Tag Archives: london institute of ‘Pataphysics

The Pataphysics of Philip Jose Farmer

When I was writing The Revolutionary Tapestry there were two key influences on the novel – ‘Pataphysics and Philip Jose Farmer.

The ‘Pataphysics influence is fairly obvious – Alfred Jarry is one of the main characters and those familiar with his work will notice lots of implicit and explicit references to it. One of the conceits is that things that happen in the book feed through into his later writing. While the character of Jarry is reasonably accurate (I hope) it changes because of the experiences he has in this alternate world.

The Farmer influence is primarily in a shared love for “pulp” or popular writing – in the case of the novel mainly French serials, novels and films with the odd nod to Britain. Not all of these were written during or before the time in which the novel is set but most of those that followed are either set in that period or follow the zeitgeist of that time of anarchy, experimental art, street gangs and furious scientific innovation.

What I didn’t try and do is to write a “Wold Newton” book. There is only one character taken directly from a novel of the time, and he is only mentioned in a single paragraph and doesn’t appear directly.

However, Farmer’s Wold Newton universe is itself a Pataphysical concept as it deals with a universe supernumerary to this one ruled by the science of exceptions.

The Wold Newton universe is one where the heroes and villains of popular fiction not only exist, but are generally all related. First explicitly detailed in Farmer’s Tarzan Alive it suggests several families – including a number of characters from popular fiction – were travelling by coach through the village of Wold Newton in Yorkshire in 1795 when a meteorite fell nearby and its radiation caused genetic mutations in their descendants which gave them extraordinary abilities. Farmer then proceeds in Tarzan Alive and his biography of Doc Savage to trace those family trees back and forward and shoehorn in hundreds of characters in popular fiction.

This is, of course, an extension of the methods of the Sherlockian Game where members of the Baker Street Irregulars and other fans of Doyle’s character use the methods of academia to try and reconcile the contradictions within the Holmes canon – which they treat as factual and written by Dr Watson with Conan Doyle as his literary agent. The best starting point for this is Baring-Gould’s Biography of Holmes: Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.

After writing the two biographies Farmer proceeded to set stories featuring characters who were integrated into the Wold Newton family tree – some by other authors and some original. Other authors have since expanded both the family tree and the number of stories set in what Win Scott Eckert dubbed the Wold Newton Universe. Eckert himself and others have also written quasi academic articles. The four volumes of Crossovers by Eckert and Sean Lee Levin as well as Randy Marc Lofficier’s Shadowmen encyclopaedias detail a dizzying amount of links – most of which can be found via the Wold Newton website. They have swallowed up thousands of novels, TV shows, comics and films and incorporated them into this universe.

This approach seems to mirror the work of the College de ‘Pataphysique – founded in 1948 – and its various departments in exploring the work of Jarry and his antecedents and descendants in a way that is both rigorous and playful. Andrew Hugill’s ‘Pataphysics: a useless guide is probably the best overview for the Anglophone.

Both programmes have been extremely influential and the roll call of the societies and associated groups such as the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics includes a stellar list of names in literature and art.

Although Farmer never linked the two in his Wold Newton books he does feature Jarry as a character in his Riverworld series – where everyone who has ever lived on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a world long river. I was not entirely convinced by his portrayal of Jarry, but enjoyed the addition to the series in the stories Crossing the Dark River, Up the Bright River and Coda.

 

