Siphonophore, by Jaimie Batchan, opens as an historical tale of a Scottish man, MacGregor, who in the late seventeenth century sailed to the Gulf of Darién, part of a doomed expedition attempting colonisation. The story soon morphs into something structurally original. Still narrated by MacGregor, the trials faced by his author as the novel progresses reveal much about creative conceits and process. Life being terminal, questions arise over how worthwhile it is to use limited time available to create other worlds for readers. MacGregor recognises he will only exist if he can keep the author writing – and believing his creation matters, even if only to him.
Early on, a little of MacGregor’s backstory is revealed. Childhood is given cursory treatment.
“My memories of that time are as happy and solipsistic as any other child of average standing and ability.”
His first jobs as a young adult did not end well, going some way towards explaining why he was recommended for an Imperial misadventure manned mostly by naval and infantry ‘hucksters and hooligans’. MacGregor did, however, leave behind a wife and offspring. Little is told of them.
These briefly mentioned facts provide bones around which to build the character of our protagonist. The lack of depth and detail provided is explained when we realise this is an early draft of a book being written, still to be fleshed out and edited.
MacGregor is often disgruntled that the author chooses not to make his life easier – particularly after he is abandoned by his crew mates.
“All that is required is for him to write something about me and it becomes true”
MacGregor is also often scathing of the author’s abilities and personal failings. Faced with his impending mortality, the author broods about his past, allowing memories and regrets – opportunities missed that were likely never available – to cast shadows over the life he is currently living.
“He confuses being able to remember facts with actual intelligence”
MacGregor’s hope is to escape Darién, but first he must live through the story being written of him, one that is stuttered by his author’s many digressions and procrastinations.
“It’s clear that in order to communicate with a reader, I must fight through the filter of my Creator”
Of course, this meta approach to storytelling has been tried before in other guises but not, I would posit, with the brevity and wit provided here. Although cleverly constructed, this tale avoids the many pitfalls of literary pretention. The tale is both poignant and darkly entertaining.
A story of a writer and of writing, viewed through the lens of a fictional character, draws the reader to ask who is real and what of anything in life is factual. MacGregor lives through the whims of the author, but the latter is deeply invested in his character. Their symbiosis provides a fascinating if sometimes disturbing study on how an author’s mind can work.
Siphonophore is published by Valley Press. My copy was provided gratis by the author.