The Disrupted & Amputated Prose of The Left Hand: A Conversation with Paul Curran
Paul Curran’s Left Hand is the most singular and fascinating novel that I’ve read this year. It completely floored me. It made me question what I’ve been doing as a writer. It made me want to just give up and quit at the same time that it inspired me and fired me up, making me want to create and write and do nothing else. It’s a book that is violent and jarring, and yet what feels uncontrollable is actually put together in the most intricate and careful manner.
I’ve known Paul for a little while now and on the occasions that we’ve met and spoken about writing, I’ve always been intrigued about the novel he said he’d been working on. I could just tell from his tone of voice or something else (maybe how enthusiastic and committed he sounded when he talked about this mystery project), that the book was going to be special. Now that it’s finally out in the world, and I’ve read it, and know that it’s even more fucked up and amazing than I thought it would be, I wanted to talk to Paul about it more specifically.
TC: I suppose I want to start by asking when you started the book. I know you’ve been working on it for a long time. I remember talking to you about it in London a couple of years ago and you were well into the work on it then. How long did it take you?
PC: I started working on it in spring 2006, and finished it in spring 2012. Yeah, when we talked about it was the summer of 2011, after the Weaklings show at Five Years gallery in June, and again the day after the riots in August, so I was getting near the end.
TC: Do you have strict writing hours or is it a case of working on your stuff as and when you can or feel like you can? I’m asking because the writing in Left Hand feels so structured and perfectly in place. I’m guessing a lot of the work happened in the editing stages, right?
I work really slowly, but I’m pretty disciplined when I’ve got something going, although I’m also pretty liberal with what I consider work (this is work because as we do this interview I’m thinking about what the novel was and what the next one might be). Like most aspects of Left Hand, it was always going to be a long-term, inside-out, from the ground up, project which was heavily structured, and incorporated its own limitations.
It was also specifically related to living in London during the whole time of writing it. I knew I wanted to construct a short novel from a mass of material, like four novels worth, and it was going to take a long time to generate that material (a kind of simulated original, or fictive template, of lost notes). I had a 9-5 Monday to Friday job and worked on the novel at home for 3-4 hours most weeknights. So I imagined the process as an after-hours experiment or a backyard mechanics workshop. Then there were also some gaps with things like my son being born in summer 2007 and living in four different flats around West London. But because I’d spent a lot of initial time planning the form and structure, and also doing research, like setting up a compartmentalized experiment, that allowed me to pick it up after breaks and also incorporate those plans, disruptions, and changes into the text.
And then there was, yeah, a lot of editing, but the main thing before that was the planning, because in the plans I also planned how to edit it. The editing process was also structured with particular rules and constraints, and that made the editing maybe the most pleasurable part, like I spent years forming this monstrous body that I would then cut at mechanically in particular ways.
TC: I like the idea of the plan being to make a short novel from a mass of material. It sets up this situation where you have to be instinctively destructive or something, knowing that you have these large stacks of stuff that need to be broken down. And yeah, I remember sitting with you on some little square the day after the riots. There was this strange mood, and I remember seeing everyone jump and flinch every time they heard a police siren, which under normal circumstances may not have had the same effect. I think you caught a lot of that claustrophobic and tense atmosphere in the book. It feels like the book has really sucked things in, purposely, from the environment in which it was written. I’m wondering if you’re planning on doing a similar thing with your writing now that you’re living in Japan again? Are you involved in any art scenes or such there?
PC: Yes, for sure, London itself is such a mass of material and connections. Shepherd’s Bush particularly for me because my family stayed there with our aunt who worked in a restaurant at the BBC Television Centre before we moved to Australia, and just by coincidence I found a flat off the Askew Road when I moved back. I remember reading about things like Dickens opening a reformatory for ex-prostitutes, some sent to Australia. And the atmosphere from the tube bombings on the day after the host city announcement in 2005 (that police-state grid coming down around the central areas, and I remember reading about when they originally constructed the tube they bypassed Hyde Park because the earth was so compacted with skeletons it disrupted drilling) up until the 2012 Olympics.
