I hate cruelty. It’s why I became a reporter: I thought writing about cruelty would do something. It’s also why I stopped: writing about cruelty doesn’t do anything. There seemed to be no space in news to write about things in a way that would really transport readers into the lives, minds, and nerves of the people they were seeing in the news. I think only fiction can do that, really, so I started writing novels and stories again in 2015 or so. Whether or not it’s politically useful to write about anything is an open question, but I think crime gets closest.
Writing is not the substitute for political intervention that I’d have liked it to be. My analysis of the world is a Marxist one, but I’m not under any illusion about the revolutionary function of my words, and the extremism of my opinions has not, so far, brought about any meld between my formal argument and the satisfactions of its content.
Nevertheless, I’m attracted to the crime mode because I think these can be texts of violent social intervention, the closest books can come to becoming a bomb, and nothing else. I do want to shock, and hope that something new is learned in that ripple of horror. I’ve loved the genre for a long time for this reason. More than that, though, crime is the inside fold of literary modernism in that it learns constantly from film, but interests itself in the actual material sensation and mechanics of power, with an interiority that’s forever anchored in these conditions. I think of Dos Passos as a crime writer for much of USA, for example, with the shredded, minimal interiority of his characters being part of his argument about the relentless attack of capitalist logic on mental life. In a short form, following a character for less time, but with a greater intensity of attention, I hope that a sense of these conditions manage to reach all the way up the nervature of the person reading them.
In crime, we take the exploding, dissolving gaze of the police and use it to make a narrative eye that is at once forensic and human, scattering the person to the atoms that are shared with everyone, no-one, and their material surroundings, on the one hand; and, on the other, also following the grain of the individual all the way down to its vanishing point. It’s good to try to wrestle that gaze back from the machinery of the state: there is a reason Marxist thinkers like Ernest Mandel write so brilliantly about crime fiction. These narratives lay bare as much as an academic sociology text, but faster, and more viscerally, I think. We only have to watch a film like In the Cut, where Jane Campion brings her theory of the female gaze as an answer to the male gaze – which is all drone-shots and consuming sweeps of the world – to bear on Susanna Moore’s sensitive and terrifying novel, blowing a liberatory hole in the wall of misogyny and its supporting aesthetics.
Although I write novels, I love to play with the different ways that this ‘crimey’ gaze operates in a shorter form. I’ve got ten of these stories now, all linked by a noirish feeling and a cast of characters all dealing with addiction or recovery from addiction, all of whom either live in Mexico City or pass through there. Addiction is interesting because, like fiction, it’s all about desire, self-deception, and a pursuit of happiness that can only end in a disappointed enlightenment or an enlightened disappointment. Recovery is a kind of ‘post-narrative’ condition: you’ve arrived at a happy ending, you’re kind of suspicious of desire, and so now what, for the rest of your life? It’s about you as a character now, not you as a detective or equivalent in pursuit of some absent object or solution. These are the sorts of spaces where short fiction really thrives.
The space feels very fresh to me, too: in this form, I can do what feels like a ‘no plot just vibes’ thing relative to the more plot-based stuff I have to do as a novelist. That whole drift feeling is so often a temptation to me in early drafts, so I enjoy short fiction’s permission to just follow a character and a line of desire, then see what happens. I usually have an initial concern and a final image, and then I’ll spend about three years trying to figure out the way they link up. Even though the collection is just finished, I’ve been working with some images from it since about 2008 or so, and the most recent ‘new’ idea came to me about four years ago, so they have been a long time brewing, I guess. It’s really nice to see them start to get out there.
Tim MacGabhann‘s first two novels, Call Him Mine and How to Be Nowhere, are published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry appears in the Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, Banshee, and Winter Papers, and is forthcoming with The Tangerine and Poetry Ireland Review.
Image by Jo Mazelis