By Gwyn Rees
With most novels, you know what to expect in terms of structure before you’ve even turned the first page.
First comes the set-up and the introduction of the protagonist, before they encounter the problem that they need to spend the rest of the story resolving. It could be obtaining a prized item, defeating a big bad, or learning an important life lesson from a hard-travelled quest. Finally, we reach the climax and everything is tied up nicely and neatly.
Ironing is, however, the complete opposite.
Forget all the literary conventions that you are used to when approaching this distinctive work. It is best described a work of ultra-realism that deliberately eschews the conventional to provide a raw, unfiltered representation of lived reality.
If it can be said that there is a plot to the story then this is it: three schoolgirls in London — Royanda, Ginie and Emma — travel on a bus for a day out at the dog races, with Emma on a mission to pet one of the greyhounds despite her friends’ misgivings.
Beyond that loose frame, Ironing is more of a collection of interweaved short stories that, like a tapestry, reveal a larger narrative. In this case, however, that larger narrative is a snapshot of the everyday lives of everyday people.
As such, the book contains characters who are thrown together by circumstance and then go off again on their own ways, with the reader being privy to the moments of their encounter and nothing more.
Some reviewers have seemingly been perplexed about why stories and threads are left hanging but this is true to the nature of life, and the express purpose of the novella. Unlike the conventional omniscient narrator, who can follow characters anywhere they may go, we mere mortals often bump into people as we go about our daily routines that we will know only briefly.
Although this might sound a strange concept, it’s actually an interesting and refreshing take on literary fiction. Ironing is much more in tune with how existence actually operates: random and chaotic with no real resolutions.
It dares to provide realistic prose from the world we know, rather than one we’d like to know, reflecting the indiscriminate, disjointed nature of people’s conversations, and using dialogue as a way to meet interesting characters rather than as a tool to propel a plot forward from A to B.
Admittedly, it is a risky proposition and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but in my view it works if you enter on the author’s terms.
Mainly this is because the author – who writes under the penname ‘Navajo’ – is an astute writer, with a clever eye and ear for the intricacies and micro-dynamics of the ordinary.
And while his subject is the everyday lives of common folk, just like you’d encounter if you hopped on a bus yourself, it takes nothing away from the hopes, dreams, triumphs and disasters that individuals experience.
There are certainly many moments along the way that will bring a tear to your eye, or shock you.
There are others where you will find yourself smiling, either over a tender scene or thanks to Navajo’s keen sense of humour which, again, providing acute insight into just how absurd our shared existence can be. For instance, when we meet Royanda, Ginie and Emma on the bus, the scene bounces with life:
“Oh! Look there’s Mrs D’Souza”, Emma says pointing out of the upper window of the bus. “What she doing all the way down here?” replies Ginie. Royanda turns to Emma and says, “She told my Mum that your Mum got banned from Morrisons yesterday”. “I know”, Emma says. “Why she get banned?” asks Ginie. “Mrs D’Souza told my Mum that Emma’s Mum was throwing the meat around the store and Mrs D’Souza tried to calm her down but the security got Emma’s Mum and marched her out of the store and told her she was banned…
The bus stops once again.. Mr Cohen, the first in the bus queue, steps gingerly on to the bus, touches his ‘freedom’ pass.
The writing is told in the present tense to add to the sense of immediacy, and is fast paced and energetic, but, as you can see from passage above, also unafraid to move straight on to another new character — in this case, Mr Cohen — in the space of a breath.
Another delightful passage is when Mr Cohen is trying to seduce the apple of his eye, Mrs Wójcik, by allowing her to win at chess each time they play.
Little does he know she has a rule that she only dates men who excel at the game and can beat her fair and square:
Mrs Wójcik closes the door behind Steven Cohen as he leaves, sighing in dismay. “Oh! my God!’, she said out loud to her empty flat. ‘He is such a shit chess player. What is wrong with that man. I manoeuvre the chess pieces so that he can easily defeat me and what does he do?
By settling up such joyful and evocative scenes, Navajo transforms the mundane into something engaging and rich with meaning.
Ironing may be random, and deliberately challenging for those unprepared, but it still deals with potent themes such as sacrifice and conflict, and explores the idea of how we are all influenced by our environment, and those around us, on a subconscious level.
It should be said that like all traditionally good novels, Ironing creates a cohesive and immersive world for readers to dive into, albeit one where we are on a rail travelling through different scenarios like tourists on a safari.
And the main plot with the schoolgirls does continue until the end, dipping in and out of narrative focus as we encounter others, so readers do come to care for what happens to them on their fateful journey.
Ironing is a jumble of a story and wears its banner of experimental fiction proudly upon its sleeve, but perhaps it is because it is so against the grain that it has stayed with me long after reaching the end.
I’d recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by the theatre that daily life can provide, when you have the right guide along for the journey.
Ironing by Navajo is out now in paperback priced at £7.77. Visit www.Bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH NAVAJO
We speak with the mysterious Navajo about his debut, experimental novella, Ironing, to learn more about its creation and his literary aims.
Q. How would you best describe the nature of your debut novella, Ironing?
A. It’s humorous; gritty; a montage of reality, set mostly in the East End of London, sort of. The book primarily explores the chaotic nature of people’s lives, ideas and relationships. The book itself reflects, in its very structure, the confused pandemonium of everyday life. The book is deliberately random, messy and anarchic. It delves into very corners of the individual’s intricate personal life, exposing love, hate, cruelty and compassion. The book includes events that had major social and political impact. Parts of the narrative will make you laugh and cry and wonder why you started reading it in the first place. There are subplots of deep sadness and kindness set within the context of real humanity, love and tenderness.
