Sharking

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From the 1986 film, The Color of Money.
Photo Copyright: Rex Features Buena Vista/Everett

Wes Brown explains the inspirations behind his Leeds-based novel Shark.

Vladimir Nabokov describes inspiration as a ‘throb’ in the spine. That it comes ‘hot’ and ‘brief’. Shark is about many things. Class, masculinity, alienation. It knows more than I do. Where did Shark come from? I could see a man playing pool by himself in the shadows. He was wearing dark clothes. I couldn’t see his face and I didn’t know who he was. I knew he was on edge and that shooting pool was calming him. He was a good player. He understood the physics of the game. He was a man whose psychology was sharking on the table.

Novels don’t come out fully-formed, with teeth and hair. Nor do they arrive predictably. They are accidents of inspiration. They are controlled explosions of stamina and imagination. You don’t so much write a story as find a story. There are two basic modes of fiction. The Chekhovian or Borgesian. Hemingwayesque or Kafkan. Or, put simpler, the naturalist or the fabulist. When I began writing Shark, I was very much in the Chekhov camp, writing elliptically, catching all the loose clatter of experience. Believing that literature could reveal the world as it truly was. What I had to do was bear witness.

I uncovered John Usher over a three-year labour. His life. His milieu. His shadows. He was a soldier who had fought in Iraq and was suffering. He was struggling to find a grace of sense, to live with himself in a community divided, adrift and fast-changing. He was not a hero. John Updike’s small-town classic Rabbit, Run followed the fortunes of one-time basketball star and smalltime salesman Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom in a dexterous stream-of-consciousness. We live Harry’s life with him. Hear his thoughts as they emerge, unthought from his head. See his life unfolding. Past his prime in only his middle twenties, a womaniser, an occasional racist, Updike managed to make Harry a lovable kind of Everyman. He was Updike’s quintessential American and through his eyes gave, ‘the mundane its beautiful due.’

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Brown’s ‘apprentice work’: Shark, published by Valley Press, 2013

Rabbit, Run was followed by three other ‘Rabbit’ novels. Each coming at the end of a decade and somehow documenting the changing landscape of twentieth-century America, its customs, its anxieties, its mores, through the wrong-headed and subtly aging eyes of Harry Angstrom. A present-tense sequel came every decade that surveyed the cultural landscape and caught up with Harry, his struggles, joys and losses – his maturation – in syncopation with Updike’s own maturation of style. It is method I intend, humbly, to borrow for Shark. Bringing the unusual effect of literary accumulation: four decades of intensely alert and present tense prose becoming a history. We share memories. We see the entropy of deep time.

Chekhovian. Trying to capture as much life as I could. The novel was the awareness of John Usher. Every simile, description or way of seeing something had to resonate with how he lived, performed and perceived the world. It was like method acting. I wandered about my days with an additional sense, thinking what John would think, seeing what John would see. There was a feeling of dispossession after the job was done. The communion was over. John had returned to the shadows.

In polite circles, in the intellectual mainstream, there are few figures as unfashionable or unsympathetic as a Sun-reading, violent, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, occasionally racist, white working class ex-soldier. In another sense – easy-going, softly patriotic, skeptical, loyal, open-hearted, John is a very typical sort of Englishman. There are millions of John Ushers. There are times where John is achingly wise and loving. Tender and charming. There are times where he is thuggish and brutal. Close-minded and infuriating. By the end of the novel, he is living with his half-Portuguese girlfriend and her black son and loving his suburban bliss. It is too precious for him to damage or deserve. He knows he is capable of being a better man. Of living a fuller life. He has found a grace of sense. He has to shark.

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Wes Brown

At the end of writing Shark I had begun to question the Chekhovian mode. The expectation of a faithfulness to ordinary life. How real was social realism? How real was fiction? I had always approached fiction like poetry, not as invention, but reflection. Wasn’t it just another genre, another way of constructing our subconscious, political or aesthetic designs upon the world? Don’t we need artifice to create form for the expression of art? Could literature reveal truths about the way things are or was it a self-enclosed system?

Saul Bellow, a genius of writing about low life in high style, considered his first two novels Dangling Man and The Victim, his ‘apprentice works’. Shark is my apprentice work. There are one or two rookie moments. But it has a sincerity of expression. It tells a story about a man who transcends symbolism, ideology, or any straightforward framework. Nabokov’s ‘throb’ is an impulse to know more. To refine language beyond words. To see more clearly.

Shark is available in paperback and digital formats from Valley Press and Dog Horn Publishing.

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