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Einstein on the Beach

Posted on 7th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Granta Best Young British Novelist Joanna Kavenna confronts nothing less slippery than the very nature of existence in her new parallel-world-shifting novel A Field Guide to Reality. Here, the author outlines her methodology behind writing about the impossible

I’ve always been very interested in theories of everything, the beautiful, crazy attempt to create a perfect, synthesized portrait of reality. In my latest novel, A Field Guide To Reality, I wanted to explore an idea I had about a manual for fixing existential angst – a book which would solve all the ancient philosophical dilemmas about the nature of reality and truth. Of course, such a book can’t exist in our world, so I had to create a parallel version of Oxford and imagine that a professor at the university had spent his entire career trying to write this book. Then I became aware that this book is so unlikely, so impossible, that even in a parallel world it would have to be lost! So in my novel, all the characters are urgently questing after this lost field guide to reality.

I wrote this novel in a mode I call High Irony – a mock category which I derived from my own reading. I kept finding this high ironic tone in diverse authors, from diverse regions of the world. In China you get people like Chan Koonchung adopting it, in his excellent sci-fi satire, The Fat Years, or in Spain you find Enrique Vila-Matas writing brilliant, heavily ironic parodies of literature, in which, with further irony, literature turns out to be the most serious thing of all, the thing which redeems everything. Or, you have authors such as Roberto Bolano, with his wonderful mock-heroic quests, such as The Savage Detectives, or the UK-based author Deborah Levy, with her deeply arch and yet profoundly serious poem, An Amorous Discourse in Suburban Hell.  

In Philip K Dick’s Valis or Ubik, reality is so mutable and crazy that characters can’t tell if they’re sane or mad, or even alive or dead.  In Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, he pushes the boundaries of sci-fi beyond all conventional logic, beyond all our tenuous theories even of consciousness, by creating a fictional entity (Solaris) that no one understands at all! Both Dick and Lem are saying, I reckon, something like: ‘If you want sci-fi to be really sci-fi, i.e. about worlds we have neither seen nor known, then be prepared for everything you know to be dissolved entirely, and for some variant of reality to be depicted that is beyond crazy strange, just beyond – beyond reality altogether!


There was a great innovation within art during the early decades of the 20th Century, the seismic revolution we now call Modernism. Then you had the further nostalgic-chaotic remit of postmodernity – ie we are all playing in the ruins, nothing matters, but then, my definition that nothing matters must matter otherwise my definition that nothing matters doesn’t matter and then – Oh no! Does nothing matter, or not?!  So this leads to the sort of recession into oblivion that the philosopher Hilary Lawson describes in his excellent critique of Derrida: if it is all pointless and anything you say will be immediately countermanded by overarching futility then why say anything at all? What possible status could we accord to any theory of pointlessness we might formulate?! High Irony is intrinsically an acknowledgement of the absurdity of everything – of life and art – but in the novels I’ve mentioned above this absurdity is played for very black humour. Reality is so impossible, so insane, that you are forced to adopt a tone of dark levity, even about things you are most serious about, even about life and death and your own mortality. Yet, this kind of writing is also hugely committed to the expression of a particular vantage point in art, in literature, to the celebration of individual experience – each one of us with our finite and completely unique experience of life. If everything is mad, i.e., then what can you rely on, except the empirical data of experience, as the philosopher William James said? –  i.e. the impressions you accrue from quotidian experience in the world. This experience means everything, to each one of us, even if it is fleeting in a general sense – a tragic ironic paradox.


I think po-faced iterations about the purpose of Art are obliterated by high irony because you can pronounce and define as much as you like, but everything is wonderfully absurd and tragically defeated in the end anyway. Everything you do has a total ludicrousness intrinsic and yet you do it anyway. And in a sense you don’t even care that it’s ludicrous, unlike the existentialists, SartreCamus. Because to care about ludicrousness is still to feel a sense of pique about the fact that things are ludicrous. I feel like I never expected things to be anything other than totally ludicrous and if someone explained to me that everything is really logical and OK then I’d run a mile. High irony is very in touch with its own ludicrousness and therefore my own definition must be too! And yet, I was thinking all the time of these ideas, and these authors above, as I wrote my book.


Adapted from an interview with the Institute of Art and Ideas.
Illustrations (c) Oly Ralfe



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