This month our WAR Book Club members are reading The Blue Tent and asking its author, Richard Gwyn, their burning questions.
Patrick McGuinness describes The Blue Tent as ‘a mysterious, dream-like story, delicately-written and with a disturbing undertow’ and there is indeed something disturbing: the sudden appearance of a bright blue tent at the edge of the narrator’s property in the opening lines of the book. Though this is the first catalyst for tension, it is perhaps the act of following the insomniac narrator’s train of thought, his quirks and his idiosyncratic convictions, that cause the most unease. The Blue Tent was voted as August’s Book of the Month by book club members, narrowly beating The Element of Water by Stevie Davies, which has just recently been re-issued in Parthian’s Library of Wales series.
Richard Gwyn was born in Pontypool and grew up in Crickhowell, Breconshire. He is an author of fiction, poetry, memoir, and translation. In this interview we discuss his narrative style, the idea of ‘truth’ in fiction, the characters’ relationships and reliability, and the notion of the self. Some of these questions have been submitted by Book Club members – if you’re interested in becoming part of our reading community, like the Facebook page.
The experience of reading The Blue Tent is unnerving in the sense that a clear path for the reader to follow is absent: the ambiguity of the nature and purpose of the blue tent mirrors the ambiguity of the narrative itself. Was this correlation between the reader and narrator’s experience intentional?
Gwyn: I certainly didn’t set out to write a novel in which the reader has a clear path to follow. It made sense for the story to be told in a manner that in some way reflects the content, and the state of mind of the narrator. Examples of this are everywhere in fiction. I could cite the opening of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, where the disjointed, fragmented narration effectively replicates the shattered state of Mexico in the years following the revolution there. Or think of the fog in Bleak House, standing in for the corruption and malice that pervades the judicial system. What you perceive as ambiguity with regard to the tent itself might be a kind of metaphor for the story as a whole, and that is why – without giving too much away – there is a play on words at one point between the texture of the tent’s cloth, and the text or texts that the narrator is studying at the time. This text/texture ambivalence lies at the heart of the story, and is referred to again when the tent is likened to the library itself.
Certainly, the reader shares the experiences of the narrator, and perhaps, with any luck, will be one step ahead of him. But it is only when O’Hallaran appears that the tent’s ambivalent nature – its shifting allegiances – is revealed. From then on, the tent takes on a sort of consciousness, affecting the behaviour of all the protagonists.
In fact, you might take it further, and say that the book you are holding in your hands is itself the tent, which is why, ideally, the fly leaves would be a startling blue, replicating the motion of entering a (book-shaped) tent.
The experience of insomnia is central to the story and shapes our reading of the narrator’s experience – we doubt the authenticity of his account at every turn. Would you argue that his perception of events is as important as any narrative ‘truth’ we might wish to uncover?
Gwyn: Narrative truth: is that different from any other kind of truth? I mean the question seriously, because it relates to the idea of authenticity. James Wood, who is a superb critic, has made the distinction between a reliably unreliable narrator and an unreliably unreliable narrator, which I find quite useful. We know perfectly well when a reliably unreliable narrator is spinning us a line, because the clues are given; either because the author alerts us, reliably, to the narrator’s unreliability, or else via other characters in the story, and their asides or observations. The unreliably unreliable narrator, such as ours, is a trickier proposition altogether, and more interesting both to write, and to unravel. Insomnia – from which I happen to suffer – provides a perfect mechanism for this, because the insomniac, in the depths of his insomnia, really is, or feels himself to be, outside of normal reality; for the insomniac, much of what people who sleep normally take for granted seems to take place in a sort of demi-world, or dream-world, from which one is almost completely detached. Events take place randomly, in a kind of blur or haze, and the ‘truth’ is what each person (or reader) makes of it. Of course, that does not make their reading the correct one. There are other readings, other interpretations, in literature as in life. However, in The Blue Tent, the only point of view on offer is the narrator’s, so in order to uncover any ‘narrative truth’ whatever, the reader is going to have to do some guesswork of their own.
There is an almost magical quality to the ease and speed with which relationships form in the novel – within twenty-four hours of meeting the tent’s first occupant, Alice, the narrator has “already moved into a sort of assumed domesticity” with her. Is this an intentional comment on how suspicious of connection modern society has become? Or is the strangeness and intensity of their friendship just another unreal aspect of the narrator’s perception?
Gwyn: Well, at least one reader has assumed that Alice is Aunt Megan, or a possible version of Megan. I’m not sure I consciously thought this, but for the narrator, at least, Alice seems familiar, and he does comment that being with her reminds him of being with Megan, so there is a connection there. In any case, they ‘click’, and we can take for granted that he, at least, is attracted to her, even though he does not act on it, and it is difficult at times to know quite what her emotions are towards him. But there is a warmth and connection between them and I do not find it unusual that such a bond might develop quickly under such circumstances. His attitude towards O’Hallaran is quite different: he feels animosity at first, which is then tempered by a kind of reluctant identification or at the least a recognition that O’Hallaran has a role in revealing the secret of the tent. It is significant, within the architecture of the story, that the relationships between all the characters shifts in nature after each visit the narrator pays to the tent: the balance is disrupted in ways that undermine the idea of each person’s intrinsic ‘character’.
