“It’s a sort of protracted and weird love letter to the unknown…” 909originals chats to Justin Robertson about his new book, The Tangle

Having set the musical world alight with Lionrock, The Deadstock 33s, and a myriad of other projects over the years, the recent past has seen Justin Robertson embrace the worlds of art and literature, through paintings and sketches and now a debut novel, The Tangle, which has been described as a a ‘trans-dimensional trip into the mysterious knot of nature’.

Published by White Rabbit Books, and drawing on the inspirational works of Saki, Ballard, M R James, Ursula Le Guin, Brian Catling and Thomas Ligotti, Robertson launched The Tangle earlier this week with an event at the Exposure Gallery and The Social in London. The book is available to buy here

909originalsEmer O’Connor caught up with him.

Welcome back to 909originals, Justin Robertson…

Thanks for having me again!

Just over two years have passed since we last spoke to you, and so much has changed?

Big changes indeed, with people finally emerging from their pods and bunkers back into the world. I’ve been busy concentrating on finishing this book and preparing for the art exhibition to go along with it, so I’ve been quite focused. The world keeps spinning and dashing around me, but I’ve been stuck here.

When did you decide to work on The Tangle, and where did your inspiration for it stem from?

I started writing before the lockdown; in fact I was almost finished when the lockdown struck. Luckily most of the editing and rewriting was completed. In terms of the building blocks of the book, well, I guess it’s a sort of protracted and weird love letter to the unknown – it’s like the horror of suburbia, really. 

I suppose it harks back to my childhood in some ways; while I grew up in the suburbs, I had that weird juxtaposition of being quite near London and some major towns – Buckinghamshire is not quite ‘rural’ but ‘rural-esque’. So, we had these major bypasses and motorways and brutalist architecture around our town centre, and also these weird woods right opposite my house. I spent a lot of time there, as an only child, inventing various weird games and fantasy situations in my head, and that was very much a part of my psyche. 

During the pandemic, that dystopian background hum helped refocus certain areas of the book, so even though it was a grim and quite unpleasant time, it did help me focus on the subject matter.

I think you’re right – sometimes you get the best surge in creativity when things are at their most brutal. There’s not really a whole lot to go on when things are all sweet and dandy.

Yeah, adversity definitely focuses things and gives you something to sort of react against. I mean, the book itself is dark, there is dark humour to it, but it’s not completely full of despair. Also, there is a certain amount of redemption, as well as a very subtle positive strand going forward. 

Some may think it’s quite brutal in places, but hopefully it’s not. I want to make it a grotesque, supernatural kind of occult horror – but not to be horrifying.

One thing that stands out is the rhythmic language of your prose, how did you develop your style?

I wanted to present this like a Nietzschean aphorism, so there are these sort of terse statements that flow. I got that idea from a few different influences such as Denton Welch and Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, andI quite like the American telegrammatic prose of James Ellroy and his typical type of murder stories.  

I wanted that kind of rhythmical staccato exit, it makes things quite mysterious. You get little glimpses, then the sentences or paragraphs reveal themselves like little snapshots. Hence why I did this quite short, terse kind of delivery, and then when you let the sentence open out a bit more it flows quite nicely. It’s almost Morse Code.

You mentioned Nietzsche, and knowing your background in philosophy, I read that you admired the works of Chris Bateman; did you delve into many philosophical theories during the writing of this book?

I guess there is a philosophical bedrock to the novel, there is always a view being taken in any writing, whether consciously or not. It comes from a position of ontological realism, whether the world we encounter is real and independent of us, or our minds and concepts. 

Nature is transcendent and influences how we act. That is the insight of evolutionary theory; organisms adapt to changing environments. We certainly have a physical impact on nature, usually a negative one, but we don’t ‘make’ reality, that’s just another example of human hubris in action. 

