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“A resistant absurdism, which might be a form of dissent” – A Baker’s Dozen Questions re: Richard Makin’s Work (forthcoming with Equus Press, 2022)

David Vichnar sits down with Richard Makin to talk about his book Work, forthcoming with Equus Press in spring 2022.

Equus Press: I would like to start by picking your brains re how WORK can/not be linked to your previous Equus book, MOURNING (2015), while capitalising upon the prescience of my ancient review of Mourning from Aug 2017, entitled “Richard Makin’s Work of Mourning”. That review ends by detailing the complex period of WORK’s gestation, which both precedes (as its first version was published by Great Works in 2006) and follows MOURNING, getting published seven years after. Can you say a little more on how Work from 2006 became WORK from 2022?

Richard Makin: The first appearance of WORK, serialized one chapter a month by Great Works around 2006 was very much an initial draft, incomparable to the WORK of 2022 in terms of content, typography and span (the latter is well over twice the length). I think of the two undertakings as altogether different books. I didn’t look at the text again until after the publication of MOURNING, when I began to revise WORK, expanding it throughout, until it was completed during the pandemic in periods of lockdown isolation. MOURNING and WORK are part of a trio of novels I aimed to publish over the last decade, the other being DWELLING (Reality Street, 2011). I gave the books those titles because together I feel these words broadly cover just about everything I can think of. Each novel has thirty-three chapters.

EP: My provisional answer re MOURNING’s and WORK’s similarity, which I hope our subsequent talk will flesh out, would probably concern their similar exploration of syntactic and semantic (dis)continuity, investment in the materiality of language, treatment of words & phrases as aesthetic objects in their own right, & their steady refusal of conventional narrative lynchpins. How does WORK follow / depart from MOURNING, to your mind?

RM: I can’t improve on your eloquent summary of the shared characteristics of WORK and MOURNING, so shan’t hazard an attempt. Oddly, I don’t think of the two novels as sequential in time, one preceding, anticipating, or superseding the other; all three books somehow exist for me at once, simultaneously, regardless of when the physical volumes appeared. As for departures, there are some visual distinctions, though I’m uncertain how significant those are. When I return to a book I’ve published I find it hard to grasp that I wrote it, often lines appear alien and I may have little or no memory of having composed whole passages, an experience which can be illuminating and/or puzzling, like glimpsing a dead me.

EP: What also connects WORK to MOURNING is their steadfast rejection of proper names and specific appellations, and their preference for personal pronouns which seem to coexist and multiply without any specific personification. Where WORK departs from MOURNING’s abstraction is a few of its narrative strands that do seem to feature entities akin to characters (e.g. the epistolary exchange between a “Gauleiter” and “savant”). To what effect are these “crutches” employed in your text?

RM: I avoid proper names because they scream. A swarm of personal pronouns helps create a more ambiguous sequence of images and scenes. In WORK there are barely any proper names within what is quite a long novel, though Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen and Ava Gardner all make brief cameos, as well as someone called Adrian. But of whom may it be said, I know that person?

EP: The “disorienting” effect of your writing has to do with its fragmentariness, and its progression through an almost self-replicatory, autopoetic process of recursion and variation. In MOURNING your use of intertextuality seemed a performative “mourning” for lost/absent/unread texts. WORK it seems puts these textual bits to some other type of “work”. Since you’re active as a visual artist as well, the question needs to be asked: How important is the avant-garde heritage of the cut-up technique to your writing?

RM: I don’t use cut-up techniques because I find them laboured. Also, I never know where to begin and end with a cut-up, know precisely what the rules are, even though it’s me making them up. When writing I do though employ a rigorous method of rearranging the text — a way of inviting chance and accident — which is essentially numerical, and could be described as a way of tripping oneself up, placing potentially productive obstacles on the path. The visual appearance of the text is important for me, this consideration guiding the writing as much as options regarding syntax, punctuation, the conveyance of a scene, a glimpse of an event or thought process etc.  

EP: Aligned with the allusiveness, and I suppose also the new-novelistic, clinical tone of so many of your sentences, is the scholarly, encyclopaedic quality of the text. MOURNING dealt primarily with scientific vocabulary taken from botanical, meteorological, anatomical (injuries, traumas), geometrical, numerological, arcane discourses (“the encyclopaedic voids of the world” [M, 24]). WORK seems to “work” with archaeological, historical, geographical, geological and landscape-related vocabulary. Whence the shift and to what effects/purposes, to your mind?

