Great novels can be a feast for the mind, but a few go beyond even this, as is the case with remarkable new work Variations on an Inexhaustible Theme.
Engrossing, immersive and unforgettable, it is an experimental modernist novel which combines text with music and imagery to provide a mesmerising multi-media journey unlike any other.
In a colourful and ambitious kaleidoscope, Variations on an Inexhaustible Theme explores the nature, meaning and purpose of art—artistically, politically, and spiritually—jumping around in time and space as these concepts are mused over by a menagerie of characters, some based on historical figures; others entirely fictional.
This intellectual tour takes in debates between characters ranging from artists, occultists and opportunists in 18th century London to utopian colonists on the surface of Mars in the not-too-distant future, making for a grand Socratic dialogue across the ages.
Broadly moving to the near future in the second half, the novel here shifts its focus to the likely fruits of the ideological seeds encountered and sown in the previous centuries, following the threads that connect art with politics, society and capitalism.
Here, it projects a world defined by climate collapse, interplanetary colonisation, and the death spiral of greed, making us consider if the suppression of art—an all-too-common ideological weapon used to nullify free thought—will ultimately kill ourselves and our planet too.
At the same time, on a spiritual level, it considers how we can oppose the suffocation of creativity to restore a sense of personal agency concerning the earth’s future, including going back to the source of the problem—the ideas of the past—to unlock the answer.
From there, events and consequences pile up faster and faster, until subject and object fuse like a literary equivalent of astrophysics’ Big Crunch model, revealing Variations’ true purpose and its answer to the fundamental questions of what art—including itself—should be for and what it should be against.
Added into this dazzling intellectual mix is the commentary of its author, Massimo Magee—a well-respected name in the field of the avant-garde—about the evolution of the book as it unfolds.
In the literary world, this is known as ‘poioumenon’—a type of metafiction where the story is to some degree about its own creation. It’s a rare device but is epitomised by such works as Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern or House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
This passage from the novel explains clearer what I mean:
I found myself writing – writing…….what? I did not know. A dizzy menagerie of letters and symbols streamed across the page, marked by accents I had no use for, nor any real notion as to the provenance of. I wrote at a frantic pace but with methodical determination, opening my head fully to the possession of this incomprehensible torrent.
In some respects, then, the novel is a manifesto as much as a work of art, both in its arguments and its very form.
If you approach Variations on an Inexhaustible Theme like you would with a typical work of fiction then you will quickly be flummoxed, but if you embrace its avant-garde spirit—that desire to free the mind and create anew from the bonfire of conventions—then it will click, just like a Magic Eye picture.
The breadth of the writing, from a technical standpoint, is breath-taking, employing different type-settings, techniques and writing styles (such as the format of a play) depending on which time period it is set within.
Aiding immensely in this process is the addition of music and art to the text. As you read, you will be greeted by abstract artwork by the author and, littered throughout, QR codes—as far as I’m aware, a first for a novel.
These correspond to a musical track, composed by Magee, which range in length from a few seconds to 12 minutes. There are 122 tracks in total—the equivalent of around four CDs’ worth of music—and, as with the text, we find avant-garde jazz and ‘noise music’ which challenge the traditional precepts of Western art.
These tracks, which are designed to be played at specific sections of the novel, are not gimmicky. As with any abstract artwork, they change the atmosphere of the reading experience to create a more enveloped whole.
With this fusion of music (which can be played via a smartphone or tablet), experimental literary structures and artwork, Magee boldly eschews the standard conventions of literature to bring readers closer to the immediacy of the story, where the sensations experienced are just as important as the narrative.
Truly imaginative, then, I loved the sheer scope of Variation’s experimentalism, and the intensity of the experience. Reading is a solitary act, yet it sometimes felt like I was attending a multi-media art installation.
Magee’s unique stamp of talent is impressed upon every word and sentence, where he combines the roles of author, commentator, performer and curator.
The London-based writer, Saatchi Art-listed artist and avant-garde musician is already the author of Manifesto (New Unities)—a manifesto for his audio-visual digital art practice, published in 2017—and the limited-edition multimedia novel The Triptych.
