Rising literary star Maddie Mortimer on pushing the form, and the rise of the genre-bending book
Maps of Our Spectacular Bodiesis the incredible genre-defying debut novel from Picador super-lead Maddie Mortimer. Here, she discusses the place of the novel in literature and her favorite genre-bending novels that are pushing the form.
When I was eighteen, I noticed a Colm Tóibín quote on the back of a book that struck me as odd. The book was Anne Carson’s Decreation, a dazzling collection of poetry, essay and opera. The quote read: 'If she was a prose writer, she would be instantly recognised as a genius’. It stayed with me. I couldn’t understand why ‘prose’ (or, by extension, ‘the novel’) sat firmly at the top of the great invisible literary hierarchy. Even today, I believe I turned to prose because I wasn’t a good enough poet. I loved stories from a young age, I loved reading and writing them, but what made my brain fizz and my heart soar most was metaphor — the rhythm and the sound of a sentence, the little hidden melodies.
I have always been a restless reader. My eyes will dart around the surface of a page before settling and sinking anywhere; I am distracted by the shapes of words, or the way a paragraph floats. This isn’t, perhaps, surprising, considering how short our attention spans are today, and the fact that we receive information in fragments, short sound bites, summarised quotes and flickering images. It is a remarkable and sacred thing that for all the technological advances, many novels being published today look exactly like those being published in 1850. But then, of course, there are exceptions; unconventional, hybrid books that find very new ways to tell familiar tales, and these have always excited me.
‘What made my brain fizz and my heart soar most was metaphor — the rhythm and the sound of a sentence, the little hidden melodies. ’
Whilst Maps of Our Spectacular Bodiesis, at its heart, a family drama — it is also a formally ambitious novel. There are three narrative threads in the book that are not only in constant communication, but are actively competing against one another to ‘tell’ the story. The events happening in Lia’s past and present are mapped onto the landscape of her body, the first person eats away at the third, there are fragments of anatomical science and religious philosophy, of poetry, painting and dance and typographic moments where words drip, or swell, as if magnified — they mirror and bend. By experimenting with form like this, by shifting between styles and building up patterns to pick at and unravel I found that the novel had become about the very act of storytelling; about the way we choose to frame our lives, and which version of ourselves we let take the lead. As Lia (an illustrator with a vast imagination) nears death, she is attempting to make sense of her choices, her illness. The piecing together of self is her final creative act.
I started writing the book when I was 23, and for all the play and ‘fizz’ there were also simple delights that emerged unexpectedly along the way. I learnt that a fully realised character or frank, honest dialogue can be just as poetic as a perfectly constructed metaphor, or a bit of clever word play. This, I think, is growing up. It’s realising that you have nothing to prove. It’s leaving your coat and scarf and pretension in the hall, taking the hands of your characters, and letting them lead you through the house.
Here are some contemporary novels that have made a book like Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies possible. I consider all of them works of genius — not because of their prose or their poetry, their profound intelligence or impressive architecture, but because of the sheer confidence with which they go about being exactly what they are, and by doing so - defy category.
Discover Maddie's own shimmering debut novel, releasing with Picador on 31 March: