Alan Trotter has a charmingly evasive attitude to biography: “Was born, grew taller and is yet to die,” he once wrote of himself. His website simply reads: “Hello. My name is Alan. I write fiction.” In conversation, everything leads back to writing. Wanting to be a writer, he says, predates his memory of anything else. When reading The BFG as a young child, he realised someone must have written it. And that was it.
Trotter has worked in publishing, as a copywriter and completed a PhD. But he sums all this up as having “done everything else” but write a book. An early draft of his debut novel, Muscle, was even part of his doctoral dissertation. He’s been working on Muscle for more than 10 years. It won the the Sceptre prize for a novel-in-progress. And this week it is published at last.
Muscle concerns Box and , the titular Muscle, as they go from job to job: roughing up who they are told to rough up and breaking what they are told to break. But we also see what they do between the breakings and roughings up: play cards, read sci-fi magazines, sleep in squalor. It’s a pulp novel with the seams exposed. Rather than tying up loose ends, Trotter tugs at them until the novel unravels. And with the unconventionally named , Muscle announces from the outset that this won’t be a comfortable genre retread.
“All of these things have to have a purpose behind them, have to be intrinsic to the work,” Trotter says of experimental techniques in literature. He’s worried people will find _ “impossibly abrasive”. “Which is not why I did it!”, he adds. “It’s about making the book book-ish … making you aware of the physicality of the book as you hold it.”
He quotes the Canadian scholar and critic Hugh Kenner: “Parentheses, like commas, tell the voice what to do: an asterisk tells the voice it can do nothing.” _ is, for Trotter, “this challenge to the voice. If you’re imagining how a sentence sounds, then it’s really hard to know how to contend with this character.” (Magnificently, Faber & Faber is considering a Muscle audiobook.) But _’s name also serves a secondary purpose: “It felt as if it matched something of his character … and his situation in the world. Of being marginal.”
Hardboiled crime fiction has “something very robust in it”, Trotter says: “The mannerisms and the tone of it are specific and instantly recognisable, yet strangely transposable … And even when you begin to pick at it, or needle it, or amplify it and make it ridiculous, it still has appeal.” But it also carries within it “a toxic myth”: “There’s often one person who’s out of the system, who’s not playing by the rules, who is often more violent than the system would allow them to be or tolerate, but gets results. That’s an authoritarian impulse, as much as anything else. And I think that’s one of the reasons [hardboiled crime fiction] remains interesting to pick apart.”
Trotter wanted to pick away at the genre in a particular way, comparing this to an early work of 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen: his 1997 gallery piece Deadpan. In it, McQueen remakes a famous scene from Buster Keaton’s silent comedy Steamboat Bill Jr (in which the facade of a house collapses on Keaton). But McQueen repeats the scene, stoically, over and over, exposing the horror and violence that lay latent in Keaton’s original scene. Trotter is trying to do this with hardboiled crime fiction, “pulling backwards and away … until you reach the extreme edge of what remains.”
And what remains is, Trotter says, sad. “It becomes about boredom and unease and anxiety. And all these other things that if you’re at the heart of the action – you’re the detective kicking down doors and questioning people – that you don’t have time for.”
And that, too, is one of Muscle’s core conceits: the protagonist, Box, is not the detective kicking down doors but the hired goon. “His role in any other book would just be to be the dumb muscle: turn up for half a page, commit some act of violence and then be shuffled off again,” Trotter says. “Muscle is about sitting with that character and staying with him.” When Holcomb, a writer in Muscle, hires Box, he makes it clear what his role is: “That’s what I need, someone who can make me feel safer … This is not a situation where I need someone to crack a case by tracking down leads and figuring out all the angles.” Box’s problem is that he is too clever for his role as a goon; “any mind he might have is inconvenient for his existence”.
With its playful genre subversions, stories within stories and typographical quirks, Muscle might sound coldly academic. But all those conceits serve a sympathetic core: all of us exist within cultural and economic frameworks that frustrate, restrict and undermine us. We are often cast in roles we never wanted but can’t escape. And though we often come to accommodate, and forget, those frameworks, Muscle helps us to recognise the problems that are so often buried by the familiar. “I think people are very dismissive of work that is formally experimental,” Trotter says. “And often what they say is: ‘It’s just a gimmick.’ And it tends to be that it’s not. And they just haven’t chosen to think about it very deeply.”
• Muscle by Alan Trotter is published by Faber & Faber, priced £10. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.
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