ItinerRant

• September 17, 2011 • Comments (0)

Retired slackpacker Alex Baker shares the inspirations, tribulations and ecstasies at play in bringing his ingenious new globe trotter novel Cursive to print

Alex BakerTwo blokes at a party, one says to the other, ‘I’m writing a novel.’ The other replies, ‘neither am I.’ An old gag apropos nothing in particular, except I did.  Write one that is.

Motivation came by way of my father asking me, as I lay immobilised in Nairobi Hospital after a 40-foot fall while free-climbing pissed, what the hell I thought I’d been up to for the last fifteen years. I pressed the morphine clicker and, realising that pat responses along the lines of ‘seeing what the world has to offer’, ‘living the life less ordinary’ and ‘following my heart’ might have appeared glib in the circumstances, croaked, ‘researching a novel dad,’ committing myself to writing one as I did so.

With a year off my feet stretching before of me, I had plenty of time to plan it. I’d written a lot during my travels, usually in emergencies – whole-hearted,  ernest articles, half-hearted copy for ‘lifestyle’ mags and cold-hearted advertising lies – and had just begun a job with MCann Eriksonn foisting soft drink on the African continent at the same price as in the States, thus promoting it to luxury item. Long aware that persuading poor people to buy things they certainly don’t need and really don’t want, particularly when it’s toxic, caustic sugar-solution, might well qualify as a definition of evil, I hadn’t hoped to do it for long. I was saved from damnation by my accident. Perhaps subconsciously I jumped.

Never very convincing in the role of slick’n’smooth ad-man, I lacked the clothes, confidence, aspiration or conviction. But dissolute author? Hell yeah. Back then all I had was a backpack, a laptop and a drink problem; I could tick that box with impunity, and add a rather rakish limp to the list.

Three years later I’ve realised writing the bugger’s the easy bit – apart from when I accidentally deleted three months’ work, it seemed effortless at the time – it’s selling it that’s the hard part; turns out I needed that cold-souled ad-man streak after all.

Or the next best thing; an agent. With agencies set up to find you an agent to find you a publisher – all taking a percentage – the terrifying hit-and-miss lottery of slush piles, an often-as-not total lack of response to submissions and the current publishing climate – one agent told me it hasn’t been this bad ‘since Guttenberg invented the printing press’ – where on-line companies are gutting the market and surgically enhanced prostitutes are dominating the best-seller lists (I heard she needed not only a ghost writer but a ghost reader), the road’s a rocky one.  However, as a therapeutic exercise, nothing comes close to the catharsis you get from writing a novel. Call it self help.

‘Write what you know’ being one of the prompt cards any author should have selotaped to the screen, I drew upon two decades of flat-broke travel for set-and-setting and characters, most of whom I barely had to change and usually only to dial them down, truth being considerably more bizarre than fiction. Filtered and facetted to fit the script, characters are naturally going to reflect aspects of your self – didn’t Bellow say it was criminal if they didn’t? – but I hadn’t anticipated just how knitting-needle-down-your-plaster-cast satisfying the process would be, how euphorically omnipotent imagination’s lack of boundary makes you feel.

CursiveA dual narrative, half the book is set in the 1930s, with a naive 20 year old, Ralph, packed off to Kenya to work for the East African Trading Company at the behest of his prospective father-in-law, to prove his love for the man’s daughter. We follow his adventures, a rite-of-passage, through a series of letters written with the beautiful, mysterious fountain pen she has given him, the device around which the book revolves.

Interwoven through these letters, in a series of short, hard-edged stories, the pen makes another journey around the world sixty years later – from India to Nepal to Hong Kong, Thailand, Mexico, Indonesia and Laos – as it’s lost and found and borrowed and stolen, linking together various characters as it goes – hence the title ‘Cursive’ – and all coming together in what’s hopefully a surprising denouement.

This provided an ideal soapbox for numerous personal polemics; the twighlight of Empire into which Ralph sails – from Gib to Malta, to Suez, Aden and Mombassa, his eyes widening with each moral challenge and racial or classist injustice he encounters – meant I could offload much of the bull I’d been taught at school; that we left countries better off than they had been, that greed is good, that patriarchal religion is rational, that the disemboweling of entire nations for their resources was in any way honourable and that the economic legacy of colonialism is somehow removed from the endless pattern of war, famine and bloodshed around which the world wobbles today.

The contemporary vignettes, meanwhile, meant I could offload some of the weirdness from my journals and enabled a (hopefully) comprehensive filleting of the perception of the world today as anything other than Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village; the more of the world one sees, the more one realises we’re One, one species, part of one organism, an out-of-control super predator briefly beating our chests as we consume the finite resources that sustain us. Same pattern, different colour. Gaia theory, anthropology, Zen Buddhism and hippy shit.

They begin innocently enough with GAP-year slackpackers in India and young Dutch ex-conscripts, then harden with an Austrian junky, an Irish hooker in Hong Kong and an Indonesian pirate, before softening with a Spanish missionary in Sumatra and an Argentinian silversmith into the final two characters, a life – scarred shrink from Boulder and a – well, I don’t want to spoil the ending; the evolution of the consciousness of the characters matches Ralph’s fledgling awareness, which is forced to bloom under the coruscating African sun.

The book is intended as a treatment of loss – of lover, friend, faith and identity – and of our connection with nature, with Gaia, and how love can triumph despite this separation, or, once the heart and mind has been softened and opened by love, because of it.

It also, since I had to reason run through the arguments myself, provided me with an (undoubtedly indulgent) opportunity to consolidate my own peripatetic, shambolic views. Long overdue, I ‘grew up’ a bit, I think, with Ralph. And nothing will ever come close to the sense of achievement at finishing, the final keystroke and flourishing full stop. I whooped and cried and tried to leap and laughed my ass off for an hour; a high I’ll always try to re-achieve like any addict worth his salt.

And although I still have the backpack and the laptop, I’ve added a fiancée to the list who maintains she saw something in the book that made her stay despite my alcoholism, and that in time lead on to sobriety. See? Therapy. Whether or not it’s widely read, well-received or critically acclaimed is another matter, and (almost) incidental.

Click here to order your copy of Cursive.

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