Rosie and Andrew talk his new book Mnemic Symbols, Pogs and marine respiratory issues.
Rosie Šnajdr: I’d like to return to the structure of Mnemic Symbols. I’m very interested in structure as a means to expression. Shall we talk about your book’s circularity?
Andrew Hodgson: So, it starts with a hiccup, and it ends with a hiccup. I wanted the opening of the book to be directive in an ambiguous sense. It would function enough to draw a reader to participate in text, but wouldn’t define what that text is for them. I’m very interested in repetition, and reformulation, and drawing words, and phrases and different imagery through different prisms and contexts throughout the text. As well as how they’re accumulatively remoulded, and shift in the way they’re re-used. So, the idea of this hiccup… As you say, it’s this arbitrary thing. And it functions in this way, of presenting what happens in this text as whatever. I mean, take it or leave it, it’s not really pretending to be anything other than it is. And that’s a kind of functional-dysfunctional sort of literary object. It’s almost like a hiccup, in this way, it’s a kind of reflex. But then for me, when I am the reader, I bring the associations I have with hiccups to it. On the level that it starts and ends in a pub, at a wake, perhaps, the entire book itself could function as thought processes while the two other characters are at the bar, while they come back, and playing with the wax, and having these intrusive thoughts. Being drawn to traumatic centres, or everyday banality in the past, and these things kind of stopping — because there’s places in this narrative where I as the writer will not allow you to go, or, places where I myself can’t go, and so you can’t see it either. And so there’s this sense of constant failure, and constant intrusive episodes force themselves in. And so it can be read on that level.
The hiccup itself: it’s a sort of primordial leftover from when we were fish.
Rosie: [Fish mouth pops]
Andrew: It has no use now, but back when we were fish, it functioned to draw water through the gills, when we were drowning in air. When we didn’t have enough oxygen in the bloodstream. So, in a moment of crisis it acted sort of like fish CPR.
It’s redundant in us now, but when it developed it was a necessary last-ditch attempt at preserving the life of the being that hiccupped. On a more personal scale, when my dad did die, in real life, he died very suddenly, very quickly. But it was drawn out over a week or two. And, as his body started to fail, he had hiccups. And, I mean, that whole period of my life I can’t really access. It’s, very confused. But one of the things I can recall, is sitting with him in this hospital, hospice place, and trying with him to stop the hiccups. When you, due to that illness, come to the end days, hiccups is one of the symptoms, and you can’t stop it. And, I was sort of doing these breathing exercises with him to try to stop it. One… Two… Three, y’know? For no reason, but, what else do you do, right? To try and stop the hiccups. And, they wouldn’t.
Rosie: And so, in that way, the hiccups themselves become a symbol, not quite a mnemic symbol like that which comes up in the rest of the book, but a symbol for a personal meaning that is not part of the book, but does have this sense of inaccessibility for you.
I didn’t read books until my mid-late teens, really. I was much more interested in trying to write than trying to read, early on
Andrew: Yes, one of the versions of a mnemic symbol Freud describes is perpetual motor defects, or malfunctions, like twitches, or involuntary movements, and I thought of the hiccup as this reflex. And it is this very arbitrary silly thing, and then it also has all these further inferences, and sort of gets to the life and death of it. And, in terms of the thematics of the book, coming to the idea that this banal arbitrary thing is steeped in very intense stuff, historically, or personally for me in the very recent past — but then, all that stuff is also arbitrary, you know?
Rosie: The hiccup is emphasised by your return to it. As the book begins with the end of the third section, the hiccup that opens the book is, in fact, your return to it. Coming there, as a reflex action, on a line where there’s an ellipsis, which refuses to quite tell you, what is missing. This being made painfully aware of material that is missing, or repressed reminding me of my realism reading programming. I was aware of the abnormality of being made aware of missing information. In general, the book wouldn’t work without reference to the coding of realism, because I wouldn’t realise that I am struggling to relate the passages into an overarching narrative. And I felt that my urge to do that was, was a hiccup, or a reflex action. Especially as I wasn’t finding that reflex a success; I mean that as a reader I was not able to relate the separate narratives. But I did have an overwhelming urge to do so, and so I took that as a hiccup for the reader as well. To book-end with this non-word, essentially onomatopoeia for a reflex process… It’s not the kind of language you’d expect in a book. As a reader, that drags you to a structural point, and questions strongly presuppositions about what the subject of literature should be. And, as such, says something very important about the use of literature, and language.
