Joanna Kavenna: Stress-Testing the Apocalyptic Novel

Fran Bigman Talks to the Author of Zed

In the summer of 2019, I sat down with the writer Joanna Kavenna, whose fifth novel Zed—a dystopian satire about the breakdown of language in a hyper-technological age—was just published in the US. Since the book deals with how computers think we speak, I figured it’d make sense to use an AI program to transcribe the interview.

Here are a few examples of what it heard us saying.

Speaker 2: (11:34) Saying away the question that, you know, to kind of look at that without confusion… there is a source of entity, um, and cause it is a systemic, Oh fuck. I think you, you stay in the, into Tennessee, but that is more about custody sissy.

Speaker 2: (14:10) Um, uh, Terra Naomi, it’s just a thing that being venerated and then you have on the other side that kind of, that sort of catastrophe. If you don’t do it wrong, you might can, it sticks to you and you’ll the gilded finally crease.

Speaker 2: (37:16) And I think with fiction you do have conventions, but you have also the convention of questioning the conventions of the novel in every moment…And see that’s pretty, if you liked that, who are you telling me you what reality is through Dick, but he believes hit your ass.

These are some of the milder sections, more John Ashbery than John Cage word salads.

Some reality is best captured the slow way.

Maybe I was the problem. We were talking too fast. I tried turning the speed down to .6, the most slowed-down setting I’d ever used, and that helped—a little. For example, Kavenna did emphasize that it was a novelistic convention to question the conventions of the novel. But then instead of Dicks and hitting asses, she went on to talk about Virginia Woolf and the writer Arnold Bennett.

“He said, ‘Poor Virginia Woolf,’” Kavenna laughs, affecting a posh accent, “‘she can’t make real characters,’ and Woolf brilliantly writes back the most wonderful response and says. ‘Who are you, Arnold Bennett, to tell me what reality is?’”

Some reality is best captured the slow way. Say, by typing out a conversation—or in Kavenna’s case, in a novel—about the peculiar reality created by a machine that cannot even comprehend the basic syntax of reality: language.

That is, in fact, the message of Zed, in which a giant tech company called Beetle attempts to strengthen its hold on the western world by introducing a new language—and fails. When the novel opens, Beetle exerts massive control over all areas of life, even though governments and the media still nominally exist and people are told they are free.

Beetle’s key method of control is the “predictive lifechain,” a Minority-Report-like algorithm that predicts what a given person is most likely to do given their previous actions.

It is no spoiler to tell you that in Zed, people become free in all kinds of ways that were not predicted by the lifechain. The very title refers to the chaos humans cause by simply acting human. The CEO of Beetle, Guy Matthias—a parody of Zuck and Musk and Thiel—calls Zed “another word for human decoherence, ” adding that, “Humans have a problem with excessive randomness. This fucks up all beautiful and complex systems. Humans are complex in the wrong way, and make errors.”

Or crimes. In the beginning of the novel a man named George Mann unexpectedly murders his wife and two young children. Then a police robot shoots an innocent man, mistaking him for George Mann. More and more things start to go wrong in this supposedly perfectly algorithmized society. The head of the so-called free press in the UK becomes an unlikely member of the resistance, and even high-up Beetle employees start to question the company’s power as they find themselves behaving in surprising and thus zedlike ways. “Zed,” one Beetle droog muses, “was everywhere. It was the worm of nothingness coiled in the heart of being.”

In a desperate attempt to vanquish Zed, Beetle rolls out “BeetleInspire,” which opponents deride as “totalitarian mind control” and which rigs the information people are given so they make decisions based on fake news even as they are assured that they are being told the truth (sound familiar?). The megacompany also implements “Bespoke,” which, like Orwellian Newspeak, is a pared-down language designed to control people’s minds by making certain thoughts inexpressible.

Zed is what a dystopia looks like when written by a non-cynic. It is a dystopia written, instead, with a capacious, generous view of humanity.

Here is a conversation in Bespoke between a Beetle employee and the Veep, or digital PA, of its CEO:

‘Guy wants. He does. He asks. Always. Can you?’

‘Can I what?’

‘Can you always? Every day! More can you? Can you? You must. Never can’t.’

‘I must do what?’

‘This and that. Oh more and more. It’s coming forward and then going backwards. If you fall then you break a bone. Don’t you?’