He describes Variations on an Inexhaustible Theme as the “capstone” to more than a decade of solo work in sound, writing, visual art, film and more—a journey which is itself referenced within the text.
I would say the resulting novel is a triumph and perhaps go so far as to say it’s also a work of genius, which while undoubtedly standing on the shoulders of artistic giants, successfully defines and justifies its own existence.
The strong fantastical and supernatural undertone within the writing reminds me of works by modern-era Prometheans such as Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Alan Moore (Jerusalem), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) and Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum).
London’s own original multimedia artist extraordinaire, William Blake, is also a guiding influence, as well as one of its key characters, serving as mentor and example to the protagonist of the novel’s first half.
In short, what we have here is more than a book; it’s a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’—or complete work of art—that will confront, surprise and delight those who are willing to be actively involved in the singular artistic journey that awaits.
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH MASSIMO MAGEE
We speak with multi-disciplinary avant-garde artist Massimo Magee to learn more about his stunning new novel, Variations on an Inexhaustible Theme.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for Variations on an Inexhaustable Theme?
A. I have been a multimedia artist for practically as long as I have been an artist, writing since my youth, adding experimental music not long after, and digital art not long after that. So the idea of writing a multi-media novel is a logical extension of that trajectory. In very concrete terms, I consider myself to have been working towards Variations for over a decade prior to finishing it; not that I had actually been writing the novel itself during all of that time, but in the sense that Variations form the capstone to over a decade of solo work across sound (studio research and recording as well as live performance), writing, visual art, film and more—a journey that is itself referenced within the text.
The main ‘breakthrough’ that this novel represents for me is, I suppose, the way that it manages to be an integrated, grand synthesis of writing, visual art and music, all in one volume, with equal weight being placed on each domain. This quality of multimedia fluidity is very important to my artistic voice, and Variations represent the most convincing implementation of that concept that I have so far been able to complete.
Q. What do you hope readers will gain from the combination of text, music and art?
A. I think this question is partly answered by the fact that this is simply how I see 21st-century writing: with the growth of the internet as an ever-stronger influence on human communication (and I think of myself as being roughly coeval with the internet), even what we might call ‘text-primary communication’ is increasingly multimedia by default.
All that said, though, I think it is still reasonable to ask why I would write a whole novel like this and the answer to that lies in the fact that what I want to demand from myself when writing is total involvement—the sort of obsessive, life-transforming engagement that has the characteristic of mania. I want to end the period of writing the novel a different person to who I was when I started. This is achieved by treating the novel as the site of an interdisciplinary artistic, philosophical, political and spiritual praxis, using fiction as a means to attempt the conscious and deliberate definition of the immediate context of that praxis, rather than passively accepting the context assigned by circumstance.
Therefore, because my artistic expression is naturally so multimedia-native, so must my novel be. This leaves the other half of your question, though: ‘so what’ for readers? I hope that, by embodying this kind of transformative praxis so fully in the work of fiction, I can pull the reader along with its flow and offer up to them as much of my journey in the course of writing as they might find useful for their own. In short, I find it a more immersive and total form of communication that matches the intensity of my own engagement in the writing itself.
Q. You are a noted multimedia artist. What do you seek to explore through your work?
A. I am very committed to the idea of an avant-garde. This sort of high-Modernist approach has been out of favour for a while (and for many good reasons) but I think a kernel of it is starting to cycle back into favour, improved and not defeated by the salvos of the postmodern decades. The goal of trying, against all odds and not necessarily successfully but always with determination and hope, to produce something genuinely new remains a worthwhile one, in my view.
By asserting that we can (and should) create something new in art, we are saying that we can (and should) remake this world anew, to the extent that we are able. In an age where catastrophic environmental collapse is so clearly and undeniably on our horizon—and so clearly and undeniably the result of the socio-economic system that we ourselves have created and chosen to be subjugated by—this aspiration is not only valid but urgently necessary. The other side of this coin is that constantly pushing ourselves to interrogate our material reality in order to find something new in it, taking up the struggle afresh, time and time again, suggests, for us mortal creatures who have only ever consciously known a time-bound existence, a way of relating to the infinite which is not terrifying: a way of drawing aspects of the numinous existence beyond time into time itself. ‘Transcendence’, in a word.