I definitely pulled a lot of stuff in as I went through different stages of the novel. Funny, I also wrote my first, unpublished, novel in Australia in the last couple of years running up to the Sydney Olympics. And, yeah, now I’m in Tokyo with the 2020 Olympics on the horizon of a post-Fukushima Japan. But I’m more hesitant, or maybe it feels more complicated, to purposely write about Tokyo, although maybe that’s because I haven’t been back that long and the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more kind of inevitable it seems, and how to do that will take some figuring out. I’m not involved in any scenes at the moment. The last year’s been pretty hectic, getting back over here, into the same apartment we left nearly ten years ago, without our dog (who was one reason we went – my girlfriend wanted to take him to see the ducks in Hyde Park, so we got married and moved to London) but this time with a son who’s just started Japanese elementary school, and I’m like his personal English tutor now (I don’t speak Japanese), trying to keep up with the UK curriculum, and I’m also working as well, so a similar schedule but I’ve got more free time and holidays than I had in London. And now things have settled a bit and the novel’s out, I feel clearer to concentrate a lot more on developing another big project.
TC: The form and structure of this novel is just so crazily good. It’s organized into four sections. With the first and third parts of the book, it seems like it’s a list of instructions – the person reading it is being told what to do, be it observations of specific things, violence, etc. It has this really strange and hypnotic effect. It made me think about whether or not you think about the reader when you’re writing – I know some writers do and some don’t really. With this the effect that the writing had on me, it seemed like some of the devices you were using were there to specifically involve, even incriminate the reader. Could you talk about if you think about the reader when you’re writing and if so explain that a little bit?
PC: Thanks a lot about the form and structure because that’s really important with how the content functions, and I’m really glad it achieved that effect. I initially imagined the four parts as a brain or the globe being quartered (as in an experiment and also the old UK penalty for high treason, drawn and quartered). Again, all of these things are interconnected. The use of imperatives is so prevalent in everything from advertising, song lyrics, street signs, porn dialogue, flat-pack furniture, self-help and how-to manuals, computer language, prayers and tests and mantras etc, all these things we’re bombarded with or have internalized, consciously or subconsciously or genetically, as individuals who are also incriminated in or somehow responsible for the construction of the notion of being an individual, and it can seem friendly and helpful, exciting or mundane or blank, or authoritarian and sadistic etc, but it’s not used much in fiction, so I wanted to try something at length using that technique. I knew for it to work like you said – and that is how I wanted it to work (like putting a reader voluntarily through the end of A Clockwork Orange), so I’m thrilled it did for you – readers would have to be open to it working, like with meditation or hypnosis or drugs, or might throw the book against the wall, which would also be a legitimate response, I guess. It also fits in with the self-amputation theme, body identity integrity disorder (BIID), where some people experience command hallucinations, and left-handedness (I am left handed), and early split-brain experiments for alien hand syndrome. These experiments interested me because they questioned ideas of unitary identity and control of the body and its parts. So by presenting monotonous instructions in the same tone, with sometimes extreme and sometimes mundane content, I wanted to put the reader into that confusing state where it’s unclear if consciousness controls bodily movements or is a retrospective narrativization of them.
I first used the technique as a kind of split-brain handwriting experiment on myself. I planned the first and third parts with a standard three-act structure like they were outlines for two movie scripts created by a software program, so there were numbered scenes, beats, and transactions, and then I went through the outline, again by hand, filling in the details, transaction by transaction, as a paragraph each, so they were these two monolithic treatments. And as I followed this routine, I let myself write anything else I was thinking about, anything that came into my head/body/hand, observations, memories, doubts, frustrations, jokes, research notes, ideas about the book (except the last part), or whatever, in the margins or across the page. Later I wrote all those notes up to use in the second part.
Yes, from the start I was very much aware of possible readers and where it might fit into the literary landscape. I don’t think I would have attempted something like this without the support, inspiration and encouragement of Dennis Cooper and the community of writers (you included), artists, academics, thinkers, musicians, film and theatre makers, critics, bloggers, freaks and fans hovering around the kind of anarchic open university that flooded the back-rooms and front pages his blog (just before Dennis’s old blog got hacked in 2006 there was a huge update from locals about the projects they were working on), and with the emergence of small presses, particularly in the US, I thought there’d be some audience for the kind of fucked-up little book that I would have maybe wanted to find when I first read writers like Dennis and Kathy Acker in the early 90s. I was also interested in and encouraged by the two broadly different writing styles emerging from the internet writing scene, with the kind of minimalism of Tao Lin on one hand and then later on the other hand the more gothic kind of experimental lyricism of Blake Butler, and I wanted to combine those two kind of styles. And just the internet in general as well. Some of the most exciting things I was reading were the comments and arguments online, and I wanted to put that kind of wildness into a novel and then send it back out there.
