I think, maybe, pretty much, The PhD Novel, is complete. I think. Maybe.
Well, it has to be because the deadline looms. But drawing a line underneath the thing and saying to myself: OK, stop now, has been almost as hard as writing it. Who was it that said a novel is never finished just stopped? Tis very true.
It's a 98,000 word weird beast about the divergence of minds and the responsibilities we bear vs the ones we think we bear. It is fidgety and, at times, chaotic but, I hope, affirming and uplifting in its own bizarro way. Or maybe it's unpublishable nonsense; it is very hard to tell from here. Wood for the trees and all that.
I'm now at that unenviable stage of tentatively flinging it to literary agents with my best 'pretty please' smile before settling in for the barrage of form rejections (already had a few). But that's OK. I've been writing weird and very taste-specific fiction for 14 years and I've built pretty solid fortifications against the 'not for me's. Besides, getting the damn thing done is an achievement in itself and I can certainly lift a glass to that.
Of course, beyond all these hopes of publication (and nabbing a PhD in the process) this has been an intensely personal project. I've found I've been forgetting that of late - perhaps I've kept up a bit of a mental distance from it. Truth is, I've long held onto autism as a topic to dance through the neurodiverse fields with and this strange novel is the result of the first big foray. Perhaps there will be other waltzes - I certainly hope so. What's most curious, and most brilliant, is that I've learned a huge amount about autism and yet, in a way, I'm not really any closer to understanding it. But nor do I actually want to "understand" it. Attempts to "understand" autism have so often led to it being wildly and dangerously misunderstood. It is better, I think, for it to retain something of its mystique. The crucial thing is to find ways of embracing the incredible joys of neurological diversity rather than interrogating the many gifts it brings in case we destroy them (which we so often do). I feel the same way about autism as I do about music, and cinema, and writing, and dancing, and animals. Massive, joyous, dazzlingly complex, mysterious, and, importantly, utterly mundane. Like this: I can turn my head right now and look at a rabbit. She's just at the corner of my vision, she's called Marble, and she's right there. A real life rabbit. In my house. Within reaching distance. Magic. Autism. Brilliant. Normal.
This is a novel "for" my autistic sister, Jenny. A lot of people have asked me if she's read it and I have to do a slightly awkward facial movement and explain that she doesn't really have the intellectual capability to understand it, while trying not to give the impression that that's a tragedy. But, in that sense, it's not really "for" her at all, which does bother me a little. But then again, people like Jenny don't tend to feature in stories because they're not always an easy fit, and that's a fault of our stories, not the Jennys of the world. So, part of what I'm trying to do with this book is resist that literary exclusion by bending and breaking the narrative where it needs to bend and break.
OK, so maybe you can get a sense of the novel now. Neurons firing, not always in expected ways. But there's a story there too. There's monsters, there's ghosts, there's dramas, there's family secrets, a nefarious corporation, a deus ex machina, transcendence, meta-fiction, and a toy monkey called Strong Snowy with a feather in his back. And, at the heart of it, there's Jenny who lifts her little finger, the one she named Lily, and asks; "Are you just joking, David?" and I say: "Yes, just joking," and that makes everything OK again. I think.
Right. I'm going to look at this rabbit.
Yep, there she is.
If you want a real masterclass in autistic narrative, watch Hannah Gadsby's latest stand-up show, Douglas. That's how you do it.
This is what I was listening to as I reached the latest end point. One of these days I'll make a playlist of every piece of music that helped fill out the tone and atmosphere of the book. Lots of atmosphere, some energy, some nostalgia, some long-winded arty experimentalism. But that's a blogpost for another day.