Transreal Fiction

I noticed when editing my short story collection how many times I use my recurring character Tom Robinson – a person who shares a lot of their life experiences with me.
Part of the reason for this is that I wanted to use a lot of the events I have lived through and the feelings I had at the time so it seemed “honest” to have a reasonably accurate version of me go through them in the story. I hope I have been careful not to make Tom a hero but a person who shares my flaws as well as my strengths.
Another reason is that I was attracted to Rudy Rucker’s concept of Transreal fiction where you use your own life as a jumping off point in fantasy or science fiction so that the characters are realistic even if the setting is fantastic.
Other authors have used the inclusion of a “me” character as wish fulfilment, but I didn’t want to do that. Tom is normally the narrator retelling what has happened to other characters while he is only a peripheral part of the action.
There are exceptions – particularly the “Dulwich” short story and novel – based on my experiences as a journalist but taking their stylistic cues from two alumni of Dulwich School: P.G.Wodhouse and Raymond Chandler respectively.
The short story – included in The Cat Factory and Other Stories and attached below as a free taster – is a farce where I tried to emulate Wodhouse’s wonderful domino rally plotting. The plot elements are carefully installed at the start and you then just push the first one over and see the pattern emerge as they tumble.
The novel is a noirish crime story with a lot of black humour in the background. A dark sense of humour is endemic in journalism as well as other professions where you deal with the aftermath of tragedy on a regular basis. It gives you a way of being empathic but keeping a degree of distance.
Most of the background incidents in both stories are completely true, although the characters they happen to are removed from reality in order to protect the innocent (and me from libel, although I still have the notebooks). The newspaper I worked for has already featured in one comic novel: Yeah,Yeah, Yeah by Angus McGill, and formed the basis for Norman Wisdom’s Press for Time.
As well as putting in a fictional crime plot I used the mythic subtext of the Fisher King legend. It is set in the Queen’s Jubilee year of 1977 when Elvis died and punk was king. It was also a year of economic and political turmoil as Militant Tendency were struggling for the soul of the Labour Party and the seeds of the Thatcherite revolution and the death of Tyneside’s traditional heavy industries were being sown, as well as the start of change in the newspaper industry as it moved from hot metal to litho and computers. It seemed the perfect setting for a coming of age story with the death of the Council leader echoing the death of so many other things we thought would keep getting better in the heady freedom of the sixties.

Although on the face of it the novel is in the crime genre, I added a few things to make it an alternate reality novel – just because I could.

Tom so far has featured in two novels and five short stories – nine if you realise he is the unnamed narrator of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics stories. He will feature again in the rest of the novels in the series started with Masonic Fire and may have a walk on part in the Three Wise Monkeys stories.

To read Identity Crisis click here

Making a Pen and Ink

The Cat factory

The Cat Factory

tangled in the tree of ghosts

Tangled In the Tree of Ghosts

Sniffing Out The Truth

Sniffing Out The Truth

stripping the past

Stripping the Past

I’ve been preparing the various short stories I’ve written to publish as an e-book on Amazon.

I decided it needed some illustrations and rather than get someone to do them thought I would have a go myself. I haven’t done much drawing for forty years so getting out the Rotoring pens was fun as well as a challenge.

I’ve never been that good at freestyling so used some photographs as a basis and then adjusting the images to fit the stories. They were drawn freehand, however, rather than copying or tracing. I’m not sure they are that good, but I’m quite proud of them so have pasted some below.

Those familiar with the work of Georges Perec may recognise the inspiration of the first of these – appropriate as the inspiration of the story it comes from: The Cat Factory, was also inspired by Perec’s life and writing.

 

Research

Research Material paris_commune-popular-illustration

It isn’t just in post modernism that books are made of other books. Even in ancient Greece writers would be influenced by other writers and use their works as a jumping off point for their own writing. So in writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I have been doing a lot of research and general background reading to try and make sure (a) it is accurate and (b) it “feels” right in those parts which are invention rather than historical fact.

Although the novel is an alternate history the bits before the change have to be real history and the parts after the change have to be realistic.

The key books are Alastair Brotchie’s wonderful Alfred Jarry a ‘Pataphysical Life, and the Atlas press editions of Jarry’s oevre and other books of the period with their invaluable notes. On the broader canvas of Fin de Siecle Paris Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was, David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts, Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years and the invaluable Bohemian Paris of Today by William Chambers Morrow were great.

I’ve attached a copy of the key list with links to where you can find them for anyone who is interested. I would also recommend the joy of Google – searching for people, places and events as you come across them in reading will throw up lots of other connections you can cut and paste into word documents – my background notes are nearly as long as the novel will be, although I will use only a small fraction of them. I want to avoid the trap of writing up the research rather than the story.

There are lots of other books that have also contributed in a less direct way – works by other authors of the period including Dr Faustroll’s Equivalent Books, fiction which is set around that period although written later, and fiction that also has Jarry or his contemporaries as characters. In a real way I’ve been preparing for this unconsciously since I first bought Jarry’s Supermale, Ubu plays and The Banquet Years in 1972. And, of course in a work that is Postmodern there are a lot of references that are to books, films and music that are not of the period but reference back, forward and sideways.