That said, I do think the Kantian notion that we can never know things ‘as they are in themselves’ is broadly correct. We are faulty beings with limited faculties. We miss many of the subtleties of nature, like the scents a dog can detect, or the ultra-sonic world of bats. Even our theoretical frameworks are necessarily limited by the fact that they are fed through a human filter, but that doesn’t make reality any less ‘real’.  

So, in The Tangle, humanity encounters an entity that is radically non-human, and operates under a totally different set of rules. One of the key components of supernatural fiction, that challenges our everyday assumptions, is that when a character encounters a situation where their beliefs are brought into question, they are faced with a choice; are they deluded or insane, or must they accept the possibility that what they are encountering is real, but is controlled by laws so far unknown to them? The true horror then is not that you are insane, but that you are not insane! This is one of the great ideas Eugene Thacker considers in his Horror of Philosophy books, which I’d highly recommend. 

I’m what you might call an ontological realist, I believe the world is real, I just believe that human beings don’t necessarily grasp the full nature of it. We’re quite limited in what we know. We think that we’re the wisest beings on the planet, but we’re not aware that we’re nowhere near.

I mean, if you want to mark out a species for its intelligence, one that destroys its own planet must be quite low down on the spectrum. It’s not a very intelligent thing to do, and yet that’s what we do. 

One of my favourite philosophers is Schopenhauer, who is extremely pessimistic. He talks about the human will and how its desire is never satisfied. That’s one of the themes that goes through the book. There’s a story called Pond, where people come across this natural force and what they want to do is enhance their lives in some way, but they never get satisfied, and they never reach an end point. So, once they’ve fulfilled one desire, another one approaches. This is the constant struggle for humanity – to find an end point. There is no kind of ‘final history’, or that Hegelian idea of history moving on this understandable path. 

I don’t mean it as literal as it sounds, but I don’t believe in progress, as such, the idea that we’ve gone from one point and we’re going to another point. How we improve things on the scale isn’t really how I see things, to me it’s more like reactions to changing situations. 

You’re obviously renowned for your music – how have you found a balance between that and your literary and artistic expression?

I still love making music and performing in front of people. Obviously one of the most horrifying things about the lockdown was not being able to see people, and play music to people, and the sharing of that joyous ritual. I thought it was quite hard to make music during this time, because you couldn’t really play it to anybody. 

What about your radio shows? 

Yes, but I think there’s this certain physical presence that human beings require. They need to be in each other’s company.  

Definitely, things only recently opened up in Ireland, for example, and some of the nights since have been quite wild...

I know, the first festival I did was slightly terrifying. People were so happy just to see other people that the atmosphere was ecstatic… to an alarming degree!

You can hear that you’re a wordsmith even from the intro to your Soho Radio Shows, you have that opening sentence, “pulling the levers as we entered the heart of the machine”. Does your love of words go back a long way? Is there a family connection?

No, not really. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and my mum was a cook, so I don’t really know. I think it goes back to be an only child, I did a lot of reading and I was into sci-fi stuff when I was really young: Michael Moorcock, Vladimir Nabokov and stuff like that. Then I became a very pretentious sort of teenager, wearing a long mac, reading books in the local café that I didn’t understand the meaning of, pretending that I knew what I was talking about. 

I’m still learning. I still think I’m pretty ignorant of most subjects, I just like studying things.

You’re obviously confident enough in your ability as an artist and author to put yourself out there now?

The written word goes through a certain process in terms of me being happy with it. I’m quite brutal with myself and I hate leaving things unfinished. I’m a hard worker and when I start on something I tend to want to finish it. 

It goes through to the publisher, and the editor, and there are also people that make sure you spell things correctly. I’ve given it to certain friends; trusted eyes and ears whose feedback I can trust. I mean, you’re never really 100% happy with anything. It’s not like this is the greatest, most faultless thing that’s ever come out, but I definitely feel like I’m happy with it.

I really loved writing it. I’ve started writing the next one already, it’s such a joy to do.

