John Toomey on Slipping: the author interrogates himself
I think one of the remits of fiction is to set up these hypothetical situations so we can explore the complexity of the human heart and mind
John Toomey: You want to challenge your readers, with the ideas and the characterisations alive in the text, but not baffle and befuddle
When I’m finished with a novel, or very nearly finished, I begin to formally ask myself some questions. To interview myself. To imagine how I could or would respond to certain questions. Usually these questions zero in on aspects of the work about which I have my own reservations. What I’m seeking, of course, is to find out whether my responses will hold any water. Because if they don’t, I’m in trouble.
Other times, the questions are more mundane. Simple but common questions for which I’m seeking a relatively engaging answer that might serve to help the book into readers’ hands.
I began doing this on my first novel, without any intention of it ever being for public consumption, and now here I am – on my third novel and somewhat surprised by there being three – and I’m still doing it.
So when I finished Slipping, just over a year ago, here are some of the things I put to myself and some of the meandering answers I chiselled out:
1. What’s the book about?
In a sentence – it’s about a man who murders his wife and the aftermath of his crime.
But for me it’s about the loneliness of human existence. The central character catches a glimpse of the infinite universe and his tiny insignificance and, unable to shake it off, he descends into a spiral of questions for which there can be no satisfactory answer. He feels like a failure. Like his life has been squandered. Then in a blind and demented attempt to salvage something from his life, he sets off, half-lucidly, on some libertine mission to reclaim life and live it exclusively on his terms. In the end, the story is his attempt to explain his failure and his regret. It’s an existential wrestle with life’s futility. And it’s cruel and funny and sometimes tender. Or it was for me, at least.
2. Are there aspects of the story you can relate to in some way?
Yeah, I suppose so. You know, in many ways, this is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. I’m fairly naked here, to be honest. Failure, or feeling as if you have failed, is an incredibly isolating experience. Irrespective of the support you may have around you. So, yes, I relate to some of what constitutes Albert Jackson. Not in the facts and the plot but in the emotions and the psychology. Albert experiences failure – personal, professional, aspirational – and becomes increasingly peripheral in his own life, as he sees it. And in isolation we often act “out of character” and perpetuate our failures. Albert, obviously, takes this to an extraordinary level. But I understand him a little, yes.
3. This is a story about an unpleasant man, who commits a terrible crime. Why write this story at all?
Vanity. Self-indulgence. For a writer there are hardly better reasons than those.
But more specifically, I liked the manic voice that opens the novel and I pursued it.
And I suppose I think it’s important to explore the grey area. Even in a story like this, where a husband has murdered his wife, and is pursuing another woman, you might think his badness, his evil, is a given. But I think one of the remits of fiction is to set up these hypothetical situations so we can explore the complexity of the human heart and mind. To try and understand a little of what dark aspect of our humanity drives certain acts. I find it hard to accept that some people are simply monsters. I think, if evil, like good, is in some of us, then we all have the capacity for it. So I was imagining this as a story breaking in a tabloid and wondered how it would play out. Because I had Albert’s voice in my head and I knew what he was going to do but I didn’t feel that he was bad. That seemed like something worth exploring.
4. Is Albert likeable then? Can he be?
I don’t think readers will like him. Ultimately. But I do. In a way. While also knowing he is a strangely terrifying figure.
5. Are we intended to sympathise with him in the end then?
No, I don’t think so. Not quite. But I hope that maybe we understand him a little and that we believe that he is profoundly sorry.
6. Is it meant to be funny?
The first part of the book, where Albert’s voice is the driving force, is supposed to be funny, yes. I think the manic arrogance of him, the egotism and bravado, is somewhat amusing. Some of his flippancy and off-hand remarks, cutting and cruel, at times, painfully revealing at others, are intended to come across as comical. And can be taken as so, I think, until the point of Valerie’s death, when we realise, “Shit! He’s actually done it!”
7. Can you talk a little about the structure? Two principal first-person narrators, the murder and the young novelist; then there’s the talking-heads style interview/statements; and finally the switching of Albert’s first-person narration to a third-person narrative in the final section of the book.
Well, when you lay it out on paper like that it seems pretentious, doesn’t it?
The only explanation I can really offer is that it felt right to do what I did at every juncture.
I began with Albert’s account. I wrote it to the end.
Then I thought: How would such a thing make it into the public sphere? So then came Charlie, the novelist, and I thought, “Let this guy set the narrative up, let us know how he got hold of the account and worked on it.”
Then I began to wonder, “What would Charlie do?” Surely he’d want to talk to this guy, see how he was in the wake of all this. And so the interviews were born. The talking-heads bits were really because I wanted to juxtapose Albert’s manic narrative with a series of more real ones. To show both his madness and the unreliability of other people, and other people’s mixed agendas.
It’s not all Albert, you see. I wanted to create some uncertainty as to the veracity of all the accounts – the reader isn’t sure exactly what is true or otherwise.
Then the conclusion just felt the natural thing to do – the idea that he couldn’t face telling Charlie about what he did to Valerie after the fact, couldn’t face revisiting the moment he realised exactly what he’d done and how he’d destroyed everything he’d ever had. So he had to tell it at one step removed – in the third person, as if it wasn’t himself he was speaking about. Like watching a scene unfold through the reflection of a mirror.
8. Is this all necessary? Is it just a gimmick?
You cheeky bastard!
Do you think it is?
Is it necessary?
I suppose that’s the question, isn’t it? It worked that way for me. That’s all I can do. I give the form of a text quite a bit of thought and time. I mean you can’t actually write, not meaningfully, until you find a form that allows the story to unfold. So, for my part, it’s absolutely necessary. Does that make it gimmickry? I’m not sure but I don’t think so. I’m the author here, you know, and I tell the story the way I think best suits it. I don’t write it thinking to myself: “Now, what weird shit can I do with the narrative here that will make things more difficult for the reader?” You want to challenge your readers, with the ideas and the characterisations alive in the text, but not baffle and befuddle. If there was an easier, more straightforward way to tell the story that still worked for me, I’d have chosen that. But form and narrative momentum are intertwined. Your form is a conduit for your plot and your characterisation. If you have a plot. And to be honest, Slipping is a little light on plot.
9. How do you write?
Intermittently. Erratically. In chaotic conditions. In between moments.
You know, when you’re married and have kids and a job and actually want to be a meaningful and reasonably present aspect of those lives, you just have to learn to live in the middle of it all and find the moments for the writing. It happens, as I’ve often said before, by whatever means it can.
I mean large parts of Sleepwalker got written in a freezing cold room in a dilapidated house in Wicklow that we owned once. Wearing a coat and hat, drinking lots of tea, with an electric heater under the rickety self-assembled desk from Argos.
Most of Huddleston Road got written in a small, dark and draughty nook inside the front door of the rented terrace house in Dundrum where we lived for three years. Half of Slipping was written there too, and then some in another rented house in Bayview, and then finished where we are now, while sitting at the kitchen table. This was unthinkable to me when I wrote Sleepwalker – working in a space where people came and went, where I am interrupted as a matter of course. I’d have given up in such circumstances back at the start. But you learn, as I say, to live in the middle of it all. With the kids, you have to. So, by whatever means it can. That’s how it gets done.
Slipping by John Toomey is published by Dalkey Archive Press. George O’Brien reviews it in The Irish Times tomorrow.