Andrew: Yes, it’s almost sub-linguistic in a way. And pushes the parallels into a sort of möbius strip. To be entirely honest about the ways my understanding of what narrative is was formed, is formed, I didn’t read books until my mid-late teens, really. I was much more interested in trying to write than trying to read, early on. And, I’ve come to describe it sort of as the dread fable, where I’m from in East Hull, when people go to the carboot at Ings Centre or whatever, everyone’s sort of — oh, do you know John’s uncle’s nana’s cousin? You know what? Diabetes — lost a leg. Ohhh, no! Ey, do you know Jeff’s dog’s father’s auntie’s brother? Yeah? Dead, last week — ohh, my giddy aunt! And it’s sort of everyone, constantly trying to outdo each other with the grimmest, darkest possible thing that they can relate. And, it’s constant, and it has a very particular structural set up for pay off around drawing out, and hiding information and drawing elaborate contexts. And it was listening to my mam and everyone constantly telling and receiving these stories like that that sort of informed how narrative functions. It’s a sort of oral tradition, I suppose. I guess it’s a tradition… everyone does it and has done for as long as I can recall. And it’s very much filled with verbal tics, and crutches, and prevarication, and non-essential information and, there’s this term glossolalia. Where, things that are edited out of written languages, out of language, like pauses, and erms, and urrs, and hiccups and coughs, might be put back in, to communicative writing. And, I would view this as bringing back a humanity, in a way, that is removed in the editing out of that. And I suppose a lot of the things in this book are kind of, dread fables in a way, in this sort of dredging, it’s kind of a thing of — how low can we go, you know. And it felt like it should be done in this kind of way, that perhaps gets a bit closer to how we communicate. And I suppose, pull apart the way language sort of blocks us from experience itself. Written language, I mean, becomes a kind of hindrance.
Rosie: Yes, I got that, further down on that first page, the word ‘knack’. Which comes in the middle of the sentence, when the embers are rubbed off J’s arm. And it is perhaps a piece of dialect I don’t understand, and so I read it as a sound.
Andrew: Yeah, the word is derived from knackers, knacker’s yard. Where, they killed horses when they no longer had any use-value.
Rosie: Yeah, I saw it as like, a reflex expression of dissatisfaction someone might make.
Andrew: Aye, I use dialect in the book, and I included it knowing that the vast majority of people reading it would not receive it in the same coding that I put it down, not in a way I might pre-code. And it was, intentionally so, that it would — I mean, the way that our different iterations of English function, in our very much international Anglophone world, is that, the meanings of words are often extrapolated, as variations on the same theme. And, there are a lot of places that would use words that we wouldn’t have heard before, from the context in the sentence itself we extrapolate a potential meaning, and it’s somewhat functionally indeterminate, and so I thought I would sort of drag that through the text. Like, towards the end, I use the word ‘pog’.
Rosie: I saw that! It made me think of Pogs.
Andrew: I thought that! Where I’m from, a pog is, sort of, a person who is dirty and doesn’t wash. But then, I was aware that wouldn’t be evident. And, well, so I included it in a sense, I suppose there is a dual interaction there, where it is perhaps me myself staking my claim on text, claiming space in text that is private to myself. Or, also, sort of projecting that beyond my own reach really, as it would be impossible for me to code how these words would function in the readerly process. Because, I know that I will be defeated in the formation of meaning, because I am not actively present in text. Almost, like an artefact of the writer, or opening up the field of what meaning can be, by opening up a space where the coding of meaning, becomes a kind of multivalency. Or where, this, as a sort of private language in this space, creates upended hierarchies of reception meaning. Where it is Hull dialect, rather than the traditional inclusion of Latin or Ancient Greek, that is exclusory, in a way.
Rosie: You probably shouldn’t have just told everyone now, you might cause a resurgence of the word ‘pog’. You shouldn’t let the southerners into these secrets! I’d like to follow on from that, into smaller grammatical choices. I was interested in the places where you use the infinitive verb, replacing what would usually be gerunds. For example, on page 20, you have this sentence ‘I stopped to sleep’ and that’s followed by a few more.
Andrew: So, the vague idea was, in one sense, ‘I stopped to sleep’ — what does that mean, it harbours an internal contradiction, where it both means, to sleep, and the definitive end of that action never to return. So it was, that sort indeterminate, parallel meaning in text. But also, when I was writing the thing, I was kind of following, how, it was almost kind of the musical shape of the language as it went on the paper. And I was projecting how, internally, the reader would receive that rhythm of the words, as they’re processed. And the repetition of the ‘t’ sound is quite violent, in that sort of repetitive way. And also, I think that, when we see an infinitive on the page, I think we instinctively pause, and it was, it had this finality in its baseness, I suppose. Stripped away the grammar, and left with this sort of base action.
