As audiences, we expect trilogies to play by certain rules. We expect the same characters, settings, and situations to bleed directly from one work to another. In other words, we anticipate the imposition of a recognizable arc that will lead us across a fictional bridge. The trio of novels the Australia-bred, England-based Massimo Magee has published over the past few years—2014’s Counter Culture, and A Novel and In Three Parts from 2015—buck against this tradition. While Magee’s grand theme is encroaching societal annihilation grounded in an immortal evil force, the story he’s telling—very effectively—is neither linear nor tonally consistent. The books are connected by dark forces, peppered with ornate, carved totems, and peopled by characters with a tenuous understanding of the true nature of their world. Presented as a found-document narrative consisting of interviews, diaries, and other records, Counter Culture centers on a wealthy young man who joins a commune in America and a federal agent tasked with investigating the commune. Deeply and disquietingly impenetrable at its outset, A Novel—situated in Great Britain—evolves into an obsessive nightmare that doubles as a haunted parable of surveillance-state paranoia and voyeurism. Set in Australia, In Three Parts kicks off with something resembling a post-coming of age story that’s revealed as one character’s dangerous fascination with a radio frequency. The text is studded with authorial interjections aren’t distractions, and it’s almost frighteningly easy to lose yourself in every one of these books.
In a wide-ranging email interview, Splice Today quizzed Magee about his inspirations and influences.
SPLICE TODAY: Where did the idea for this trilogy originate?
MASSIMO MAGEE: The trilogy first started as an improvised writing gesture that became the first paragraph of Part I of A Novel. That's where it all began. I sat down at the keyboard and decided to improvise a couple of lines of text, focusing more on the sound of the words than their content, and added the quoted ellipsis at the beginning as a stylistic gesture. Why I stopped at those three lines, I'm not completely sure, but they sat on my hard drive for a while, just gathering digital dust along with lots of other things.
I worked on other stuff—mostly music, some visual art—but I found those couple of lines playing on my thoughts in odd ways. I started to extend them in my mind, teasing out the tendrils of meaning in different directions and before long, the novel itself started to take shape.
I've been involved in experimental music for a while now, and I think this turn back to writing came from a desire to create something that would demand more of an investment of time from the “audience.” I wanted to make something that the reader would have to sit with for a while, rather than just putting a CD on for an hour or so and then moving on. I guess the precursor to this was a big box set of solo improvisations I released back in 2011 called Collected Solos, which was made up of 26 CDs and an 87-page journal. In that project, I tried to push the concept of improvisation as far as I possibly could and in every direction I could imagine. It got quite conceptual in places; I was searching in a really focused way to try and get to the crux of what improvisation means or what it can mean, and I think that's what led to this idea of the improvised writing gesture that started off the trilogy. While Collected Solos was mainly oriented around improvisation in sound, the improvised writing gesture was an attempt to go beyond even that.
While I was writing A Novel, though, it became clearer to me that, by itself, it wasn't enough. I was happy with the novel as it was shaping up, but it needed to be placed within a larger context to push the ideas further. As you'll know from reading, it already pulls at the edges of the concept of what a novel is pretty vigorously, but I knew there was more ground to cover. I think of A Novel as a kind of “anti-novel,” and to have that concept make sense, it needed to be placed alongside its opposite. From that, Counter Culture was born. I started sketching the ideas for that while I was working on the last half of A Novel—which you'll know isn't actually the last half of the book. I also wanted Counter Culture to set out a more explicit political context for the trilogy and provide a counterpoint to A Novel in other ways.
I knew there would also have to be a third volume that combined the fiction of Counter Culture with the anti-fiction of A Novel somehow, but the concept of what that would actually be took a while to form. I'd been finding my feet in the world of Glitch Art since the later stages of Collected Solos back in 2011 but it wasn't until later in 2013, as I was finishing up Counter Culture, that the potential of those techniques to truly push beyond our traditionally fixed categories of art forms (including novels) really hit me and In Three Parts took shape.
ST: Were there moments, writing these books, when you frightened yourself? I always wonder about that with novels or short stories like these. Like when I read some of Isaac Asimov's story collections as a kid and would freak out, I wondered, "Did he scare himself, or was he this ice-cold technician?"
