Ben Brooks - New form of the novel: emotional montage like experimental film only wishes it could be

Ben Brooks, Fences (Fugue State Press, 2009)

«Deeply Russian in its sense of life, bitter, very funny, and shattered in its love of beauty, Fences by Ben Brooks shows what happens when the art of poetry and the art of the novel get in a head-on collision. Told in flashes and fragments of compressed emotion, this novel tells its story through glimmers of an intense personal narration: about a Russian girl, a librarian and an Italian man's mysterious wife, a hopeless car trip across Europe, judgement, inadequacy, God in his drunkenness, death at the end of time, and the fury of an apocalyptic search for meaning.
Ben Brooks has invented an involving new form for the novel - emotional montage like experimental film only wishes it could be - but more importantly has cut human desperation into pure form and made it go 180 miles an hour.»

«I think, in terms of capturing real suffering, Brooks writes best about heartbreak. In many ways, the narrator of Fences seems to be evacuating all the thought in the book to overcome the loss of his lover, even the things he writes about that are unrelated to it. It all comes back to the distance apart from her and the slow breaking-down of their hypothetical future. And even if the narrator is determined to give up on that, his mind can’t help from bubbling up with thoughts of her or sudden primitive exclamations of “I fucking miss you.”
Fences is definitely a dope book. It’s described as an “emotional montage” and no matter how many words I put in this I don’t think I could sum it up better than that. A full-throated reconsideration of the world and a photograph of the mind when stuck in the clamps of loss and depression.» - Forrest Armstrong

«...Within its few pages it manages to overturn centuries of literary tradition without apology, pretence or verbosity. A concise, thoughtful, clean form for the modern age. The text takes the form of a combination of prose, disembodied philosophical statements and provocative, yet eminently quotable, sound bites. But if on first viewing the book seems to be made up of random thoughts, when read through a story is immediately evident, or at least the retelling of the authors emotional thoughts invoked by a passage of events... [that] weaves around a small cast and their personal connections, apocalyptic world view, mainly failed relationships, and a European road trip... In the same way that earlier religious writings were allegorical and designed to provoke thought, such as the New Testament parables or the Zen Buddhist Koans, I see the purpose of Fences to move beyond mere language and inspire powerful sentiment for the reader to meditate on. Possibly an agnostic Book of Revelations for a postmodern End of Days?... Such a new approach is brave enough, but Brooks is more than happy to take literature into the world of graphic art. Its pages, paragraphs disjointed, in seeming random font and format, take a step into the visual realms, any one of which could be framed and exhibited in its own right... Like all good philosophical works, you come away with many more questions than answe rs. It is thought-provoking, fresh, innovative, immensely brave and possibly a whole new step for the modern literary form.» - Dave Franklin

«This book absolutely slays. The language completely destroyed me in the best way possible, and I considering immediately starting the book over upon finishing it. The narrative that moves through here is terrifying, but there is abject humor that serves to heighten the intensity of narrative even more. yes yes yes.» - Mike Kitchell

«Fences contains some of the strongest lines i have read in a while... you can feel the filth of solitude from the very beginning where the narrator is 'in a hole' where 'nicotine eyes' stare at him. the book then seems to progress by branching off endlessly into different tracts of hopeless love, self-hatred and general dismay. this book is the message left by a burning tree blowing ash against the side of a garage where inside a man huffs gas to feel like a king. the biggest success of this book to me was how disconnected it was while remaining engaging. fuck. good job ben. don’t kill yourself yet." - Sam Pink