Bespoke, like my AI transcription, is a total failure.

Zed is what a dystopia looks like when written by a non-cynic. It is a dystopia written, instead, with a capacious, generous view of humanity, which in Kavenna’s mind will always have scruples, be struck with empathy, be zedlike and surprising. Kavenna proves herself a master of the gently preposterous as she both mocks and sympathizes with her characters. Even Guy, the head of Beetle, who might be a baddie in more a reductive story, fears the power of new technology. His pettiness is funny rather than evil—he tries (and fails) to use BeetleInspire to convince his estranged wife to leave her boyfriend, a leader of the resistance, and return to him.

In person Kavenna is a walking example of the Zedness of intelligence, roaming in one long talkative day from Camus’ L’Étranger to the sexism of 50th-anniversary coverage of the moon landing to Shoshanna Zuboff’s 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism to campanology (the art or practice of bell-ringing) to John Constable’s paintings of East Bergholt near the Suffolk/Essex border where she enjoyed a lovely rural childhood to Philip Larkin’s poem “I Remember, I Remember” (about Coventry, one of England’s most-maligned cities, near where Kavenna moved as a preteen and where, Larkin writes, “my childhood was unspent”) to how John Donne’s wife Anne gave birth to twelve children but we know nothing about her.

Mostly though, on our long brisk summer’s walk, Kavenna and I talked about the thorny subject of how people manage to live in groups and how this question, which is at the heart of society, is also at the heart of the novel as a form.

Kavenna is possessed by the “inevitable tension between individuals and a society that drives so many novels….There is a massive tension,” she went on, “between the character trying to define themselves against an often insidious society that is telling them what they are, and to kind of get back into that box.”

“I like genre,” she added, “because there’s a narrative and you can kind of work against it, test it.”

One of the things Zed is stress-testing is the apocalyptic novel itself. In a typical dystopia or post-apocalyptic tale, a disaster often gives an individual the chance to display their hidden potential, but at a huge cost to the rest of humanity. Here, though, Kavenna employs a kind of distributed narrative structure in which no one character is central, spreading the novel’s care and awareness across all of its characters.

This restlessness with genre is one of Kavenna’s overarching traits as a writer. Her four previous novels and first book, The Ice Museum—a travelogue about Scandinavia published in 2005, before Scandinavia was as hygge a deal in Britain as it is now—have defeated any predictions an algorithmic lifechain could make.

Ever since The Ice Museum, Kavenna has been interested in the impossibility of dreams and the failure of utopias, and particularly in humans’ constant but always-doomed attempt to map and understand things. The book is about the search for a land called Thule, which is not really a land at all—it just means as far north as people could go. Kavenna follows in the footsteps of other explorers of the far North—Fridtjof Nansen, who in the 1890s got closer to the North Pole than anyone had before, Knud Rasmussen, the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled—but resists the urge to heroicize, mocking even her own quest.

In the course of that book, Kavenna rewrote the travel memoir by probing its cherished myths, even though she once shared the earnest dreams of her childhood heroes. Kavenna, obsessed with polar exploration as a child, convinced her parents to take her to Scandinavia when she was 14. After college at the University of Bristol and a doctorate in literature in Oxford, she spent the year 2000 as environment editor for the Guardian in the early days of digital and then took off again, first back to Scandinavia to study philosophy and then to Munich for a year, “sitting in a beautiful library reading racist crap”—she remarks now—about how “Thule” became a symbol for white purity in Norse and Nazi legend.

In The Ice Museum, the book that resulted from these international travels, she recounts how her idyllic countryside childhood in southern England ended at the age of 11 when her family moved to the industrial Midlands. A return to the country, it seems, like any return to childhood, seemed impossible. “I moved only from city to city, she writes, “moving throughout my twenties from London to New York, to Paris, to Berlin, to Oslo, to London again. I was propelled by an obsessive urge to experience novelties: new places, new cities…The city always drew me back, a city in one country or another. I was compelled by the show, the constant motion, the bizarre energies of colliding humans, crammed together in a lunatic experiment.” I thought my AI had misheard, but it’s true: Kavenna lived in 50 places in 12 years.

*

Now, however, she lives with her partner and their two pre-teen children in a cottage outside a village near Banbury, and she has lived there for over a decade. On an acceptably summery day, we meet at the 335-year-old local estate, Rousham House, for a walk around the gardens, which some say are the most important in England.

