it does give the reader the strange experience of watching the mind scurry about putting the bits of the puzzle together again, trying them out in different orders, waiting to pounce on a useful clue. Everything is resolved with the arrival of the final chapter (placed last in the book, as well) and given a surprising and yet satisfying twist. At this point the elements of narrative slot into place like bullets in a chamber. But having the story in place only gives rise to a whole new layer of interpretation. Who loved and who was the beloved? Who was writing and who was reading?
Sleeping Patterns draws for inspiration from the theory of Roland Barthes who wrote an essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author’. In it, he argued that meaning was in the hands of the reader, and that searching for authorial intention, as critics had previously done, was futile. The ‘death’ of Jamie Crook that opens the novel is a neat salute to Barthes and a clever way of showing the reader how the theory works, rather than telling it. But you don’t need to know anything about literary theory to enjoy this novel; you just have to go with the flow, keep your wits about you, and be ready to take up your changing and evolving place in the dance of readers circling around the eviscerated fragments of J. R. Crook’s cunning story.
I seem to be running a one-woman vendetta against the so-called ‘rules’ of writing, which strike me ever more like literary use-by dates, or a way of making decisions that prevents us from engaging our own senses in the matter. Just recently I keep coming across cries of ‘cliché!’ where I’m not convinced that a) it is a cliché or b) that it matters even so.
So, the definition of a cliché is:
is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.’
But how are we to distinguish this from a phrase or an idiom or a maxim? It seems to me that the word cliché gets used for all of them. Where for instance, on the scale of cliché would you place such phrases as: ‘the answer to a prayer’ or ‘to make life a misery for someone’ or ‘not to have a leg to stand on’, all common expressions that I’ve come across recently in literary texts that sounded fine in context to me. Or even trickier, how would you evaluate the way that certain verbs take a limited number of objects? For instance, flirting with death or disaster are the other linguistic options to flirting with people (which tells you all you need to know about flirtation, I think). If we’ve only got two other options beyond the obvious one, should we avoid them through inevitable overuse? On the other end of the scale, taking someone for granted is a well-worn phrase not least because it’s the neatest, most economical way of describing a situation that commonly exists. Does that mean I have to avoid it, and find some sprawling circumlocution instead?
I found this site, a comprehensive list of clichés, and it’s positively enormous. Just from the list beginning with ‘a’, I found the following, which I would argue against as clichés:
Abandon ship – are captains in crisis now supposed to think up linguistically creative ways of expressing this?
Achilles heel – how else would we designate this part of the body? And what other way is there of expressing the figurative idea, except by long-winded explanation?
As luck would have it/As the crow flies – are these really without meaning now, or unpleasant to the ear?
Already got one paw on the chicken coop/As welcome as a skunk at a lawn party – not that I’m enamoured of either phrase, but I’d never heard of them before in my life. They can’t be clichés to me in that case.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it’s a quotation, and unavoidable at funerals.
Then there’s this site, which quite interestingly lists the most disliked clichés, as voted for somewhere or other online. Can we really object to individual words, like ‘literally’ and ‘actually’? We might dislike the frequency or lack of accuracy with which they are used, but that doesn’t make them clichés according to the definition of the term.
It’s also interesting how many clichés first came to life as jargon, particularly in the business world or on the sports field – blue sky scenario, thinking outside of the box, going forward, etc. Is jargon just cliché in waiting? It particularly tickled me to find so many online articles relating to business writing entitled ‘clichés to avoid like the plague’. Do you think they know what they did there? (and is that one still permissible or is it exhausted now?)
And what if you wanted to use a cliché but in an ironic or knowing way? What if you wanted to say ‘better the devil you know’ or ‘all’s fair in love and war’ either because the very triteness of the phrase indicates there is much more beyond it, or because despite the vastness of human nature, it sometimes happens that people behave and situations evolve just as they have always done for thousands of years. I don’t like this thought that whole areas of language have been forbidden to me. I remember Colette saying that it was pointless to search for new and outlandish ways of saying things; the best you could hope for was that one word, by its proximity, would freshen another up. Isn’t it best sometimes to consider how a phrase works in a passage, rather than condemn it out of hand?
But then, I think my sense of cliché is very different to that of other people. Here’s the sort of thing that bothers me in narrative: when protagonists bite their lip or chew at their thumbnail in moments of indecision, or when they sigh a lot before speaking. I think it should be banned for would-be lovers to hate each other initially, and I’m not sure that vampires can be used for anything at all for at least a decade now. Linguistic clichés can make me laugh, they can have a resonance or a musicality that pleases. Situational clichés, behavioural clichés, I find much more annoying.