Introduced by Thomas Nixon
Hello, I’m Thomas, and welcome back to Writer Of The Month, where each month we showcase works from a range of writers across the literary spectrum.
This month, we’re looking at Welsh writer, illustrator and philosopher Gareth Southwell, whose work in philosophy has spanned over three decades. An author of numerous books, as well as a PhD on the subject of death, Gareth has written novels, novellas and non-fiction pieces throughout his career. His sci-fi novels, two of which we’ll be looking at today, draw on his background in philosophy and his love-hate relationship with technology.
When he’s not writing, you can often find Gareth designing the latest book covers, with book illustration being his bread and butter.
For our first piece, we’re looking at MUNKi, a near-future sci-fi mystery set in the UK and parts of Italy. It centres around Cari, a young woman who believes that Merrywhile Industries, an unscrupulous technology company, has stolen her grandfather’s memories. The extract is taken from later in the story, where Mel, a washed-up tabloid journalist aiding Cari in her fight against Merrywhile, is starting to have doubts about her calling.
Mel’s parents hadn’t wanted her to become a journalist, her father least of all. He’d been delighted when she’d been accepted at Leeds (“a good redbrick”), and more so that she’d chosen to study English, his own subject. He’d been midway through a PhD himself when her mother had fallen pregnant. (Why fallen? A fallen woman? An accident, like falling over?) And so he had decided to quit his studies to pursue teaching – those being the days when teaching was still just about a survivable job, and they needed the money more than anyone needed an academic (does anyone ever really need academics?). So despite her mother’s protestations that they’d manage, he’d shelved his thesis on Shakespeare’s something or other (“I mean, it’s not like the world is calling out for another book on the Bard, is it, love?”, laughing off his disappointment), and told himself, no doubt, I can always go back to it. But deep down knowing that he would not; that he had committed himself to forty years of teaching Lord of the Flies to the epitome of the sort of semi-feral, sub-moral creatures that had inspired Golding in the first place.
She could have been a Hermia, or a Helena, or one of his other feisty, tell-it-like-it-is heroines – it was a close call. But her mother had wanted “Amelia” after a sister who had died young, so her father settled for a middle name of Cordelia: she would be his little truth-teller. It was a pair of names she would thereafter bear like a phonic albatross, rhyming ridiculously through registers and roll calls, job applications and résumés. (I mean, you’d think an English lit scholar would recognise . . . shaking her head; for crying out loud.) Sundays, she would find him in his “library”, a grand name for a spare room with books floor to ceiling, retreating to work on his novel – some endlessly evolving tale, never to be published, never even to be sent out on submission – but more often than not reefed in by piles of unmarked exercise books. There, lord of his island lagoon, did he too plot revenge upon a world that had betrayed and exiled him to this fate, consoling himself as he looked benignly down upon her over his half-moons, “I have done nothing but in care of thee”? She was his legacy, his little bit of pre-programmed posterity, fated to take up and carry on the dream he had so nobly laid aside for her sake. But this was a heavy, an unfair expectation to place upon a child, and one she came increasingly to resent.
By the time she graduated with an underwhelming third, she had been working at dismantling the dream for some time – the first tattoo; the piercings; the parade of wrong-side-of-the-tracks, low-trajectory boyfriends – until finally, when she had confessed her wish to pursue a course in journalism, the wheels had officially come off it. After that, though he had long given up hope of its revival, her first byline for one of the tabloids was merely its obituary, confirmation of the dream’s demise.
Despite this, they had never really been estranged, never “had it out” at some drink-fuelled Christmas or Easter. There was simply a cooling. She was no longer the apple of his eye. Sharper even than a serpent’s tooth is unvoiced parental disappointment. Had it spurred her on, then, in her career? Made her harder, more determined to prove him wrong? But everything she’d achieved had the opposite effect. Every small step up, every minor accolade, had been greeted with that same sad smile, the same flat, “That’s wonderful, darling”. Why couldn’t he just fucking say that she had failed? That everything she had done meant nothing – worse than nothing, for she had betrayed the very gift she had been born with in the service of shallow money-grabbing arse-hats who cared only about click-through rates and that her words filled space between adverts?
