19th October, 2012
Back in July, Dark Mountain’s resident book reviewer, Akshay Ahuja, wrote a wonderful review of several works of what he called ‘collapse literature’, in which he tried to analyse why the post-collapse stories he was reviewing didn’t work. He alighted on various answers, from the writers’ eagerness to prevent said collapse through the means of fiction, to an over-concentration on the details of a post-collapse world at the expense of an imaginative inhabiting of it.
It’s very hard to imagine a future in which everything we know has fallen away. It’s not impossible, as anyone who has read Riddley Walker or The Road will know. But you have to be a Russell Hoban or a Cormac McCarthy to do it, and even then you’ll have your hands tied by history. I suspect that the starting point, and probably the starting premise, is just too much for most of our imaginations to cope with. I also suspect that, when we try to imagine everything that we know falling away, we are so personally tied up with our own emotional reaction to that possibility, (whether we think it would be good or bad) that it can be hard to gain the distance that a writer needs to have from his or her subject. Added to that, we have the weight of history: so many post-collapse novels, films, albums and stories have been produced over the last century, that it has to be almost impossible now to surprise the reader or viewer, or to haul your imagination out of the ruts that have been created by what has become a well-worn genre.
I’m reflecting on all of this right now because I have just written a post-collapse novel, which I am currently in the process of getting published (you can read more about it here.) Given everything I’ve just written, you might think that a strange use of my time, but I have actually found this to be the most fulfilling piece of writing I’ve ever produced. I also, at the moment anyway, think it’s my best.
This might have something to do with the fact that the collapse I have written about happens not 1000 years in the future but 1000 years in the past. The Wake is a historical novel, set during the almost-forgotten guerrilla insurgency which spread across England in the wake (ahem) of the Norman Conquest of 1066.
I’ve been calling it a ‘collapse novel’, but it isn’t, really: at least, that wasn’t how it consciously began life. I wrote it as an attempt to fictionalise the story of the ‘green men’, or ‘silvatici‘, a network of underground guerrilla fighters who made life hell for the new Norman ruling class for a decade after 1066. Nearly four years ago, when I began the novel, I had only just come across the story myself, and I sensed that within it were all kinds of possibilities. One question above all nagged at me: what was it like to live through this?
Here in England, 1066 is a date which everyone learns at school, but we don’t learn much beyond it. Yet when you start to dig into the history of what was essentially the first and last conquest of England, you come across something which would have been genuinely apocalyptic for its people.
The three battles of that year saw the death of the English king and almost the entire ruling class of the nation. It saw an invasion by a foreign power, and the rise a new king who did not speak the language of his people, and who regarded them as savages. That king lost no time in instituting a law which gave him unprecedented ownership over every acre of land in the country (a situation which still persists today.) He unleashed scorched-earth warfare, mass rape and enslavement on those who opposed him. He built stone castles and stone churches which towered over a country in which most buildings had previously been made of wood. A new class of nobles took control of the land by force – some of their descendants still run it today. It was to be over 300 years before the king of England again spoke the language of his subjects. For three centuries, the English were regarded as social inferiors in their own land.
That sounds like a collapse to me. What did it feel like to live through? That was what I wanted to write about. As I wrote, I found that contemporary resonances kept coming through, as they must in all ‘historical’ novels, which are really about the times they are written in. Questions of place and belonging, the loss of old worlds and the birth of new ones, the death of the wilds at the hands of Man – they all swam into the story, and as they did so they brought their own language with them.
For though I started off writing this book in standard English, I ended up, after many struggles and false starts, creating my own language (or should that be dialect?) in which to write it: a middle ground between the Old English that would have been spoken by the book’s characters and the English we speak today. The result is intended to create a mythopoetic sense of being in another, older, stranger England, which nevertheless has echoes in our own.
So, there it is: my first uncivilised novel. It is a strange beast, but it has captivated me. I hope it might captivate others too when it is published. And if the sound of it interests you, you could help that to happen. The Wake is being published by a pioneering new publisher, Unbound, which operates along the same lines as Dark Mountain does for our own annual anthologies. Unbound’s books are crowd-funded, which means that a certain number of each title has to be pre-ordered before they are published.
The Wake is going through this process at the moment. So far, it’s 25% of the way there after a few days, which seems good going. If, after digging further, you like the sound of it, it would be wonderful if you could help it to cross the line: you can do that by clicking here to read more, and pre-order the book.
Apart from anything else, I’ll be fascinated to hear the reactions of others as to whether this particular post-collapse vision can stand on its own imaginative feet.
Posted by Paul Kingsnorth on 19 October, 12
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