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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

Breaking the wave of status-quo fiction

• Excerpt from 'The Tie and the Crest'

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Matthew Branton looks more like a surf rat these days, a departure from the years-old photo below, from his British publisher.

About Matthew Branton

Age: 34

Hometown: Kent, England

Novels: "The Love Parade," "The House of Whacks," "Coast," and "The Hired Gun"; also, "The Tie and the Crest" (free download at www.matthewbranton.com)

Though it might make an interesting premise for his next, next, next novel (two already are under way), Matthew Branton did not, in fact, flee England for O'ahu's North Shore to escape vengeful Brit-lit-fic operatives.

Still, one can't be faulted for letting the imagination wander. Branton's looking relatively incognito these days, with a beachy appearance that's a dramatic departure from the snarky schoolboy photo that adorns the jacket of his book, "The Hired Gun." At a recent University of Hawai'i colloquium, he took the stand wearing three-quarter surf pants, a faded MCD shirt, sandals and a week's growth of beard.

Then there's the matter of Branton's daring one-two to the kisser of the British publishing industry.

Four years ago, he and a group of young British authors, decrying what they saw as the slow, ugly death of literary fiction and a publishing system that floods the market with mediocrity, drafted a set of 10 rules to return writing to its natural strengths — such as structure and a reliance on strong ideas, rather than complicated texts.

They dubbed themselves the New Puritans (after a British art-punk song by the Fall, "All Hail the New Puritans"). Their oddly conservative call-to-pens, inspired by a similar manifesto by the Dogme 95 filmmakers, of whom the most well-known is Lars Von Trier ("Breaking the Waves"), elicited a good deal of media attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Since then, each of the writers has received a chilly response from Britain's Big Five publishing houses.

Undaunted, Branton took the struggle to an unprecedented — and, fittingly, dramatic — height this year. He gave away his newest novel, "The Tie and the Crest," on the Web.

Branton paid a price to make his point. His previous novels, "The Love Parade," "The House of Whacks," "Coast," and "The Hired Gun," had earned strong reviews, and after the notoriety gained through his association with the New Puritans, "The Tie and the Crest" was expected to be his breakthrough work. And, indeed, it still could be. It just won't be a financial breakthrough.

"Other more established writers have spoken out about this, but people always say that they can afford to," Branton said. "I think it means more when it comes from someone who can't afford to do it. I can't, so I have."

Like others in the Pupukea neighborhood where he has spent the past three years, Branton and his wife, Julie, have pared their lives to the barest minimum to accommodate the things they value most — for him, the freedom to practice his craft with a clear conscience; for Julie, a political-science researcher, a chance to examine Hawai'i's unique political and cultural history.

"I've been working on this novel on spec for two years, and usually by the time you get to shopping it around, you're in financial meltdown," he said. "We live hand to mouth. We've adopted a really simplified existence."

The austere life seems to agree with Branton. He surfs. He writes. He shares late-afternoon tea with his wife. If it weren't for the touchy issue of visas, he said, he would stay here indefinitely.

"In Hawai'i, we get a feeling for the different values and perspectives that each group brings," he said. "There is much less emphasis on consumerized living, despite the fact that people here are under the same kinds of pressures as people on the Mainland.

"In Hawai'i, from what I am able to see, many of the old and new ways exist side by side," he said. "There is an engagement with the natural environment that we have lost in Britain."

Though he wields a subversive keyboard, Branton in person is disarmingly polite and soft-spoken. He asks as many questions as he fields, responding to every small revelation with an approving, "sweet." He apologizes sincerely when, inevitably, one of his lengthy rants against the British publishing industry degrades into inaudible muttering.

Branton's stories are darkly modern, often wry excursions, somewhat similar to the writings of Chuck Palahniuk ("Fight Club") and Bret Easton Ellis ("American Psycho"), both of whom he admires.

Like Don Delillo, whose brilliant, bulky "Underworld" he has read four times, Branton fills his stories with a sense of something larger, a sweep of history, culture and politics told in the language of small, personal moments. And like his boyhood favorite Stephen King, Branton also writes with the understanding that language is a tool and not, ideally, an end.

Like his fellow New Puritans, Branton is the product of state schools and community college. He grew up in Kent, a town in southeast England known for apples, hops and little else.

But what he lacks in pedigree, he claims by passion and idealism.

At his UH colloquium, Branton said he and his peers consider current literary fiction "a dead end for readers and for writers, producing purely decorative books that merely confirm middle-class readers in their aspirations and prejudices, and seemed to be produced and consumed in accordance with a lifestyle-led, consumer capitalist agenda."

Branton attributes the sorry state of the art, in part, to the 1995 end of price protections for books in Britain, which left small bookshops and service by their knowledgeable owners vulnerable to competitive depredation by chain retailers.

In the eight years since the protections were lifted, Branton said, the quality of literary fiction has gone into a tailspin, with the handful of major publishers buying space in chain stores to promote "quirky-detail lifestyle pornography."

He carefully limits his litany of grievances to specific conditions in Britain, but his larger points — that large corporations with bottom-line values undermine the quality of fiction, that the proliferation of large chain bookstores contributes to an undervaluing of meaningful writing, and that too many literary fiction writers emphasize style over substance — resonate for U.S. writers and publishers.

To Branton, the tragedy of the current situation is that literary fiction is failing at a time when it is most needed.

"During the most emotionally demanding times, we turn to novels and to poetry because they have the ring of truth," he said.

And so Branton keeps writing, adhering to his ideals of textual simplicity, grammatical purity and integrity of expression, keeps dreaming up stories that tell larger stories.

He and his wife return to Britain this month to make good on their visa requirements, but they hope to return to Hawai'i as soon as possible, perhaps to share a few more life lessons with UH students.

Branton said he will likely work directly with U.S. publishers for the foreseeable future. The British publishing houses, he said, hold long grudges.

• • •

Excerpt from 'The Tie and the Crest'

By Matthew Branton

"More often, heading out between nine and ten, there was just the cab and its wedged-in driver, nosing a big tipper from the hair, the jaw, the stride and the bearing, and being sorely mistaken. Those nights, Christi vaulted the ticket-barriers to Green Park and put in a few hours at Titania or Bulgar before the door, the floor, the bed of junk mail and pizza flyers, and the bathroom cabinet. Until two weeks ago that had been enough to get him through the arse-end of the year, those wintry months when his cheque account lay fallow, awaiting its rich replenishment with the first showers of spring and the new fiscal year. Then Leigh's futon would gather dust. But, this autumn, as the nights drew in and his credit cards drew security staff every time he tried to use them, Leigh spent most of her time at work and needed natural, restful sleep without his turning and grinding and grunting all night. Winter was her party season and his hungry time: he devoured strange women for stray pills, and starved for want of a cuddle."