MM: I did have a kind of mild out-of-body experience while writing A Novel, but I won't say any more about that, for reasons that I think you can guess. As far as scaring myself, the only way I could I say I scared myself would be in the sense that my obsession with this work and the extent to which it took over my mind and my life did shock me, and make me question whether the artistic impulse is actually, in itself, necessarily healthy. I think these things play out in the novels, particularly in A Novel and In Three Parts. I hope the psychodrama of it is absorbing because, as with most fiction, it's not entirely fictional.
ST: Were these the first novels you wrote, or attempted?
MM: When I was 12, I wrote my first novel. It was a fantasy thing, but it gained me a little bit of attention at the time in Brisbane, mostly because of my age. There was an article in the local paper, a short interview on a kids TV program, and an award for “young achievement.” I wrote a sequel the following year, which was much darker in tone, and then started work on something comedic which I never finished. After that I lost interest, but I started getting into experimental music a few years later.
ST: What were those first books about?
MM: The first was a pretty standard, high-fantasy type quest novel, where three elves went out on a quest across the land—there was a map on the first page—to draw together an army from among a variety of different races to fight the “bad guys.” I'm making it sound quite simplistic because, plot-wise, it probably was, but the last time I picked it up and had a flick through, I noticed some oddly philosophical statements cropping up here and there that even back then may have presaged my current views, on some level.
It ended with the world being split into different “spheres,” with each of the different races of creatures getting their own and magic all but disappearing from the world, so it was sort of bittersweet.
The second was a lot darker and involved some kind of supernatural being that could rip people's souls right out of their bodies, leaving them as zombie-like shells. I remember one of my cousins had a copy. Somehow his priest got hold of it and, knowing it was written by me, took it straight to the parents and demanded: "Is this boy a Catholic?"
ST: As I read through the novels, reference points leapt out at me: Counter Culture was like a paranoid 1970s conspiracy movie, A Novel had a feel that invokes the detachment of David Foster Wallace, while In Three Parts reminded me of Stephen King's Randall Flagg and apocalyptic future fiction. There are various tonal shifts that you managed well, sometimes within the same book. Creatively, what were some works of art that you felt fueled or inspired by?
MM: That's very gratifying that you feel it evokes Wallace, as Infinite Jest was a big influence on me; I read it straight through in two feverish weeks without doing much else and it really did get inside my head. In Infinite Jest, I read a kind of detachment that's completely aware of and horrified by how detached it is but virtually powerless to do anything else, which makes it so evocative of the modern condition and incredibly compelling. If I've been able to draw some of that kind of self-disgust into A Novel, then I'm very glad.
Counter Culture is definitely trying to invoke that late 1960s/1970s era and it does that for overarching narrative and political reasons as well as aesthetic ones. There are possibilities that were on the table at that time that I feel like we've been denied the chance to pursue, which has (at least in part) led us to where we are now, which isn't pretty. It acknowledges On the Road pretty explicitly, but in a pining sort of way.
Which is a great way to start talking about the apocalyptic. Whether I like it or not, this is a theme that I don't seem to be able to get away from, probably because I don't think the future looks very bright for us sitting here in the second decade after the millennium. I tend to gravitate towards books with apocalyptic themes, so Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian were also big influences on me—unflinching work.
Then there are the musical influences, which work in a different way. Counter Culture pretty explicitly references 60s and 70s free jazz and the improvised music that grew out of it here in Europe. It's the kind of music that is, to me, a struggle to reach an impossibly utopian ideal and it involves actively engaging in that struggle each time it's played. It's a natural match with Counter Culture and the period in that sense. A Novel was more influenced by minimalist experimental electronics from around the turn of the millennium—a completely different time period and a very different feel—while In Three Parts (which is itself a piece of music, of course) is more an attempt to look to the future.
ST: This is a very, very dark trilogy, from the outset, that grows increasingly pessimistic. Some elements are fantastical, yet everything feels grounded in a heightened reality that's familiar. Which aspects of modern life terrify you the most?
MM: It's hard to know where to start, really. It'd be easy to point to events like what happened in Paris recently, but it goes much deeper than that. You look at the world we're living in now from the point of view of the average person and you think: we're supposedly engaged in a war, fighting people we can't accurately define, using methods we don't fully understand, for reasons we just can't seem to get straight. It's sold to us as an effort to protect our society and preserve what we have, but all it serves to do is perpetuate a status quo that—as is becoming clearer and clearer by the year—is something that is going to make pretty significant portions of the planet uninhabitable for a significant proportion of the population while, with the cold and mechanical relentlessness of all such systems, condensing the power and resources into the hands of a smaller and smaller percentage of people. And that looks like madness.
