Once upon a time, long long ago, in a land far off somewhere and all the rest of it, there lived a hairless cove whose skin was patterned blue. Mercy, he was a frightful sight, yet wondrous to behold. The good folk of Thereabouts never tired of gawpering at this grotesque and his prize pizzle. Yet, at the same time, they feared him as an incubus incarnate of Old Jeff and poked him with sticks and threw rotting fruit every Sunday after church. What fun they had to see him yelp and dance!
Worse, doxies grabbed Mister Chicken – Jack Pizzle as he was called – if they could, to find out for themselves, if they might, whether he was, indeed, big and beefy. He didn’t much care for having hisself handled by Old Joan and her cats, so he fought them off as a raving beast. Jenkins above! Everyone feared fire and smoke would burst from his eyes and arse.
Welcome to The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie.
So, having been told by agents, publishers and editors that, despite being well-written, Jack Coq is not commercial enough to be publishable, I decided to take back control of my own work and publish the novel myself in weekly instalments online (http://thebooktrap.weebly.com/jack-coq). It’s not unprecedented, of course. And I write to be read, after all. This way, he can be read.
Jack Coq first confronted the world in early 2007 in The Telegraph’s A Novel in A Year competition which was launched following the success of the ‘A Novel in a Year’ series of articles by Louise Doughty during 2006. The articles encouraged participation in online exercises set by Ms Doughty. These were subsequently turned into a book A Novel in A Year. As AJS, I feature in that book (along with many others, of course; and a character in her novel Whatever You Love is named after me, but that’s another story). The whole thing was a lot of fun and refired my urge to write novels again. I had been concentrating on writing stage plays and I was committed to writing my PhD thesis.
I knew exactly what I wanted to write and why I wanted to write it. Jack Coq was intentionally a radical departure from what I had previously written. Indeed, the novel was – is – an exploration of mortality, identity and reality, themes I had previously avoided.
Jack is a man who has no history – I didn’t want any sort of back story. He has no recollection of a past. And he is noticeably different from everyone else without his understanding why or how. There is no explanation in the novel for his difference. Indeed, nothing is explained in the novel. It just is. In the original opening – the competition entry – Jack is discovered in the street one morning, naked and hairless with a blue fern-like pattern down his body, and insensible. He is Caliban. Although the novel provides hints about how this circumstance came about, I can now reveal that Jack was struck by lightning. But that occurs before the novel begins. It explains his fear of storms.
That discovery sequence is no longer the opening of the novel. It appears elsewhere in the story. Indeed, the narrative is not quite linear and some episodes are revisited from different perspectives through the story. Some elements recur several times, such as water, storms, death, mockery, and lack of control of one’s fate.
Jack was shortlisted in the ANIAY competition. He started out as third person, past tense but, in time, evolved into first person, present. And that was a key decision. While some people find first person restrictive, I found it liberating. Having spent a lot time in the past learning how to act – not professionally but from professionals – I applied those skills to the novel. Thus, The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie is rooted in theatre, both in terms of play scripts and in terms of performance.
Jack Coq himself is intentionally an enigma. He is a character in a play. You see the world through his eyes without ever knowing his real name or whether what he perceives reflects the character or the man playing him. What is real, what is imagined, what is pretend, and what is deceit are questions that run through the narrative. The answers are complex.
The characters in the novel are all derived from the Commedia Dell’Arte, some more obviously than others. Their behaviour and how they interact with one another come from this root. Hence, the illustration for the book cover. This is an engraving by Jacques Callot, a French artist who drew from life in the seventeenth century. He illustrated many Commedia characters for Balli di Sfessania, published in about 1622. The Commedia dell’Arte were stock characters. The acting troupes erected temporary stages in towns and villages to perform bawdy shows which often mocked authority. They got away with much. If anyone performed today like they did then, it’s probable they would be arrested from obscenity. The Commedia were known in Shakespeare’s day – Pantalone, for example – but it was via the Comédie Française that the stock characters took root in Britain in the eighteenth century and became pantomime. Punch and Judy are derived from the Commedia which illustrates the cruel humour.
There are no dates in the novel although there are clues to when it is set. One character (Ignatius Qwenk) mentions that he was at the Battle of Leuthen. That was in 1757. The smallsword was a weapon worn between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. The Siege of Vienna took place in 1683. The Great Faux (who appears on a bill advertising a fair) was a real illusionist from the mid-eighteenth century. And the language Jack uses in based on eighteenth-century criminal cant. (There is no glossary, by the way.)
The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie is challenging because of the language but also because not everything is quite what it seems and because Jack speaks directly to you as though you are present in the audience watching the performance of a play. Indeed, you have a paradox: you, the reader, are put into his skin yet he speaks to you as though you are another person, which reflects his dilemma about himself.
Of course, the notion of a play within a play is not new – Jack is in a play in the madhouse (a play within a novel about a play). Shakespeare did it more than once, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Hamlet for example. Jack Coq draws on Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which is itself a reworking of Hamlet. There is reference to Bill Shoe in Jack Coq. This is my nod to Tom Stoppard. He once used the pseudonym William Boot. Hence, Bill Shoe. And the notion of lunatics performing for an invited audience was used by Peter Weiss in his play Marat/Sade, a very powerful work set in a Paris lunatic asylum about the murder of Paul Marat in his bath by Charlotte Corday in 1793. The lunatic’s performance ends in chaos.
The idea behind Jack Coq has some basis in history. During the eighteenth century, it was not unusual for the inmates to be put on show for visitors to gawp at for a fee. And the Marquis de Sade did write a play when he was in Charenton lunatic asylum in Paris, the setting for Weiss’s play.
In Jack Coq, I wanted to write about mortality. Next time, I will tell you why.