The Lit Corner: John Holten
“Let us introduce a street. It is dark with figures moving down its incline. It is in the east of the city and connects neighborhoods. The figures are returning home, their hands touch each other, entwine. A smile appears in the dark.”
“If this story could occupy a space other than this page, objects could also help fill the void; how I would like to tell it with knives and pens and tables, soiled underwear and rusting oil platforms, the agitated air between my face and my computer screen, how, dear reader, I would like to throw a urinal at you”: Having blown up the outlines of the “traditional” novel before with his amazing “The Readymades” debut (2011), Irish-born, Berlin-based author/publisher/jack-of-all-trades John Holten has returned this summer with “Oslo, Norway,” his second, significantly shorter and even more open-ended work that “gets on with things” in other ways: What starts out as a fairly straightforward story about protagonist William Day’s expat experiences in the Norwegian capital, his falling in and out of love, soon folds and unfolds into a proper, self-styled “literary atlas,” (partly inspired by J. Schalansky), a speculative and shape-shifting map about story-telling itself (including writer’s block), “stories in space,” with different episodes and sections, including the map’s Legend at the end.
The result, again, not only leaves the page via Holten’s accompanying “Blips” (DIY video/pseudo commercials) but also leads the protagonist, the book’s author (and “first reader”: John Holten), and ultimately, us, to other areas by involving Norse mythology, Kafka, Bolaño, and more, thus raising questions about the possibilities of novel itself (yes, lovers of metafiction, rejoice!). Also serving as the second installment of what’s eventually to become his “Ragnarök” trilogy, we once again caught up with the founder of Broken Dimanche Press to discuss his various other projects, actual bin collecting in Oslo, and selfie fiction.
“What makes William Day real and knowable to us is the fact that he is moving through space, a coordinate on the map”… now that you’re currently back on the road, a coordinate on the map, does life somehow feel more real and knowable – to yourself as well? How’s life been since we last spoke anyway?
I think moving is so important to producing work, yet at the same time writing kind of needs a sedentary time. For fictional characters, their psychology only really comes to me if I put them in space and have them do things and “Oslo, Norway” is all about moving through space, both geographically and paginal. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since last we talked, I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin which is both a good and bad thing. I traveled to Democratic Republic of Congo with Richard Mosse, Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost to assist on the making of “The Enclave,” Richard’s work for the Venice Biennale, already two years ago now. That was an insane creative process to be involved in, and very good to move off the coordinates of Western Europe. I think I’d love to spend more time in Africa and Latin America because up until now I’ve been in my comfort zone a lot.
And right now you’re in NYC, right?
Yeah, I’m launching “Oslo, Norway” next week, but also doing a number of events around town with my sister Katie with whom I finally got around to making a book with, “About Trees”.
It’s been four years since “The Readymades” came out, and ever since you seem to have been involved with so many things, so many events and releases and such, how much time do you actually dedicate to writing? What about your practice as a writer, and how has it changed and evolved over the past five years?
Yeah I can barely finish these questions because I’m constantly jumping online and moving around my computer’s desktop. My writing has seriously been influenced by all the working collaborations and publishing work I’ve done over the last five years. Those and the internet. I really need deadlines now, with “The Readymades,” and also I guess “Oslo,” I was writing for myself, and nobody else. Even publishing with BDP is a form of self-publishing which means I have had even greater freedom. There’s a responsibly there, to see your work through, to its highest potential.
I love the fact that “Oslo, Norway” is a literary atlas of sorts – a map you can enter at any given point. What inspired this form/format, and did you get lost in your own mappings as you were creating it?
The novel, and the printed book, needs to get on with things. With “The Readymades,” the structure was so elaborate and intricate, the actual end of the book happened in the middle and the real meaning of the character’s suicide is easily lost. A lot of people stop reading “The Readymades” after 100 pages. It’s a hard book to read, for different reasons, and especially if, like a lot of my readers, English is not your first language. This got me thinking about what happens to a novel when it isn’t finished. In video art this happens also: audiences sit for 30 seconds of a video installation in a gallery and then move on. With Richard’s “The Enclave,” there was a lot talk about having it open ended and allowing the viewer to move through the space and create their own edit. It has six screens, and in a way it’s impossible to view all of them all at the same time. I wanted Oslo to be fundamentally contemporary: people read mostly on a screen, in a tab: the space of reading has changed, and my novel had to reflect this. So what better form than a street atlas to give agency to the reader? You get the picture incrementally, meaning is built up and composed as you may need it, as the road runs to the edge of the page, so you jump forward to where it reappears on the next section of the terrain. I tried to sequence the story and even had an idea that each issue of the book would have a random ordering of the 52 sections and digitally print them, but ultimately it’s got these four sections each with 13 episodes, the first three sections are different sorts of representations (represented in pronominal perspective) and the last section is the Legend or key, where I give the game away, so to speak.