The media, such as it is, just seems to present catastrophic event after catastrophic event with pretty much no context and no attempt to make any sense of any of it, instead relying on our perfectly understandable but largely useless horror, anger, and fear to keep us watching until our attention can be transferred to the next disaster that comes along and the news cycle ticks over. Occasionally they stop to ask us what we think it all means, like we're going to have a clue.
And it just gets worse and worse. The transfer of power and resources into this tiny percentage of people has advanced to such a degree that the mandate of the rest of the population can pretty much be bypassed. Our democratic systems are looking increasingly useless in the face of such a state of affairs and are little more than pantomimes, and many of our national governments are little more than caretaker mechanisms until we can finally forget the whole charade altogether and have to accept that we're essentially ruled by corporations.
And then you look at the other side of the coin: look at the people with the money, with the power. The biggest ones are the financial ones, who have so much power that they can essentially manipulate the value of what they hold to an extent that makes measuring them seem almost meaningless. Then there are the energy companies, whose profit comes mainly from exploiting the fuel sources that threaten to make our planet significantly less hospitable in a very short space of time, and eventually uninhabitable. And then you've got the tech companies, who have so much power over our lives in ways that we don't even fully appreciate and are expanding their reach year upon year, thanks to our hyper-stimulated appetite for consumption. And the biggest of these, which has revenues so large and has a hand in so much of what we do online now that we're not even really aware of it, is funneling huge amounts of that money into...what, exactly, we're not sure. Secret projects that involve buying up every robotics and AI company worth mentioning and then spiriting them all away together into a secret lab. We read articles even in conventional media that over 40 percent of human workers could be obsolete within about 20 years. A picture emerges.
With almost half the workforce replaced by robots, it no longer looks like so much of a problem if large swathes of the planet are uninhabitable. Large swathes of the population are no longer needed. With the power completely in the hands of those who control these tireless, metallic, supremely capable workers, any objections the rest of us have may have seemed, at best, quaint throwbacks to a time when our opinions actually mattered. And it's all the perfectly logical result of unbridled capitalism and unrestrained greed and self-interest, when you work it through. What makes it seem so unstoppable is that it doesn't even need to be driven by anyone. It's endogenous to the system itself.
Now, whether any of the above is necessarily what's actually going on is less important to what I'm saying here than the fact that it seems so plausible right now, in a way that I don't think we ever would have imagined 20 or 30 years ago, let alone 50 or 60. This is what it feels like to live in this period of history. I think the sense that this sort of nightmare dystopia is creeping up on us without us really knowing is something that's seeping into all of us, gradually. What might have been a subconscious fantasy in previous decades has become a conscious apprehension. It's in the air. The optimism of the postwar socialist utopia has completely faded now and we feel, to varying degrees, powerless and bound for an unpleasant future. It feels unwinnable.
On top of that, I think more of us in Western societies are becoming aware of how every minute of our existence is predicated on horrific violence, inequality and subjugation, both contemporary and historical, that’s brought us to where we are. The “glories” of our past look increasingly dirty and shameful but, by and large, we're still just as dependent on them.
ST: Which aspects of modern life give you the most hope?
MM: Even if we were to solve all these social and economic problems, even if we were to right all of those wrongs that seem to be all around us, the most important and fundamental spiritual struggle, which goes on inside each of us individually, would still be there. That's the fundamental struggle that needs to be taken up—to improve oneself at the core—and that's a struggle that can only be acted on internally, by the individual. So, even if we were to solve all these external crises, we'd still have left the most essential struggle unattended to.
But, crucially, if you flip that round the other way, there's hope. Because that means that, whatever the external conditions may be and however bad things may get, the fundamental struggle—the most important struggle—is within the individual's grasp, at least on a basic level, no matter what the rest of the world is doing. That essential choice cannot be taken away from us, in all but the most horrific of circumstances. And I know that, if enough people in our society took up that struggle and were successful, then the external conditions would start to change all by themselves. We'd have the change we're longing for, and it too would be endogenous. That's what I have in the way of hope.
Next: An in-depth discussion of Counter Culture.
Counter Culture, A Novel, and In Three Parts are available now.