When people ask me what kind of book Mono is, I find it difficult to give a short answer. In many ways, it’s like a novel; when I was writing it I thought of it as a continuous narrative. However, there isn’t a consistent plot: the events narrated are often mutually contradictory, even though they orbit around fixed themes and motifs. If Mono is a novel, it’s closer in spirit to the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet or the surrealist stories of Robert Desnos and Michel Leiris than it is to what most readers would recognise as a novel with a plot, believable characters and incidental detail.
Another problem with labelling Mono a novel is its organisation. Each of the 60 double pages features a monochrome picture on the left and some text on the right. The text never takes up the whole page and always ends with a full stop, making it look like a self-contained piece. In her review of the book, Susan Omand understandably referred to Mono as a “collection of loosely related verses“. Perhaps it is, despite what I had in mind when writing it. Maybe it’s a prose poem or a sequence of 60 prose poems. Maybe the sequence doesn’t matter.
When I wrote the blurb, I referred to Mono’s “kaleidoscope of mutating story-lines”. Although there is no stable plot, there are some events to which the book keeps returning, obsessively: an abduction, an interrogation, an incident that occurred when the protagonist was nine. And there is a small cast of characters: Eve, Serge, Dr Mort, the Pickled Punks and a dictator who is essentially the Bird King. A few others appear too: Mr Punch, the White Queen (a nod to Lewis Carroll) and the Mirrors, who may or may not be human. And of course, there is a protagonist, in this case an anonymous man always referred to in the second person. Writing in the second person felt right. When I was eleven, I was addicted to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy game books, which established the convention of the choose-your-own-adventure narrative that has since been taken in interesting directions by the likes of Alina Reyes. The second person turns the reader into the protagonist and can be exciting, terrifying, threatening. Although Mono does not offer the reader distinct narrative choices in the manner of the Fighting Fantasy series, its use of the second person and multiple, contradictory story-lines that co-exist like parallel universes give the book, I think, a sense of freedom and adventure.
There are several themes I played with in In the Dark Room, to which I found myself returning in Mono: memory, dreams, fantasy, and how they affect identity. Above all, the book is about language and the problems inherent in trying to provide an accurate account of even the least complicated of events. The book’s protagonist wants to write about things he has seen and experienced, but the task is impossible:
You’re trying to write a book. It’s about the Mirrors. You know what they are and how they work, but you don’t know how to describe them. The words haven’t been invented yet. They’re not even called Mirrors. You call them that, but that’s not what they’re called. They aren’t called anything. There isn’t a word for them. So trying to write about them is pointless.
If we can’t describe things accurately, how can we hope to let people into our inner worlds? The protagonist of Mono is terrifyingly alone. Despite the book’s absurdities, free associations and gothic whimsy, it boils down to a solitary man sitting in a room, trying to find the right words to describe things he struggles to remember.
What does all of this mean? Does it have to mean anything? I don’t know. Writing Mono, I let the images and plot fragments go where they wanted. I felt I had some important themes to explore, but I didn’t attempt to impose my will on them by creating a message. As the protagonist says at one point:
These are preliminary notes, sketches, doodles. Everything’s preliminary. Never trust a man who promises the finished article. The finished article is a dead thing. All you can do is write what comes to mind and hope some of it is true.
You can buy Mono here.