A poetically apt heart attack had eventually put paid to the unvoiced disappointment and the overly polite family get-togethers, though not to his running critique in her head. She is glad, now, that she had never given voice to her own mean-spirited thoughts, saying things she could not later take back.
The first thing that struck me about MUNKi (aside from the title) was its approach to showing conventional relationships in a way that’s both candid and unfailingly relatable. We’ve all seen the TV Soaps where characters fall out with each other for the sake of the dramatic. But in Gareth’s work, the humanity of his characters shine through and the words, most often unsaid, are the ones with the most gravity.
In Mel, we have a character whose opening monologue carries her father’s dreams, and her own regret. Her full name (a rhyming couplet resembling something twee and innocent), is the very irony that acts as a cornerstone to her character.
Gareth’s writing shows what happens when we take agency away from those we love and live vicariously through their own accomplishments and failures. The rift between Mel and her father is beautifully understated, yet highly recognizable; to the point where you can hear: “That’s Wonderful, Darling” in his very voice.
In the end, it’s the words unsaid which provide that silver lining for Mel. And with that final sentence, Gareth single-handedly buries the hatchet between the past and present. Where will Mel take her future? You’ll have to read the full novel to find out.
Our second and final piece comes from the novella Content Provider. Set in the same universe as MUNKi, Gareth describes this story as one of writing, and taking a satirical swipe at the day-to-day struggles of a jobbing writer, whose generic popular non-fiction faces the disturbing encroachments of artificial intelligence.
“Come on,” she says, “this book’s not going to write itself.”
Sadly, it seems, the cursor agrees with her, blinking blankly back at me, stubbornly unmoving.
Which is a shame, really, for all concerned: the commissioning editors, the project managers, the copy editors and proofreaders, the typesetters, formatters, illustrators and designers, even (should I be so lucky) the translators – the whole many-handed beast that is modern-day publishing. How relieved would each of them be, I wonder, if their task were suddenly automated? Were somehow suddenly whipped out of their hands? Not a little, I suspect. And of course, most relieved of all, would be me, about to embark on what feels like – a slight shift in angle, a little tweak of format – the exact same book I’ve been robotically rehashing for too depressingly many years to count.
I turn to make some quip along these lines, but she’s already gone.
And not just these hands, of course, but the nameless pairs of global mitts the book will pass through on its journey from brain to page: the printers, somewhere in India (or possibly China); the drivers and pilots of those diverse vehicles that will convey it to its various destinations; all the warehouse staff, the logistics managers, the invoicers and invoicees, the manifest checkers and checkbox tickers. And then there are the publicists and social media marketers, straining (and failing) to find some sexy new twist to stand out from the steady stream of digital dross; the book reviewers and podcasters, the bloggers and vloggers, on whose teetering piles of unread complimentaries it is fated to sit (unread); and let’s not forget the legacy media, the supplements and features editors, the TV and radio researchers, the workers in the mines of segments and soundbites, forever foraging for some digestible new cultural tidbit (who will taste, grimace, then politely spit it out). And of course, nearing the end of this long sorry tail, the dwindling-to-extinction actual physical bookshop employee, who, finding it not in stock, will fail to convince the interested customer to order it in by next week; a customer who will in turn promise to ponder that option, before returning home to buy it online from the next-day-delivery Bargain Basement Behemoth. And perhaps even you, dear reader, into whose hands it will finally fall: would you not too be relieved not to have to go through the same old dreary charade? Of starting it, of picking it up sporadically, at each toilet break, each bath, each stolen five minutes before sleep or after lunch, until, eventually setting it aside, forever intending sometime to return to such a worthy and interesting topic, some years later, finally finding almost mindlessly your hand moving it – bequeathed unfinished – into the capacious cardboard receptacle destined for the charity shop?
