Saturday, 12 January 2013

Tom Benn talks Chamber Music

© Alex Ivey

Our guest blogger is Tom Benn.  In 2009, he was the recipient of the Malcolm Bradbury bursary.  His debut novel The Doll Princess was long listed for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger and shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and Portico Prize.  The Doll Princess introduced readers to the absorbing narrator, Henry Bane, a conflicted man caught up in a morass of evil.

Chamber Music is the first sequel to The Doll Princess but can be read on its own.  Once again, it is narrated by Henry Bane, a mid-level cog in a ‘90s Manchester underworld.  An ex-girlfriend in danger comes back into his life just as an outlandish gangster returns to Manchester to settle scores and steal turfs.

Chamber Music was written quickly and compulsively.  In twelve weeks.  I worked part time six days a week, but wrote for nine hours a day, seven days a week, redrafting as I went.  Despite how effortless this all sounds, I’m actually quite a slow, unintuitive writer.  My prose doesn’t come instinctively.  A paragraph can take me up to four hours to flesh.  Only the dialogue comes quicker.  My pages tend to grow from sparest to spare – I always add more than I cut.  I’m also overly occupied with how my stuff sounds, rhythmically – and with Chamber Music, I was trying for something percussive and elliptical, to the point where I was counting syllables.

There is a lot of use of dialect in Chamber Music (from Caribbean patois, to the Manc featured in The Doll Princess) and they are all stylised for my own ends.  I want them to sound a certain way.  I want them to look a certain way.  (I talk a bit more about the patois in a recent interview here.)  I also wanted to push the language harder and go for something unfamiliar.  Vernacular fiction is something I enjoy reading, and it also feels like the most natural way of depicting my characters’ speech.  These voices carry my novel, and do so with urgency.  It’s dangerously easy to denote race and class with dialect.  You often know how poor or educated a character is in a Victorian novel by the decipherability of their dialogue.  Think of Joseph in Wuthering Heights, or Jabez Clegg’s adoptive father in Isabella Banks’ The Manchester Man.  Nevertheless, stereotypes can be played with, subverted and recontextualised.  I know there are readers out there who are wary of dialect and find all this off-putting.  However, Bane’s narration is regionally inflected but presented in Standard English; only my dialogue is written this way.  Hopefully, readers will find it doesn’t slow things down, that it heightens and accelerates the action.  But that’s enough about how things are said.

As a reader, I tend to care more about what characters aren’t saying to each other than what they are: all that tragedy, insight, and dramatic irony that might be lurking between the words.  While I enjoy and admire the density of high modernism as much as the next reader, when it comes to my own work I like a lot of clean white space.  In addition, I like how what’s unsaid looks on the page, typographically, just as much as what’s said, so it’s an aesthetic concern, too.

With Chamber Music, I wanted to write a crime story that explores a distinctive place and time but avoids some of the usual trappings of Manchester lore (the Hacienda, ‘Madchester’ etc.).  Instead, I tried to address this mythologised history peripherally, and weave fictions around it.

I wanted to return to the crescents and deck access flats of Hulme (a district close to Manchester city centre) in the early ‘90s, which was a remarkable place I remember visiting regularly in my childhood and has since been regenerated.

Bane’s underworld status gives him more freedom to do what he wants and to go where he likes, but he still frequently finds himself an outgunned interloper in his own city. Bane’s ‘90s Manchester is fiercely tribal.  It’s also a changing city, much like the real one, and is slowly being redeveloped post-IRA bombing, sometimes uprooting or burying the marginalised, pushing them further into their own orbits.

Manchester is a city very much in its own shadow with spectacular historical contributions to industry, arts and beyond.  Manchester’s past is also spectacularly violent - from Peterloo, to the Moors Murders, to the 1996 IRA bombing.  And if Manchester finds its own past inescapable, so does Bane.  I wanted the structure of Chamber Music to reflect this with two parallel plot strands that inform and infect one another.  These moments of juxtaposition and synchronicity of past and present gather momentum until characters are outpaced by their history and destroyed by it.  I hope readers will find Chamber Music fast and claustrophobic.

I stole this fatalism from classic film noir, as well as the unsentimental vision offered in early American detective fiction, particularly by Dashiell Hammett.  Hammett’s prose is stylish, spare and deadpan funny.  His characters, like the Continental Op, are politically astute and seem already jaded by modernity.  But just as he’s mired in avarice and thuggery and complicity from back alleys up to corridors of power, he’s also somehow separate from it, although never above it.  He’s psychologically autonomous.  Hammett’s best mysteries are about pride and human weakness, the stuff that makes affecting drama.  This is also true of some of my favourite crime films like Rififi, The Big Heat, Kiss Me Deadly and The Asphalt Jungle.  There is so much conflict.  There is clarity vs. Chaos; the visceral vs. the existential; stylisation vs. objective realism; propulsive storytelling vs. disorientating complexity; the tenacity of the protagonist vs. the futility of their actions.  Noir may be at its best tragic, titillating, cathartic and illuminating, and at its worst nihilistic, reactionary and overwrought, but is never neat.  Closure is unattainable.  And in this way, it’s quite honest about crime.

Chamber Music is probably more honest about noir than it is about crime.  And Bane Books Three and Four might be more honest still, but possibly more honest about crime as well.

Music is very important to me and to Chamber Music in particular.  I love Southern soul music.  I love hip-hop.  So does Bane.  I also love The Smiths.  Bane doesn’t.  There is not much else you need to know about Chamber Music – except that there is a Komodo dragon in my Manchester.  I kid you not.

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