Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, September 22, 2017

If Sin was Visible: An Interview with Dan Vyleta

Today, I am very pleased to interview novelist Dan Vyleta about his 2016 novel, Smoke; the Canadian paperback edition was released in July 2017.

Dan grew up in Germany after his family left Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. He holds a doctorate in history from King’s College, Cambridge and has written three previous novels, Pavel & I (2008), The Quiet Twin (2011), and The Crooked Maid (2013). The Quiet Twin was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The Crooked Maid was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the 2014 J. I. Segal Award. Dan currently teaches creative writing at the University of Birmingham.

Dan’s novel Smoke is a magical historical story of Victorian England. The novel will remind readers of Charles Dickens, especially Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and Dombey and Son. As with Dickens’s novels, Smoke is a social novel which reaches a conclusion about what is wrong in society and what is right.

There is a contrast between the country and the city during the Industrial Revolution, reminiscent of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” except in this novel, the Victorian smoke in question comes not from factories but from people! Smoke begins at an élite school, with nods to later works: The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, and The Secret History.

There, the similarities with other authors end. Smoke begins with a quote from Dombey and Son (1848) – what if sin was visible?
“Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from the vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portion of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them … could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation!”
In Smoke, a fictionalized Victorian concern for morality conceals today’s obsession with transparency, truth, and corruption. As with other 21st century works, the historical setting really addresses Millennial problems. And the way Vyleta does this defies all expectations.

Note: All page references below are from the UK 2016 hardcover edition, published by Doubleday.

ToB: Let’s start at the end of Smoke, where you remarked, “Like most texts purporting to be about the past, this is a book about the present. The past is both a canvas and foil: a shadow thing that makes thinking about ourselves more interesting.” Ours is a time of whistle-blowers, leaks and hacks, also surveillance and the loss of privacy. Did the online exposure of secrets influence your novel’s theme of sins, revealed as stains and Smoke flowing from the characters’ bodies?

Dan Vyleta: I think my starting point was elsewhere: returning to Britain after years in Canada and the US, I was struck by the way social class is written onto clothes and into accents; how social biography is carried on the skin (though make-up and hair cuts and skin-care regimes). British people 'read' one another in an instant; a single vowel sound will place an interlocutor; and codes of behavior—of self-governance—are heavily classed. Which in turn made me think about my own place within this regime, the mannerisms that have been bred into me, etc. Which brings us to the need for privacy and the fear of exposure: these too are learned emotions to some degree. They also denote power. In Smoke, the powerful live private, self-controlled, isolated lives and keep their desires hidden from scrutiny by means of repression. The powerless, by contrast, are legible in their desires and, since they live in direct proximity to other people and their needs, are constantly contaminated by other people’s passions.

ToB: On this blog, I have been developing the hypothesis that the Internet is Jungian collective unconscious made real. Would you consider the electronic detritus and traces we leave of ourselves online – now tracked and recorded everywhere – to be akin to the Smoke exuded by the characters in your novel? Do we face the same problem they do: all our actions and sins are visible online, somewhere, somehow, to someone?

Dan Vyleta: I like this thought very much, all the more so because I did not have it while writing the novel (it is a mistake to think that a book’s symbolic weight is present because the author consciously put it there—rather, symbolic meaning arrives unconsciously because the book is one expression of the author’s personal struggle to make sense of reality). But again, there are big differences between those who are adapt at hiding their traces and those who leave thick trails of their unruly desires. It is also possible not to leave any trace at all by practicing a form of virtual self-denial and becoming an Internet hermit. It is a measure of social power these days if someone does not have an email address or Twitter handle. Analogously, the élites in Smoke are taught to repress their unconscious—and find clever ways to avoid leaving a trace.

