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Virtual Book Club: Rohan Quine introduces The Beasts of Electra Drive

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Rohan Quine to Virtual Book Club, my interview series which gives authors the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.

Rohan is an author of literary fiction with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror. He grew up in South London, spent a couple of years in L.A. and then a decade in New York, where he ran around excitably, saying a few well-chosen words in various feature films and TV shows, such as Zoolander, Election, Oz, Third Watch, 100 Centre Street, The Last Days of Disco, The Basketball Diaries, Spin City and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (See Rohan Quine: the New York Nineties.

He’s now living back in East London, as an Imagination Thief. His novel The Imagination Thief is published in paperback, and as an ebook containing links to film and audio and photographic content in conjunction with the novel’s text. It has gathered some great reviews in The Guardian, Book Muse, indieBerlin and elsewhere.

Four novellas – The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong – are published as separate ebooks, and also as a single paperback The Platinum Raven and other novellas, attracting great reviews including from Iris Murdoch, James Purdy, Lambda Book Report and New York Press.

Rohan is renowned for his rich, inventive and original prose, and he is skilled at blending contemporary and ancient icons and themes. My experience it’s that it’s a rollercoaster ride and you simply need to give yourself up to it and hang on for dear life!

Just published, The Beasts of Electra Drive is a prequel to The Imagination Thief, so it’s perfect for those who have yet to discover his writing.

I had the honour of acting as compere for the bookshop launch of Rohan’s novel. Together  with Dan Holloway, we also enjoyed a joint book launch at the London Book Fair 2018. Rohan has kindly uploaded video footage and photos to his website here.    

Rohan, perhaps you could begin by explaining who (or what) the Beasts of Electra Drive are.

At the simplest level, they are externalisations of various aspects of my protagonist Jaymi’s nature and personality. The origins of the Beasts are evoked in intense “creation cycles”, whose smooth surface and concealed rhythms are somewhat belied by the otherworldly jaggedness of what he’s externalising. Once clothed in their respective visuals and soundtracks, each Beast emerges appearing to be human—albeit perhaps a little larger than life, compared with most humans.

In this externalising by my protagonist, The Beasts of Electra Drive shows the origins of seven major characters in my other published tales, namely Evelyn, Kim, Shigem, Amber, Jaymi, the Platinum Raven, and Scorpio/Angel. It thereby sets these characters up for the intense delights and horrors they will be put through in those five publications, namely The Imagination Thief and the four novellas. Yet in this novel The Beasts of Electra Drive, those other publications are posited as being not prose but rather “games” that are designed by Jaymi in his career as a games designer—a morphing of medium, in other words, whose mechanism I’ve deliberately left somewhat mysterious. (I should add that TBED works fine as a stand-alone, however, as the other tales also do.)

In view of current real-world technological developments, TBED may also give us glimpses of what it will be like when we can all use artificial intelligence to externalise aspects of ourselves into avatars that are far more media-rich than the avatars we currently use online (though the novel looks at this less through a sci-fi lens than through a lens of LitFic / Magical Realism / Horror). That ability is coming, and it sounds like fun to me.

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“This novel is essentially near-future cyberpunk subtly blended with elements of LA noir and dystopic fiction to create a darkly stylish and, at times, visionary glimpse into humankind’s future. […] Richly described, the beasts are androgynous characters with full backstories, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. Unleashed upon the world, they allow Jaymi to achieve vengeance in ingenious ways.” ~ BlueInk Review

“A powerful book that advocates letting people be themselves, despite how far outside the bell curve of ‘normal’ they are. The story will appeal to readers who enjoy artistic works rich in vocabulary, symbolism, and graphic imagery.” ~ The Book Review Directory ★★★★

Jaymi has a fairly clear mission statement—to mine truth, beauty and magic from the splendour and pain intertwined in the world’s design. I sense that’s also your aim with the novel.

TBED executes a deep dive into the beauty, horror, mirth and complexities of our individual human quests to make as rich and passionate an inhabitation of life as possible. Jaymi’s games celebrate and amplify the idiosyncratic, unicorn qualities in each person—in contrast with Bang Dead Games’ nervous tendency to file down any unicorn’s-horn of uniqueness in someone, so as turn them into yet another reassuring horse instead.

As a games designer, Jaymi uses his own truth (complexity, unconventionality, beauty, subtlety) against Bang Dead’s deadening corporate “lie” (simplicity, convention, utility, obviousness) as an implicit challenge, aiming to refresh prevailing expectations and understanding of the possibilities of how to be alive.

It seemed to me that Jaymi didn’t start the process of creating the ‘Beasts’ with the idea of revenge in mind, but when he comes under attack, despite having designed them with beauty in mind, he sees this potential in them. Were you concerned about turning them into Frankenstein’s monsters?

