This is a note on one particular paragraph in Hipster Pt. 3 that I’ve written primarily so I can remember exactly what it was I was trying to achieve, and where I was getting the ideas from. This is the passage:
“Throughout the conversation Maxxy cast wandering eyes over the smoking area, hoping to catch sight of Sapphy. His eyes sauntered idly over the loose souls. The canvas over the smoking area looked more phosphorescent than ever, as if it was absorbing all the brightness of the youth that was leaking away; all sorts of waving sounds could be heard: the juttering lilt of a phone playing indiscernible music; the rubbery squeal of two girls singing along to it; and the booming cry for attention of boys being loud and unprovoked, looking hopefully but in vain at the faces of every girl that passed them; the indefinite mingling of laughter and crying. Somewhere to Maxxy’s left a boy pleaded hopelessly with a girl who had used to be his girlfriend, but now was not. Packs of tobacco and the occasional bag of marijuana lay on the garrulous tables. Two boys with big muscles and tight floral shirts hugged ironically to the delight of their friends. On a stool by the wall a girl, sitting by herself, her head down, vomited violently, swayed, and fell over, lying like a damp fawn without friends or family to look after her. No one noticed. For a moment Maxxy caught her eyes, which flickered for a bizarre second before they finally cut out; and then he looked away, because she was not his responsibility.”
This is Flaubertian 3rd person realist narration. It is a prose form that is all about seeing; in this passage we are seeing everything Maxxy sees as he looks around the smoking area at Motion, and it is reported indifferently back to us. Here is a list of exactly what it is that good Flaubertian narrative should have:
- Brilliant and telling details.
- A very high degree of visual noticing.
- Short, sharp commentary that is never superfluous.
- The objective truth, whether or not it is pleasant.
- Absolute indifference; no judgments, opinions or reactions.
The reason that I chose to write my Hipster stories with this kind of realist narrative is because I wanted them to be full of noticing. In real life, I’m a bit of a ‘conscious person’ – which, I’ll admit, is a particularly rubbish phrase, but one which is maybe the closest to what I’m trying to describe. I’m using it to explain that I am constantly being made aware of who and what is surrounding me, and how they are feeling. My mind is a bit indefatigable like that. It fills every space like a balloon so that I know exactly who is there, what they are wearing, and who they are with. I know this makes me sound utterly self-conscious, but self-consciousness and awareness are two sides of the same coin, and – surprise, surprise – Maxxy and his friends are incredibly self-conscious about their image. Earlier in the story I put in a (fairly unnecessary) passage about Maxxy looking at a photo of the lads on facebook, and it making him feel good. I even threw in the line ‘Image was everything to Maxxy and the hipsters’ just to make sure that my reader felt like she was being slapped repeatedly in the face by it. So to have Maxxy observing in this way seems fairly natural.
(On a side note, self-consciousness is definitely a good thing if you know how to make it work for you!)
Now, this passage is all about what Maxxy notices when he drops out of the conversation with a nameless girl and her boyfriend and instead looks around the smoking area at Motion. This is Maxxy being a flaneur, a kind of disconnected wanderer who observes things and reports back to the reader. He is a kind of authorial scout. Interestingly, the rise of the flaneur character occurred at the same time as cities became bigger in the 19th century, because they were useful for reporting scenes involving lots of people in which a lot of things were happening all at once.
What I’m trying to highlight here – and, by the way, in the entire series thus far – is the ambiguous suffering attached to partying, drugs and nightclubs. This all to do with personal insecurities about image, struggles with fitting in and the loss of identity in the ocean of mass culture. Anonymity is important, but, again, image is vital. I am convinced that issues about personal appearance and seeing are intrinsic to my generation. That’s why I introduced the story with Maxxy looking at himself on facebook and feeling better for knowing that his online image is the one he wants. But image is a complicated thing. An image on a wall is steadfast and unchanging, but an image of a physical human body – that is, a person standing right before your eyes – be it her face, her clothes, her muscles, is something that can hide an immensity of emotion. I learnt rather violently rather early in my life that appearances are misleading, and a smile can hide a vast amount of sadness. In this narrative, I’ve tried to make indifferent, objective reporting the most effective way of showing these insecurities.
So, it starts with Maxxy’s eyes ‘sauntering idly over the loose souls’. I deliberately used ‘saunter’ to suggest the flaneur character, who typically loafed around with no responsibilities apart from unto himself. The suggestion of individualism is important. ‘Loose souls’ suggests early on that there is something ungrounded and visceral about what we are seeing, as if what is going on is affecting these people’s souls(!), and this is furthered by the suggestion that their youth is slipping out of their bodies and being absorbed by the roof. This is supposed to be telling, because the loss of youth in this society is synonymous with a loss of happiness, but these people are not happy, regardless of how hard they try.