Edinburgh – week three

Just about to start our third week in Edinburgh of My Sister Says I’m Special. Phil has been replaced by Donna and Chris as roadies and Jules has done some great shows – she is definitely more in the moment when she is on stage and is comfortable enough to really play when she is on stage. We have also managed to see a lot more shows – mostly compilations of comedians (what is the collective noun for comedians? A chortle?). Some of these are great, some not so, but a lot depends on how many are in the audience compared to room size.

I’ve also finished doing the research notes on the novel and should incorporate these into the synopsis next week when it is just Jules and I. I now know a lot about Alfred Jarry and Fin de Siecle Paris.

The best English language biography of Jarry by some way is Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry a Pataphysical Life which is imaculatey researched and includes lots of material not in other biographies. It is also bias free – Alastair rehearses the speculation about Jarry’s life and works but is careful to identify his own and others’ opinions so the reader can make their own mind up. The Jill Fell book An Imagination in Revolt includes a lot more “creative” biography on Jarry’s art influences – he may have been influenced by various things around at the time but no evidence trail is cited.

The research has deepened my view of many of the subsidiary real characters in the novel but has not made me have to change it radically – just identify ways in which I can give a better picture of who they are in the appropriate parts of the plot. It has also thrown up lots of serendipitous detail I can incorporate to enrich the book and incorporate some in jokes. The danger now is to avoid it being a novel about Jarry rather than one about the two other lead characters so I will have to work on enriching their back stories and emotional depth. There is also the little challenge of making the “villain” a real person when they are off screen for most of the time for the very good reason that they are supposed to be a shadowy figure.

Thankfully I’ve not had to change any of the action, or alter history more than in my original conceit. Some events will change dates slightly or happen in a marginally different way, but not enough to seem like undue artifice.

Onwards and upwards.

‘Pataphysics part two

Life

So, as I’ve been inspired by ‘Pataphysics, have I ever tried to write ‘Pataphysical material? Yes and no is the answer.

I am not yet confident enough as a writer to move too far away from standard narrative, although I have tried a story that is purely dialogue and features a police interview of a suspect who is either a pathological liar or a sociopath. I tried very hard to write the character’s dialogue so that you could interpret it as either. The fact that it is a police interview means you have no other clues about events outside of the suspect’s version of the story.

What I did do was write some stories with a lot of ‘Pataphysical ideas. I chose the “club story” milieu as (a) I love that genre particularly the Englebrecht stories of Maurice Richardson and (b) it gave me the opportunity to include my fellow members of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics as background characters (under assumed names of course). I was honoured to have the first one published as a Christmas edition of the LIP Bulletin.

The joy of the club story is that they generally have an unreliable narrator who you are not expected to believe. That is why some of my favourite PG Woodhouse stories feature Mr Mulliner who is a member of an angling club and is therefore prone to exaggeration naturally. This meant I could throw in lots of ideas as jokes without having to develop them logically. This is enormously liberating – you still need to have a plot or it isn’t a story anymore. The plot still needs to work but the details can be as crazy as you can manage to make them so that you and (hopefully) the reader has lots of fun.

The core characters came from an earlier idea about writing a series of bids to funding organisations from two rival scientists where the ideas were unworkable – to see how far they would get. Most funders have a two stage assessment process where the first part is a technical check to make sure you’ve filled it out properly and it hits the criteria identified in the bidding guidance. The second stage is an assessment of the merits of the project – normally by experts in the field. My hope was to get past the first checks. The bids (which would form a sort of narrative) and the correspondence from the funders would then be assembled together. However I bottled it as at the time I was submitting lots of real bids and I didn’t want to prejudice my chances for those.

The two scientists – Andrew Limbus and John Orpheus – were sort of  based on Andre Breton and Jean Cocteau who were both inspired by Guillame Apollinaire – a close friend and sponsor of Alfred Jarry. Both in their own ways carried on the experimental work of Apollinaire.

There are lots of other in jokes – Limbus has had a sort of Jekyll and Hyde accident where his unconscious has become a separate person – De Riyah. This mirrors Dr Faustroll and his pet Bosse de Nage (arse face) in Jarry’s posthumously published novel. It also references some of the physical characteristics of Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage’s companion Monk Lewis as I wanted to include them in Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton family. I also threw in all sorts of fringe science including having the pre and post Einstein theories of the propagation of light being true simultaneously.

If you want to read the story – called Life as it is the first of three Non Trivial Pursuits with the others being Liberty and Happiness – click on the link “Life” at the top of this post. Enjoy.