So let’s not fear automation, I say; let us embrace it! Let us wish it swifter and further progress! For just think what some mindless stand-in for every link in this tiresome chain – writing, editing, production, shipping, marketing, selling, reading, reviewing – think what it could free us all up to do. What arduous rigmarole it would rescue us all from. Wouldn’t we be – please, let’s just admit this without taint of cultural guilt – happier?
“Tea?” she asks.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, that would be…”
And then, of course, there’s the ecological impact. All those trees, so many promising wooden lives cut short – and for what? All for it to remain unread? Binned, pulped and recycled? Remaindered in bulk to some discount outlet on the arse-end of some dying high street? Truly, what would be the loss if none of this tedious sequence involved a conscious human mind at all? In all modesty, I can honestly declare that my entire literary career has added not one iota to the encyclopaedia of human knowledge.
But I’m not.
I’m sorry, dear hypothetical reader?
Holding it, I mean. Technically speaking. In my hand. I bought the ebook. So, no trees.
Ah. Then my apologies. But in which case I still feel sorry for the trees – or at least, the environment. You think your e-reader, your tablet, your phone or your laptop is so “green”? What about all that electricity? All the kilowatt hours of fossil fuels from all those not-yet-green, green-house-gas producing power plants? And that’s to say nothing of the human impact, of those other global hands, the numbed fingers of nine-year-olds wading waist-deep through Indonesian mud pits, fumbling for tiny fragments of tin ore, just so that your—
“What are you writing?”
She is back again, standing with arms-crossed, frowning, reading over my shoulder – for how long? – spurring the practiced reflexes of the seasoned pornoisseur into lightning-fast window-minimising action.
Her green eyes look reproachful, her mouth as if she is about to say something – something naggy, by the shape of it, or possibly snarky – but at the last second it shuts again, and the face suffices itself with a long, slow, anxiety-exhaling breath delivered through both nostrils.
“Hey,” I deflect, “I thought you were making me…” I look down: tea, untouched. I test the mug against the backs of my fingers. Lukewarm. But is this the previous one, or a fresh one gone cold? “You’re…” Has she done something to her hair? “Are you off out somewhere?” I ask.
It’s her turn to look evasive – why?
“Oh, just, you know, the Eliza thing?”
“Right, right.” Whoever Eliza is. I know a handful of her close friends by sight, and a more select subset of those by actual name (first only, not last), but there is a slowly spreading miasma of Divinia acquaintances of whom I know almost nothing at all, and with whom it’s hard to work out who’s real, and who’s simply the pivot in some shocking new development in reality-TV land.
“Well, have a nice…”
But when I eventually look around again, coming to from this little meditation on the modern-day limits to spousal knowledge, she is again gone.
Brief yet enrapturing, the journey this excerpt takes us on is tinged with levity, starting with a light-hearted tone before dragging us down into the journey of a publishing world more akin to an 18th-century coal mine. But Gareth never loses that initial spark of humour. In this near-dystopian tour, we’re given a superb series of visuals on the life cycle of a book: how it emigrates from our imagination to the words you’re reading on-screen.
Despite the tone Gareth doesn’t sugar-coat the experience, turning it into a journey the reader becomes a vital part of. As an aside, I love reading a series of words that all begin with the same letter. There’s something about it that tickles our brains every time.
Interestingly, it’s not between the lines where we find Content Provider’s meaning. It’s in the words of the protagonist crying his wishes into the void, begging for the very thing that he’s supposed to be fearing. It’s a refreshing that our hero is running towards the threat, rather than fighting a futile battle against it.
If you’d like to see more of Gareth’s work, you can find him on www.GarethSouthwell.com
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Joe Bedford is the creator of the Writers On Research interview series and writes short fiction and novels, his debut novel being longlisted for the Grindstone Novel Prize in 2020.