Rosie: I think that repetition is very effective: the inscribed ‘t’ that chops up the language in combination with the ‘t’ sound that replaces the ‘ed’ of ‘stopped’ in speech. The consonance of sound alongside the change in its inscription makes the text itself come to seem spectral. It brings you to a mental space of ambiguities, a theme which is apparent throughout the book. For example, the Kafkaesque hero is not just breaking up the papers, he’s also sorting them into classifications of what has happened. And later on, when the sorting stops, this ambiguity of the sorting process comes into its own.
Andrew: Well yeah, this figure, sorting through these papers in the book, this central figure who may or may not be real, may or may not have a job, or had a job, this figure is a reader. So, this narrating figure, is themselves a reader, and they’re actively processing text as the book goes on, like, the intrusive episodic interjections are themselves he or she reading; he or she, because the ‘I’ has no gender. I tried to be ambiguous with that, though I think perhaps I could have developed that further. I wanted the ‘I’ to be a freer space, and these letters, ‘I’, ‘J’, ‘L’, they are sort of a receptacle, their human characteristics are imposed by whoever it is that is driving them in that iteration of the story process. And, I can’t know, who the reader is. And, if I want to try to force the reader to inhabit these spaces, even if just for a minute, I don’t know which ‘I’ they might want to be. So, I tried to present the human structures in the fictive space in this inhabitable way. I was trying to, if we think of this narrating protagonistish figure, I was projecting it as a kind of space that the reader would try to inhabit. And so projected itself as a reader, and as a readerly mechanism, it is trying to process these things, while being assailed by wider traumatic and banal experience. And I think it’s here there might be this sort of, wider interaction.
Rosie: Yes, you can see that process carried forward into the characters names as letters. And they’re not always the same characters, are they?
Andrew: So, the Js and the Ls, I suppose like the Is, are largely arbitrary, as just assigned names. And the idea was that if the I is a letter with enhanced meaning for some reason, then these other letters take on a strange sort of lack, in a sense. After the I arrives, the letters that follow, or precede, are they subservient to it, or in a position of control over it, or interaction with it? Why is this one letter elevated to this strange sort of otherness. And so, the lettered names of secondary characters, they’re repetitive and slip through different contexts and fill different roles, and they fill different gaps and carry out different actions in different episodes. But they are overarching, in a sense. I suppose they are as much independent figures in each as they are continuous, whole, human simulations.
Rosie: They introduce, for the reader, the different work that they have to do in different sections as well. Because, you’re continually trying to put together the interactions of these different characters, ‘J’ and ‘L’, and fortify the roles that they have. And I felt that, on a macro level, that was playing out the same impossible job I had been asked to do, or my own reading habits were asking me to do, with the text. I liked that.
Andrew: Yeah, in using these kind of letters, I was attempting to present these people: they have characteristics, and attitudes, and perceptions on things; they have their own humanity, in a way. But drawing them paper thin, and bringing names into and out of the narrative in this way, and trying to kind of highlight how arbitrary that is. And, stylistic use of these things, is very much an interaction between, almost a verbal writing, and what is started, in that bit at the start of what I had perceived, or attempted to render, in received literary style, of this person in this village. And there’s this idea of subverting the horizon of expectations, and I was thinking of, at the start, raising these different parallels of what writing could be, and then sort of smudging them together, and seeing what happens.
Rosie: I’d like to ask about one of my favourite episodes of the book — well, my favourite thing about the book is how it operates as a whole, because I just love structure — but this particular vignette, if you like, at the university, where monographs are put to use as stepping stones to get across the puddle. And I wondered if, you were trying to say anything about academia — something that, you know, if spoken about here wouldn’t involve you losing your job.
Andrew: I did think that bit might result in that. I tried to bury it deep enough for people to not bother reading to. I mean, that section raises something I’m very interested in in other books; the role of humour in narrative, and how that aesthetically functions, but in terms of critique of academia, I work as a postdoctoral fellow, and I exist on these annual contracts, and I have done for the last seven years. And, it’s very difficult. You change workplace and role every year, and you have very little say where you might live, or what you might do. I find it very dehumanising in a way: you live your life based on what slots might be spare in the following semester’s teaching schedule. And, you know, your role in this thing, academia, that we think of a culture processing entity, is very much reduced in this very machinic, void-filler on an excel sheet sort of way. And, you sort of wonder where this culture processing action is occurring, as the vast majority of people who work in it are equally in these sort of reduced roles. And there’s a great degree of symbolic violence in that, I feel.
Rosie: They certainly do give you the intellectual freedom to develop some serious mental health issues.
