Whoa, there you are, tucking into a new novel (that is the reading of, not the writing) and you’re enjoying it. You’re enjoying it rather a lot (which really is not always the case). You come across lines like: ‘The air was curly with the heat of people.’ Or: ‘Tight mown grey hair sprouting densely from a roll of neck stodge.’

By the way your last novel, though mightily impressive of course (in my case it was actually Get Me Out Of Here), was a lesson – or should that be treatise? – on satirical paranoia, and I’m now thinking, should frankly have prepared you/me a little better for talented competition. Anyway…

While you’re laughing at this (someone else’s) new novel you’re also thinking, these are my sort of lines. Or rather they would be, if I’d thought of them first – really if I had the intuition and the landscape to pen, or rather type them. But as you progress with the reading of this novel, cracking up as you go, it’s not just the odd line that’s so wittily impressive. The characters become – in this case – ingloriously alive (despite all being a marvellous conceit). The satire becomes sharper and sharper. And the structure too, oh the structure, oh that conceit, is doing things that makes you sit back and think, and think, get you out of here, I’m currently writing a novel that also incorporates a writer writing a novel. A knowing knowingness, done in a light, funny way (hopefully), without too much post-modern, structural overkill.

Putting this really very, very cutting new novel aside for a moment, you retrieve from a shelf (because it’s not yet Kindle-ised) Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and reread the epigraph, one of the funniest and most ironic going, from the Mexican Salvador Elizondo. It starts, and I’m not going to repeat the whole of it (check it out for yourself): ‘I write. I write that I am writing. Mentally I see myself writing that I am writing and I can also see myself seeing that I am writing.’

Needless to say Vargas Llosa’s wonderful novel is about writing, (featuring a scriptwriter and a young wannabe writer who falls in love with Aunt Julia) or if you want to get a little more pretentious in a structuralist sense (and Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter most definitely is not), it’s about the art of fiction. Ultimately it’s about artifice, narration and the market place, or at least a very contemporary environment, too. Which, in part, is what I’m currently writing about, fictionally, and in part it’s what this very funny, brand new novel I’m currently reading is about. Though, if you like, standing back a bit, it’s what all contemporary fiction, sort of one way or another, is about. Or should be.

Getting me back in there, then … Invariably this brings us/me to the issue, the ever rolling, paranoiac, multi, multi-layered issue of originality. Where does it begin and where does it end? With the word, the phrase, the sentence? Or something resembling a structure, a plot, a story?

In a writer’s darker moments (there are plenty of those in Get Me Out Of Here, believe me), in mine anyway, there’s always the feeling that everything has been done before, or is currently being done by someone else (and you’re too late). All you can do is a bit of tweaking here and there. Some fine-tuning. Yet sometimes, when the going’s good, you do begin to think, well maybe I am onto something new-ish, and writing it in a new-ish way too. A whiff of originality could be in the air. However, because a writer’s life is full of howevers, a book will then appear, such in my case as Leo Benedictus’ The Afterparty, that will make you think, while there’s someone else out there not doing exactly, or even anything really like what you trying to do (notice how I keep switching, automatically, from the first to the second person, from me to you, from Henry to Leo), there are a number of themes that strike a chord, and that’s not just paranoia. Not to mention those sentences to die for …

As the Salavador Elizondo epigraph continues (I can’t resist): ‘I remember writing and also seeing myself writing. And I see myself remembering that I was writing and I remember seeing myself remembering that I was writing and I write seeing myself write that I remember having seen myself write that I saw myself writing that I was writing and that I was writing that I was writing that I was writing.’

One of my favourite lines of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter comes from the scriptwriter’s boss, who’s increasingly worried that the scriptwriter is losing the plot (to his serials). ‘We aren’t paying him to be original;’ the boss says, ‘we’re paying him to entertain our listeners.’

Throughout Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, and oeuvre indeed, is this thorny yet imperative issue of entertainment, and the value of, verses some idea of originality and so-called literary worth (in quite a structuralist way). That ‘verses’ is the problem I have, and the problem, or issue I believe Leo Benedictus is addressing in The Afterparty. I at least want to be all things to all audiences (oh yes), though quite how possible it is to entertain in a totally original way is a question that will continue to be addressed by fiction. Indeed it’s what good fiction is all about, wherever exactly the artifice lies. A writer writing about a writer and so on, or not. It’s only really a measure of remove. 

For the moment anyway Leo Benedictus I thought it appropriate that I borrow that line on the back of your novel: ‘I’m such a big fan.’ And as Ant and Dec might say, ‘Get you out of here.’

Originally on Vintage Books

AuthorHenry Sutton