ToB: There’s a sleight of hand in the way you paid homage to Victorian authors – for example, you have an unstable relative locked in an attic. I thought of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). There are nods to novels and films about exclusive 20th century prep schools. But this is not the fiction we think we know. This is not Dickens’ fictional England. It’s not Dead Poets Society either. It is more dystopic, twisted and frightening. Smoke is like a Matrix version of these familiar fictional environments. The novel seems meta-cultural, a meta-legacy: familiar, but pushing into an unknowable 21st century space beyond. Were you thinking of Smoke as an alternate literary reality – a location readers would recognize, where you could play against their expectations?

Dan Vyleta: We have a strange relationship to history these days. In our representations of the past, in films and books, we often expect a tedious factual accuracy when it comes to objective manifestations of the age (i.e. we demand period clothes and accurate haircuts; physical mimicry); at the same time, we are happy to import a distinctly 21st century sensibility to these 'accurate' pasts. In part, I think this happens because we are uncomfortable with a historicist vision of history, i.e. with the assumption that people were genuinely different, once upon a time; in our postmodern age we have a hard time thinking of elsewhere in terms other than a change of costume and architecture. What I tried to do in Smoke is signal right away that we are not in the 19th century proper (hence, for instance, my use of the present tense). At the same time, I did try to stage some 19th century preoccupations and conceptual categories, in particular those in whose long shadow we continue to dwell. So yes: an alternate literary reality; one that draws attention to its own fictionality—but also one that genuinely engages with the 19th century rather than using it simply for exotic “colour.”

ToB: The novel has a gripping plot; it moves! The reader wants to explore this whole, thrumming world, presented in vivid detail. You have stately houses, coal mines, an incredible vision of London, and a shipping mystery which adds a touch of Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1897). What sort of research did you do to create the England in Smoke?

Dan Vyleta: Much of the 'research' is many years old and long predates the book or even its idea: it comes from things I have read and gotten into, for no reason other than that I found them interesting. Then, when it comes for writing, all these tidbits rise to the top of that murky ocean that is memory. I do look stuff up, of course (I spent a week or so researching 19th century mine ventilation systems, for instance) but above all the book is a map of a lifetime of obsessions.

An image from the Body Worlds exhibition in Amsterdam. Image Source: Body Worlds.

ToB: Your previous novels are set in Germany and Austria; this was your first novel set in England. Your villain, Julius, evolved way beyond the English Gothic, which is pretty sanitized compared to the German tradition. Julius reminded me of Gottfried Benn’s Morgue (1912); or perhaps another German medical contribution to the arts – the skinless bodies exhibition, Body Worlds (1990s-2010s), by Gunther von Hagens. The town of Aschenstedt is mentioned. Did you bring Germanic (or other) influences to the English society depicted in Smoke?

Dan Vyleta: A very interesting question. I think the English are uncomfortable with bodies—nudity, bodily functions, sex, you name it. Both the Germans and the Czechs (the two nations that most define my cultural heritage) are not. The whole idea of Smoke works so well in Britain because Smoke is a bodily function, analogous to sweating or shitting. This revolts the upper classes. It is noticeable that working class writers such as D. H. Lawrence, or writers whose class status was rather fluid, like Dickens, gave the body a much stronger presence in their books. I love Gottfried Benn, incidentally, so this is a good point of reference. As for Aschenstedt: the Britain I depict is isolationist. It was important to me to insinuate that no matter how much a society shuts itself off, some cultural exchange always takes place. In this context, I suppose, it is relevant that I, as a German-Czech-Canadian, write a fictional England. Beware, oh Brexiteers: foreigners are messing with your national narratives…

ToB: This is a novel about the highest levels of society. Smoke starts in the country’s most exclusive English public school, and then moves out into the novel’s broader world. For the reader, interest in a story about the establishment might be driven by our current contrast between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent, the haves and have nots, the super rich and the precariat. Would you comment on the fact that in the novel, the necessary change in Smoke’s society comes from the top down, not from the grassroots?