On the art side, yeah, I guess again it’s the case that I was never trained as a musician, I wasn’t trained as an artist, I didn’t go to writing college. I’ve never formally studied any of these things; they’re just things I’ve picked up. You’re always learning, and always trying to improve things. 

It is tough though, I mean my mother is a writer and published author and I’ve seen her agonising over drafts and feeling elated when in the flow. Can you describe your creative process?

Yeah, it is hard work. I get up in the morning, relatively early, have a lot of coffee and then I fire into the writing. I write like I’m holding my breath, trying to type out these ideas, and then the stories start to flow, hopefully. 

Then I stop and have another cup of coffee, start and stop, in and out. It’s a bit like swimming lengths in the pool, I stop to catch my breath and then reassess what I’m doing. I try to get the ideas together relatively fast and then I take some time to go through them. The editing process is basically when you write the book, you also re-write, you see what the faults are and where the direction needs to be. 

With the art stuff, I guess it’s similar. What I’m learning to do is edit better, and that’s a skill I take on board as being quite important; to be a bit more rigorous. I did a couple of exhibitions early on that were just enormous. I realised I didn’t need to display all these pictures, claw it back a little bit.

I like the description your PR company gave to describe The Tangle: ‘a trans-dimensional trip into a mysterious knot of nature where all mankind’s hubris is rendered insignificant’.  Can you tell us what that means? 

The book is like a series of vignettes, or little stories, as if you were picking through a forest or a wood. It can be  quite disorientating at times. I think that at the beginning, the basis of whole book is the human relation to nature in reality – how much we are missing and how much we don’t know. 

So, it is basically a kind of ‘suburban, curtain twitching world’ meets this mysterious dimension, where human beings suddenly find out that all their rules are meaningless and we try to mould reality to a shape that we understand. Where human beings meet forces that are radically non-human, and some people embrace it and other people are dispatched by it. 

It’s the unknown dimension in nature, and nature turning around to humanity and saying, ‘you’ve had a good innings, we’ve had enough of you now, can you please start behaving yourselves or you’ll find yourselves rudely annihilated’.

There’s a time travel element to it, where it leaps into the future, to a kind of Ballard-esque city, where the computer logic has run it’s logical course, where human consumption and algorithms have created this perfect society, but underneath it all there is this terrible darkness that people are suddenly confronted with. 

I noticed also in the foreword that you dedicated this book to Andrew. Is this Andrew Weatherall? 

Yes. Andrew and I would often share books that we had read and would text each other fairly regularly on the subject. He especially kept his eyes open for dystopian literature, which he knew I was a fan of! He turned me on to countless great books and I dearly miss those conversations. 

But in a real sense, he is still here and I can feel his presence in the music still being made and the words I read. That energy remains long after the physical body is no longer present. I’d also shown Andrew a very early draft of the book, really just rough sketches, and he was very positive about them, so again his encouragement was significant in helping me see the book through to the end.

At the launch event, I really hoped to catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. He was there, of that I am certain.

How did you first get to know him?

I can’t recall exactly when we first met, I think it was when he played at Spice, the club I ran with Greg Fenton. We had spoken on the phone a few times and I knew he’d been playing some remixes of mine, so I think very early on we were swapping cultural information! Later, we toured Ireland together with Primal Scream, which was… eventful!

Yes, we’ve a huge grá for Weatherall here in Ireland and we were very sorry to see the passing of the Guv’nor. I think he’d probably love this book. Also, you paid another wonderful tribute to him with your set in the Glade area of Glastonbury last year?

Andrew Curley, a long time friend of his, and the guys at Glastonbury wanted to do a musical tribute. It was a tragedy that people couldn’t get together to mourn and celebrate his life because of the COVID restrictions, but I think Andrew and the Glastonbury team did a marvellous job gathering  together some of his friends and colleagues for an online musical memorial. There was so much great stuff to listen to at that event, it was beautiful. Less mud, too!

[Words by Emer O’Connor. Main photo by Jake Davis. The Tangle is available to buy now from White Rabbit Books, by clicking here]

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