Julian Gough: ‘I want to make an apology to Anne Enright, John Banville...’
The author caused a stir in 2010 in a piece about the state of Irish fiction. Now he’s written a ‘humble’ new book modelled on Terminator 2 and Aliens
Julian Gough: “I couldn’t have written this book living in Ireland.” Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Julian Gough would like to apologise.
In 2010, he was asked to write about the state of Irish fiction and he let rip. Words like pompous, provincial and priestly were bandied about. The story ran in several newspapers with rebuttals from other writers. “Things got a bit out of hand for a while.”
Gough had thought it would be “interesting to be totally honest because no one in Ireland can be totally honest. I was totally honest about my mean-spirited feelings”.
So now he leans into my voice recorder and quite sincerely says, “I want to make a public apology to Anne Enright and John Banville and Colm Tóibín and a few others because I got very frustrated a few years ago about the state of the novel and like a big eejit I projected that on to other people and said, why aren’t they writing the novel I want to see. Of course, I have to write the book I want to see. Connect really is the book that I was looking for. Having written it, I now have a much greater appreciation for the people that I was mean about.”
Connect is Gough’s new novel, the story of biologist mother Naomi and her awkward genius son Colt, living in Nevada. Colt lives his days immersed in a virtual game-world, and when Naomi makes a scientific breakthrough that could change Colt’s life, it brings Colt’s father, the leader of a NSA-type organisation, crashing back into their lives.
My copy of Connect is on the table as we chat. It is a novel of ideas bound up in a sci-fi thriller, packed to the hilt with philosophy, science, futurisms and epigraphs. I apologise for the coffee cup stain on it, but no, Gough is quite pleased about its worn-in look. He looks over at it a lot as we chat, anxious now that its day of reckoning is near.
It took seven years to write, but really “it took my whole life” Gough laughs, “as I put everything I’m obsessed with into it”. When he sold the book last year, it was a huge relief. “I tend to prioritise the work and completely divorce that from the problem of earning money, which puts tremendous pressure on the people you love. I’m trying not to do that anymore.”
Rather happily for Gough, one of Connect’s themes is our relationship with technology. He quotes Marshall McLuhan: “First we build the tools, and then the tools build us.”
“You can see that happening all around you.” Gough says. “We’re getting to a point where human beings are losing control of the consequences of the decisions they make about their technologies. You see it with Cambridge Analytica all over the news.”
He must be a bit delighted about the timeliness of it.
“I shouldn’t be. Poor old humanity, but I’m very pleased for my book,” he says, laughing.
That fiction might be predictive, like Neuromancer, or bring new ideas to science is something that preoccupies Gough. He loved sci-fi but found the characters were often “cardboard cut-out, whereas in an Irish novel the people are incredibly real but technology doesn’t exist.
“I felt there was a missing link between the great novels of technology and the future, and the great novels of humanity and the present. If you could somehow do both, you’d have something amazing. And that is something I tried to do with Connect.”
‘Crisis of meaning’
He set the book in Nevada largely because of the intense memories he has of wild times at Burning Man. Perhaps it also spares him any connotations of Irishness?
He calls Connect “a classically Irish novel in disguise, a dysfunctional family trying to deal with their traumas. It’s almost a John McGahern novel disguised as a near-future science-fiction novel set in Nevada.
“Maybe setting it there was a way of writing about Irish family life without feeling trapped inside that tradition.”
While writing, Gough was particularly concerned with “the crisis of meaning” he sees plaguing the modern world, which he attributes largely to the collapse of the church. “The old social structure that promised to give your life meaning has just disintegrated. My old primary school principal, a Christian Brother, was jailed recently for sexual offences against nine-year-old boys and that was the guy who was put in charge of my generation of young boys. What do you do with that?”
Gough regularly finds himself having intense philosophical conversations with strangers about this spiritual lacuna in their lives. “There’s an immense hunger for meaning that isn’t being met by society. All the official structures in society are making the situation worse and the only people promising meaning are assholes.”
The recent collapse into tribalism was inevitable. “You can see this happening everywhere: the way men are talking about women; women about men; the right about the left...The conversations are getting radicalised and the technologies are driving it.”
Science fiction was always his “first literary love”, but an English literature degree moved him away from his natural inclinations.
