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Jo Harkin on the many-voiced novel

Jo Harkin on the many-voiced novel

I love polyphonic fiction. I can say that now: I didn’t know until recently that there was even a word for it. And what a word is is! Loosely translated as many-voices, polyphony originally referred to music with more than one melody. The critic and philosopher Bakhtin applied it to literature, to describe the way Dostoevsky’s fiction featured distinct stories that stood independently rather than being components of one master story – and he saw this as offering an alternative conception of truth itself, as not monologic but multiple.

I didn’t know any of this when I read Cloud Atlas. I was simply blown away by the audacious shifts between totally unconnected characters; the exuberant experimentation with genre and structure. It threw restraint out of the window, and I was into it.

After Cloud Atlas I was similarly entranced by Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Zadie Smith’s NW, Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, and anything by Nicola Barker. (This is a more recent read, but Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris a dazzling addition to the genre).

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was the novel that spoke to me most powerfully. Its chorus of voices subtly and slowly wove together to create a shimmering, unique atmosphere. It really was Bakhtin’s truth in tapestry: I felt as if I was living in the novel’s world. When the narrative took a few steps into the future, I believed it.

It was Goon Squad that came to mind when I had the idea for my first speculative fiction novel, Tell Me An Ending, which is set in our present day, but with the ability to delete short periods of time from the memory. People visit a clinic to have their traumas and mistakes completely erased. However, it’s discovered that these memories are actually retrievable, and my novel follows a selection of very different characters, all wrestling with the dilemma of whether to find out what they chose to forget.

I knew from the start that I wanted to have several voices, capturing a range of potential consequences: good, bad, ambiguous. I also thought (with no evidence) that I might be able to capture some of the immersive magic of the many-voiced novels I admired.

I know we’re encouraged to say ‘challenge’ instead of ‘nightmare’ so, okay: writing this book was a f*cking challenge. My WIP ballooned to a size that, when opened, crashed my elderly Macbook. And while my characters don’t often intersect, they have the same timeline, and keeping track of them was like trying to get a group of drunk people to stick to a pub crawl itinerary. Also, I hadn’t kept the scale consistent, meaning I had one character spying on Russian gangsters while others were musing about identity at dinner parties, which jarred. I flirted with the idea of going ‘full Cloud Atlas’ with a different genre for every character (cue grimaces from my early readers) but ultimately I didn’t want to lose the sense of realism that characterises my favourite science fiction.

So: I dropped the thriller elements, rewrote a couple of characters, and cut about a third of the word count. That took me a couple of years – and it was hard. I decided I’d never write another polyphonic novel again. Unless there was a real need for it. Such as if I had a great idea for a follow-up, set in the same world.

Okay, maybe just one.

Tell Me An Ending by Jo Harkin is published by Hutchinson Heinemann, 12 May

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