Dan Vyleta: I think Smoke wants the reader to be uncomfortable with this: the fact that social change is promised by a faction within the élites. The novel also depicts a grassroot movement for social change amongst the mine-workers; their aims, however, are more practical and far less revolutionary that those articulated by the élite. I was thinking a lot about the French and Russian Revolutions and I asked myself where change comes from and who would shoulder the tremendous responsibility of initiating an actual revolution (with all the risk and violence it entails). I suppose Smoke’s answer is: the young; those who are so powerful that they think they are fireproof; and those who are truly desperate. Soot—the book I am working on now—will complicate this answer.

Image Source: Goodreads.

ToB: The novel opens with a stark contrast. All the élite characters are bound to conceal and contain their true emotions and sins, to hide their Smoke. To the working classes, the establishment falsely appears to be morally superior and therefore has the right to rule. The upper classes’ visible spotlessness maintains their social status, but their self-control is a lie which twists and destroys them inwardly. Meanwhile, the commoners freely vent Smoke and wallow in sin, but are more genuine, honest, and free. You even have some coal miner revolutionaries, who can’t get their revolution off the ground. Do you think the working classes are not prime movers here because Smoke traded the real, historical Industrial Revolution in 19th century England for a Moral Revolution in your fictional England, which was more agricultural and less developed?

Dan Vyleta: I think that’s a fair analysis though one could argue that the historical Industrial Revolution constituted a change of élites, rather than being driven by the choices made by working men and women (though, of course, their actions help shape the era very significantly). My reasons for centering the book on three teenagers from privileged backgrounds was a more personal one, however. I am a Cambridge-educated university prof from a family of doctors; that is to say I belong to the over-educated middle classes and grew up with a degree of social privilege. And while it is part of the writer’s job, of course, to explore different points of view, I do think some element of self-implication is an important part of the writing process: one has to cut to the bone. I wished to sniff out my own repressions and blind spots, my own denial of Smoke and discomfort at stinky 'sinners.' The protagonists I picked allowed me to do this via their social position within Britain; their journey is one that makes their own privilege visible to them.

ToB: You have two heroes, Charles Cooper and Thomas Argyle. Thomas is your protagonist, and he’s quite an English Gothic Romantic teenager, a young Heathcliff who wants to survive his all-consuming passions. What were your inspirations for these characters?

Dan Vyleta: The characters are amalgams of people I know; of gaits and speech patterns, faces and physiques. They don’t come fully-formed: I need to hear them and watch them do something. From this seed they grow, line by line, speech-act by speech-act. And always there is some element of myself in them, an emotion-note I recognize and know to be true. Thomas has a lot to do with my memory of being a teenager, and angry.

Book trailer: Smoke by Dan Vyleta (18 May 2016). Video Source: Youtube.

ToB: This novel is also a love story, but the characters refuse to fall in love according to the formula! Did you want to challenge the formula, or was this more about who the characters are and the world they are in?

Dan Vyleta: I am skeptical about fiction that is written for a twist—i.e. that defies expectations simply because readers like surprise. At this point in the long history of story-telling, we have not only seen most the formulas; most twists are also pretty familiar. So if the love story pans out a little differently here, I am hoping that the reader’s reaction won’t be surprise so much as a feeling of recognition: I would like them to say, yes, this makes sense and I approve.

ToB: Livia, the love interest, influences the two main male characters so that they end up in better places than they might have otherwise. Although this is not a conventional romance, what did you want to say about love in the temperance of good and evil?

Dan Vyleta: I honestly don’t know. The book implies that love and sex are hard to separate; that desire is unruly; that the emotions involved are a complex, living amalgam. So perhaps love tempers good and evil because it reminds us that to think in abstract absolutes is pointless. Life is never than clean-cut.

ToB: You remarked that for you, a novel is an evolving, organic creative effort rather than a pre-planned story. Were there moments in the novel where the plot or characters took you somewhere you did not intend?

