A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Clouds Gathered. Clouds Melted. does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Adam's most recent book, Lurid & Cute.
Release no. XVIII:
Clouds Gathered. Clouds Melted. by Adam Thirlwell
Adam insisted we meet at laundromat in Haggerston. It was midday on a Tuesday, and when I arrived he’d apparently been there a while; a crowd of empty coffee cups huddled under the folding chair he sat on. He was staring into the swishing roll of one of the machines, and when I pulled up a chair and sat next to him, he didn’t notice my presence until I coughed, and then again, louder. ‘Oh, hello,’ he said, flashed a smile, and then returned to the linens. We waited the remaining twenty minutes for the dryer to complete, at which point a patron came over from the other side of the room, fetched the load, took a 20 pound note from Adam, and left. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Today I'm with Adam Thirlwell on the eve of publication of his newest novel, Clouds Gathered. Clouds Melted. The derring-do promised by his use of a titular period is met—and then over-exceeded—by the book itself, a who's who, what's what, in-and-out, how-d'ya-do-gov'nah depraved and insane window into the dissolving soul. Milksops need not apply. Adam's work is known to show all of humanity's seams, pulling us apart or exploding us from within, but this work literally made me retch with the discomfort of knowing humans, and being one myself. But who cares what I think—let's hear it from the critics. Moriah Packer over at The New York Times said that his "brand of across-the-pond dirty realism is enough to make all of Carver, Ford, Wolff and McCarthy into an after-church foursome dining on tea and LL Bean catalogues." What words! The Independent's own Jenifferr Alright-Already said, "Clouds Gathered. Clouds Melted. is an experiment in language, and you might as well call me its test subject, because I've got a hypothesis, and that's that this book is a theoretical masterpiece." She might've hit the metaphor (and schnapps) a bit too hard. Anyway. What was the instigation for you beginning the book, and its unforgettable protagonist?
I’d been commissioned to do a magazine piece on the clothes worn by contemporary saints. I spent six months researching in Japanese monasteries and Senegalese churches. It was exhausting, arduous work. Then one morning I was called to Palm Springs for a meeting with a famous Sufi prophet. His name was Miguel. He was living in a community of the righteous, in a desert modernism space. It was very chic. I was overawed. And it was talking to him that Erik came to me, like in a vision - except such language makes me nervous. But there Erik was, the spaceman saint with terrible sexual urges.
Well there's no need to be bashful about it, Adam—either you had a divine vision of Erik the spaceman saint with terrible sexual urges or you didn't. If you did, was it like it is in the movies? If you didn't, why invoke religion? How close was the Erik of your mind's eye to the Erik of your hand's page?
Oh the Erik in the vision was incomparable. Sure, let’s call it religious, why not? You need to imagine him dressed by Saint Laurent in the 80s, and he had with him a small Italian greyhound and a trombone. In fact he wasn’t a spaceman at all at that point. But every time I tried to use these details in the novel, it didn’t work. It was only when I got to the scene where he meets Nicole - you know, with the hamburgers and the lice and the failed neutrino experiment - that it became clearer to me that if Erik was such a sexual deviant, it wasn’t because of anything in his past but in the simple fact that by floating in space for so long he’d lost contact with ordinary morality. Once I realised that, it became so much easier to explore him, and so of course he ended up in the way you know - but therefore the greyhound became a computer, and the trombone his love of French chanson.
But then, that’s how I write. I don’t understand those novelists who somehow invent everything immediately. Unless you trust the material, you’re finished.
Not to break some convention of acceptable discourse, but I've never known myself to get so worked up about hamburgers, lice or neutrino experiments. To be lost in voluptuous want from all three was...disconcerting to say the least.
Your efforts to view the moralistic system from beyond would make Gödel drool, and, probably, anyone who's wished to escape the shackles of our manners and moors. But of course, this is a book, an object in the real world that people will read and have their minds altered by. It has morality. What do you hope that morality is? What should the reader take away from Erik and Nicole (and, especially, that scene at the Persian laundromat), and apply to their own lives?
Well, you see, that scene at the Persian laundromat is the novel, for me. It’s the essence of what I was trying to do in Clouds. It just seemed too easy to have Erik and Nicole alone and reconciled. But when I realised that in fact there was no need to limit the cast list to the living only, that of course while they waited for the cycle to finish (it’s not that I intended it explicitly as a metaphor, but I hope that word cycle does retain a metaphorical, mystical tinge) they might be visited by Erik’s dead love Anoushka, and that in fact Anoushka could turn out to have known Nicole, and that Nicole in her turn could be visited by the spirit of her grandmother, Apple, and that the dead would be exactly as alive as the living, well I knew I’d found my way to write transplanetary fiction. Because it seemed so moving and so true for Erik to confess to Apple, secretly, while hunting for the lost token behind the dryer, that he was worried his missing leg might upset Nicole, and for Apple to reassure him by offering him a genealogy of every man in their family, all of whom, it turned out, were missing a part of their body: a kidney, or ear, or elbow.