Don’t you think it’s also part of the fun to be guided by an author, to trust his voice and choices along the numbers on the bottom of the pages?
For sure, I love genre and playing with genre. I think both my books can be read very linearly and I want pleasure to be gained from reading my books. Bolaño thought me that, and that’s what he did so wonderfully.
You’d been to Oslo before coming to Berlin, right? Or did you explore the city more recently? How much time did you actually spend there vs. how much time did you look at maps later on?
Yeah I’ve been to Oslo a lot, it always felt like a very familiar city. I went back to record some of the Blips, my tongue in cheek marketing campaign and foray into making video art. I was going for the whole “they’re so bad they’re good” kind of thing, which is kind of beside the point. It was just fun to do them.
And the actual book, how much of it was already shaping up while you were there? And when not working on chapters, you were packing fish and collecting bins?
Yeah I did a lot in Oslo. From the very first day I visited in 2004 to visit my university buddy, the writer and curator Lars Mørch Finborud, the city has always offered me new experiences. Radically new experiences, if you know what I mean. I packed salmon destined for Brazil on the Fillipstad docks, watching the new Astrup Fearnley Museet being built out into the fjord. I also collected bins, that’s true. I was too fucking good at it, I realized I was copying the bin men I’ve always seen and kind of ran fast and jumped a little too eagerly onto the back of the truck. Totally in line with Sartre’s concept of mauvaise foi – I was acting in bad faith, acting. I worked with a nice guy, but then he told me the band he had been in – Norwegian Black Metal has some serious bat shit history! Oslo is intense, sure it’s expensive, but it’s also at base a port town, Norwegians travel, and people travel to Norway – it’s a very open and progressive place.
“Words, that is, writing. If I could I would do without.” Really? And are there moments when you can, things you do that make you feel that way?
Yeah sure, make art. With “The Readymades” Darko and I collaborated on bringing the fiction into galleries, bookshops and ultimately even The Armory Show in NYC. The LGB Group have had a very successful art career! It’s the same with the Blips. And the drawings. It gets back to space, putting things in space, even characters as well as myself, as I said before. Movement helps.
Still, do you feel like an author first – or more like an artist who happens to be writing and publishing some good ol’ books?
Yes I am a novelist first and foremost, I feel that has always been my goal: to write books, novels. But I don’t see the great need to distinguish between “artist” and everything else. I’m an artist, like everyone else.
Was it easy to see where the dividing line between novel as “on-going fictitious event” and personal life needed to be drawn?
With “The Readymades” we certainly got ourselves tangled up in what was real and what was made up, Darko and I had moments of peculiar, full-blown confusion and I liked that. The ghost of Djordje Bojic is very present when I look back at the “Readymades” project. For “Oslo,” I wanted to reverse the fiction, and really I started with myself and let the event take it where it had to go. But could a novel affect my real life? I think writing it could, and I talk about that in the novel. It’s an intriguing result: to document reality you have to leave it behind and create something out of nothing, only to in turn see reality presented anew.
What did you learn about publishing and especially self-publishing since starting BDP and launching pt. 1 of the Ragnarök trilogy, “The Readymades”?
I guess I have learned an incredible amount. I also find this a hard question to answer. There are technical things about publishing that aren’t all that interesting. I’ve learned that I prefer being an artist and writer before being a publisher mainly because I think with publishing comes a large responsibility and to split that with the responsibility I have toward my own art is a huge, sometimes overwhelming, challenge. But I’ve learned also that self-publishing works, it’s worth doing what you need to do in order to get your work to its audience. It’s a brilliant time for art publishing. I’ve just spent three weeks in NYC and the coolest thing I saw was the New York Art Book Fair in MOMA PS1!
And so you’re currently working on part three of that trilogy? Is it really going to be a Berlin utopia? And what about your relationship to the no. 3?
I haven’t really even started. I need to clear up my publishing duties and get down to the writing. It starts with a lot of reading and research and generally just dreaming stuff up. It’s going to be dense, I want it to be a large canvas after the exactitude of “Oslo”. It may deal with evil and train networks.
One other thing: Do you think the return of meta-fictional elements (if they were ever really gone) is something we should now call “selfie fiction”?
I think the word selfie is kind of considered fickle somehow, I’m not sure there is a lot of respect given to the word. We are in an age in which we kind of revel in our narcissism, and I think it’s important for artists to get their vanity in place. A lot of bad art is given to the world because the artist is trying to be coy about their vanity and narcissism – auto fiction is a good enough term. I think selfie fiction could definitely be used to describe a lot of Instagram accounts.
Words/interview: Renko Heuer
John Holten / “Oslo, Norway” / novel / Broken Dimanche Press