Q. How did you go about creating a soundtrack to your novel?
A. As my comment above about the multimedia-native nature of my artistic voice suggests, it is important for me to stress that the music in Variations is not a soundtrack to the novel but part of the novel itself, in the same way that the images are not illustrations of the novel but part of the novel itself. It is intended to be a true synthesis of writing, visual art and music, with equal weight given to each domain—a story told in multimedia form, rather than a story in words with soundtrack and illustrations. What that means as a practical answer to this question is that all three aspects—writing, visual art and music—were ‘written’ organically and enmeshed together, each one growing out of the others as the process went along, sometimes at home, sometimes in the studio, and sometimes in live performance.
Q. Leaving the music and visuals aside, why did you choose an experimental narrative form to tell your story?
A. Because my aim was a novel that contained the totality of a praxis within a constructed (fictional) context, it was important for me to be able to explore the strands of ideas that have led to our present political, social, economic and artistic predicament across time, ventriloquised by fictionalised versions of some of the thinkers most associated with them.
The time-jumping nature of the writing in Variations allowed me to set up a sort of Socratic dialogue between them to get deeper into their contradictions and/or points of convergence. I am naturally quite an argumentative reader, so this was an application of the sort of internal discussion that I have when reading almost anything to the specific problem of how to square the circle of constructing a novel that could be a vessel for the kind of total engagement I mentioned before. Finally, I used a few glitch-based digital approaches to writing in Variations, both because that is a natural part of my multimedia voice and also because it allowed me to signal the importance of the avant-garde in a very clear way.
Q. Aside from your new book, what do you see as your greatest achievement to date?
A. A difficult question! Rather than pointing to any particular document of the process, I would say the thing I am most pleased with in my artistic life is the way the process of discovery seems to continue, day after day, as more and newer frontiers continually open up, often in completely unexpected ways. This could be a small breakthrough of technique in one of my daily sessions of musical improvisation, or something much larger, but there is always at least something. In any event, I try not to be too proprietary about these things. I think it is better (healthier, as well as more correct) for the artist to think of themselves more as a conduit than a source.
Q. Who are your literary inspirations, and why?
A. My instant reflex response, without needing much thought, is that Thomas Pynchon is my literary hero. His colossal work was the first thing that really turned my mind onto the idea that fiction could be big. And not just in the physical sense, but sprawling, epically weird, and fearlessly strange. William Gaddis and Roberto Bolaño are also major influences for me for—in different ways—the audacity, depth of engagement, commitment and sheer joy of skill.
Q. How was the process of creating this book compared to planning an art installation or musical performance?
A. The multimedia nature of the writing (and I do consider all that went into this novel to be writing in a distinctly 21st century sense: the words, the images, the sounds and everything in between) meant that it had aspects of both of those things but on a drastically enlarged scale, which is exactly why I love working this way. To write a novel is to create a world, in all of its complexity and depth, but to be able to fold images and sounds into that world-creating as well is to intensify the process a hundred times over; to expand the possibilities in all directions at once. Given that the Variations are at once a text and a series of images and a series of audio tracks all equally, of course, it could also be staged as an audiovisual art installation in itself.
Q. For this project you are author, artist and composer/performer. Which hat do you enjoy wearing the most, and why?
A. Loath as I am to repeat myself, it would be impossible for me to pick one as all three are one voice! The organic nature of the multimedia writing process, in which each of the three aspects grows around and from the others as the work progresses, makes it impossible to separate them.
Q. What are you working on next?
A.It is very early days indeed, but I am just starting to begin the process of laying the groundwork for some ideas which I hope will form the skeleton of a trajectory which will take me on a journey that leads to the sequel to Variations. I anticipate (and actually hope, if I am to achieve over again the same self-transformational ambition that fuelled Variations) that it will take a very long time before I get anywhere at all, but merely considering the prospect is energising enough. In the meantime, I plan to continue releasing standalone records and visual/audiovisual digital art pieces that document particular instances of that ongoing process of discovery that I hope never to see the end of.