Live on Mars: an Interview with Adam Mars-Jones
by Simon Winder | October 22, 2013
Adam Mars-Jones has only published four stories: concerning the eccentricities of Philip Yorke, last squire of Erddig; analyzing the trial of the Black Panther; discussing the death of Queen Elizabeth II at the hands, or rather tongue, of a rabid corgi; and the revenge of a wife on her unfaithful partner by, with the aid of a small dab of Superglue, affixing his hand to his penis. This slim corpus has attracted considerable acclaim, is extremely witty and offers a bizarrely different angle on a variety of contemporary institutions.
The somewhat dubious nature of much of his work Mars-Jones freely concedes: “Sometimes when I’m giving a public reading I suddenly think to myself “God Mars-Jones you write in the worst possible taste””. His purpose is not, however, merely to shock and subvert. The story which has attracted the most attention, “Hoosh-mi: A Farrago of Scurrilous Untruths” was originally written as an antedote to the gush and bunting of the Silver Jubilee. Despite the obvious delight with which it is written (the Queen lashing in rabid frenzy at the crowd on a Sydney walkabout and, later, amid but lucid in a phonebox in St. James’ Park, realizing that she has never been taught how to reverse the charges) the tone is often exaggeratedly clinical and one finishes it not so much laughing at but pitying the monarchy in its dreadful impotence.
“I find the monarchy interesting because the individuals involved have now become so treated by the media and public expectation as to be almost incapable of any action which does not fit in with their prescribed characters. Thus at the Falklands memorial Service in St. Paul’s the Daily Express was moved to describe Prince Charles as being “clearly embarrassed” when his wife smirked and chatted on so solemn an occasion. We would like Charles’ uneasy expression to convey embarrassment but perhaps he had just had a bad attack of the runs that morning. In many ways the royals are the most defenceless people in the country – they are quite unable to answer back to any remark and the Queen’s right of prerogative could only really be used against her abolition, in which case it would be like a bee using its sting in last self-sacrificing defence, leaving its entrails in the wound in the process. In fact several people have come up to me who before reading the story were anti-royalist but now sympathize with the plight of individuals totally at the mercy of the press and public who really only fulfill the role expected of them.”
This helplessness is illustrated by the fact that despite the most grotesque libels being made in “Hoosh-mi” (a nonsense word meaning a mish-mash, coined by Princess Margaret) not a squeal has been heard from Buckingham Palace. His publishers, Faber, were more concerned with the reactions of those around the royal family who were mentioned who might react on their behalf – thus certain parts of the story were rewritten and one character slightly changed and renamed Prudence Faber (“My publishers took that one like lambs”).
Adam Mars-Jones is 28, educated at Westminster, Cambridge and the University of Virginia. He had little idea, beyond going for yet another fellowship, of what he would do until Lantern Lecture was accepted for publication. He certainly never set out to be a writer and his four stories were written over a four-year period under various promptings, the chief of which seems to have been guilt at failing to write while at Virginia with a creative fellowship. All his stories involve a great deal of research and for much of the time the story “Bathpool Park” is simply a factual reconstruction of events but with imaginative insight into how the Black Panther operated. Even the sad tale of the demise of the Queen is peppered with peculiar but nonetheless true information (Prince Philip really was born in a cottage called Mon Repos, it is true that, when walking down the red carpet of an agricultural show of one occasion the royal couple simply switched points and trundled, obviously, down a cunningly angled alternative red carpet, to the stall of an enterprising dealer). It is this heavily factual base which has sometimes been used as an objection to his work – “I think it annoys them not being able to classify me, I offend the purists who say I’m not imaginative enough, yet nor am I sufficiently close to the facts to be seen as journalistic. I like to think however that I do not so much fall between two stools as simply build my own stool.”
That there should be this doubt about his standing is really another tribute to his originality. It is almost impossible to find any other author to whom he can satisfactorily be compared, except perhaps Truman Capote in “Bathpool Park”. The writer he admires most is Percy Wyndham Lewis who has clearly influenced him in the brilliant hardness and individuality from sentence to sentence – “I don’t think Wyndham Lewis could write a book but he was a master, when at his best, of the striking phrase. For example in his obituary to Yeats where there must be a huge temptation merely to gush he was sparing in his praise but then said that some of his poems had given “an authentic dreamy kick”, that is a fine tribute”. Other novelists he admires include Nigel Dennis, John Cowper Powys, Cheever, Nabokov and of his contemporaries Mars-Jones is a fan of “the prototypical, thin, savage Duckworth novel, as practiced by Beryl Bainbridge or Alice Thomas Ellis”.
It will be interesting to see how Adam Mars-Jones develops. The obsessions of “Lantern Lecture”, individuals outside everyday experience who must create their own frame of reference – or have it created for them, are to a large extent played out. Similarly dissertations à la Lévi-Strauss on the amusing uses of Superglue are something of a dead-end. Whatever direction he might take the stories in “Lantern Lecture” are of such a quality and individuality as to make him one of the most original, and funny, new writers to appear for some time.