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Struan Sinclair

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Automatic World

Automatic World

also available: Hardcover
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The Train
The story you are thinking of begins with a train. This train will arrive; it will not arrive, everything follows from this. You have in your head an image, this image, and one or two facts: the train, a foot. Not invention, you remind yourself, but selection. So, the train, a steam train; and the foot, a mechanical foot. You will begin with what you know and more will come to you. The train, the foot, the aftermath. It begins with the train, with the temporal trick that means the train arrives in the town of far away Mither Harbour even as it leaves St. William’s Arch. It is autumn, it is dusk. These are the details you must fill in. Was the night mild? Was the wait long? Did a station lamp flicker? Everything in this story begins with the train; with the brute fact of it, the sequence of it, the timing of it; time accounted for and time lost. It was autumn. It was dusk. It was mild. It had rained. The platform was busy. The station lamps were due for topping up. Were the signal lights in order? Were the brakemen drunk? In the aftermath, this will all matter. The stitching of events will be picked at and examined. Where. When. How. Why. So much causal netting to be carefully unsnarled.

You have learned the knack of splitting consciousness. You have the train before you and you distribute across it a set of figures: a girl, a bereft young man, an inventor and his drudge. To these figures you apportion stories: a mercy killing, a drawn-out suicide, exquisite machines. That these figures and these stories are connected you take for granted; you can point to theme, trajectory, origin point. You observe that these stories share a furniture and you give examples: blankets, sidekicks, wax, artificial limbs. There are resonances, echoes, things that come back. Characters recycled through different parts. An isthmus of shared plot. And yet – And yet, it troubles you. The overall picture. The connections between connections. Provenance – it is a question of provenance, where the stories and their elements came from and how they fit.

You pause. Check your notes. You’ve gone over and over it. You’ll get there.

So: the girl, the bereft young man, the inventor and his drudge. Mercy killing, suicide, exquisite machines. And you, of course. You. You have written down everything you ever knew or were told you knew waiting for something to strike you – and here something has struck you. In the train you have at last a socket for this story that contains within it all those stories you have listened to and learned. You have the main points and the fine detailing that will put flesh, as it were, on the bones. You have all this in working memory, and as you build it out loud you will add the repertoire of gestures you have practised which will signify passion, hope, fear, longing, attentiveness, shame, despair. In this performance you hope will set you free what is paramount is naturalness; you will be natural, you will be free. It is a performance, of course, they’ll guess that straight off. It doesn’t matter that they see you doing it, so long as they don’t see how.

Difficult to manage all this, but possible. And by now you have experience. Here you are, speaking on request. It is a kind of homecoming for you and people are gathered and listening. They are not spectators, not exactly. They, some of them, will decide where you are to end up. Among them are those who have told these stories or parts of these stories to you, and here you are returning the favour. A woman you cannot see clearly asks if you want water, a break –

I’m fine, you say, update your expression, narrow your focus to include only her. Sorry, I’m nervous, give me a sec –

Stop. Check your notes. The train – it’s the basis, the fulcrum, stay with it.

You say:

It begins with the train –

And you’re off, and they follow, those who can be bothered, and where things demand a little stretch you provide it, and where the action drags you hoop it along.

What are the elements? Trains, you say. This is a story of trains.

The characters, the themes. First, the characters: an inventor’s dream of a folded world. The vengeful drudge. The girl with her misspent affections. A suicide father, his grieving son. Next, the themes. Storytelling. The long recuperation. Loss, yes; but also miracle constructions. Filial love and quack cookery. Grief and old prosthetics. Repetition, overlap, a pair of red gloves. Themes to organize, to structure and be satisfied. Themes, too, that diverge. Trains to link but also to sequester – four trains for four stories.

Why four? Why these four? You appreciate that this train is bound by certain laws: physical, temporal. But you see also that it is bound by narrative laws, story laws, with their distinctive causality and effect. You walk through this train but you cannot alter the fact that it is a train. You cannot change its route. You cannot make yourself, your wishes, understood to these characters, you cannot save them. And in the same way, the stories you have are the stories you have. You can cut a little, shift things about, yes. But their basic structure, their interleaving, the points at which they merge and disappear, their net effects; these are not negotiable.

Right, you say. I’m ready.

The train by now is a real train, the foot a real foot. You point out the plaque placed, unremarkably, by the freight entrance of the station that tells the story of the crash of 1855 in which as few as 197 and as many as 230 may have died, some of them children. You identify the location of the foot in a library that anyone with an interest in such medical curiosities may visit. There is the girl, a real girl, and the town, a real town you all might drive to if you liked. You – you’re real enough, standing before them in your flat-seamed trousers, your Basque hat.

You. Between all of this and them – you. And you are – what? The elements, recurring images, expressions, motifs. Red. He tries to tell them. September 7th. Three minutes. Grapple. Foot. Terrible terrible. I’m full up. These words and elements are migratory. They will loop through your story like eyes on a line. The train, the foot, the aftermath. In and out, everywhere. This movement may seem haphazard; you find it difficult, even now, after all these interventions, to keep things straight. But maybe it doesn’t matter that they be kept straight. In the story you are telling straightkeeping is not a virtue. Better modality, better eccentricity. And what you will make of this train and this foot will be modal, eccentric. Your challenge: to give them a story, a proper story. You have fixed upon this train, this foot.

You begin.

From the Hardcover edition.

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