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Adam Thirlwell: “Everyone has become a kind of manic everyday literary critic”

The Goldsmiths-shortlisted author on aliens, revolutionary France and our era of misinformation.

By Tom Gatti

Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. His debut novel, Politics, was published in 2003, in the same year that he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists (he reappeared on the list a decade later). His subsequent books include Kapow!, which featured fold-out pages and unconventional printing, and Lurid and Cute, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize. 

Thirlwell’s fifth novel, The Future Future, begins in 18th-century Paris where its protagonist Celine finds herself the subject of a series of slanderous pornographic pamphlets. While revolutions break out across the world, and male power asserts itself in new and increasingly violent ways, she seeks an alternative mode of being, just as Thirlwell pursues an unorthodox, ultra-contemporary approach to writing about the past. “I know you want the most modern picture possible,” Celine explains to a magazine editor. “I want it too. But that means I want spaceships and radical politics. And most of all I want the perspective to change. Perhaps also some jokes. Now: is that too much to ask?”

Tom Gatti: The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Adam Thirlwell: The pleasure of surprise, the pleasure of renovated thinking, the pleasure of unexpected comedy – the pleasure of new pleasure, basically. Repetition has its comforts, but surely we all need new pleasures some of the time?

[See also: The age of media anarchy must end]

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I’ve read that you have long been deeply resistant to historical fiction. Where did that antipathy come from and how, in the end, did you overcome it?

I guess I had this prejudice that historical fiction always felt like the literary equivalent of BBC period drama in the 1990s – earnest and conservative. The way historical fiction tended to happen in Britain felt too similar, with its love of canonical history – straight out of the 19th-century era of nationalism. Whereas for me true writing had to be super contemporary. One way out, I guess, was realising that to drastically separate the contemporary and the historical is just a kind of epoch-vanity. Another was a discovery of the way Latin American writers used historical fiction in the 20th century – in novels like Ricardo Piglia’s Artificial Respiration, or Roberto Bolaño’s investigation of the past – as a form that wasn’t reactionary but instead wildly radical. Our present moment is so supercharged: to approach it via the past suddenly seemed like a move full of possibility. 

The Future Future paints the 18th century as an age of media hyperactivity: “So much information was being put out there in real time… and all of it was warped.” What do you think our own era of misinformation – which seems to have accelerated in recent weeks – is doing to our language, politics and literature?

This is a vast question! It’s putting language under giant pressure, so that everyone becomes a kind of manic everyday literary critic. All of us are now experts in judging other people’s styles, and the relation of those styles to truth. The effects of this on politics are gigantic, and I’m obviously not the first person to be worried by how this overproduction of unverified language forces us into a terrible spiral of helplessness and heightened emotion. The effect on literature has been maybe to make the idea of the authentic more and more important – politically, or ethically: but I worry that the authentic is a very suspect category. One beauty of the novel as a form is to insist on the fictional and indirect as forms of truth. Maybe the ideal novel now would find a way of neutralising misinformation, as if fiction can offer a model of dialogue and conversation, rather than the furious monologues of our era.

Celine navigates a world of male violence and power. How important is her gender in her ability to imagine another way of living?

I think in many ways Celine’s gender is crucial because in being attacked in the way she’s attacked, in a series of pornographic, libellous pamphlets, it’s as if Celine acquires a knowledge of power and how power operates that’s unavailable to the men around her, even those who think of themselves as radicals. She’s in advance of her era – and that allows her to imagine possible solutions. Sometimes, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, you might only have the master’s tools lying around to dismantle the master’s house. But it might also be true that to be the victim of a system can point to escape routes that the system doesn’t predict. Not only can Celine see the obvious moves a person might try to make, she’s also able to think of moves that are outside the game entirely, so that as the novel progresses she moves further and further away from the assumed ideas of how she should live. And all of this is deeply part of her experience as a woman.

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

The book touches on revolutionary events occurring in Hispaniola and America, where one of the most fascinating of the real figures featured is the Native American leader Louis Cook. What drew you to him as a character?

Yes, the novel includes a network of other, apparently smaller stories from world history that also deal with power and which gradually emerge into the main story. I loved Louis Cook – Akiatonharónkwen – for his ability to negotiate between different groups: French colonists, American colonists and the Mohawk people. He became a figure for me of the diplomat. In this novel full of writers and politicians arguing across each other, there are characters who find ways to talk across borders, and one of them was Louis Cook. What also moved me was how his sense of his own allies was forced to shift over time. At first he fought with the American colonists against the British. But later on, after the Americans continued their series of land grabs from Native American peoples, he represented the Oneida people in (doomed) treaty negotiations with New York State.

Celine experiences space travel, encounters with extraterrestrials and conversations with trees. How did this strand of magical thinking come to enter your writing?

Partly as a kind of homage to the 18th century and the novels of the 18th century, which I love very much – especially for their calmness at allowing the fantastical into a fiction, with talking sofas and trips to the moon. Also because this novel is the same age as my daughter, so as I was writing it I was also reading and re-reading stories of aliens and monsters and extraordinary events. But maybe most deeply because this is a novel about otherness and trying to hold other perspectives in mind – so it seemed not just natural but also urgent to include the most extreme examples of that kind of thinking I could imagine.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing The Future Future.

Can this be double? Early on in thinking about The Future Future I came across Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama, about a minor Spanish colonial official stationed in Peru in the 18th century, desperate to be promoted somewhere more central, like Buenos Aires. Then Lucrecia Martel released her wonderful movie adaptation of the novel. The book and the film combined to make me feel a sense of possibility and release. The novel might be set in the 18th century, but it’s really an existential 1960s novel – about the condition of waiting, always hopeful, with no promised finale in sight. Martel’s adaptation was so garish and so sensual, and so uninterested in minute accuracy. In an interview she said that historical fiction and science fiction seemed to her identical: both of them were trying to depict something that couldn’t be truly known. And that equation was very reassuring when imagining a woman in the 18th century finding herself on the moon…

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Because – maybe especially in this era of manic linguistic overproduction – it’s very difficult to keep attention on literature. The prize is a crucial way of holding a space for that kind of attention to be paid. Of course, that might not directly lead to a better politics but it surely can’t hurt…

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

I’d give it to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. For a long while I’m not sure it even occupied a major place in Woolf’s own modernist practice – compared to Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse or The Waves – let alone other works from the grand history of 20th century writing. But more and more it seems to me central and extraordinary – in what it does to history and gender and time, and in its sentences that are so full of local beauty.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the prize will be announced on 8 November.

[See also: Richard Milward: “I use humour as a coping mechanism”]

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