TC: There’s a running theme of amputation, in Left Hand. I feel like the concept of that has a lot to do with the text as well, in terms of the formal decisions you made writing the book, and not just in regards to the content. The style feels cut and amputated, too…
PC: Sure, amputation, cutting, and texts as whole things are majorly important to the novel. And I guess that goes back to ideas of language as naming things as whole objects, cutting and dividing, and how things don’t exist unless they’re named, but once they’re named something is left out, so they aren’t the thing as an ideal thing because the ideal thing is an illusion or a fiction. I was interested in those contradictions, and in ideas about the body, and the body as a text, or a body of work, or a novel, which is all nothing new for experimental fiction, but wanted to do something in that realm that included what’s happening to ideas about the novel, the body, consciousness, authenticity, and surveillance through the internet. So I was researching a lot about self-demand amputation, or BIID, and how there was this whole community of people around the subject, and academics and doctors talking about the subject, trying to name it and define it, the medical and legal ethics of it, attempts to get it into the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), arguments that the condition only existed because people were able to connect through the internet and mirror each other’s deluded narratives.
And a lot of criticism of it revolved around ideas that the body was somehow natural and whole, that a template existed, and should only be altered in certain ways, which is deeply contentious, itself a fiction (similar to ideas of what a novel should or shouldn’t be), and it also connects to ideas of ownership of the body and its parts and responsibly for actions of the body and its parts, and how historically the rise of humanism and individuals as subjects who own their own bodies paralleled the development of the novel as a secular guide to behavior or a reflection of how things ‘really’ are, whatever the time and place (‘everyone has a novel in them’), and like in Foucault, how punishment and state control systems change with this, particularly with the kind medicalization of everything in the late 20th and early 21st century. I was also interested in ideas of integrity, how it relates to people, as having integrity and being, or feeling that they should be, integrated, and the idea of texts and narrative integration.
So, and sorry for the tangent, in terms of formal decisions, yes, I wanted the novel to be spatially dis-integrated, compartmentalized, quartered, de-capitated (London as capital, author as authority) and sectioned (UK term for involuntary psychiatric hospitalization) and to be constantly questioning its own integrity as a novel on those many different levels (internalized self-incrimination as consciousness as language).
With the format, it goes back to first creating the fictional template, or body, as this pile of notebooks. I imagined the first and third sections, the instructions, as these two columns, scaffolds (gallows), that the other sections flowed around, and the two columns were also mirrors, slightly out of line but reflecting infinitely, the first running linear, and the third broken (decapitated, head falling). I wrote them both linear to begin with, changing each paragraph from the treatment into a single instruction of ten words. But there were initially ten lines of instructions (a-j) per unit (1.1-1.5 etc) so it was much longer. I lined up the numbers on an Excel file and used a random number generator to cut five instructions from each unit, and I used the same technique to change the sense represented in each instruction (also cutting out smell from the third section) and replaced some lines from each part with repetition of another line (like how animators repeat scenery). This gave those two sections what I hoped was a hyper/elliptical feeling, and that they might be from somewhere else, or there was something behind them, these pieces webbed over a void. I also imagined them as some previously unnamed species that had been killed, pinned down, a specimen under a microscope, named by a scientist who was also implicated in the naming, or like fossilized bones with pieces missing here and there, maybe even some flesh somehow, dug up by architects and categorized.
And again this goes back to the idea of whole objects, and the idea of a novel as being this thing that exists somewhere whole, where it’s the writer’s job to dig away at it and then present it in its most authentic form, and how that myth is also played into through original editions or manuscripts fetching enormous prices at auction.
For the second section, I wrote up the notes I’d been making during the instructions process and mixed them with chunks of research papers and reports, things like the introduction to the fifth edition of the DSM, violent porn descriptions, and a few of my blog posts. I cut and pasted sections of that doc at random into another doc. I randomly translated that doc into Japanese, section by section, using Babelfish (the tower of Babel), and then translated the translation through random chunks back into English using a Windows translator. So then I had this 100,000 word doc that I cut down and rewrote as the second section. And after doing that I wrote the last section straight onto the computer. With that one, I wanted the voice to be simpler and kind of naive, so I didn’t allow myself to write any notes about it during the years I was working on the other sections, but I obviously thought about it, and then I wrote, rearranged, and edited it quickly as a kind of traumatized post-experiment piece.
