It’s in the shadows of paradise where we are happiest; There alone death choreographs life’s wildest parties.
A novel born from a quote. A quote born for a novel. It’s fortuitous for a writer to be given such a gift from the Muse. Especially when that writer has shunned the Muse in favour of a more work-driven approach to inspiration.
What does it mean, this elusive, ethereal quote? To answer that I had to write a whole novel.
But I can, at least, sketch out some of its meaning here, for you generous, kind, obliging readers. To make it less abstract, I’ll ask you to consider this: do you ever watch footage of starving African children, emaciated, hungry, fly-ridden, and think: what the hell have they got to be smiling about?
Now such images are nine times out of ten sheer bullshit; the manipulations of the media to assuage your guilt at not doing a damn thing to alleviate their terrible suffering (it’s alright, they’re happy in their miserable poverty, and if they’re happy, we’re happy). But there is a profound inquiry that needs to be made here. How do the oppressed, the poor, the crippled, the haunted, find happiness? Moreover, how do they live?
It’s a question without an answer, and yet, this novel is an attempt to play around with that un-answerable question. The whole novel is really quite Absurd. Notice the capital ‘A’ there. Absurd as in Albert Camus’ sense of the Absurd. The notion that he expounded in The Myth of Sisyphus, which is tragic as much as it is hopeful (though Camus hated novels that offered hope). Man is born into a purpose-less, uncaring universe, where the true god is the randomness of Fate and the cruelty of natural selection; in such a reality, how do we exist? Camus’ resolution was this: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Basically, you fight on, push on, take on life, take on existence, just as Sisyphus (whom we “must imagine happy”) takes again and again to the task of lifting the boulder up the hill, with gusto, every single time.
But of course, Sisyphus’ boulder will fall down the hill yet again. He will fail, despite his grit. And even those of us who fight hardest to be free, will fall into chains yet again, as inevitably as the sun rise. We fight, knowing we cannot win, and we take pleasure in the fight nonetheless. A bit masochistic, I grant; but boldly realistic.
That’s what the characters in the novel will have to go through. They are on a quest to find a way to tackle the insurmountable chains of life. In different, yet equally poignant ways.
The story centres around one action: A man having an affair with a sixteen-year-old girl. An act he himself despises. And yet, he says, he’s an animal, driven by and for lust, it was his Fate to commit such an act. He can no more be blamed for it than a dog who bites the hand that steals its meat.
Does that sound like a bullshit excuse?
That’s what his girlfriend, the celestial Celine has to decide. Can she forgive him, can she take him back, is he right in saying he’s not to blame, or is he just taking the ‘nature’ argument too far. Whilst figuring out if she should forgive him or not Celine also has to learn how to live – without him.
He’s taken off, he’s taken a small bag, a reading book and a few cigars, and gone travelling – trying to find a new meaning in life, a new purpose, a cleaner conscience. He promises Celine he’ll return to her when he’s buried the old monster and is worthy to live with her again – if, that is, she takes him back.
By revealing all this, by the way, I am giving nothing away – this is all in the first chapter! The later chapters will take a darker turn. I won’t spoil it, if there’s anything to spoil – who knows? – but I will point out the novel’s subtitle (my first ever time using a subtitle): An Exotic Tale.
This novel’s exterior was heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad – the man who gave adventure novels a dark psychological edge. The setting, Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, will feature heavily in this exotic tale – much as they did in Conrad’s work. Vietnam is a place with much poverty, marginalisation, human trafficking, sex trade, illegal killing of animals; and yet, it’s cuisine is the most sophisticated, its drinking culture refined, its landscapes a fragment of paradise. It’s a chiaroscuro, light-dark place which will have an indelible impact on both characters.
The characters in the novel will have to come face to face with the Absurdist position, and, all the while, try to find pleasure in a world not at all designed for it. This is a novel about rebellion, as Camus put it. Of people, not just the main characters, but in other parts of the world, rebelling against the cruelty of Fate, of being happy against the odds, seeking excess in the drought, of fighters in a rigged arena. A novel of hope amongst hopelessness.
And you know what all that means: lots of booze, food and music!