All stages and layers of the Beasts’ creation cycles are interspersed with L.A.-noir-flavoured dramas in which incarnated versions of them venture out into the real world (or into meat-space, as it’s sometimes called), to wreak havoc and love across Los Angeles. In these dramas, Jaymi takes aim at Bang Dead Games’ reductive categorisation of life into five globally-pervasive Ain’tTheyFreaky! Newsfeeds, which impoverish complexity into flat spectacle where shallow image mediates social relationships.

At once an ultimate outsider and an ultimate insider, he puts his own instincts for spectacle at the service of a sabotaging mission, whereby he snakes himself and his Beasts into Bang Dead, then repurposes the stuff of flat spectacle into a truth of grandeur and complexity instead.

This repurposing was also part of my own mission, in aiming to evoke flickering waves of digital pixels using waves of analogue literary fiction.

How much of your DNA feels wrapped up in the book?

Creating his own ambitious games is essential to his happiness, being central to his desire to help elevate the world through his vision, to enrich the games medium with greater emotional intelligence, and to nudge its industry into evolving artistically. There would be some dying inside him, for sure, if his battles to realise these creations did not succeed. He must also cope with the many insidious attacks directed at him, and at his Beasts, by the Dreary Ones employed at Bang Dead Games (a couple of whom are enticed to defect to his side).

More richly, however, he develops as an artistic creator throughout the whole tale, in the sense that he grows in sophistication: first, in designing each Beast before s/he becomes incarnated; and secondly, in his efforts to control and orchestrate their incarnated selves after they’ve gone out into the real world.

As Dan Holloway’s developmental editing helped to clarify, Jaymi’s missions to re-inflict the complexities of truth upon the culture also end up acting back upon himself, by resolving his own internal complexities into greater peace and integration.

Photo taken at the bookshop launch of The Beasts of Electra Drive, together with Dan Holloway who was launching his novella, Kill Land. You can see video footage and photos from the launch, organised by Novel London, here.   

It strikes me that what TBED and Dan’s own Kill Land have in common is that the outsiders exact Old Testament style vengeance. Is there a point that the good guy becomes the bad guy? Were there any lines that you wouldn’t let your characters cross?

Yes, one thing was off-limits for me—physical torture. The two murders in TBED are luxuriantly inhabited from within the murderer in each case (in particular the second murder, i.e. the climactic one in mini-chapters 118-119), but in both these murders the physical pain of the victim and the duration of physical killing were minimised.

To my mind, physical pain in humans and other animals is one of the biggest design flaws in this scenario called being alive. It’s one of the two or three main design flaws that prevent me, ultimately, from holding an overall respect for the design of this sentient life we’ve been given—that prevent me from respecting the design as an all-in proposition. It’s not physical pain in general that prevents my respect: it’s the unspeakable chasms of extreme pain that some people (and many other animals) fall into, whose extremity is such that even a small amount of it could bear only a grotesquely disproportionate relation to what any sufferer of it could “deserve”. I respect the individual organisms who are vulnerable to such pain: it’s the life design they’re subject to that I can’t respect, for as long as it drops a cloddishly random sampling of those organisms into those particular chasms. In the context of the vision I’m expressing in TBED, such pain is not interesting or rich to for me to depict, and in aesthetic terms I feel it would drown out whatever it might be put beside.

In the 1980s, psychologist and counterculture figure Timothy Leary, responsible for the phrase ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’, became fascinated by computers, the Internet, and virtual reality. He called the PC “the LSD of the 1990s.” In your near-future, instead of expanding minds, hearts and souls, Bang Dead are using computers and gaming to constrict thought by playing to the lowest common denominator. I imagine Jaymi’s vision is far closer to Leary’s.

Germane to this, certain key messages are infused (among much else) into the human-appearing Beasts my protagonist creates. Each Beast is first developed in the game-designing environment of Jaymi’s computer; then they climb out of the computer screen in incarnated form, and wreak havoc and love across L.A., mostly but not entirely under their creator’s control.

            (i) Amber embodies his creator’s urge for vengeance on the hatred and closed-mindedness that flourish in the world.

            (ii) Evelyn embodies her creator’s pointed response to Bang Dead’s poisonous “Gal Score” (which insidiously denigrates and shames certain women). On the positive side of the coin, Evelyn also embodies Jaymi’s instinctive urge for ease and freedom, in the face of the sheer authoritarian rigidity that flourishes in the world.

            (iii) Shigem embodies his creator’s pointed response to Bang Dead’s poisonous “Guy Score” (which insidiously denigrates and shames certain men). On the positive side of the coin, Shigem also embodies Jaymi’s instinctive urge for the kind of warmth and openness that’s so often targeted for punishment in the world.