His earlier “Jude” books were “high ego books” written not for the reader, but himself. He was “wrestling with the canon”.
“Once I got that out of my system, I could write a book that people would actually want to read.”
Connect is “a very humble book in a lot of ways” modelled on films like “Terminator 2 and Alien, probably, films that have very strong female protagonists in difficult situations”.
Guilt and shame
Writing from a female perspective in this novel was something he wanted to return to since his debut, Juno and Juliet, a book which helped “process the shock of realising women were real, because boys of my generation didn’t naturally know that fact”.
He recalls his schooldays as “brutal. They could just really beat the crap out of you. You ended up with a kind of guy who was all armour and then we had to go out into the world and deal with women. So we made a tremendous amount of mistakes. I’m married for the second time now and it’s only now I’m fit to be married to anyone”.
He would like to make another public apology at this point “to a lot of women I knew when I was younger because I didn’t take their internal life seriously”.
#MeToo came as a real shock to a lot of men, Gough says. “I don’t think men talk honestly about this because they’re going to get into trouble but I think an awful lot of men ended up having to audit their own lives. There’s a lot of guilt and shame. We’ll talk about how we didn’t know, but we can’t say we didn’t know because that sounds like making excuses, and fair enough. But how do you escape your culture enough to transcend it when you’re 19…”
He agrees that most of the men in Connect are pretty awful human beings. “Men don’t need another book sympathising with them. That’s not necessary right now.”
With the voices of white middle-aged male novelists more prone to dismissal in this literary moment, Gough sees a welcome challenge.
“It’s not interesting to be the undisputed ruling group and write inside that for the people inside your group. That is not an interesting place to be as a writer. It wasn’t very dangerous being a white male middle-aged novelist for a long time and now it’s f***ing dangerous. I could get into a lot of trouble if I fuck up. Good. I want to get into the conversation. I like the fact that you have to justify your space.
“Black writers, working class female writers, there’s a whole bunch of groups who had to really justify their space to get into print at all for a very long time. If I’m in that position now it makes you work harder and write better.”
Connect grapples with the problem of living your life in an online space. Gough, like most of us, admits he spends too much time online. He makes an impassioned argument against the “psychological warfare” that advertising wages. “Twitter, Facebook and Google are completely driven by advertising money. We’re being poked in the brain hundreds of times a day by people who do not have our best interests at heart.”
Yet he likes to be “fairly exposed” on Twitter. “If we’re all trying to project the best version of ourselves, we’re making everyone else feel worse. I’m in a lovely position because I’m not employed by anybody. No one is going to fire me if I say I nearly jumped off a bridge a few years ago.”
“Yeah. I was in a situation where I was going to have to talk about my feelings to a woman. And the thought was so terrifying that death seemed preferable for a short while. That’s how far I’ve come. I spent about half an hour standing on the wrong side of the wall of a bridge, looking at the water thinking about the logistics of it, whether you should take your boots off or leave them on...” He trails off. “That’s not a good place to end up and that’s what happens if you don’t talk about your emotions. They’ll kill you. Guys in Ireland kill themselves regularly because they’re afraid to talk about their emotions.”
It’s another reason why he worries about tribalism. “The conversation between men and women is becoming weaponised. If you feel under attack it becomes even harder to be vulnerable and guys end up doubling down on the silence and the anger.”
Finding his place within Irish literature is no longer of great concern. He lives in Berlin now and speaks of needing to be away from Ireland in that way Irish artists often do.
“To write the stuff you’re fully capable of, you have to feel you can let fucking rip without worrying about how the village is going to feel about that, or your mother, or Ryan Tubridy. You end up self-censoring just because that’s the human and correct thing to do in a village. If you don’t self-censor, you’re an asshole because you’re alienating people all the time.
“I couldn’t have written this book living in Ireland.”
Gough’s ambitions for this book are grand but genuine. “I hope that it will help some of its readers make some sort of sense of their lives. I don’t want to tell people how to live but I do want to be part of the conversation.” he says. “You just want to make the world better rather than worse before you die.”
Connect by Julian Gough is published by Picador. There will be launches of the book next week in Dublin, Limerick and Galway. See juliangough.com for details.