In Harper Lauren’s review of The Blue Tent she talks about the mingling of ‘Victorian syntax’ and ‘modern argot’ in the narration. What was the intention behind this?
Gwyn: The narrator spends his days immersed in obscure alchemical texts, and the language of these things is generally archaic and at times quite preposterous. The study of Thomas Vaughan by the occultist A.E. White, for instance, published in 1888, is written in the high Victorian style, and we can assume some of this has rubbed off on our narrator, who himself comes across as quite fusty and intolerant and even unworldly much of the time. However, he is not entirely unaware of this aspect of himself, and – in spite of the impression he might give (one reviewer thought he was an ‘old man’) – he is not that ancient, only around 40 years old. It is noticeable, also, that elements of his syntax seem to be ‘taken up’ by O’Hallaran and even Alice at times, as though they were echoing him, or mocking him. This might suggest that all the voices have one source, or are being ventriloquised by the narrator. The idea is not so ridiculous.
I’d like to consider your selection of a tent to represent a space that contains all other spaces (an aleph), rather than a more solid structure – a room in the house, perhaps – does this suggest that such spaces may only ever be transient?
Gwyn: Absolutely, yes. I’m tempted to go on about the nomadic mind, or some such theoretical construct, but essentially a tent is a transient space, and therefore the ideal vehicle to convey an idea of impermanence. There is a passage near the start when the narrator makes the point, rather sententiously, that he is an ‘an actual resident of the valley and they [the inhabitant(s) of the tent] merely passing through’; then a little later, Alice tells him: ‘You too are a temporary resident, if you think about it.’ The point is raised again when he reacts to O’Hallaran’s appearance, in both senses. There might even be a veiled reference to vagrancy, or homelessness there. The idea of transience is very much a part of the scheme of things in the novel, and links up with the notion of shifting or multiple selves; even, perhaps, the multiverse. But these are things for the reader to decide.
There are a myriad of ways to read The Blue Tent, which is both wonderful and frustrating – our imagination is free but we cannot be proved right about our interpretation, because there is no such thing. Do you feel readers should be less bound-up by concept of narrative truth?
Gwyn: Well, one of my gripes with social realism as a whole, and a certain kind of realist novel in particular, is the idea that we are bound by an expectation that fiction (in a literary sense) will deliver to us a recognisable reality – or the simulacrum of reality – in which lives are neatly circumscribed, in ways that sustain a bourgeois self-satisfaction that reality is fixed; that things are just so; that we live out our lives according to recognisable truths; that the world goes on turning in predictable and essentially comprehensible ways. Perhaps it is better defined as ‘literalism’ rather than ‘realism’, but either way it presupposes a kind of acceptance as to the nature of narrative truth. Actually, the very best realist novelists accept the absurdity of this position, and they put that uncertainty, that fragility or fleetingness under the spotlight. Think of Conrad, or Virginia Woolf, or Mavis Gallant or even Roberto Bolaño.
We live in traumatic and terrible times, and our assumed realities are under constant threat. How can anyone accept that the role of fiction, of all things, is to present a piecemeal representation of reality, when the defining characteristic of reality itself is its fictionality? ‘Truth’ is another matter, since truth is as discernible in a work of fiction as it is anywhere else. It’s a question of being able to identify with the truth of an experience, or an insight, regardless of whether it happened or not ‘in reality’.
Myth, alchemy and history are all central to The Blue Tent. Can we expect further exploration of these themes in your future projects?
Gwyn: Myth and history have always been the focus of my work. Alchemy is a kind of trope for the (generally frustrated) search for self-knowledge over the ages, and was therefore a useful approach in this book. The degree of soul-searching and the quest for one’s essential identity that goes on in contemporary society is a useful indicator of that society’s state of mental health. I think The Blue Tent questions that whole movement towards ‘self-discovery’ or ‘self-realization’, and posits instead the likelihood that we have several selves, that there is no core identity, and that it might be in our interests to stop demanding such a thing of ourselves, and accept that one can shift one’s shape and adapt to these different selves, and flourish in a variety of ways rather than in just one role. That it might be more practical to accept our multiplicity and diversity – or ‘difference’ – and that of others. But I’ve already said too much.
More specifically, I am very tempted to continue exploring the seams or themes opened up by The Blue Tent, and – something we haven’t touched on – the way in which those themes are intrinsic to the local geography. The Black Mountains, where I grew up, hold a host of untold stories for me, and they have now attached to a particular fiction, or series of fictions, centred around a particular group of characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Blue Tent were the first part of a trilogy, but we shall see.
Thank you for the insightful answers Richard, and we’ll await news about the continuation of these characters’ stories.
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More features about Richard Gwyn can be found here.