Eight rockets : a novel ; and, Stepping back from the rail : watching and writing eight rockets : an exegesis

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In my novel Eight Rockets and its accompanying exegesis Stepping Back from the Rail I offer a new way of thinking and writing about a particular and peculiar aspect of the Titanic disaster. The disaster is one of the most famous and mythologised events of our time, but what is less well known is that a nearby ship saw her distress rockets and did not respond to them. My exegesis and novel explore this incident and grapple with possible modes of its creative representation. My work inhabits the fraught zone between history and fiction, but I hope that it lights a way through and offers a strategy for reconciling the demands of historical truth and the fictional novel. Linda Hutcheon’s central notion of ‘installing and problematising’ allows my novel to play a double game: to insist upon the truth of a particular representation of a historical event and its actors, but also to make overt the subjective and contingent processes involved in constructing such a representation. In my exegesis I describe my initial attempts to write a ‘scientific history’ of the Californian incident and how these attempts suffocated under a dense weight of detail. I explain how I gave up the struggle to control the facts and instead placed the task of representing the ‘truth’ into the hands of an invented narrator. Process became part of the product: instead of telling the story of the Californian my novel told a story about telling stories. My novel aims to disrupt and unsettle early 20th century discourses of heroic men, difficult women and the silent poor. My work explores representations of third class passengers in the Titanic archive, concludes that they only ever appear as an undifferentiated mass, and seeks to rectify this by giving voice to a specific, historical third class family. My novel and exegesis together make a statement about what it is to write ‘historically’ by taking as their subject real ‘historical referents’ – Captain Lord, Herbert Stone and their actions on the Californian and afterwards. I resist Frederic Jameson’s nostalgia for an authentic, fully-knowable referent and argue instead that even a referent sensed imperfectly – as a wispy hologram, or a haunting revenant, or an icy presence in the darkness – can nonetheless have its own kind of magic and power. Further, I argue that my narrator’s ‘failure’ fully to possess or explain Lord is paradoxically my novel’s success. By dramatising Lord’s resistance to interpretation the novel offers an answer to the conundrum at the centre of the Californian tragedy: why Lord did not respond to the Titanic’s rockets. Finally, my novel offers a fable about meaning-seeking generally. In the end my narrator ‘steps back from the rail’ and is content to know Lord imperfectly from a distance. Perhaps in so doing he teaches us to see value in the quest for meaning rather than in any final meaning itself. Lord, like life, resists any final interpretation.
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