Dwelling by Richard Makin
Reality Street, Papberback, 672 pages,
Context is everything when it comes to reading Richard Makin’s dwelling. To do as I did and approach the text with no knowledge of its background will almost certainly result in hours of tedium peppered with bewilderment. The book as an object is inoffensive enough, being the size of a solid doorstep and suggesting to the enthusiastic reader that it will last them comfortably through the next two months. However, before bending back the front cover it is useful to know that dwelling is a piece of non-generic prose, published by Reality Street as a part of their ongoing promotion of experimental writing. It follows that you must be ready to indulge in this experiment and actively work with it, a process which begins with the opening lines:
Exit one London. Wandering into the root of to dwell. I will not provoke. I will not provide. Let us through. The first big test is to dig a ditch. In guerrilla warfare it’s said you use your strengths as weaknesses.
Do not, as I did, spend the next fifty pages waiting for a plot to emerge and characters to be sustained. Makin continues in this fragmentary and challenging manner for six-hundred and seventy pages, stopping for chapter breaks but nothing else. It is not that his writing is bad (a glance at the quote above should show that this is not the case) only that there is so much of it. At first I considered the meaning of every line and tried to uncover the connecting threads between each one, but after twenty pages or so I entered into a passive, semi-hypnotic state and had to take a nap. Richard Makin’s writing would perhaps be easier to accept if he didn’t seem so self-conscious about his style. He seems to acknowledge that his work isn’t entirely reader-friendly, going as far as to occasionally coax you onwards. At one point he promises, ‘If you can make it beyond this chapter things start to get a lot easier on the eye,’ and after being buoyed up by this statement you race forward, ploughing through one chapter and into the next, only to find that he lied.
I came to realise that dwelling is like a dictionary or encyclopaedia, being enlightening in small doses but punishing when read from start to finish. Context is again useful for understanding why this might be. The text was originally produced electronically by Great Works, being published as it was written, and serialized over a period of two years. Knowing this, it is possible to argue that the book was never meant to be read as a singular whole, but in sections over a very long period. I cannot help thinking that the original dwelling must have been a less intimidating text, as the readers would have had no notion of its length, not knowing exactly when it would end. The online version must have also had a less definite and more organic feel, having been written as the reader moved through it and easily accessible at any moment in a busy day. The paperback prescribes a different reading experience, being too heavy to carry around and read spontaneously, it requires designated timeslots in comfortable armchairs or quiet libraries. It is a shame that a text which is filled with images of movement and activity must be read in situ, and often away from the chaotic world that inspired it.
As the title of the book suggests, dwelling is a meditation on the activity of habitation. This includes the way we inhabit and practice being, and those nests we create out of custom, culture and instinct. Makin explores those dwellings generated in time, place, language, myth, tradition, body and text, and draws them out in all their complexity. His rendering of different landscapes and environments is consistently vibrant and original, combining candid portraits with personal musings and abstract diversions. His writing is interwoven with allusions to the work of previous authors and literary movements, as well as to the grammatical particulars of language and traditional narrative tropes. This creates a narrative which is seemingly self aware, one which acknowledges (and is thus composed of) its debt to linguistics and literary tradition. Take, for example, the following extract:
An elegy in a dusty boneyard, with solitary beast. I say break it for me. I break speech for you. It is a master-slave relationship: the men in question. She comes with dog (the third person).
Makin’s reference to Thomas Gray’s canonical elegy is typical of the way he both emphasises and deconstructs established methods and trends. The same goes for language; he doesn’t obliterate the components of speech in his effort to ‘break’ it, instead he rearranges the fragments in a way that questions their meaning and use. In this sense dwelling is an exploration of literary representation, providing insight into textual convention while dismissing it in the same move. It is Makin’s playfulness with language and narrative that make this book worthwhile, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to unsettle their literary preconceptions.