INS Interviews   

Interview with Alistair Gentry, writer

Conducted by: Tom McCarthy (General Secretary, INS)
Venue: Office of Anti-Matter, Austrian Cultural Institute, London
Date: 28/03/01
Present: Tom McCarthy, Alistair Gentry, Corin Sworn, Paul Perry, Mark Aerial Waller

Tom McCarthy: One of the main tasks that your work sets itself is the mapping of a dislocated culture. What's interesting is that you look not at this culture's loftier productions, but rather at its schmaltz, its trash. What draws you to this?

Alistair Gentry: Just being alive, really. It's the culture I'm from. It would be - not fraudulent, but odd for me to do stuff that was too highbrow. I've studied literature and all that, but the things that I talk about with my friends and family are things that have a more direct impact on me. And I'm quite irritable, too. I notice things that other people don't, and get intensely annoyed. Like today, I was in Picadilly, and I saw this girl turn to her boyfriend and announce quite aggressively: 'I'm having a really good time!' There was a comic pause, and then she said: 'And you're having a good time too, aren't you?' She felt that she's got to be having a good time, she's made herself have a good time. I love things like that. I'm more interested in that than in the cultural forces that have produced that moment - although you can't really disentangle the two. The trivia is like the tip of an iceberg, a polystyrene iceberg, on an ocean that's quite deep.

TMcC: A good example of your foragings among the styrofoam flotsam of culture is your soundpiece My Life in T-Shirts . I hesitate to call it a radio play, because it's a mixture of drama, documentary and confessional. So, simple question: why T-shirts?

AG: Because they're a trivial way into something that's actually quite serious. People live their lives by different milestones and markers than they used to, and people of my generation have these T-shirts. When I talked about them with people, they'd say: 'I've still got the T-shirt I wore at the Hacienda in 1988' or whatever. They're what I call in the piece an 'Idiot Haiku': they have these moronic-slash-profound things written on them, so they're carrying such loaded messages on their chest without even realising it half the time. And then it opens out: I was talking to a woman who ran a retro-clothes shop, and she was talking about what people were looking for in retro-clothes these days, T-shirts with numbers on, and then she started talking about where many of these had come from, the third world, and sometimes even with bullet holes on them. That's when my ears prick up.

TMcC: There's term you use in that piece: the 'warhol'. It's a term of measurement…

AG: Yes. Slogans on T-shirts have a very definite sell-by date. So they're taken down to Oxfam, then they go to the third world. But since it's not the third world any more, it's the 'developing world', they've developed so much that they don't want our cast-offs any more: they want new Nike T-shirts and this season's Diesel, not last season's.

TMcC: You get those fake T-shirts from Taiwan that have a random, almost a Tourette's Syndrome spattering of terms: 'Mountain Nike Team Jet Existential Fun'.

AG: Yeah, Japan is particularly bad for that. Those are idiot haikus - but they have a kind of idiot beauty. But all that led me into something more personal - into thinking about what I'd been walking around with written on me. Like being a child and unselfconsciously wearing a Robinson's golliwog T-shirt and not making the connection - and my parents, and even our black neighbours and their kid I'd play with, not making the connection either. So something as major as race is mediated by something as trivial as a drawing on a T-shirt, and no one notices. And now you've got people getting a second-hand Madonna T-shirt with a bullet in it that's come from Uganda.

TMcC: There's a sense of archiving in that piece. At one point you even say: 'I am an archive.' But there's something quite poisonous and necrotic about this archiving process. You call it 'a toxic waste dump for old ideas'. And this whole necrotic aspect comes to the fore when the second-hand shop owner talks about how the kids particularly like combat gear, especially if it's got bullet holes like the one you just mentioned: it makes them more authentic. So would it be fair to see retro-chic as a kind of sick vampirism?

AG: There's an element of it. Perhaps it's more a joint frustration and fascination with the stupidity of certain types of death. I still subscribe to the idea that there's a certain way you should meet your death, and getting shot by a sniper in Zagreb while you're wearing a third-hand Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirt isn't it.

TMcC: That necrotic theme runs through your novel Their Heads Are Anonymous, which takes place in an amusement park somewhere in Euroland. This evil megalomaniac takes the place over and turns it into a huge snuff-porn set, with the trapped visitors as actors. But even before he does that it's a pretty deathly place. The main drag after closing time is described as looking 'like the aftermath of a neutron bomb attack: the people wiped out and vaporised but the buildings intact'. And even the minutiae: some wilted flowers remind the hero that 'everything has to die'. So there seems to be a thesis going on here about death and entertainment.

