Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Bootleg Chomsky Meets the Big Societal Novel – Robert Newman talks about The Fountain at the Centre of the World

Robert Newman's third novel, The Fountain at the Center of the World, has been described variously as serious and intelligent, moral, and according to the Three Monkeys Online review “a resoundingly successful attempt to construct a dramatic relationship between the public and the private”. The New York Times meanwhile wrote that “it reads like what you’d get if Tom Wolfe clambered inside the head of Noam Chomsky — it elegantly and angrily scorches a lot of earth”.

Newman first came to public attention as a comic, with the cult BBC radio show The Mary Whitehouse Experience (which later became a successful TV show), and in partnership with David Baddiel. At the height of their popularity, Newman and Baddiel were able to sell out arenas, prompting many hacks to proclaim ‘comedy is the new rock n'roll’.

The duo split in 1994, with Newman subsequently undertaking his first solo stand-up tour. In the same year he wrote his first novel, Dependence Day, which won the Betty Trask prize for a first novel in 1995 (other winners have included Alex Garland, John Lancaster, Zadie Smith, and Tim Parks).

Newman continues to tour as a comic (he has just released a live cd, Apocalypso), and has been politically active with groups such as Reclaim The Streets, the Liverpool dockers, Indymedia and People’s Global Action.

Newman was kind enough to respond to a Three Monkeys Online set of interview questions via email:

First of all, without meaning to get too gooey, I'd like to congratulate you on having produced such a well-written novel. Does it sometimes frustrate you a little that the many positive reviews of The Fountain at the Center of the World focus on the polemical aspect of the book – if a reader or reviewer agrees with the polemic, as many do, then the chances are they'll praise the novel, but maybe it's just too easy to press the “this book tells the truth” button – maybe some people have overlooked the glaringly obvious point that, quite apart from the polemic, this Robert Newman geezer is a very, very slick wordsmith.

A book works on lots of levels but only one gets talked about. That’s a general rule. Not just me. And not just the fate of socially-concerned novels. But I am no less interested in emotion and psychology and wondering why characters do things and how they get stuck and get unstuck, and what a certain night will smell like to the boy who’s experiencing it, and all that, no less interested than someone who’s book is about, say, nothing much at all.

Some people compare writing to singing – the more you do it, the more you notice that your voice has improved. How long have you been writing fiction? How long does it take to get that technically competent, and do you think your voice is still improving?

I think you need to practice to be good at anything and to do it a lot. But I think you improve in one area and regress in another. It’s hard to keep all the plates spinning.

In your manifesto on political comedy, you take issue with John Carey when he writes that “George Eliot was perhaps alone among novelists of genius in her predilection for sermonizing and moral platitudes.” But surely it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that “a predilection for sermonizing and moral platitudes” is the defining characteristic of novelists of genius. Even if that was true, would it necessarily mean that polemic was the central purpose of a novel? Undoubtedly, it can be the central purpose of political philosophy or journalism, but a novel?

I certainly don’t believe that polemic is the central purpose of the novel and neither did George Eliot. When I say it’s their defining characteristic, I mean that even though it’s a fault and a failing, it is nevertheless a fault and a failing she shares with Hardy, Lawrence, Dickens and Tolstoy. By way of analogy… George Best shared addiction with Maradona and Gazza. Alcoholism wasn’t the prupose of their footballing careers but no-one would say it wasn’t a defining characteristic. But that’s pretty much what Carey is saying with reference to the other late nineteenth century novelists, and the interesting question is why? John Carey’s purblindness was that we live a de-politicized popular culture, where he who wants to be thought properly civilized has to be ‘above’ the vulgar fray, and the fact that past geniuses rightly thought this position absurd has to be airbrushed out of history like the communists cutting out the ideologically inconvenient bits of Brecht.

Many people billed The Fountain at the Center of the World as an anti-globalization novel. Personally, I read it as part of a much older tradition – that of the big societal novel. There were passages where I thought that, stylistically, you were paying a little homage to Dickens – especially the repeated use of Ilan Cardenas' remark to Evan Hatch that “in life, things always take longer than we expect” as a time-reference. Was that just me, or was it a deliberate device on your part? Perhaps it was a way of communicating the kind of humility in relation to tradition which is, as far as I can see, a must in order to write well.

Thanks. Me too. I wrote The Fountain… with the intention of it being one of those big societal novels. I wasn’t doing a direct homage of allusion or impression of Dickens in the repeated use of Ilan Cardenas’s remark. If I tend to think about Dickens during the writing process it’s in characterization, when I think about how to pithily and visually describe a character.