RM: There’s no purpose behind any discernible shift in the lexicons of various branches of knowledge in the two books; I couldn’t proceed in such a determinate fashion. I suspect that examples relating to the fields listed appear in both novels, though appreciate that a reader might perceive different emphases. The endeavour in WORKDWELLING and MOURNING was to build a sort of cosmology through relentless extemporizing, painstakingly building interconnectedness within a profusion of detail by incorporating encyclopaedic references to an array of disciplines, and of course failing. Underpinning the writing is a resistant absurdism, which might be a form of dissent.

EP: WORK seems also more embedded in a certain (type of) landscape. It keeps striving to name a “place” (a word recurring almost 300 times) without providing any particular geographical toponyms. Your abstracted geography and mapping of the psyche brings to my mind your long if tangential affiliation with the great psychogeographer, Iain Sinclair, whose Lights Out for the Territory begins with a motto from you and concerns a quest for your guerrilla installation. Sinclair has called your Dwelling “prose you must learn to experience before you begin to interpret.” Can you expand on your relation, either to Sinclair’s work in particular, or psychogeography in general?

RM: On the page, place names also scream. Then we know we’re being advised we are here, or there, or wherever; I feel an aversion to doing this in a piece of writing, though appreciate that others may not. And I read and enjoy books, of course, where the author has conjured a place. I’m never sure if I am entirely in a place. The etymology of ‘place’ passes through Latin platea, ‘open space’, which may not be a place at all.

In The Neutral, Roland Barthes coins the word ‘Ubiquiplace’. Fleetingly mentioned in WORK are some places I have lived: Malta, London, Zagreb. I enjoy in the text the shock of the sudden introduction of a place, in the midst of a prolonged resistance to naming. Generally we’re nowhere, of course.

I too feel that WORK strives to identify a landscape, never quite arriving at one, while always drawing the reader through yet another allusion. Iain Sinclair’s visionary peripatetic work encompasses a vast range of identified places. But I’m no psychogeographer, and am not sure I fully grasp what psychogeography is. One sentence from WORK is rooted in something Sinclair said during an event I attended while writing the novel: ‘She replies that with the advancement of years the sense of time and space dissolves, molecules ebb discarnate until one becomes a lingering sense of place.’ [373]

EP: The profoundly disorienting effect your writing “works” upon its reader follows in the best tradition of the formalist “defamiliarisation” or “making-strange.” Which brings to mind your lasting collaboration with, as its co-founding member, the international crypto-avantgardist guerrilla organisation, Interior Ministry and its programme of alienism. Under this rubric—and as part of its book series—you’ve co-authored, together with Equus’ very own Louis Armand, Principles of Anarchitecture and written Concussion Protocols. I wonder how your involvement in this broadly conceived subversive group poetics has affected your writing of such texts as WORK?

RM: There’s always influence, though it’s often impossible to identify the source. Principles of Anarchitecture and the novella Concussion Protocols were written while I was composing WORK. If nothing else, I think of WORK as subversive; I don’t see the point in writing if an attempt isn’t made to unbalance existing orders, expectations, conventions, habits, mannerisms etc — and thereby make something which wasn’t here before. Principles of Anarchitecture, having been co-written with Louis Armand, is for that reason distinct from other books I’ve made, but so too is Concussion Protocols, which when compared to WORK has a quite different texture. That shift persists in a forthcoming novel, Martian (if p then q, 2022), which was serialized in Alienist magazine. From WORK: ‘No, this is me, there can be no doubt. I could not undertake such an ordeal lightly, and have never broken my fast. Silence and withdrawal are now revolutionary postures.’ [474]

EP: WORK opens: “Objects at that time were translucent, held in suspension,” followed by an observation that “Word order is an allusive presence, a residue.” Two things of immediate interest for me here: I feel the major “objects” held in suspension throughout your writing are words and phrases themselves, which do at times achieve an almost nouveau-romanesque state of “transparency” or visibility à la Robbe-Grillet. I’m also interested in your notion of “allusive presence”, as of course WORK is supremely allusive, full of residues of other texts. Would you care to expand on these two dimensions of your writing?

RM: Nouveau roman writers are significant for me, in particular Robert Pinget, whose Inquisitory was the prompt for the inquisitor and inquisitory which feature throughout WORK. As you say, there are countless allusive residues of other texts in the novel, and one strategy of composition involves the skewing, hybridization and grafting of citations, preserving just a glimpse of their origins. 

