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What is character? What makes a person stand out? In The Warehouse Industry by William Macbeth, the unnamed first person narrator’s primary character trait is that he wants not to stand out and be noticed. Brilliantly developed as a “bad” character, this protagonist satirically dramatizes the Herman Hesse quote at the start of the book: “The dream of death is only the dark smoke/ Under which the fires of life are burning.”
The book begins as the narrator takes a nondescript job in a nondescript warehouse and ends when his employment finishes. In between, he narrates the misadventures that lead him there. Meandering randomly across various threads in his past, the pacing of the book matches this young man’s demeanor. He’s “helpless in the face of cajoling,” and has “no intention at all” (47). He has trouble interpreting why others do things. He wanders through life. Not wanting to go to either his brother’s stag party nor his wedding, he goes anyways, carried along by events. Finally, the threads come together and he willfully acts out despite himself. “We all sacrifice ourselves for ourselves,” he says (120).
Wry irony characterizes this book. The only named characters are inanimate objects (Duck, Sofa, Invitation), to whom the narrator speaks more than to humans, and The Undertaker and Ratty, villainous friends of the narrator’s brother. These names become and define these two, whereas, unnamed, the narrator defies labels. The narrator repeats himself often with pithy sayings: “wishing does me no good at all,” “I’m no expert when it comes to…,” “I felt like a ghost.” Instead of laboring the text, these phrases point to the narrator’s singular purpose and particularity. At a pivotal juncture toward the end of the book, he is both “I” and “you,” noticer and noticed, hero and victim, at once. Satisfyingly unpredictable, the book’s unexpectedness drives the plot with wit and ingenuity.
The overall tone of the book is unemotional and distant, but its effect is full of pathos. While Macbeth employs rich metaphors that elicit feeling as well as conjure image, he also includes irrelevant details, that the narrator says don’t matter. The result is a tense combination of tears and laughter. Darkly humorous, this book succeeds in portraying the every man who is no man, The Invisible Man whose strength is in making himself known on his own wayward terms.
1. I’m intrigued by the Herman Hesse quote at the beginning. Tell me how he inspired you and what other writers influence this book.
I love Hesse. I think it’s his humanity that inspires me, and that strange mix of intellectualism and mysticism. He looks like a stern university professor, but he was actually a total hippy who wrote things like ‘I wanted to teach people to be conscious of the pulse of the earth and take part in the life of the universe’ and ‘we are … children belonging to the earth and the cosmic whole.’
Whenever I read the novels of Hermann Hesse I am left with the impression that he must have been a lovely man. I imagine him being gentle and softly spoken; perhaps prone to melancholy and sullen moods, but still gentle and softly spoken most of the time. He may not have been of course; he may have been a total pig, cheating on his wife and saying nasty things to his kids, and stuff like that, for all I know. But it’s impressions that count.
I came across the quote in one of his lesser-known books called Wandering, which I found in a charity shop somewhere in Cornwall. I was writing The Warehouse Industry when I read it and those lines just seemed to fit. I can’t imagine the book without them now. They belong together.
The main literary influence on the book was Richard Brautigan. Early attempts to start the novel were too earnest, and not at all funny. Brautigan taught me to write with a lighter touch.
2. The narrator of this book made me think of the profile of the American high school shooters these past few years. Did you have someone in mind when you developed this character? Did you intend for the book to be a commentary on alienation or on some other topic?
I had no one in particular in mind, but the character quickly took on a life of his own once I started writing. He is a character defined by his experiences. I guess part of what I wanted to say – not that I want to be to explicit about what I ‘wanted to say’ – was that anyone, given the ‘right’ set of circumstances is capable of doing terrible things.
The book is an exploration of the effects of isolation and loneliness. It is about feeling disconnected from the world around you.
3. What’s your writing process like? Where/when do you write? How long did this book take you?
I make my living teaching English to teenagers, and I wrote the first draft of The Warehouse Industry in school exercise books. By the time I was finished it filled eight exercise books, and there were three interweaving narratives: the main one that survives; the story of a tyrant (based on Saddam Hussein) hiding out in a hole in someone’s back garden; and, finally, the life of an imaginary saint. The book was initially called The Tyrant, the Loner, and the Saint. Over two thirds of the first draft ended up being discarded. I wanted to write a short book, so the editing process was quite important. From start to finish The Warehouse Industry took me two years to write.
I write at the kitchen table. Most days I have a half-hour window between putting the kid to bed and falling asleep!
4. Do you have other writing projects in the works?
Yes, several! My second novel is more or less finished. It is a modern day retelling of Matty Groves, the old English folk ballad, set in Tottenham, north London, where I live. It is called Lee Cross: An Unplanned Novel. The idea came to me by accident one day while I was driving to work. I’ve also written the first draft of a sort of dystopian/science fiction novel set on the moon, which is kind of like Waiting for Godot in space. I’m currently writing an epic novel without a plot.