AG: Yes. The amusement world is a disaster waiting to happen. It's a Jacobean idea: there's this pretty face on the top, but you don't have to scrape very far to find the skull beneath. But in the real Disneyworld too, there's a fracture between what's on the surface and this - both literal and metaphorical - subterranean world that's beyond the public gaze. In the book the machinery just grinds into its ultimate configuration. It's an allegory, really, hidden beneath a novelistic surface.

TMcC: Memory's quite a big thing in that book. Parry, the hero, descends into this underground world where he meets these avatars, Burroughsian insect-like assemblages who describe themselves almost as a type of base-code. They say: 'We are the conduits under the world, flight-corridors, invisible transmission.' So could you see them as residues of the collective consciousness of the dead?

AG: You could interpret it that way. If you're talking about them in mythological terms they're probably closer to psycho-pomps, guides towards either death or life depending on your viewpoint and direction. That's why the evil mastermind is drawn to the place: it's a battery, a resonator designed to manufacture desire and fantasy - and these aren't subject to conscious policing, not initially at least. The book's saying that we have a responsibility to police them for ourselves: 'Act responsibly, kids.' Parry delves into the underworld in search of Priscilla -

TMcC: She's the kind of Persephone, or Eurydice figure.

AG: Yes: it's Orpheus, isn't it? I hadn't realised that.

TMcC: Was Angela Carter an influence on that book? The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman in particular...

AG: She's one of those people who's quite canonical, and I try not to pay too much attention to people like that. I always like to feel like I'm doing my own thing. I am aware of her work, particularly stuff like - is it The Bloody Room?

TMcC: Chamber, yes.

AG: That contains The Company of Wolves, which is in tune with what I'm doing. But I try to wear erudition thinly. If I can deal with primal myth in T-shirt form, I will do.

TMcC: One Hundred Black Boxes is a piece that reconstructs the final thoughts of exactly one hundred dying people. To do it you left the printed word behind and moved into hypertext. Why?

AG: Well, it does work on paper in some sense. There are printable versions of it. But the idea was to do something that was more fluid. People talk about things being non-linear, which is tricky because everything's linear, if only your experience of it: you're born, you live, you die, despite what Martin Amis might do in novels. You can't go backwards; you have to keep going forwards. So all narrative is linear. But I wanted this one to be more fluid for the reader, and easy to read online. Books aren't easy to read online, because there's too much text.

TMcC: Each of the black boxes, or chapters, is exactly one hundred words long, isn't it?

AG: Yes. That was the only rule. The wider aim behind it was to reflect the reality of death - and to do something more readily available. It's been read all over the world, which is something I'd never have achieved on paper.

TMcC: There are lots of hyperlinks in that piece, but the logic behind them isn't self-evident. Sometimes it is: there's a hyperlink under the word 'poison' and it takes you to a scene of death by poisoning. But some of them seem quite arbitrary, like the link from the phrase 'all sorts of reasons' to the woman jumping from a tower block. Also, why do they all go forwards?

AG: They loop back too. So you can jump from box eighty-nine to box two. So that's a kind of crude, pop-cultural approach to the idea of life and death being a cycle. There are old people and young people in it too. I was writing about death, but it's really about life: heading forwards towards death in a way that gives you some kind of control or sense of perpetuity of yourself - and heading forwards, because you can't go backwards, as I said. Although you can loop round: so maybe these people are going to die and then be alive again, then die again. Some people have interpreted the piece as a depiction of a kind of limbo, in the mediaeval Christian sense.

TMcC: A kind of purgatory.

AG: Yes. Lots of these people didn't die right, although lots of them did. I wanted to reflect how both happen in real life. I think there are ways to go into death that are correct, like I said earlier.

TMcC: So is that a question of dignity, or preparedness, being at the right point in memory, in some sort of narrative?

AG: All of the above. Each death is as different as people are different.

TMcC: The characters are for the most part completely unrelated to one another. But the formal arrangement of hyperlinking them and laying the boxes out in a grid on the homepage makes them into a sort of community. Now I know that's incidental: it's that way because it has to be, because it's a website. But you can't really leave it at that: you seem to be suggesting that they're a community in an ethical or poetic sense as well.