Dan Vyleta: All the time. I discover world, plot and character as I write. When I started the book, only a fraction of the cast existed. A new character will enter; I find I like them; all at once story attaches itself to them, they demand a return to the page. The trick for me is discipline all these unruly elements; bring them into line. I sit down at regular intervals and ask myself: where does this novel want to go? It is interesting to see how quickly a book accrues its own internal logic and momentum. I feel quite helpless before it.

ToB: Even though this novel is about good and evil, neither is presented in ways we expect. When Smoke’s characters try to get to grips with Smoke as visible sin, you contrast Plato and Aristotle: “Plato writes that evil is having a disordered soul.” The boys in Smoke study Aristotle’s Principles of Causation. Aristotle considered observable conditions about things, which informed Francis Bacon’s causes of modern science. This contrast between Plato and Aristotle has come down to us as a debate between religion and science, between the unseen soul and measurable reality. In your fictional England, Plato is suppressed, as is Shakespeare. The history of how people became afflicted with Smoke is also banned (pgs. 18-19, 68, 95). Travel and technology are illegal. Would you say you dispensed with faith-versus-reason, and focused instead on visibility? Is Smoke about balancing the unseen against the visible? Does visibility go beyond revealing secrets, to expose parts of ourselves we can’t otherwise see or anticipate?

Dan Vyleta: : The seen and the unseen—yes. But also the 'isolated' vs. the 'infected,' since Smoke communicates itself from body to body, like a disease. I think the book is about modern vs. pre-/post-modern conceptions of selfhood: self-policing brains-on-sticks vs. social bodies suspended in webs of shared knowledge and desire. The other thing I depict (and this brings us to faith/reason), is a society that is desperate to tame Smoke by explaining it, i.e. by placing it into some kind of intellectual framework. Rival frameworks exist: one heavily theological that favours a language of sin, another medical/scientific, etc. Like the reader, the people in my late-Victorian England are constantly trying to get their heads around the phenomenon of Smoke and its social implication, in part because the explanatory patterns they have invented are insufficient to contain Smoke.

ToB: The novel questions what we think about wrong and right. In Smoke, children are born in sin and good does not take root until they are 11 years old. This idea flipped the Christian belief that children are born innocent. Did you want to explore the idea that evil is an irreducible part of us, a contagion, and only individual personality determines how much or how little of it is present? “It is wrong, somehow, that evil should be a question of proportion; that this much Smoke should be the weave of life, and that much produce murder; and that no Smoke at all should produce cruelty of a different sort” (pg. 422).

Dan Vyleta: I am suggesting that desire—unruly, raw, unmodulated need—is part of the human condition. The crying newborn Smokes because it wants stuff (in both senses of want: it desires and it lacks). The language of good and evil is an imposition on this basic fact, since need may lead to violence, theft, etc. The passage you cite communicates a yearning for moral certainty and absolute categories. As it is, right and wrong, good and bad are often situational and a question of proportion. I suppose I see moral life as complex and fluid; often this is frustrating and we turn to ideological systems that promise certainties.

ToB: Much later in the book, your villain, who has lost himself completely to Smoke, says sin is not about actions taken and witnessed. It is not about cause and effect. That means it’s not about Karma! He says evil is about existing in a way beyond logic – a total immersion in horrific sensations and instincts (pg. 354): “The world of man has sequence. Cause and effect. The world of Smoke is different. Noumenon: the thing-in-itself. Kant? Cunt! I am Smoke’s avatar.” Other characters perceive Smoke as a sickness, or as the consequence of sinful actions which can be rationalized, measured and controlled. Did you want your degenerating villain to take us into a deeper mystery?

Dan Vyleta: Julius becomes consumed by Smoke: he turns into something like the raw incarnation of the ID. In a sense, he helps our understanding of the phenomenon. At the same time, he cannot be trusted: his explanatory framework is as self-serving as any other, and he neglects to think about how Smoke functions as a social fact. One thing that happened while writing Julius, is that his thought became increasingly associative, gliding along chains of endless metaphor: “I am X and Y and Z; I am water, I am blood; I am lead; etc.”. Thus everywhere he looks, Julius find himself. There is a sense that Smoke lives beyond logic in a hall of narcissistic mirrors; that it assimilates everything into itself.