Kavenna, ever a challenger of myth, questions the very British glorification of the countryside throughout her work.

As Kavenna gives me a tour, striding briskly and talking rapidly, like a heartier Virginia Woolf let loose on the countryside, that same narrow remarkable face, her mind taking in great big gulps of ideas, she explains to me that Rousham is another stab at utopia. It is the best-preserved work of William Kent, who revolutionized England garden design by moving away from formal, symmetrical landscaping to a more informal style. Inspired by 17th-century paintings such as Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, Kent tried to create his own Arcadia, an idyllic pastoral landscape that insists on its own naturalness; the sloping terrain and peripheral ruins of classical-ish temples trick you into considering the landscape as one with the surrounding countryside. Kavenna shows me around Venus’s Vale, a sculpture of a dying gladiator, the seven-arched Praeneste Temple. Treating these follies with the same combination of satire and sympathy that she shows her characters, she explains how Kent built an idealized view of nature, an artifice carefully designed to look as natural as possible.

Kavenna, ever a challenger of myth, questions this very British glorification of the countryside throughout her work. In The Ice Museum, she longs to return to “the honest complexity of the city, a place where the present was raucous and the past was omnipresent. The city didn’t feign a peacefulness it would fail to surrender.” In Kavenna’s second novel Inglorious, which came out in 2007, her thirty-something protagonist, like Kavenna, leaves a journalist job in London, but when she—unlike Kavenna—seeks refuge in the countryside, rural life fails to live up to her fantasies. In the midst of a breakdown after her mother dies and her boyfriend leaves her, she goes to visit two friends who have decamped to the countryside to raise their picture-perfect children; she finds them insufferable and escapes in the middle of the night. As she flees on foot in the rain, she finds herself “questioning the Romantic assumption that nature was reviving to the soul.” Inglorious breaks the tradition of the troubled-young-woman-coming-of-age novel by ending as uncertainly as it began, with its heroine on a train to yet another city.

Kavenna’s ambitious next novel, The Birth of Love, came out in 2010, three years and two children later. She wrote it partly because she was amazed at how little fiction had been written about the experience of giving birth. The entire novel might take place, Alice-in Wonderland-style, in the head of a woman in labor, or it might take place in four settings, one of which is Kavenna’s first foray into dystopia. In that strand, a near-future totalitarian government has banned live birth and in Brave-New-World style, babies are bred eugenically in labs. A few dissidents who long to bear and raise their own child attempt to escape to a rural paradise; some are recaptured, and the story is told as a transcript of their interrogation. Some, however, might have escaped. Playing with dystopia in a manner that prefigures Zed, Kavenna leaves some questions unanswered. Another strand is set in the past, telling the (mostly true) story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th-century doctor who discovered that the new fashion of birthing hospitals was killing women because doctors spread infections by refusing to take sanitary precautions; he was laughed out of the profession and died in a madhouse.

The other two threads of the novel are set in present-day London, one about a man whose own difficult mother is dying and the other about a woman about to have her second child who might be dreaming up this whole story.

In The Birth of Love, the city represents both repression and reassurance. The protagonist of its dystopian strand, who lives in an Arctic city because climate disaster has caused an evacuation of London, longs to escape to the country but also remembers the nostalgia of previous generations for a lost London. The novel’s key character, the woman in labor, is comforted when she looks out her window at London: “The city looks soft and tranquil; she has never seen the river before at this empty time of night.”

In Kavenna’s next book, a state-of-the-nation novel entitled Come to the Edge, the countryside is both promising and dangerous. Again, Kavenna tells the story of a woman in contemporary London who gets dumped and leaves society and a comfortable life behind in a search for—well, who knows? She ends up on a farm in England’s Lake District—the beloved vacation spot of Kavenna’s childhood—run by a defiant live-off-the-land survivalist (named, of course, Cassandra) who entangles her in a plot to wreak violent revenge on weekend vacationers ruining the countryside for the locals. The novel is both a spoof of suburban life and a spoof of the idea that the countryside is any escape from it.