AG: Yes, I did that consciously. I was thinking about the iconography of death that everyone's very familiar with but doesn't really take in, like crematoria, whose gardens of remembrance consist of these black boxes in the ground which are easy to mow over (it's why they don't have headstones anymore - the mowing expense).

TMcC: No slithy toves gyring and jimbling in the wabe...

AG: Yeah, right: no room for toves. And in Italy and America you get these big above-ground mausoleums…

TMcC: They're like tower blocks.

AG: They're literally like tower blocks for the dead. Hundreds of little boxes. And then there's the analogy of the flight recorders of crashed planes too: black boxes. In my piece each box becomes darker the more often it's accessed; so it's about engaging with death. I've been to more funerals than weddings, and they're always grim, which you'd expect - but what they shouldn't be, and are too often, is factories. It's like processing a chicken through a poultry plant. I don't think that's right. I wouldn't go as far as the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a complete celebration; but at an Irish wake, say, people have a laugh and get pissed, and I think that's healthier. But I don't have any answers; I like to leave things open to interpretation.

TMcC: You're a satirist, essentially. It seems that in that piece you're satirising not just the mass production of death, but of experience generally, as you are in other work, like the T-shirts piece.

AG: Yes. The physical layout of One Hundred Black Boxes is a parody. After I'd started writing it a book came out called The Black Box, which was transcripts of people's last words in crashing planes.

TMcC: I read reviews of that book. Apparently they start getting all existential. There's one pilot shouting: 'It's all fiction! Nothing means anything!' because his dials are saying twenty thousand feet and he can see that he's almost at ground level.

AG: Yes. One thing I found reassuring was the fact that some of them were quite poetic, and that boded well for my project. People start saying: 'What am I doing here? This isn't real!' and then it ends. But in some of my boxes people are saying stupid things, like 'I'll have the salmon' or 'Shit! No, you're doing it wrong.' Lots of the last words are 'shit!' or 'fuck!' People don't always think lofty thoughts when they're about to die. Oscar Wilde said 'Either that wallpaper goes or I do.' Henrik Ibsen asked what was wrong with him and someone said: 'You're dying, Henrik.' So he sat up and yelled 'Not at all!' then immediately died.

TMcC: You're working at the moment on something you call a 'modular novel', The Nothings. What do you mean by 'modular'?

AG: It's like bits of Lego, a Lego-narrative. At the moment they're quite big chunks, more like Duplo than Lego. The chunks are between a thousand and a couple of hundred words each. They fit together in different ways. You can print them or access them electronically, and depending on how you slot them together you get a different sense of what the story is and how the people relate to each other.

TMcC: It's a lot more complex than One Hundred Black Boxes. You can click the Compendium, and go through it, and link to external sites; and you've got 'arcs' instead of chapters...

AG: I was trying to get as far away as possible from normal ordering, to capture a sense of the chaos of people's lives - and deaths. I do often write about death - which is why I'm here. But it's about what death means for your life and how people regard you afterwards or what you leave behind, your traces in the world, be that T-shirts or some funny last words. But these arcs: they're also nicked from trash tv, long-running American serials with story-arcs, which are different from single episodes; they have a whole team of hacks just working on the 'arcs'.

TMcC: Which are often taken directly from Greek myths...

AG: Yes. They're often really primal and basic, about people having children with people they shouldn't or having their ambitions thwarted and big things like that. Those are the same arcs that are in The Nothings as well.

TMcC: That book's quite politically loaded. It's set in a dystopian future, in this 'port', and there are 'pigeons', immigrants. It seems to be about the arcs of characters into this totalitarian police state, and arrival. It's like a circle of hell.

AG: I didn't think of it like that, but yes. I'm writing about the present, but a present onto which the future has collapsed. And it being online, I can link to William Blake or Day of the Triffids or whatever without saying 'Look, I'm really erudite and intelligent and am making this clever reference'; I can just say: 'Click here and go and look it up yourself'. One of the arcs, Peta the Impossible Saint, is about dealing with death right, the death of her child, but it veers off into -

TMcC: It veers off into the bureaucracy of reincarnation, doesn't it? She meets a dog who's filling out forms to recover his status...

