Felix Culpa

“A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion in me. I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet. The fragmentary nature of thought,” says Jeremy Gavron with reference to his new novel Felix Culpa in the Granta series Notes on Craft where writers discuss their work. Except he doesn’t, as the article, like the novel itself, is largely made up of the words of other writers. In an interview on the Radio 4 programme Open Book, Gavron spoke of the book’s origins, noting that ten years ago it began as a conventional novel about a young man released from prison. As he wrote, a line from The Great Gatsby echoed in his head, a line he felt perfectly conveyed the experience of working in a prison (as he has): “Privy to the secret griefs of men.” As time went on he became more and more aware that the atmosphere and mood of works he had met as a reader encapsulated what he wanted to express as a writer, and so the novel increasingly became a patchwork of stolen lines – in the end from some hundred other novels, as he explains in a note at the end:

“The great majority of lines in this novel are sourced word for word from the hundred or so books, by some eighty authors, listed below. Fourteen of the chapters, including the last nine, are made up entirely of sourced lines.”

As Gavron has said, “All stories are made to some degree out of earlier stories,” though few writers have taken it quite so literally. In doing so he joins the ranks of writers who have previously rejected the traditional novel as inadequate, opting for a form of collage promoted by David Shields and seen in the late work of David Markson. Interestingly, he has not rejected plot but instead fragmented it. The novel tells a story: that of a young man, Felix, who, shortly after being released from prison, is found dead in mysterious circumstances. The prison’s writer-in-residence attempts to investigate the death, lending the novel the tension of the mystery genre.

The collage works best when differing voices are juxtaposed:

“Hours to commune with his own thoughts.

Learned your place.

Good dog and all’ll go well and the goose hang high.

Transferred eventually to the adult system.”

The slightly jarring change of person (which is frequent) and the appearance of dialect in the third line keep the reader on edge, further adding to the sense of mystery and ensuring identification with the writer’s need to piece together what has happened. Felix’s character, that of a criminal, but one who seems innocent to the ways of the world, further increases the gaps the reader must search to fill, evident in the book’s layout.

The style is particularly effective for evoking mood through the description of landscape:

“Sun swam across the sky

Hole in the road suddenly wink like a cyclops.

Few miles further.

Lilac evening.”

It also works well portraying the stilted conversations between strangers as the writer asks about the boy:

“Don’t suppose you know where he is?

Moves around should be here soon now it’s spring.

Anyone taken notice of a boy?

Stayed with him.

Sull young’n.”

If anything, however, Gavron has been too successful in blending together the lines he has chosen. With seventy-three of his writers male (not counting God) and only a few pre-dating the twentieth century, there is, strangely, a lack of variety in the narrative voice at times. Gavron also has a tendency to choose very short sentences, rarely over a line long: of the twenty-three sentences on the final two pages eighteen are six words or fewer (five are only two words). This slows the pace of the novel and, again, emphasises the search, but also creates a sameness of tone throughout.

Gavron has described Felix Culpa as “a journey through my own literary landscape” and it’s a pity he did not make the decision to go hard-core Oulipo by setting stricter rules on his sources. Think, for example, of Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, a novel made entirely from fragments of text clipped from 1960s women’s magazines. Despite this, it’s a fascinating experiment with an interesting story to tell: a novel to read and re-read.

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2 Responses to “Felix Culpa”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It’s a intriguing-sounding method, although the shortness of the sentences would definitely become an issue for me.

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