ToB: At the centre of the book, there is a question about how to go forward into the future. Will everything stay as it is, or can it radically change? You refuse to get political about change; there are liberal characters and a conservative government in Smoke, but your central characters choose a different path between emotion, rationalism, and morality. Did you reflect on 21st century political evolution while writing Smoke? You remarked: “The novel may be political but it has no thesis.”

Dan Vyleta: In many ways, my preoccupations were very 20th century: how do personal feelings and hurts, how do love and anger and spite, interweave with the political? This is an anti-totalitarian question, a humanist question, because it cautions that there is no such thing as a pure idea, that all ideals are embodied (and that bodies are messy).

I suppose I was also interested in a basic irony: those who can bring about political and social change do not think in political and social terms but in personal and moral ones. You are right that our 21st century moment knows this tension. I have no wisdom to offer there: I think political debate needs to engage with larger structural issues and that true social change will originate here; but I also see that each individual has the right to insist on their identity and freedom and that this right often requires a different sort of political articulation than was provided by 20th century party politics.

ToB: Some of the scenes in the novel are shocking, like the Steampunk horror in a caged and tortured little girl, experimented upon by one of the schoolmasters, so that the girl can control her emotions. What was your inspiration there?

Dan Vyleta: I think all this is latent in 19th century texts both fictional and scientific—think for instance at the anti-masturbation literature and the physical devices invented to stop boys and girls from putting hands on their bodies. The children were hurt in order to protect them from moral and physical harm. I am just literalizing this concept.

ToB: Given Smoke’s conclusion, did you feel that the characters must discover how good and evil exist in ways beyond how they are labeled by society and government? One character, Lady Naylor, claims that false definitions of good and evil created power, and those definitions and the power must be dismantled: “We need to remake our sense of good and evil” (pg. 411).

Dan Vyleta: My point was rather that for all the speeches made by people like Lady Naylor, the truth about good and evil and the nature of Smoke remains contested and mysterious. In other words, I wanted to juxtapose conflicting certainties and often did so by giving impressive monologues to characters we have reason to distrust. My characters try to control meaning; but because they don’t agree, they end up destabilizing it.

ToB: To conclude with the parallel between Smoke and the Internet, the Orwellian Internet of Things can monitor everything you do and say in the real world. At the end of the novel, Smoke denied that transparency and exposed sin will lead to more social control. That is, your characters enable a catharsis – and this release of ‘dark information’ promises freedom, not tyranny. What do you think of the contrast between your novel’s conclusion and our real world? We have a double standard, and as in Smoke, it is class-based. Julian Assange would say whistle-blowing and transparency in the establishment are liberating and mandatory. But the new Internet Party would claim that surveillance of citizens and access to their private information is a totalitarian threat and violation.

Dan Vyleta: We live in a world of mega- and meta-data. By contrast Smoke is unquantifiable, it expresses emotion-notes in shades of colour and texture, it is the ultimate analog. That, and it is a mode of pure communication—largely of darkness, it is true, though the end of the book hints that this is itself an illusion, that society has trained itself to think of desire as darkness and hence has become 'tone-deaf' to the emotional complexity inherent to the Smoke. If anything then, the book pleads for a different version of transparency: against the abstract (self-)revelation of facts and personas taking place on the web and for the (animal) meeting of (animal) bodies, Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens, with all the danger that entails. The book leaves ambiguous, incidentally, whether this is really such a good idea. The danger is real after all: when people touch, some people get hurt, unjustly and inexcusably so.
I would like to thank Dan very much for speaking to Histories of Things to Come. His website is here. His Facebook page is here. You can buy his novels at the links below.

At Indigo Books:

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