For me, a novel is only a novel if it forces you to suspend your usual moral judgment. But in this novel I really hope I found something more - a kind of transplanetary morality. I want the reader to understand that Nicole is Erik, who is also Apple. We’re all just versions of each other. When you put the book down, and go to the mall or the sauna or wherever, that’s a very liberating thought.
You won't have to worry that your use of "cycle" was lost on me. You use that sort of "this is this but it also means this" thing throughout the book, and I really thought it was novel (like the lost token behind the dryer serving as a representation for allthe things we lose—subway cards, keys, socks, enthusiasm.)
I found your morality extremely liberating indeed, especially while not reading. After finishing, I surprised the cashier at the 7-11 by holding his hand; his worldview was not so transcendent. It is, of course, the novelists job to tell the reader how they should be, and do you ever worry you'll be creating two strands of humanity—those that have read you, and those that haven't?
Is it presumptuous to wonder about the true proportions - I mean those who’ve read me and those who haven’t? Maybe in the end more people in the world have read me than haven’t? Maybe your cashier was just shy? And after all, what’s reading? My dream is to make the novel more like a myth - so that you don’t need to be the person clicking your way through, or turning the pages. You just need to have heard about the story. And when the story’s as giant as the story of Erik and his space quest, all the while wrestling with the everyday problems of wild sexual fantasy and insatiable appetites - gong bao prawn, enchiladas, paila marina (the farewell banquet with Lars was something I worked on for 4 years before I decided I had the scene right) - then I guess in my immodest way I hope with this novel I reached my ideal. I hope aliens are reading me.
I'm staring at my hand right now, and I'm honestly not even sure what it is. But do I need to look at it to know it's there? Certainly not — how would I drive a vehicle Amazing, integral, essential stuff we're playing with here.
Let's dive head-first into that scene with Lars. It is, of course, technically perfect—not a stray comma or redundant qualifier—but it also produces a sense of verisimilitude I often can't find even in my own real life. It's as good a scene as any to finish the book on; it's a thematic montage, a recall of all feelings felt, and a reminder of what life can be. But it also beckons for a movie version, or a play, or a video game. Was this planned? Seemed almost too perfect...
Well, I’m glad you like it, of course, but are you really sure that the visual would be even possible here? I guess it’s true that recent advances in CGI have been breathtaking, but I still wonder if it’s possible to really show on screen the way Erik - after devouring the gong bao prawn, the paila marina, and of course the birthday cake which Malone had baked for him but which he hadn’t been able, for obvious reasons, to eat until now – just ascends and becomes dark matter. I meant that very precisely. There’s no metaphor at all. He dissolves into the universe and becomes background radiation. And even if that were possible, my worry would still be that for me the true beauty of the scene is the way his thought processes dissolve as well. Throughout this novel we’ve been following the movements of Erik’s thoughts, and here, at the end, when everything’s invisible, they’re still there, zigzagging, sinuous, until they fade away forever. Could a video game show that? I just don’t know.
Well—and this is no attack on your own skill, which I have been nakedly praising since my first word—but to me, the story exists even beyond your own words. You of course must make choices, arrange letters to express what you see in your head, and I believe that's the challenge for creators across all mediums, whether it's the novel or a film. Also, I think Steve Buscemi would do well as Erik (but hey, I've always just wanted to see him in a more sexualized role).
We're nearly out of time now, so I'll ask something that's a bit 'forbidden': What would you have changed? Having time to step away and look back, what string would you pull in a different way?
It’s not that I would have done it differently, but I still hanker after this other strand I had that in the end I decided to cut. There was going to be a flashback where all of Koo’s previous life in Seoul would have been described, and I wrote this delicate romantic comedy about a guy she met in a mini mart on the road to see her father who was dying in the forest, having disgraced himself by publishing a novel that used details of the president’s private life, and I was so pleased with this romantic comedy, it was 400 pages, it was this small lantern lit inside the novel, a kind of glow. But in the end I cut it.
Also the title. I’m still not sure about the title. Of course, a reader like you will get its overtones of Chinese paintings of philosophers adrift on mountain tops in the rain, but still, I do worry if it’s maybe just too literary.
Only a truly acrobatic writer can balance masscult winds with highbrow zephyrs. Thanks for your time Adam, and your words.
Cover by Kerri Resnick, an award-winning designer who spends her days creating book jackets at St. Martin's Press. When she's not designing, Kerri can be found laughing at her own jokes and google photos of micro-pigs.