Release the Bats
“I bet you could wallpaper the planet with books that never got to page two,” writes DBC Pierre. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, given how many books did but shouldn’t have bothered. At the same time, there are a lot of would-be writers out there. With Release the Bats, DBC Pierre, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little, offers up the keys to the kingdom. While many other writers, including Stephen King and Annie Dillard, have previously published books on a similar theme, his keys, Pierre promises, are cut a little differently: “There are a million gurus, books and groups that can tell you where the verb goes, and sell you a rewarding, methodical way to write,” he states. “This book is about another way.”
Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It is a free-range egg drop of memoir, aphorism, anecdotes and loose, philosophical observations on writing that pivot on the notion that fiction lives in the gap between what we say and believe is true, and what really is. But that’s me roaming the coop, collecting the eggs and sorting them. The book itself is more of a scramble, or perhaps an omelette cooked with flashes of brilliance and wit but also with a bit too much oil and the odd bit of shell left in.
In the first section, “Writing: As Exciting as Burglary”, he seems to be telling us something important about his family and the “moral micro-climate” in which he grew up, one which had a profound influence on him as a writer, but he does so in such oddly abstract terms that it slips out of grasp – I couldn’t tell if he was raised by criminals, in a cult or just a very rich family, and what exactly constituted that “micro-climate”. Much later in the book, Pierre (real name: Peter Finlay) tells some concrete stories about his youth that switched on the light and made me wish he’d given us some of that from the start. Anyway, he writes that this upbringing trained him to “pay lip-service to the system’s expectations then go to a corner and reflect by myself”, which in turn taught him two things necessary to writing: “something to say and the patience to say it”. The spark “came when I saw our culture’s ethos grow into the one I left behind”. This was because he saw “that it wanted to monitor, distort and reinforce its ideas in exactly the same way”.
But hold on. Can a system have expectations? And what exactly does this well-travelled Australian who was raised in Mexico and is currently living in Ireland mean by “our culture”? Can that culture’s “ethos”, whatever that means, really have intention? Such grand, bombastic statements fly through the book like giant hot-air zeppelins, obscuring the view of the sky. He also indulges in a bit of magical thinking that conjures up the “gods of writing” and asserts, “Symbols love being written.”
The devil, here, is in the lack of detail: “The problem is that over the past century of self, at least in our sheltered workshop of the world, we’ve all been told how uniquely special we are, sending our powers of self-judgement to fuck…” Huh? What does the “past century of self” refer to? A century ago, World War I was still raging, and few would call the intervening years a “sheltered workshop” by any sense of the phrase. Did he mean “since the new century began”?
There’s plenty more obtuse and self-referential prose where that came from. I still have scratch marks in my scalp from a description of erstwhile chef-flatmates as “alchemists with the solemn fervour of illegal surgeons”. None of this is an especially good advertisement for a book on writing. If anything matters to writing, it’s the precision with which words convey meaning.
But there is a self-conscious, bad-boy cleverness at work here that implicitly challenges the reader to stop being so damn conventional. It is spectacularly on display in the chapter “Drugs”, in which Pierre describes his years of devotion to exploring the full spectrum of being wasted. His first serious bout with sobriety led, in creative terms, he tells us, to “a dance with current standards”. And “that conservatism and conformity led to the frustration of a dog”, so he went back to the drugs and “recovered my balls”. At the same time he also worked out that “work was its own drug” – and it’s “the only real drug”. His conclusion: “Drugs work for the art but not so much the craft.” Then again, he tells imagined tut-tutters that “in our job” drugs are “tools”: “So fuck off. Writing is heavy bombing.” Mixed messages, wot? No judgement, but I can’t help but wonder if all that drug use has something to do with the fuzzier and disordered expressions that occasionally explode his own prose, not to mention its sometimes defensive tone.
And yet, there’s plenty of gold in the pan. “For the purposes of writing, our thoughts are not our selves – the voice watching our thoughts is our self.” Whatever happens to you, for better or worse, if you are a writer, is “rocket fuel”; imagine “gathering all the piles of shit everyone has ever put on you into a single mammoth pile” and then seeing what grows from it. Apply the martial arts principle of “punching through” to your work: “don’t aim for the target, aim beyond it”. On getting started: “Don’t build a house and furnish it, but knock up some furniture on a binge and see what architecture it wants.” Editing, cutting and polishing drafts is like preparing a “slow meat stock” – a lot of water boiled down to its essence.
He’s terrific on structure, dialogue and how to extract character and story from real life – and he even offers practical suggestions on creating different kinds of document files as you write your novel.
In short, this book is like sitting down with a favourite, witty, reprobate uncle whom you love both for and despite his bluster, and because he really does, in the end, have something interesting to tell you. Reader: release the bats. CG
Faber, 224pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "DBC Pierre, Release the Bats". Subscribe here.