EP: I cannot not ask about WORK’s obsession with the word “origin” which recurs a dazzling 266 times over the 478 pages of the text, usually in simply structured, yet cryptically signifying copular constructions “origin is x” (cf. a batch taken at random: “Origin is a prayer of commemoration, whispered too late” [37]; “Origin is the modern intestinal hollow where the brain was dumped” [40]; “Origin is a cordon, both from a knotted rope, hamstrung” [42]). Is this an ironic homage-cum-revision to Barthes’ famous pronouncement that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin”? How does “origin”, enmeshed in these dozens and dozens of copular (mis-)identifications, “work” in WORK?

RM: My use of the word origin stems from a fascination with etymology, or rather, the impossibility of determining ‘source’ or ‘derivation’. The notion of origin shapeshifts, evaporates: ‘Origin is bruised.’ [153]; ‘Origin is wild or masterless cattle.’ [265]; ‘Origin is decaying time.’ [412] It’s curious, the alliance between riotous profusion and repetition, as if repetition by itself might create a sensation of retreat — writing, like reading, always fading, disappearing at the very moment it flares at the periphery.

EP: Philip Terry’s blurb calls WORK “an unclassifiable encyclopedic novel” and distinguishes “echoes of Acker, of Beckett, of late Ballard, and of Lautréamont’s Maldoror.” For my part, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of (even allusions to) Joyce, Kafka, Proust but also Anna Kavan, Anais Nin or Ann Quin. It is in the very nature of encyclopaedic works to contain multitudes, to function as kaleidoscopes reshaken with every reading, thereby “reading their readers”, but I wonder if you have any recipes or guidelines for “how to read this…”

RM: Any act of reading seems idiosyncratic, quite unique — by which I mean occurring strictly once — to be completely revisioned at any later engagement with a text. I feel that the nature of reading resists stipulation, let alone advice. It would be helpful for a reader to suspend anticipation of a conventional plot, a recognizable literary genre (several overlap in WORK), an overarching narrative, those proper names and places discussed earlier, or the context of a particular time. Sinclair’s comment cited above succinctly expresses an approach to reading WORK.

EP: James Davies has called attention to the obvious: the many types of “work” that your title evokes (“work as in hard toil in the engine room, work as in crafted memory, work as in magic spells, invocations”). Early on the text issues the caveat that “The most persistently misunderstood among all his works has been the book” (16). My question is simple: how do you “work” as writer and what kind of “labour” do you demand of your reader?

RM: It’s hard to tell when I’m not writing, impossible to know when a book is not being written: ‘I often lose myself about here, a pause in the chain of amnesia. There is nothing to write about, which is the problem and the solution.’ [152] The starting point is always a small, handwritten notebook, from which a transcription of every word is made, and from there the text expands, spreading like cells in a culture, or mould. I make countless revisions, repeatedly working through the entire composition until it can’t be any other way and all the facets align. The attempt is to achieve a lasting neutrality, abstaining from writing while paradoxically finding myself immersed in it. The reader’s labour is a suspension (undemanded), a leaving out. 

EP: In a previous interview conducted re MOURNING you spoke of how your writing resists “any given genre” and doubted if “this resistance should in fact even be contained by an appropriate classification”. I wonder how your thinking on this subject has evolved over the past couple of years? And whether you now can think of labels and monikers more appropriate to what you’re engaged in?

RM: My feelings concerning a resistance to classification remain the same, having a tendency to collaborate with every genre. I find it impossible to adequately categorize my writing, maybe any writing. Writing could be said to be an endless work of digression, never arriving anywhere, while paradoxically striving to remake the sensation of being here. Any ideas that emerge are always abandoned at some point, which seems the best thing to do with an idea.

EP: Following from that, if there are no suitable monikers, could this be actually turned into a forte of your project? In that its unclassifiability subverts the neo-avantgardist commodification of the historical avantgarde on the one hand, while critiquing the recent re-appropriation of terms like “experimental” or “innovative” by British cultural institutions? Are your WORK’s “landscapes, often peopled with bandits and containing scenes of violence in wild natural settings” also meant as “a subversive influence”?

RM: Writing as a subversive act seems indispensable. I appreciate your drawing attention to the re-appropriation by cultural institutions of words such as ‘experimental’ or ‘innovative’, these generally being misleading commodity descriptions. And yes, there seems to be value in unclassifiability, a resistance to naming (to pursue a theme). I find it impossible to explain what type of books I write, in response to the inevitable fishing for a genre, the ‘What’s it about?’ — everything and nothing. While I was composing these answers a friend sent me a line taken from Wordsworth: ‘The marble index of a mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.’

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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