Jack Coq is a first-person narrative, largely because the story did not work as a third-person one. It had not started as a first-person narrative. As a third-person narrative, it lacked bite, although I was unaware of that when I was writing it. Nevertheless, whenever, I looked back at what I was doing, it seemed awkward, uncomfortable like a hair suit. First person, present tense – all the ingredients for anguish among agents and publishers – did not suggest itself. But I came to realise that for me – for me, it was me. It was – is – my authorly voice. In first-person I can slip into the skin of a character like an actor being subsumed by a role. This, for me, is the key. It means, if you like, that I’m no longer writing as me. I’m pretending to be someone else. And I defy anyone to find me, the author, in there. When you read my next first-person novel, you’ll see what I mean. Because, let’s be frank – nice fella – about this: first-person, present-tense are what you’ll always going to get from me (although that is perhaps a rash statement and I have no intention of being held hostage to it). I have gained an insight into first-person narratives through Jack Coq so that I can get inside the reader’s head. That is why some readers find Jack Coq so unsettling. I make you, the reader, become Jack so that you experience what he does. Of course, you could just dismiss all this as bare-faced bravado and artful arrogance regarding my perception of my own skills as a writer. I shrug. See?
The story that was to become The Spectacle that is Jack Coq and his Amazing Anatomie started out in conventional form, that is to say, third-person, past tense. It didn’t work that way. As I pressed ahead with it, the whole process of writing become more laboured and I felt the narrative slipping away from me. I became bogged down in swamps of telling. The forward movement of the story was clogged and obstacled and snared. By the time I had written 40,000 words, I knew I was in trouble and in danger of drowning in a lake of poor writing. Was I waving or drowning? The calamity of my circumstance struck like a lash across my cheek when I went on an Arvon course. That saved me because it made me think again about what I was doing.
A solution did not come to me for several months afterwards, however. And that was only because I wanted to enter a competition and I was forced into having to reappraise what I had written of Jack Coq with a different eye, not because I was going to enter it in the competition but because I was going to enter a sort of rewritten version of it which I intended to be significantly different from the original. I had to do this because I did not have the time to come up with something completely new. How was I going to accomplish any of this? I had no idea. So the conversation in my head went something like this.
‘What am I familiar with?’
‘In terms of a story?’
‘Yes, what am I familiar with in terms of a story?’
‘Well, you’ve got me there.’
‘Come on, think.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘Not hard enough.’
‘What do you want? Blood?’
‘It’s a thought.’
‘Well, think again.’
‘I am thinking.’
‘It’s a thought.’
‘So what do you think?’
‘I give up. What do I think?
‘No. I’ve had enough.’
‘Go on, stay.’
‘Oh, all right then.’
‘Darling, I love you.’
‘Now, don’t start that.’
Eventually, the obvious kicked me in the shins and, while I hopped about in pain, a plan formed in the sensible part of my brain, a small dark place kept well hidden in case the bailiffs come calling. And it was this: the story I knew best was Jack Coq so why not rewrite that as a first-person narrative. That would be different from the original and would not look like it at all. I liked the sound of that and I said so.
‘I like the sound of that.’
But what about the scenes where Jack wasn’t present? What about them? They were important to the story.
‘What am I supposed to do with them, eh?’
‘Rewrite so Jack is present.’
I didn’t much like that idea. I said – well you get the idea.
‘I don’t like that idea.’
Yes. Thank you. We weren’t going there.
‘Just stick to the point.’
‘What is the point?’
A better idea. And it was this: do those scenes where Jack isn’t present in the second person so that it creates a sort of split personality. And menace and tension. So that’s what I did. And those people who read the second-person part, generally liked it.
Why the present and not the past, I hear you ask. A good and cogent enquiry. The more I reworked the story, the more I developed the notion of it all being a play, rather than the play happening somewhere along the way. And for that to work, I needed to create a sense of suspended disbelief (in a theatre, the audience is complicit with the actors by suspending disbelief about the action taking place in front of them as though what they see is reality). The present tense created a sense of immediacy as though it were a performance of a play which takes place in a sort of real time. I say ‘sort of’ because relativity applies here. Linear time in which each second and, hence, each minute and each hour, lasts the same period time does not happen in the theatre. And it does not happen in Jack Coq. It only appears to happen. Time has an elasticity and pliability in Jack Coq. It suits. It fits. Like another skin, one that is slightly too tight in the wrong places.
So, present tense, first-person becomes real time (of a sort) and adds a sense of uncertainty to what is going to happen as well an element of tension because physics might move the narrative in a quite unexpected direction at an unexpected velocity should someone interact with the actors. There is a sense this might happen. Now, then and might-be futures become one at times within the story because we have the duality of wave mechanics.
The second-person parts acquired menace merely because of being in the second person. It made Jack speak directly to the reader and he wasn’t always sweet. I liked that. However, the feedback I had from readers suggested that the second-person parts were getting in the way of the story. They were like speed bumps. Not that the story moves like a thriller. It doesn’t rush. It lingers with uncomfortable intimacy, moves on, then draws you back to an uncomfortable place. Readers usually imagine the story is funny. That it is meant to be funny. Why are you laughing? It’s a tragedie.
So, I rethought the second-person parts and came to the conclusion that I could handle those parts in an equally effective way if I discarded the notion that the narrator always had to be present. Did he? Did he really? Why? Yet, I retained some elements of the second person in that Jack still spoke directly to you, addressed you directly and still chided you when he caught you eavesdropping on his arguments with his self. Since this was a play and plays take place on a stage and stages have wings – of one sort or another – everyone is present all the time even when they aren’t actually on the stage to be seen. Which, of course, raised the issue of what actually constituted the stage in all this. All the world? That in itself was a justification.
So, I offer all this as an intellectual justification for my waywardness. But, actually, truth be told – and I like this bit – I don’t have to justify any part of it. It, this thing, this fiction I have created, needs no justification. It exists. It is. For all its faults and its weaknesses, its strengths are greater than its shortcomings. And nothing is perfect. Is it? No one can take that away. I confess, I always used to feel I had to justify myself whenever I stepped off piste (a fencing term, not the skiing thing at all). Not now. I shrug.
I write. I am.