A Field Guide to Reality, Kavenna’s most abstruse novel, is set closer to home, in Oxford—but an alternate-reality one, where colleges have names such as “Worm Hall,” “Unicorn Hall,” and “Perilous Hall.” On another day, we talk a walk around the real Oxford, whose colleges have names such as “Balliol,” “Brasenose,” and “Keble.” Kavenna helps me out by starting to interview herself. “Why would we write things that are that transmutes day-to-day available reality into something that’s totally invented?,” she asks, and then answers, “partly it’s because of that possibility of transgressing the boundaries of linear time and transgressing our brief habitation at this particular moment and changing the rules. Because when we think, we think in every time, you know, and in space that we have available to us conceptually, but as we exist, we’re confined, obviously rigidly. But in a novel you can change all that. And that’s in the field guide. I had this idea, if you could think of someone from the past or someone who’s dead and they can appear from the shadows, then you can do that obviously in a fictional world, but that’s unavailable to us in reality.”

The “field guide” of the title is supposedly the magnum opus of an Oxford philosophy professor (attempting to explain “how it is that we see what we see, and how we know whether what we see is real.”) The professor dies suddenly, leaving his unlikely friend, another bereaved-young-woman protagonist, to find his book—if she can. The book is also an exploration of who is welcome in Oxford and who is not. Kavenna tells me about a time she and a friend visited Oxford when they were both teenagers, and, obsessed with Romantic poets, went looking for a memorial to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They had the misfortune to ask directions of a particularly supercilious  Oxford undergraduate; he retorted, “Are you just interested in the Shelley Memorial because your name is Michelle?”

Kavenna often thinks about this history of inclusion and exclusion in a place as multi-layered as Oxford. At Rousham, she tells me, “I sit on a bench by the river where Alexander Pope used to sit in this precise spot to write his acerbic verse. [My friend] the painter Frank Hamel paints further along the river and he paints with the river going past him and continuing on, which I think is a sort of modest thing to do—you’re accepting that things are going to continue beyond you. But Alexander Pope wrote his sort of irascible verse sitting there with a river coming towards him. Like he was a great sort of god of the river and all the sort of natural energy was approaching him and he was kind of imbibing, you know, all of this. And it had to sort of reckon with him…You could see it as a sort of tyrannous, patriarchal kind of character that sort of feels like one of those sort of weights that kind of falls on you when you start to try to write, you know.”

The protagonist of A Field Guide to Reality is also dismissed because she is young and female and an occasional researcher, not a real academic. She spends her days as a waitress serving tourists and dons in a museum café (“Milk with your coffee? Sugar with your beard? Marmalade with your air of venerable antiquity?”) and her evenings researching the history of the city, which, again, appears both as promise and peril.

In classical dystopias, cities are places of more peril than promise, and the countryside the opposite: think of the idyllic countryside where Winston and Julia have their assignations in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the wilds of the Falkland Islands to which Bernard and Helmholtz are exiled at the end of Brave New World—as a reward, because the islands are full of the most interesting people in the world, people who do not fit into society because they are true individuals. It’s all very binary and Blakean. As Kavenna puts it in The Ice Museum, for Blake the countryside is “a symbol of freedom from the fetters of convention, from the stultifying effects of orthodoxy, represented by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ of the city…London was where the individual was enslaved, ‘bound with briars.’ Emptiness and silence were freedom because they were devoid of the clamour of other voices telling you how to behave, what not to do, what to be.”

These “other voices” are omnipresent in Zed, in which characters’ digital assistants and smarthomes track every movement, chiding them to exercise, eat vegetables, behave in socially appropriate ways. But humans are always slipping out from under technology’s control, and it is in the city that resistances takes hold. When one increasingly rebellious character throws her “BeetleBand” across the room in disgust after it advises her to do some relaxation exercises, the discarded bit of kit feebly chirps, “‘Impact!…Ouch! Are you all right? Do you need to sit down? Do you need to see a doctor? Please advise. Ouch!’”

Somehow it seems even my AI is a bit more accurate.

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The upcoming issue of Freeman’s, a collection of writings on California, features work from Tommy Orange, Rabih Alameddine, Rachel Kushner, Mai Der Vang, Reyna Grande, and more, is available now.

Fran Bigman
Fran Bigman
Fran Bigman is a freelance writer living in New York City who writes most often about books, art, and reproductive politics. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and her work has appeared in the New York Review Daily, Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, Words Without Borders, and Granta.com. You can find her on Twitter @franbig.





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