Take Five: What is Tunnel Vision?

Writer Kevin Breathnach asks – and answers – the questions about his new book

Kevin Breathnach. Photograph: Eimear Walshe

Kevin Breathnach. Photograph: Eimear Walshe

 

I

What is Tunnel Vision?

Tunnel Vision is a project that started about five years ago when I happened to witness a motorbike crash at the site of the 1958 Munich air disaster and immediately recognised it as material with which I could work, not least because my granduncle died in the 1958 crash. It is a sequence of 12 narrative essays about myself, photographic self-portraiture, the European novel, and the intimate personal diary. The narrator of Tunnel Vision is very, very good company, I will say that up front, so disarmingly alert to my own pretensions, in a way that’s very funny, but also almost painful sometimes; there’s a line in the last essay where I speak of myself as a person whose whole identity and self-worth is tied up in “the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture”; it’s unusual to be so reverent, and then so irreverent at the same time, and there are moments where I am just very, very funny about this but as to the question of material, and living with a view to writing about life, and the degree to which this is, these experiences are, presumably, real...

Why did you write Tunnel Vision?

Because I’m a sensational writer.

What is the secret of Tunnel Vision?

I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.

II

What is Tunnel Vision?

Tunnel Vision is the title essay. First published in the Dublin Review, it is a detailed description of a seven-hour film, shot from the front of a train from Bergen to Oslo. Passing through the line’s 182 tunnels, the essay cuts back and forth to me in my early 20s, regularly and obsessively masturbating to porn while snorting mephedrone to delay orgasm. Apart from using one’s imagination, writers tend to assign bits of life to a character, they just give them away. The experiences don’t need to be fully imagined, since they’ve happened to you, but by assigning them to your character, they have them, and they live them. This seems to be the way fiction is written, in a very basic analysis of it: experiences that one might feel vulnerable or discomfited or ashamed to talk about pass into the space of fiction; are transformed, if only to the extent that it’s assigned another name, a name that is not “I”. I’m not fiction. There is an “I” that you are invited to relate to me, myself, moi. There are names, proper names, of “brother”, “Joan”, “Colette”, “Conor”, you know, who are presumably...

Why did you write Tunnel Vision?

To give myself to myself, and lend myself to others.

What is the secret of Tunnel Vision?

I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.

III

What is Tunnel Vision?

Because it is an account of this young man moving through European cities, having formative experiences, much of Tunnel Vision would seem to speak to the novel-of-formation, the bildungsroman. In the title essay, I write about how a project of novel-writing was something that in college I would announce to people, without it being true. And so, I just wonder, what is the relationship to the novel here? What is it that interests me in holding on to the category of nonfiction, the essay?

Why did you write Tunnel Vision?

Material forces.

What is the secret of Tunnel Vision?

I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.

IV

What is Tunnel Vision?

There is something Tunnel Vision really is not. Thinking of a writer like Rebecca Solnit, for example, where there are often these threads that are being unfolded, or unwoven, or unspooled; and then there are very often these moments of quite neat tying together, a “this is the lesson to receive from this story”, you know? Here’s some bits of life, here’s some thinking around life, or some reading they’ve done, and here’s the lesson. What you will find in my work is an absolute rejection of this. I hope you will respond to it, personally.

Why did you write Tunnel Vision?

It is what I desired.

What is the secret of Tunnel Vision?

I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.

V

What is Tunnel Vision?

An arrangement of citations – even in its treatment of the personal anecdote, incidents from life. Whether it’s biographical material about other writers (Susan Sontag, Ingeborg Bachmann, the Goncourts) or photographers (Berenice Abbott, André Kertész, Stephen Shore); whether it’s the material of the seven-hour film shot from the front of the Bergen train to Oslo; or the stuff of lived experience (of addictions, repressed desires, pretending to appreciate fine art), I feel a sense in which these have been my materials. And what my reshaping, my repunctuating of, for example, a Sontag diary entry does, it makes the reader think “he’s tampered with this”, it makes clear, “it’s come through his body”, that I have put it into my orbit and it’s been worked through me with my hands into something that, previously, it was not. I feel a strong sense of alertness to what is material and to what happens to that material as it passes through my hands and gets shaped. It just seems to be happening in a really literal way – as in, it’s a paragraph by somebody else, but when it comes through KB’s [Kevin Breathnach] sensibility, and then gets represented on the page, something is going to happen to it – some element of transformation.

Why did you write Tunnel Vision?

To tenderly mingle, to use another’s phrase.

What is the secret of Tunnel Vision?

I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.

Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach is published by Faber

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