            (iv) Kim embodies his creator’s pointed response to Bang Dead’s asinine “Trivia Score” (which promotes the trivialisation of thinking, the fear of intellect, and a toxic tabloid-flavoured “simplicity” when life is complex instead). On the positive side of the coin, Kim also embodies Jaymi’s instinctive urge to think more deeply than tends to be allowed by the toxic “simplicity” that’s so encouraged in the world.

            (v) The Platinum Raven embodies her creator’s pointed response to Bang Dead’s depressingly trivial “Arts Score” (which celebrates simple art and is frightened of the complex stuff). On the positive side of the coin, the Platinum Raven also embodies Jaymi’s instinctive urge for transcendence of all the smallness of vision that flourishes in the world. She’s an implicit representation of his own status as a creator, too (which is why she’s on the covers of my own creations The Beasts of Electra Drive and The Platinum Raven), suggesting Jaymi’s urge to isolate himself in order to pursue his perfectionism in creating Beasts whose incarnations constitute the richest communication he could have with the world. (Her soundtrack would probably be Lana Del Rey, especially the track “Summertime Sadness.”)

            (vi) Scorpio embodies his creator’s pointed response to Bang Dead’s mind-sogging “Cosy Score” (which represents the soggy/lazy/pappy instincts of mind and culture). On the positive side of the coin, Scorpio also embodies Jaymi’s instinctive urge for the fierce beauty of a dark voltage, when any kind of wild beauty is too often policed and forbidden by society.

Readers are hungry for interesting, boundary-pushing work right now. Do you see your work as existing outside mainstream fiction categories?

The Beasts of Electra Drive didn’t set out to combine Literary Fiction with elements of Magical Realism and Horror, but organically found itself straddling those categories, through its own intense processes of unfoldment and honing—which would probably have prompted a mainstream publisher to want to force it to occupy only one or two of those categories. Its external plot, its protagonist’s internal journey, its many characters and its evocations of place are all functional in a straightforwardly entertaining way. However, TBED also deconstructs its own format as a novel, in the following three respects:

            (i) it makes a metafictional inclusion, within its own fictional world, of my five other real-world published novels and novellas as themselves being plot-drivers of TBED (and in TBED these five plot-driving creations are named the same as they are in our real world, i.e. The Imagination Thief, The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong);

            (ii) with a Magical-Realist-style lack of direct explanation, the fictional world of TBED presents those other five real-world publications of very analogue Literary Fiction as somehow “being” very digital games instead; and

            (iii) TBED playfully includes, within the actual titles of its mini-chapters, such usually-hidden novel-constructing phrases as “First Doorway of No Return”, “Inciting event” and “Second Pinch Point”.

You seem to know its streets and the slopes of the canyons intimately. Is that from your time in the States or have you incorporated imagined elements?

TBED is, among many other things, a love letter to the geography of L.A.—and a love letter that’s only a little ironic. L.A. is infamously unwieldy in its spread-out-ness, but there is much charisma tucked away (somewhat elusively) within that unwieldiness.

Although its geography is accurate in TBED, this is just an incidental element of the novel’s setting, and you won’t be at any disadvantage if you happen not to have visited it. The details of this Los Angeles are realistic but have a heightened charge, so they add up to what often feels like something of a mythic version of this city that we’ve often seen onscreen. Also, I’m using a veneer of geographical “reality” to help reveal just how thin any aspect of our reality can be, if it decides to become thin … to help reveal those Lynchian “oozes” and “swarms” you mentioned earlier. The novel’s settings include the following six main ones.

            (i) The quiet residential canyons in the Hollywood Hills, where Jaymi’s mansions are located: the sleekness with a faint undercurrent of threat/scrutiny, and the classic views over the grid at night, as in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway.

            (ii) The South Central ghetto location of the two motels: the economic poverty behind the dusty sun-glare and skinny palm-tree trunks, the grimy bodegas, the churches.

            (iii) Skid Row (the biggest homeless population in the U.S.A.), incongruously beside Downtown and the bizarre concrete flume of the L.A. River.

            (iv) The transmitter complex atop Mount Lee, just above the Hollywood Sign, with its isolation in the middle of things.

            (v) The crisp towers of Century City, so anodyne on the surface.

            (vi) The enormous oil refinery beside the Pacific Ocean, next to a huge power station and a wide shrieking airport…

Want to find out more?

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Rohan Quine at Books2Read.

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One comment

  1. Thank you so much, Jane – it’s a delight to be here.

    Comment by Rohan Quine on April 17, 2018 at 5:34 pm