Cheltenham Literature Festival: New Writing

Radio 4 has commissioned a series of short stories, collectively called Transformations, to be presented each evening this week at the Festival. The first of these authors was Hari Kunzru, the others to follow are Jon McGregor, Julia Blackburn, Anne Enright and Biyi Bandele. Having recently published a realist novel about British terrorism in the early seventies, My Revolutions, Kunzru presented a distinctly diverse style in his short story last night, blending the surreal with humour and poignancy. He spoke of his enthusiasm of writing short stories, “it allows me to experiment and shoot off in a variety of different directions,” something that he has done with obvious relish – he wrote and revised this story in just forty-eight hours.

“Love with Impediments” offers us a vision of commercial dependency and vacuousness, using advertising slogans such as, “flexible loans tailored just for you” and “optional storage drawers available”, within the body of the prose to exemplify the oppressive force of consumerism on the life of the female protagonist. The ubiquitous desire to retain “beauty” by the You of the story, leads to her ultimate downward spiral into hell. A darkness begins to creep up on her, “we all have secret guilty doubts,” finally the incessant and meaningless consumption catches up with her. The repetition of “beauty” in the story turns beauty itself into an ugly commodity, which is then reflected in her experiences of hell as being “one of the compressed masses of pain” where she is no longer beautiful or even individual.

The psychedelic universe of the advertising world that Kunzru paints is not entirely surreal though. What is elucidated through this vision is a world that is obsessed with security and certainty, a need to mediate one’s sense of self through the purchase of a product. A reality most of us can recognise. “Advertisers glorify the individual in an almost neurotic way”, explains Kunzru, “they lever open a worry and then force us to fill a void.”

Kunzru also discussed My Revolution, a chart from the political to the personal by a man actively involved in British terrorist activity in the early 1970s. Asked the question, “What is it possible for fiction to do?” Kunzru’s response was “as an author you have a licence to break the rules, you don’t have to footnote everything, it permits you a sense of freedom.” It was a small and intimate event in one of the festival’s smaller rooms and as a member of the audience you could feel the energy and potentiality of the various forms his writing could take: “I do have various modes in my work and I’m wondering which path to go down.” It was remarkable to witness a man unafraid to tell us that he did not know which path his writing was heading down but it should not matter, his acute observations and certitude with words will surely keep them all open for him.

Posted by Jen Tomkins