Saturday, 18 August 2018

Writing As Metaphor

In my new novel, one of the main metaphors is that of writing. But it is not a book about an author or the act of writing itself, I always feel that is rather self-indulgent. It is more about the role that language plays and how it works (and more significantly how it transmutes) when written down. 

In the late 1990s, all over the globe there was the race to decode the human genome. To set down the language of every one of the 20,000 genes (out of the 3 billion we possess) that constructs and formulates us. Despite the complexity of the DNA molecule, there are only four chemical bases that bond with one another to form genes. This being chemistry, these four bases have conferred a letter abbreviation to stand for them, so the DNA ‘alphabet’ contains just four letters, ‘A,G,C &T’. 

Yet from such a small palette, a myriad of chains of these four letters spells out the complexity of DNA, genes and ultimately us. Our bodies and our consciousness. The human genome is one of the 3 voices of my novel. Being inanimate (at least in the pre-protein expression state), the genome cannot speak for itself, but in the novel it uses our computers it is hooked up to, in order to berate, challenge and bait us; we may have a 26 letter alphabet with which to express every complex idea and invention we’ve ever had as a species, but we get nowhere near approaching the intricate complexity of the DNA molecule and its mere quartet of characters. To the genome, it is as if the alphabets are reversed, we humans only have 4 letters to work with, while it leaves us in its wake with a full complement of 26 characters to permutate meaning from.

The genome wryly comments that its mechanism is the polar opposite from Medieval Monks and Jewish scribes transliterating perfect copies of liturgical texts; one error in transcription and the whole volume is junked, whereas the genome relies on misprints in order to foster variance and mutation to drive evolution. The modern age has come upon the genome with the human desire to ensure there are no errata in its transcribed language and if there are, they can be corrected through science. It is no longer sufficient to operate at the level of the word and the sentence. Now there is a need to drill down to the letters that form the words, as the very DNA of the words themselves. 

Online in the virtual world, you are also dealing with code. With hyper-text and binary computer code that also combine to project personas and people and ideas and well, everything. Just like with genes, hypertext can code non-sequentially, unlike our plodding written syntax of predicate, verb, object noun. The second voice of the novel ‘exists’ incontestably online, but it is entirely unclear whether that equates to a real person in actual life. It is a persona that only announces itself through the electronic written word, yet it appears to present feelings, opinions and have dreams. But can this language be trusted? And it seems to fail to obey the laws of time as it evanesces and disappears from view, only to reappear elsewhere, like the Cheshire Cat. 

The third voice is a mother who confides into her journal in order to retain some vestige of adult conversation, having been surrounded all day by two young daughters. But the pages of her journal are out of chronological order. The development of her daughters which proceeds in a fairly fixed sequence controlled by their genes, is fractured in the non-linear reportage of her writing. Where she lives in sectarian Northern Ireland, murals, colours and the visual image out-trumps the written word. In trying to shield her daughters from the violence, she is trying to assert the primacy of the written over the visual.

But all three are unconsciously writing part of one of the others. The online voice is threatening to use the open source data about the human genome, to undertake some radical genetic engineering of her own. Which is possibly why her compound is currently under siege from the authorities, an event followed online by the mother far away in Ulster. And she herself is battling with the stages of maturation pre-programmed in her daughters by their genomic programme, trying to support their development, including helping them to learn to write. 

So this is a book about language and writing, but it is not about writers. It is about a pre-coded language, working away at the unconscious level. And it is when this writing goes wrong, when there are errata, it can produce dire consequences. A mutation changes the replicated code within a gene and can lead to a debilitating genetic condition. The mother is stymied in trying to trace the development of her second child, when the journal reporting that of her first child is shuffled out of order. While the online written broadcasts to help save fellow souls, has attracted the wrong sort of attention and has lead to a siege that is likely to end catastrophically, pursued by men with three-lettered acronyms stencilled on the back of their flak jackets. Men whose lives are entirely ordered and prescribed by their three-lettered alphabets such as FBI, ATF, DEA. Her online posts are attacked by viruses and digital interdiction that unravels the very letters of her typed words. 

We are all written, yet none of us are characters in a work of fiction. 

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon and all good book shops in the UK

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