Grand Designs

Image: Vladimir Chuchadeev

Sunday 1st May, 2016

Phil Thomas

In the penultimate part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Phil Thomas experiments with fiction as a method for doing research after the ‘ontological turn’. 

Upon our time, a widower there was in rural France, who had strangers crossfingered to claim his home when he died. Neither had squeezed, softly skulled from his wife’s belly, their gym-bodies were hard from a different sort of labour. City of Londoners. Roast Beef.

With manicures clamped around his writ, searching a flailing pulse, they had made a Viager on his certain death [1]. They told their friends “it’s not morbid, it’s like sponsoring a child in Africa, or buying them a goat for Christmas. We get a picture of our old man every year to see how he is looking.”  84 for women, 78 for men, and ours is slightly overdue. The heart at his age, might just…

But he is looking well, sits dancing his legs under the kitchen table. Spoon drips to mouth, fattened arms blue with mountain ranges. He’s marbling on their monthly stipend and making home improvements. He thinks about the end, if he could just sit death out and keep it all. They send him a bottle of good port on each birthday, which he will not drink (you hear wild stories about Viager).

Still, nature had its way, and how. The earth sucked at the little old man, loosening his collar. And just as they were preparing to bound tit-first over the threshold, his lawyer informed them of a late insertion in his will. The old man had been buried under the stone flagged kitchen floor of their new summer house – another late insertion if you will.

– we could not have, imagine it, my dad to dinner and imagine him dangling over the grave, mouth whistling joy about the heft of cheese, the saucisson: so frenchified! We’d have to tell him. It’d be like that flick, the Hitchcock with those gay guys, what's that film with the body under the table? This is not the death we signed for.

How would we do the washing up with him behind us, his hair growing ever after. It might creep up and push through loose floorboards, providing warmth underfoot in winter. Not that we’d be living there in winter –

She pushed off down an overgrown path to where, just listening, water pounded rocks, buttoning-up her blood. She had wanted to know all of this, have all stinking jubilant nature to herself. It was to have been her project, her sympathetic design in keeping with the local flora. An army of local boys to help them build, learning English with grateful tongues, then leave at dusk on quad bikes.

They sat together at the gate and drank the port. Of course they wouldn’t go through with it.  The male, an old choirboy, had already spent his childhood sliding his feet along the cracks between tombstones on the church floor to avoid mussing the noses of the dead. 

Nature had its way again; corpse-confident, powdery walls fell apart in its clinch. Word got out and it became a popular spot for suicides, gallows making a feature of those stunning old wooden beams. The wild boars pass unremarked on prehistoric pins, or else are stuffed into sausages. Eyes blackened pits, like absented apples. The man under the floor grins through receded lips.

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Doing research after the ‘ontological turn’ means acknowledging that the methods we use produce the world rather than reflecting it. As such, there can be no general or naïve question of the “validity” of methods – all writing is creative, not just ‘creative writing.’ I use the method of writing fiction as part of my doctoral research project which undertakes a critique of ‘common sense’ representations of crime and criminality.

I often take inspiration from interview materials, unsolicited anecdotes or news stories. For example, the above story Grand Designs is based on a rumour and on an article of French property law, among other things. The characters and much of these stories are always hybrid and invented. This is really an invention upon invention, as my interviewees may also embellish and edit their accounts. I do not attempt to verify their statements: one of the effects I am not interested in producing is that of “authenticity.”

Using fiction as a research method has informed the way I write and read ‘non-fiction’ texts, for example in terms of paying attention to the creation of character, world building and use of language. When I work from interview material to make fiction I am thinking of the effect on two audiences: a general audience who might come across my work, and the person(s) whose narrated experiences made it into the work. Sharing my fiction, in draft form, with the people whose experiences have made it in to the narrative is a way of making sure they’re still happy for me to use the material. It also ensures that I don’t write about them as if they were simply an object of study, or someone powerless to hold me to account for the representations I make.

Many of the interviews I have undertaken for this project have been with people who’ve experienced criminalisation, and as such have felt themselves represented in ways that fix them, limiting their ability to live out their complexity off-script. As such, I didn’t want to leave the structure of common-sense representations of crime and criminality intact and furnish these models with the ‘reality effect’ (Barthes) of more detail about the lives of a “criminal underclass.” For me, fiction should be a tool to help us think and feel differently, not to re-enchant us with our implicit assumptions.

[1] Viager is an act of French property law that allows elderly homeowners to sell their house whilst retaining the right to use and live in it until their death. The new owners must pay a monthly sum (rente viagère) to the previous owner based on the elderly house-seller’s life expectancy. Of course, death could come at any time to both parties. Thus, it is a legal arrangement that appeals to gamblers and those with undeserving children.

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