Andrew: Yes, they’re good like that.
Rosie: I was thinking about those books by the door, those piles of, potentially, the same academic book. And, for me, it was about these people doing this research and their findings being trapped away in the book. Which can be seen as the faculty, or the academy as a whole; that their worth as a whole is as an object.
Andrew: Well, I mean, from my own experience, some of what on a CV might be termed ‘major outputs’ were written while on the dole, or during teaching fellowships where I was expected to do research but given no time or remit. And, there’s this wider thing of the transience of that academic work itself, you sort of commit all this time and energy in trying to decode these things, and you do it because you have a drive to understand them better, or to participate in wider discussion or whatever, and, it sort of goes in these journals, or monographs, that go into university libraries. And, after years of work, they sort of evaporate, as they only have a critical life of a few years before they would be regarded unusable for academic discourse. And, so, yes, there is very much this sense of sort of, a weird commitment to a perpetually disappearing, redundant project. It’s a strange ritual to sort of blindly carry out. And so, I suppose that sort of weirdness comes through there.
Rosie: Speaking of which, your book The Post-War Experimental Novel… that’s out soon. I’m really looking forward to reading it. It contains discussion of works which have not previously been paid much attention to by academia.
Andrew: With that, it wasn’t trying to say — the central sort of theme of that, wasn’t to say — this stuff shouldn’t be regarded as eccentric and stupid because I say so. But trying to say why has it been regarded as eccentric and stupid, and ignored. And then, once we understand the why, then what can it actually be, or what can it be trying to do, or trying to mean. There are reasons that it came to have this ignored status: it’s not because it was shit — it was actively, performatively removed. And, at the point where, if we can try to understand why it was performatively removed, then it might reflexively reveal what it actually is. Because, there were, are, reasons, different figures wanted it discounted. Because, I think at the minute, there’s a vast project of rereading, of what recentish cultural history is. And I think the experimental novel, especially in Britain, is the first major stage of a massive reassessment. Because it’s all there — all the texts, and the correspondence, and the journals, all this material is there. And these figures that wrote those books, they are all very interesting entities: they knew each other, they interacted and organised, they were mainstream published. And it’s this kind of, weird, sunken universe, of dozens of figures, and hundreds of literary artefacts, that are almost entirely absent from our understandings of literary history.
There’s this wider thing of the transience of that academic work itself, you sort of commit all this time and energy in trying to decode these things, and you do it because you have a drive to understand them better, or to participate in wider discussion or whatever, and, it sort of goes in these journals, or monographs, that go into university libraries. And, after years of work, they sort of evaporate, as they only have a critical life of a few years before they would be regarded unusable for academic discourse.
Rosie: And it’s such incredible work.
Andrew: Yeah, it presents itself as one of the first steps in this reassessment of recent culture I think, and it offers itself for that. And hopefully, once this has been carried out, it will allow for clearer access to those further spaces in literary culture that less clearly offer themselves to reapproach, or are less accessible for rereading. And hopefully these other, further spaces in art and literature will begin to be further fleshed out, going forward.
The word ‘experimental’, it became this sort of touchpoint for American postmodernism, and it came to be used to describe apprentice-level work, the incomplete. But not in a generative sense, but in this way of experimental writing is a faulty project, that attempted, and failed, to do what an American postmodernism successfully did. And it’s very infantilising in that way, and contributed to the removal of it. And now we have this challenge, of rethinking this word ‘experimental’, a project where we might win this word back to the meanings and structures by which we might better understand the work it describes.
Rosie: And, once we have a proper framework for reading these earlier experimental texts, that might offer itself as a framework within which to better understand the resurgence of experimental writing that’s going on now too.
Andrew: Very much agreed.
Rosie Šnajdr is a writer of experimental fiction. Her novella, A Hypocritical Reader (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018) explores the dysfunctional relationship between reader and writer, and the demands that have come to characterise it. Most recently, her concrete artwork/short story We Are Cosmonauts (The Aleph Press/Hesterglock Press, 2019) has explored the difficulty of finding space for humanity in heroism and celebrity, through the lens of Yuri Gagarin’s extraordinary career. She is Co-Editor of The Cambridge Literary Review.
Andrew Hodgson is author of the novelesque Mnemic Symbols (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019), and the monograph The Post-War Experimental Novel: British and French Fiction, 1945 – 1975 (Bloomsbury, 2019). He is translator from the French of Roland Topor’s Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Atlas Press, 2018), and from the Danish Carl Julius Salomonsen’s New Forms of Art and Contagious Mental Illness (New Documents, 2019). He is editor of the collection of experimental writing Paris (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019).