The title, like the book, can only be understood in the context of the notion that the ‘event’ — no matter how mundane, boring or exciting — is the consequence of community. The book has nothing to do with the act of ‘Ironing’. The title has nothing to do with the narrative contained within the book. It’s a random word put on the front cover of a random book.
Q. Why did you think it is important to try and tell this kind of experimental story?
A. I don’t think this book is ‘important’; I think to express ideas, to explore, to create, to endeavour, to question are human. I’m human, after a fashion. The book was not intentionally ‘experimental’, but I did want the anatomy of the narrative to reflect the underlying concept of the book: that of random chaos. I didn’t want the characters or the narrative to have its own internal logic. I wanted the book to be logic-less
Q. Why did you select three young women to be the central characters of the novella?
A. I didn’t select young women to be the central characters. I created central characters and superimposed, what, in our mainstream sociality, we would say are ‘female’ names. Then the reader uses the social context of ‘femininity’ to relate to the characters. I used the same characters and superimposed ‘male’ names on these characters and the same happens with these characters but with the social stereotype of ‘maleness’. But the characters are either ‘male’ or ‘female’. I also wanted to try to create non-objectified female characters.
Q. Is anything within the novella based on reality?
A. Yes, it’s a fictional account of reality. Some parts of the book are real and did actually happen. In other parts, reality is stretched and mangled and pulled to its extreme. And some parts are just pure fiction.
Q. Tell us about your writing process during the creation of the novella...
A. I have a copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I number each word in his book from one to six. I roll a die and the word that is associated with the number that appears on the die I write down. I repeat this process for every set of six words. Once I have gone through the whole book, I am left with hundreds of words which I copy onto individual pieces of paper. Each piece of paper is exactly 11 millimetres square, containing one word. I place the words in a disused ice-cream tub. I take out six pieces of paper at random, place them in a line, one to six. I roll the die once more and select the piece of paper that corresponds to the number on the die. The piece of paper with that word is placed on a line I have drawn on a piece of white A4 paper. The remaining words are discarded, never to be used again. I repeat the process.
As time passes, more and more words are added. I continue with this procedure for 22 minutes at a time. Once the timer on my phone sounds the alarm for the finish of the 22 minutes, I ease. I ponder the words before me. Rearrange the words. Twist and bend and spread them into some sense of a sentence. My first sentence done. I continue, incessantly, rolling and arranging and bending. This mind-bogglingly boring endeavour persists until all the words that have emerged after all the sessions of 22 minutes have been placed and made into sentences. I do not eat nor sleep or drink or think until the narrative is complete. I wanted to title the book ‘Dice’ but no matter and many times I rolled the die, ‘dice’ just never appeared.
That is possibly how I write, or perhaps I simply write the story in my head. I get an idea and I think how the characters will react to that idea. In the process of creating the story I create the characters. All in my head. Each day as I think about the story and the characters, I add a little bit more of the story, day after day. Often I will have an ending to a story and then that is easy; I just have to write a story that gets me to that end point. Once the story is in my head, when the urge takes me, I sit down and write the story. During this process I am continuing to think about the narrative and so I note any ideas I have and add them to the story too.
Therefore the story evolves over time, as do the characters. I don’t have a method or technique — it just sort of happens inside my head. I don’t write so many words a day or for a set time each day. I don’t even write every day. I write when it feels right to write. I can go for months without writing. I don’t mind. I know at some point I will start to write.
Q. Who are the authors you most admire, and why?
A. Ursula Le Guin. She had such a great imagination and was a brilliant story teller, being delightfully perceptive.
George Orwell. His observations on humanity are outstanding.
John Steinbeck. His ability to arouse emotional sympathy for his characters is sensational.
Margaret Atwood. Just read her work! Why would I not have her here?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her writing is profoundly perceptive and observant while her use of language is stunning.
Marcel Proust. He made me enjoy his description of his charmed existence.
Q. What one piece of advice would you give to somebody wanting to write their own novel?
A. Write because you love to write. Join a writing group that is positively constructive. That’s two pieces of advice. My third and last piece of advice is, sit in a darkened room in complete and utter silence, three times a day for 47 minutes. Every day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Leap years, you can have a day off. It might not help you to write but it will save on electricity bills.
Q. What would you like readers to take away from Ironing?
A. I don’t mind what the reader feels about my book, but I would like them to feel something. Indifference isn’t nice. If there is one thing I’d like people to understand it is that some of the nasty, unpleasant things that happen in life do really happen and aren’t just a figment of someone’s imagination. Those that have suffered at the hands of the cruel should, at least, be heard.
Q. What particular challenge did you face in writing your first book, and how did you overcome it?
A. Knowing when to finish. It’s fun going over your manuscript and tinkering with it. You don’t want to stop. You don’t want to leave your characters. Once the book is finished it’s like they are leaving you. It’s like being dumped all over again. I got over it by continuing to write more crap.
Q. What is next for you as an author?
A. My next book won’t be as chaotic and random as Ironing, as I’ve now done that style, but it will have the same voice. Some of the characters from the first book are in the follow up, which I’m currently working on.