AG: Yes, he's a demoted god, basically. He's lost his license. I was interested in writing about how even gods have fallen on hard times. There are surplus goddesses being forced to take gigs as the Virgin Mary in Eastern Europe, like resting actors who have to take work where they can get it. It's about looking at where everybody is now, but from a strange angle - lying on the floor and looking up the skirt of the present rather than into its eyes.

TMcC: Do you think that metaphysically we're surplus to requirements?

AG: I think people often feel like they are. Particularly trying to do what I do, something creative. It's quite evident that most people are surplus to requirements. Going back to Disneyland, it's as though the tourists are surplus to requirements once they've handed over their money. The pigeons in The Nothings, the immigrants, are surplus: they have nothing, nothing to spend, and so they don't exist, or it's not important that they continue to exist. They walk around with silver Nike swooshes that they've sprayed on themselves. I have certain obsessions that I reiterate constantly - which is why I use repetition digitally.

TMcC: What are the plug-ins that you're going to add to The Nothings?

AG: Those are much shorter sections which will fill in gaps. There are certain peripheral characters that are alluded to, and there's some photography there ostensibly by one of the characters. I was interested in the slippage between reality and fiction because it's meant to be in the present.

TMcC: It's called The Nothings because it's the first decade of the millennium, the zeros...

AG: Yes - although anyone who reads a lot of science fiction will tell you that it's always about the present anyway, never about the future. But it's about how it feels now rather the reality of now. There's plenty of people who can adequately write about how it literally is now. My impulse is the opposite of literary writers who are always trying to find the reality of the situation: I'm always trying to find the kernel; I'm not interested in the fruit. People I really like are ones that do art by accident. Like Raymond Chandler: he was a hack; he wrote books at thirty cents a sentence or whatever, and he basically wrote the same book over and over again.

TMcC: But he spent his twenties writing quite effete, bad poetry, then stumbled across this trash genre that he made his own.

AG: Well, he basically made it. The Big Sleep is a great work of art, but he never intended it to be. The stuff I write is something you're meant to read and enjoy, but that doesn't mean it has to be stupid.

TMcC: Are you sure Chandler never intended it to be art? I get the impression he's using this 'low' culture form and importing into it all this Baudelairean aesthetics of the city, the banshee wail of sirens and all that…

AG: You're probably right. Maybe the thirty-cents-a-word genre was a useful Trojan horse to hide something more interesting that the publishers didn't even know he was doing. Slipping in intelligent stuff where no intelligent stuff is asked for, which is often what I do. I'm doing a project this summer where I work with electronic toys.

TMcC: Furbys?

AG: Partly. All kinds of electronic toys; anything that's interactive: robot dogs and animatronic dolls that change expression depending on how well you treat them. I'm laying those bare, bastardising them, showing the electronic skull beneath the rubber face, both literally and metaphorically. Which is about the cheapening of life, and of death.

TMcC: That trope you just used is about death. It's Eliot: 'Webster was much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin'.

AG: Exactly. So I'm doing stuff that sounds stupid, like making packs of ravenous Furbys on wheels, but there's a serious impulse, even if I'm playing. I am playing; I enjoy it greatly.

TMcC: I wonder if this whole high culture/low culture distinction still holds. Even with people like Joyce or Dickens they start collapsing. And then by the time you get to Burroughs: he's making great poetry and trashy sci-fi at the same time, and Dante is as much of an influence as an ad he might just have seen on tv.

AG: I don't think it's a distinction people on the ground make. It's just critical consensus, they, this cabal, whoever they are, that have decided there's a canon. Writers themselves don't believe it, but the cabal maintain the pretence.

TMcC: So that's what you're shunning in disavowing what's been designated as highbrow?

AG: It's just purely because I don't like it. I'm bored shitless by literary novels. It's not a political thing: I'm just interested in things that are amusing and entertaining, things that seem blindingly obvious to me but that other people haven't noticed until I point them out. That's what I see my role as, not a standard-bearer for culture.

TMcC: What are you working on next?

AG: I was on a train recently, and I had a really bad cough. I tried to hold it in, but couldn't. But when I coughed, I noticed everyone else started coughing too.

TMcC: You get that a lot in theatres.

AG: Yes: it's like a viral mating call. So I thought of writing a book where this guy carries the virus, but it's himself that he coughs out into the world, and everyone else catches him and mutates into him. So there's an epidemic of this one guy - a global one, with people of all races and cultures just morphing into him.

TMcC: I look forward to reading it.

Go to Alistair Gentry's site: