THE PLAGIARIST is quite possibly the most extreme anti-novel in print, and as such definitely requires a different kind of reading, and certainly an abandonment of traditional expectation. For readers willing to embrace the chaos that is our reality, and for those emancipated and adventurous enough to adapt and evolve their manner of reading, it is also a very rewarding novel – anti, or otherwise.
The influence of William Burroughs, Kenji Siratori and Stewart Home are evident, but this is no mere homage: this raises the levels more than one beyond ten, stamps on all of the pedals, lets the feedback wail uncontrollably, and creates an almighty, and sometimes painful, assault on the reader.
The book does have a beginning, and it does have an ending, and there are characters – Ben (who struggles through the bombardment of information, disinformation, and the mutated and twisted maelstrom of words), and his ‘guide’ or ‘misguider’, THE PLAGIARIST – but beyond this, it is exceptionally uncompromising. Probably thinking in terms of Trout Mask Replica and Bitches Brew, being played simultaneously, may give some indication. It is also frighteningly similar to sitting at one’s desk, subjected to an irate telephone conversation in one ear, an impatient and demanding boss in the other, a background of random phrase from co-workers, a screen filled with urgent emails and bizarre pop-ups, the mobile vibrating incessantly in the pocket, pneumatic drills and fumes flooding through the open window, and the rising anxiety travelling up your spine like a tube train. It is like the onslaught of the 21st Century approaching complete meltdown and system overload, as experienced by apes that have had no time to evolve any kind of coping strategy.
The bulk of the book uses cut-ups of spam emails, written texts (some of which regarding the nature of narrative), advertising, news stories, and, what seem like, snippets of overheard conversation. There is great use of repetition, sometimes mutated slightly, or not so slightly, to propel meaning and chaos. Sentences, and even words, collapse and collide; the already abstracted becomes increasingly more so. Often there is a sense of great alienation from the words – the polar opposite of engaging – sometimes it is distinctly uncomfortable and unpleasant to read – there are times, when looking at the number of pages ahead, it may seem impossible to continue. But back to sitting at the desk – back to our own lives – back to our own personal hell (because although Ben is a character, he is everyman: he is me as I am you as you are me as we are all together): it is hell because there is no escape: there will be four more days to endure this week - there will be thirty more weeks to endure this year – there will be twenty more years to endure, etc – and even in the context of one day, the bombardment at the office will be replaced by the bombardment of conversations on the tube, advertisements, the leakage of music from headphones, etc – and, arriving at the ‘sanctuary’ of home, this will then be replaced by the bombardment of three kids – one screaming, the other asking perpetual questions, another bleeping away at a games consul, the TV blaring (the adverts louder and more obtrusive), etc, etc, etc. Lives and circumstance, of course, may be different, but the background of white noise is no background at all – it is ourselves who are the almost ephemeral background of our own existence; if we have identity or a ‘self’, then mostly we have no time and no peace, in which to discover it.
But although a lot of THE PLAGIARIST is far from an easy ride, there are many blissful moments, where lines from lyrics (some obscure, some not so) fall (pun intended) from the page – like tangents to segments of stored memory that are good (and in the context of the novel, as in the life it echoes, reassuring). There are also many sections where linear and conventional narrative and excerpts are used to great effect, particularly two variations of the same money and information scam, and an advertised vacancy for a Regional Sales Manager. In some ways these sections are like a welcome respite from the chaos and the madness, but also, a very effective reminder that madness is most prevalent in that which is often considered normal and acceptable.
It seems reasonable to me that an anti-novel may require an anti-reader, and there are many approaches that can be taken. One of the lyrics embedded is from Joy Division’s Atrocity Exhibition, and taking guidance from the preface of JG Ballard’s book of the same name – “…simply turn the pages until a paragraph catches your eye [and] if the ideas or images seem interesting scan the nearby paragraphs for anything that resonates in an intriguing way…” – could be one approach. Reading the start and the end in conventional manner, and then rapidly scanning the rest (but still in order – because there are definite patterns to the occasionally mutated repetition – and the subliminal effect will more resemble our real-time assimilation of information), is another.
Even with the most conventional of plot driven novels, each reader will have their own associations and reactions to what they have read, and they will have their own set of values, and understandings (and misunderstandings), which will inform the interpretation, so certainly with THE PLAGIARIST, the relentless bombardment and assault of the senses, and the extremely non-conventional nature, will render interpretations and reactions as varied and as chaotic as life, and the book, itself.
THE PLAGIARIST is not a book you would want to read in bed before sleeping. It is not a book you would want to read from cover to cover in one sitting. And it is not a book that will make Dan Brown revise his approach to writing. But it is a book that could change your approach to reading, and a book that should make you more aware of the world around you, and hopefully less tolerant and accepting of the hell imposed on us all.
Further information, including an excerpt and purchase details here