Then there are the lists of sounds: ‘the juttering lilt’, ‘the rubbery squeal’, and ‘the booming cry’. These uncomfortable descriptions accompany phone music, girls singing and boys crying out for attention, ‘looking hopefully but in vain at the face of every girl that passed them.’ The progression is deliberate: nominally the reason people are at Motion is for the music; the girls are there for the music; but the boys are actually there for the girls. I don’t need to make too big a deal of this sentence for it to be obvious that it is about the modern male sense of isolation and sexual frustration, and the nightclub’s role of being a sexually frenzied hunting ground. Yes, the boys are being aggressive, but it is because of an inward sense of despair that they are acting like they are, which, hopefully, leads to some kind of sympathy from the reader.
I’ve really labored my point a bit with the end of this sentence: ‘the indefinite mingling of laughter and crying.’ Fine, this is very explicit, but I’m really pushing at the idea that these are people who are desperately trying to be happy and enjoy themselves, but they are all failing to escape an innate sense of despair. I think we are all familiar with the idea that the ages of 15-30 are ‘the best years of your life’, but I think this is one of the biggest and dirtiest lies our society tells itself. René Descartes said that the reason human beings are miserable is because we start life as children. Universal truth though I’m sure there is in this, this aphorism becomes more true when you get a society like ours which tells you that you are a lonely individual, shorn of identity and absolutely responsible for your own future. At this particular historical juncture, we have a malfunctioning economy, £9000/year tuition fees, a jobless jobs market and a society that tells you that growing up is the worst thing that can happen to you. I want to explore this point in more depth elsewhere, but the point to take away is that young people in Britain are tragically insecure about themselves, and try to make the most of ‘the best years of their lives’ in increasingly violent ways – i.e. with nightclubs and drugs. Violent solutions to violent problems.
Alcohol, drugs and nightclubs are the vehicles for people to try and out the sorrows and emotional constipations that they feel they cannot express when they are sober. I’m not so very far off the drunk girl in Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, who “had decided, ineptly that everything was very, very sad – she was not only singing, she was weeping too.” That is why the nightclub is such a potent symbol for someone who notices these things. The reason I’ve described the laughter and crying as ‘indefinitely mingled’ is because young people are so torn between happiness on the outside and sadness on the inside that it is impossible to know where one starts and the other begins.
So the first half of the paragraph is a quick-fire list of things that Maxxy has noticed: the phones, the singing, the boys. The second half pays a little bit more attention to individual details, and to do this it changes rhythm.
In order to make it more interesting and to engage with details to varying extents, this passage is written in different time signatures. All these details are being noticed by Maxxy as if he is seeing them all at the same time, but this is, of course, impossible – there’s no way that the boys can be taking the same amount of time to hug as the girl is to be sick. Every detail described in the passage belongs to a different time signature, all smoothed together into one passage as if they are happening simultaneously. What is seemingly important and seemingly unimportant are confused, because everything seems to have been noticed out of the corner of the eye. The effect of this is supposed to be that the awful and the regular are undividable, and a beautiful, observational collage of ambiguous morality is created.
Over the course of the paragraph the time signature slows. Maxxy sees the boy and his ex-girlfriend talking in 6/8 time, and then sees the girl being sick in 4/4. He therefore spends the most time observing the sick girl. I tried to make this work for its own significance. There is all this uncertainty and looseness around Maxxy, and then he sees this lonely girl who has clearly taken too much of something, and, as he watches, she vomits, falls over into her own sick and passes out. The narrative explicitly tells us that she has ‘neither friends nor family to look after her’, but after a moment of looking her straight in the eyes, Maxxy looks away, because ‘she was not his responsibility’. So as the time signature slows down, the number of images being viewed slows until just one image is being focused on, and then we can see the ultimately unpleasant reaction of Maxxy shirking any kind of responsibility for this girl. But it is not really Maxxy that I am criticizing as much as the utter absence of collective responsibility, and the fact that this kind of scene can even occur at all.
In truth I didn’t do anywhere near as well as I’d like to with this passage, and I’ve really written this note to remind myself what I was trying to do. The images aren’t as focused or telling as they could be, and I think there’s too much ‘regular’ and not enough ‘awful’. It’s alright as a passage, but hopefully I’ll get a bit better when I try it again.