«Told in numbered sections that read like super rhythmic breaks, Brooks has created a narrative hinged on volume and aggression, the words often snapping out at the reader, taking skin and layers with them. The most apparent of these techniques is Brooks adherence to variable text formatting, where some words are in microscopic print and others are in extended sizes. And while Chapman is know for selecting texts that challenge the reader, often referring to his own press as a place seeking ‘unreadable’ books, Brooks is the mastermind behind this altered format, asking his language to speak in screams and whispers even beyond the words themselves.
But it would be a mistake to get caught on or hung up in Brooks formatting, as if that is all the text had to offer. In fact, it has much more, including a story that vibes in and out of philosophy as the character takes to the road and a structure that is part poetry, part prose, and always framed by conviction and import. Brooks wastes few words in FENCES, and writes a book where we are both drawn to finding our own similarities with his characters while also made acutely aware that this is Brooks’ own landscape, a private apocalypse, and something we should feel lucky to witness.
Ben Brooks is doing something significant with words, risking language and testing readers; and for that alone he deserves a wide audience.
I read recently that you relate the format of your fonts in their variable sizes as something akin to language as volume – talk to us about how you structure writing and when in the process that happens for you.
The font sizes thing is pretty strange I guess. It was never intended, like I didn’t set out to write something deliberately “wacky.” I think someone once said that I hid a lack of content behind those font sizes. For me its just another tool to be used. Its like someone giving you a whole new box of punctuation marks and telling you not to worry about paragraphing. The sizing and breaks tend to happen during writing, occasionally I go back and alter things but I pretty much know how I want the words to feel as I write them. I don’t really structure plots either. There will maybe be a few bullet points about some scenes I have in my mind, but mostly I just sit and go with things.
Let’s talk briefly about that notion of content too – how some may wrongly assume the formatting means the content is thin – for those who have not yet read FENCES, what is it about, what is its content, how does it mean?
FSP called FENCES “a private apocalypse.” I think that sums it up well. Its about a man on a road trip, meeting God, watching people grow and die around him, always heading for one person. One person he doesn’t reach. He’s shooting for a hypothetical future with that person but in the process he abandons everything else and that search takes everything over. The book is told in whispered thoughts and screamed phrases. There is no flat-lining. His thoughts are never ordered or confined.
Interesting. That seems something akin to WAITING FOR GODOT or other absurdist / existential texts – are those any influence on your writing? Or is there anything drawn from more contemporary examples of apocalyptic / aggressive journey novels like McCarthy’s THE ROAD?
FENCES had no conscious influences which I could list. After taking the book on, James Chapman asked me what I had been reading whilst writing the book then declared it to bear no resemblance to any of the books I listed. I guess there’s a degree of that Russian bitterness in the book. I like Dostoevsky.
You say the contracting of FENCES with Fugue State gave you a much needed boost to work on the next two projects, both now contracted as well – are those two structurally similar, using formatting and volumes in language? And if so, are they also similar in content, or is the content vastly different?
Both still make heavy use of unconventional formatting and erratic font sizing although I think AN ISLAND OF FIFTY does so to a slightly lesser degree. FENCES and THE KASAHARA SCHOOL OF NIHILISM are both very emotional books whereas AN ISLAND OF FIFTY deals more with the nature of men and civilization and so it involves less meandering trails of thought and more omniscient narration. I still wanted things to jump and hide so I didn’t abandon my unusual formatting.
You are, as may surprise some people, a 17 year old writer – and FENCES is a perceptive and complex book – are there elements of your personal or writing life that have afforded you this advanced authorial skill, or do you think many young writers are this capable and perhaps simply written-off or overlooked by publishers / editors?
Thanks a lot. Age never really came into things for me. I didn’t tell James Chapman my age until he had rejected my first two things, accepted FENCES and had gotten a good way into getting it all laid out. I used to feel quite secretive about my age. I thought it might effect how people read what I wrote. Now I don’t really mind so much. So I guess I’m lucky I’ve never really encountered an age prejudice but I think with the internet its easy to get judged on your writing alone, unless you start a cover letter “I’m a twelve year old writer” and enclose a poem about how dope your dog is. You just have to practice typing like a man. There are a bunch of really talented young writers in the blogosphere, like Jillian Clark and probably a bunch of other guys who I‘ve read places and never been told how young they are. I probably wouldn’t claim “advanced authorial skill”, just an interest in something a lot of people my age would never want to devote time to. I would say I had an imagination perhaps. As for personal life, I think its impossible to know how much things influence you. Sometimes I’ll write something and it will be a few weeks before I recognise how clear a reference to some past event in life it is. There are probably some references I will never pick up on myself. When I was younger we lived in Latvia. I think that played a part in my interest in eastern Europe.» - Interview with Ben Brooks by J. A. Tyler


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