Apart from The Fountain at the Center of the World, which impressed me greatly, another one of my favorite novels from the last ten years was Don DeLillo's Underworld. Do you think the big societal novel is coming back into fashion? Is popular culture recovering from its narcissistic obsession with personality and lifestyle? Will we be seeing more novels about social processes?

Two swallows does not a summer make. I think the sharp end of peak oil and climate change and the widening gap between rich and poor will lead to more escapist novels, but it will also make the outside world less ignorable by artists.

Without meaning to be too simplistic, one of the reasons globalization causes so much misery in the world is that unshackled free trade does not allow developing countries to protect their markets and indigenous industries until such time as they're in a position to compete in the global market. Initially, at least, protectionism is often a precondition for breaking out of the subsistence cycle. But is it possible to see globalization as a cyclically self-reversing phenomenon? For example – in most of Europe's larger countries, capital outflows as a proportion of GDP were higher in August 1914 than they are now – it could be argued that the world economy was more globalized then. Is it possible that, quite apart from whatever strategies the anti-globalization movement may adopt, globalization will simply reverse itself as it has done on previous occasions? Maybe this time 'round, oil depletion will be the crucial factor in “deglobalization”.

I think that’s brilliantly put. When we pass the peak oil spike – which petroleum geologists predict will be within a couple of years – it will become clear that supermarkets, and 3000-mile salads are over, are relics from the petroleum age. The world will expand again as lo-cost flights are revealed to be a contradiction in terms and no longer viable even with the huge government subsidies which the airlines enjoy nowadays. But what activists mean by globalization or corporate-globalization is a political order
made by and for trans-national corporations. Corporations will still be powerful and still be in place, and so to that extent there will still be globalization.

One criticism of the anti-globalization movement is that ‘anti-globalization’ has, in itself, become a very successful global brand. One particularly cynical version of this argument might be that Naomi Klein has made a lot of money by selling something called 'moral superiority', which is the same thing George W. Bush sells to his own constituency. Maybe Naomi Klein has more in common with Dubya than she realizes. How would you react to such an argument?

It’s a cheap shot. I don’t think Naomi Klein is selling a product called ‘moral superiority’. What she has done in her journalism, films and books is offer a vital, intelligent critique. She’s travelled the ends of the earth to give a voice to the world’s most ignored people, the victims of this economic system. Her film The Take looked at the factory occupations in Argentina after the big crash and told the inspiring story of how garment workers and mechanics and bakers and ceramicists broke into the factories which had shut down and which they had been locked out of and how these people then began to turn failed factories into profitable businesses, something that was much easier to do without ‘the dead wood of management’ ( as we used to say in the ’70s ). She’s gone to Iraq to talk to members of the souther oil fields’ trade unions at great risk to herself. I don’t think the wider movement generally has been commodified either. If South Korean farmers see they have common cause with Canadian postal workers – as has happened in communiques – that is different from them both buying the same brand.

In one interview, you said that you were reading about peak oil, and some parts of The Fountain at the Center of the World deal with water-privatization. It could be possible to interpret hostilities between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza as a “water-war”. When there's not enough oil left for oil to be a political priority, how huge will the strategic paradigm shift from oil to water be? Is it possible that the resource wars fought over oil are only rehearsals for the ones which will be fought over water?

I think that the big crunch will be the oil. A switch to renewables will be less water-intensive eg. agriculture that uses lots of pesticides also uses lots more water. Climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, especially in the Global South. But the real water issue will not be in its disappearance – there will still be lots of water – just in its delivery. With the energy crisis there may not be enough juice to power the electricity grid and therefore there will be no way to pump water to peoples taps and cisterns.

I don't want to get you in trouble or anything, but is reading The Fountain at the Center of the World a good way to start if you want to learn how to build a bomb?

No. I deliberately made the descriptions of how Chano made the fertilizer bomb with which he blows the water-pipes an impractical guide. If you follow the process that Chano follows you won’t even make a functioning firework. That was the bit my mum wanted to know about when she’d read my book, too!

There are many movements in opposition to capitalism, of which the anti-globalization movement is only one. Another, in part at least, is political Islam. It's impossible to win an argument against someone who uses deliberately unfair tactics. Maybe the argument against capitalism can't be won because capitalism's tactics in that debate are simply too disingenuous. The Fountain at the Center of the World describes some of those tactics. Maybe the Islamic fundamentalists have a point – they haven't inherited this idea from bourgeois liberalism that violence is always wrong. Do you think that there is still a role for political violence? If a whole range of non-violent tactics are now being legally categorized as terrorism, then does that mean that anti-globalization activists may as well escalate their tactics?

Unlike a majority of members of the House of Commons I do not believe in political violence.