TC: What relation does your blog have to this novel? Did you use it as a scrapbook in any way, for experiments and so on? I was thinking in terms of sculpture and other art mediums, because in that respect, the writing that you publish on your blog feels very site specific – no pun intended by that, because like I say I’m thinking in terms of sculptures that are specific to the place on which they are built, they use the surroundings and environment and in that same way, it sometimes feels like your writing online is very much an attempt to use (sometimes abuse, dismantle) the natural limitations and specific tools that a blog brings with it.
PC: While I was working on Left Hand, I included or developed some of the ideas and techniques in things like the self-portrait days on Dennis’s blog. That was where I first came up with the scrambled translation technique that’s in the second section, which was also online specific in using the internet to generate or deform content, and also time specific because nowadays translation machines are much better, so you don’t get as many interesting results.
I usually got encouraging feedback about my contributions to those kind of things. They were site specific to what I could do with Blogger for sure and also the computer as a screen that still mostly only scrolls vertically (unless you’re clicking or now swiping to other sites). I didn’t put them on my own blog because I didn’t think I’d have time to update it regularly enough, but by autumn 2009 I was at a stage in the novel where I had space to gather some together and then started adding new posts, some related to the novel and others not, so I guess I used it as all of those things – a way of framing ideas in a different way than a notebook helped me to think about them in different ways and see if I still liked them – and yes, a sculpture is a good way of putting it, both for the posts as kind of skits or routines and the whole blog.
Also I was really excited about the way Dennis and others including you were presenting visuals and text on blogs. I don’t really like reading online, that endless scroll of text, but the way image stacks scrolled was really exciting, and I certainly brought the same kind of attitude as pushing the limits of what a blog is or can do as I brought to the novel, although the novel, as an experiment, was definitely finite, and the blog isn’t.
Another big and continuing influence in thinking about the visual presentation of content has been seeing how artists like Marc Hulson (who did the cover painting) and Bill Hsu (who did the trailer) curate and arrange material within their own fields and collaborating with them on other projects. In its current form, with the posts in a mosaic and without the old single-post front page, I don’t update my blog as much as I used to but because it presents everything still there in this massive moving form it doesn’t feel like it’s been abandoned, so people can still come across it and jump in anywhere, and I can put things on there when I feel like it, or have time, or think of something that would be interesting to put on there. For now I guess I see my blog as this evolving or mutating thing, maybe some kind of warehouse, that I’ll keep putting things on somehow related or not or tangential to my next novel or my work in general.
Have you started work on a new novel? Or are there any other things that you’re working on at the moment? You mentioned other collaborations with Marc and Bill?
PC: I’ve been working on this thing called ‘Bubblegum’s Funeral’ that will probably be somehow related to a new novel in one way or another, if only as a jumping off point. The title came out of one of the pieces in a collaboration I did with Marc. At the same time I was thinking about asking him to paint something for the cover of Left Hand, he was thinking of asking me to collaborate on ‘Fragments’, a project where the visual artists associated with Five Years worked with an artist in a different field to develop a project based on a series of documented conversations, and our contribution included work around the Left Hand cover, and fictional covers for fictional editions, and also texts that I wrote as a response to several of Marc’s paintings and drawings as well as paintings and drawings that he selected as a response to my texts. We also handed over image/text pairings to performer Jonny Liron to interpret for a set of short films to be directed by Nick Hudson with music by Emma Deraze, and that’s still in the works.
There was a ‘Fragments’ group show in London just before I left, and since then I wrote a piece for one of Marc’s solo exhibitions called ‘The Yellow Sleep’ that he had in Germany, where he also did a reading of one of my ‘Fragments’ texts, which was cool because I haven’t done a reading for so long I can’t remember. Bill was interested in making a short film using texts and images from one of my old blog posts, and then he made a longer one called ‘A Way’ (it’s up in Mike Kitchell’s great LIES/ISLE web journal) which was based on one of my texts, with footage taken from a beach scene in a 70s porn film (Bill got the idea from Chris Goode. Didn’t you work together? Was that ‘Hey Mathew’?) that switches to animation, and was narrated by Tae-Wol, who also did the narration for the trailer Bill made for Left Hand.
TC: Yeah, I worked a little bit on Hey Mathew in 2008, and it was amazing to be involved with that, and just to be able to work with Chris Goode in general. I’m hoping I can do it again one day. Also, with the theme of visual artists in mind: as a writer a lot of the time I find that my imagination is fired up by other art mediums, be it sculpture, or photographs, film, music, or so on, more than other writers. I always like to find out what art – aside from books – inspires other writers. Any particular artists (in any field) that played a part in the inspiration for Left Hand?
PC: With Left Hand, two films that immediately spring to mind from the start and then later on are Inland Empire and Enter the Void, the kind of things I find inspiring and like signposts of working in similar terrains. Another couple of super-inspiring artists I heard of from Dennis’s blog are Antonio Urdiales, whose wildness on so many levels was matchless, and Kier Cooke Sandvik’s amazing use of brutal and direct lines (a kind of early version of the last section of Left Hand appeared as a story called ‘Sand’ in his awesome ‘Flesh World’ fanzine that you were in too).
I was also really inspired by Brendan Lott’s Chinese series, where he trawled the internet for snapshots and selfies, and PayPaled artists in China to reproduce the images in oils and send them back to him. That really got me thinking about using translation machines to produce text. Another big inspiration for using source material was how Ariana Reines used ‘The Merck Veterinary Manual’ in The Cow, but that’s a book, and of course the Burroughs cut-up trilogy, particularly the London references in The Ticket That Exploded (I remember reading it on the tube), and I wanted to try that kind of thing electronically for the second section.
Musically, Shepherd’s Bush is swamped in UK rock history from the Who (most of the pubs they played in are boarded up now, and Quadrophenia was filmed around the streets), through to the Sex Pistols and the Clash and then on to Pete Doherty etc. I was definitely thinking about lyrics for the first and third sections and worked on them like they were songs that didn’t rhyme, and I wanted to give those lines the kind of vicious brittleness of The Birthday Party at their most violent. I also set it up a bit like an album with four long tracks, one carrying the title. I think I was listening to the first couple of Mars Volta albums at the start of the project, lines like ‘Exit this Roman shell’ from the Fall’s ‘Leave the Capitol’, and later PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, and also The Manic Street Preachers’s Holy Bible for themes and lyrics (I found out later that they lived on the Askew Road when they first came to London and wrote a song about it), and the Ballard connection (and Richey Edwards being a fan of Dennis’s Frisk). Most of Ballard’s books are set in West London, and he’d moved into his partner’s flat on the Goldhawk Road when he died in 2009. All these endless London meshes.
With ‘Bubblegum’s Funeral’ I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from my conversations about image and narrative with Marc, and the way he sketches out these series of scenes that are not necessarily connected or not necessarily scenes, and also how if you describe a drawing you dictate where the view falls and moves around with the added temporarily of text. So I wanted to try writing a series of one page kind of descriptions of a series of imaginary drawings, like a series famed in a gallery, each page describing only what’s there in simple and continuous present tense (a scene that might have played out in time compressed and possibly overlaid into a single image). I’ve planned out 70 scenes into a broken three-part narrative that I’ve been slowly filling in so I can imagine them as finished drawings, but I’m not sure if that will be the novel or it just somehow relates to the novel.
I also want to write something with a single voice, longer, more sustained in that voice, and I’ve been googling and taking in stuff around the title. I was reading Jack Sargeant’s Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression and watching a lot of those films on Youtube and feeding off those connections like a film called Bubblegum, Lung Leg on the cover of Sonic Youth’s Evol, their song ‘Bubblegum’, Karen Carpenter from ‘Tunic’, a VHS snuff film that might have never existed, the cartoon character Princess Bubblegum, Ricky Kasso, Richard Ramirez, AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell’, Bon Scott, disappearance and the Java Trench, a corny porn remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and yes Tokyo, maybe the bubble that burst in Japan, and the internalization of anti-social behaviour, and I’m also looking for somewhere to take it that’s not connected through Google searches or goes against it, off the grid, something about language.