- 30 May 18
Julian Gough’s new novel Connect is a philosophical tome wrapped up in a Tom Clancy-style thriller. The novelist talks to Peter McGoran about revolutionary technology, contemporary Irish writing, and the future of fiction.
Julian Gough is full of surprises. From his on-off stint as the lyricist for cult rock group Toasted Heretic, to his occasional forays into satire and poetry, the 52-year-old author has been restlessly wide-ranging in his work.
But Connect, undoubtedly Gough’s best achievement, required a fair amount of patience. Taking him seven years to write, it’s a vast, dystopian novel set in Nevada in the near future, where technological innovations seem poised to either destroy humanity or provide it with its next evolutionary step.
Focusing on autistic teenager Colt and his biologist mother, Naomi, the story broadens at times into a thought-provoking socio-political thriller, before returning to its core tale of familial drama. For Gough, who was writing his own computer games on a ZX81 computer before he’d even reached university, this is the story he’s always wanted to tell.
“I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was a kid,” he enthuses, sitting in the lounge of Dublin’s Brooks Hotel. “I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t any Irish sci-fi. Until very recently, there wasn’t really anything. It’s starting to happen now with the likes of City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry and Notes From A Coma by Mike McCormack, but we have so many books in Ireland which look back, and so few that look forward.
“The book I wanted to write was about how technology changes what it means to be human, but I also wanted to write about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life, and religion and science. And a sci-fi thriller, I thought, gave me the perfect environment to put all that in. It’s very forgiving and generous genre.”
That science fiction can be “generous” comes through instantly in Connect, with Colt being described as inhabiting a virtual reality world he accesses using a gaming headset (think Ready Player One with a few upgrades). In here, Colt shapes his own world, writing it into code and exploring it on his own terms. The generous virtual landscape, as well as the bleak Nevada desert landscapes, are markedly different from anything Gough has tackled before in fiction.
“Connect is a big break from my previous stuff,” he acknowledges. “Before, I think I was writing for myself to a huge extent. The last couple of novels I wrote were really very high ego novels, where I wanted to please myself. I don’t think I even thought about the reader. This time round I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to do a technological thriller that they’d enjoy, but with a human side to it.”
The end result is exhilarating. While its heavy use of tech lexicon threatens, at times, to leave your average reader in the dark, Connect is always thought-provoking. The more you invest in the book, the more rewarding it’s likely to be. But in the noevel’s grand ambitions, Gough gives almost no indications that he’s from an Irish background. Was that part of point?
“It’s not that I deliberately didn’t want to be an ‘Irish writer’ writing it,” he explains. “But this particular book, it was important to me that I remove myself from the book. You don’t need to see this Irish guy writing the book.
“In Irish literature, there’s a tendency for the language to be very important – it draws attention to itself and that can result in masterpieces. A lot of my favourite writing is Irish literature where language is the hero. But I wanted this to be very visual. I wanted it to be almost like watching a film, so that the language doesn’t get in the way of the action and the characters.”
Indeed, Gough cites films like Terminator and Aliens as being more influential on Connect than Joyce or O’Brien. In particular, Colt seems modelled on the young John Connors. How difficult was it writing a character who’s clearly a socially awkward genius?
“A lot of the time, even the most difficult-seeming characters are actually exaggerations of self,” says Gough. “Not that I’m anywhere near as intelligence or in socially awkward, but there’s elements of me that, if you blew them up big enough, they would turn into Colt. When I grew up as a teenager in Tipperary back in the day, I didn’t really understand other people.
“I didn’t understand how the world worked, I didn’t get how society functioned. The amount of stuff I didn’t know is ridiculous. Even having attended all-male schools, I didn’t know how women thought. I don’t even think I understood their basic humanity for many years and it was a big shock when when I realised, ‘They’re just like me.’”
Many artists are having to face up to the mistreatment – and mischaracterisation – of women in society. With Connect’s other main character being a woman, did it give Gough pause to think about how she was written?
“If you’re a guy, it’s very hard to not get it wrong,” he says. “I got a lot of feedback from my wife and my editor on this, because I wanted to get the characterisation right. And, also, the whole #metoo thing kicked off during the final edits of the book and I found that obviously very disturbing, but also educational.
“I think, like a lot of guys, I hadn’t realised how bad it was and how destructive the effects of male behaviour were. I was kind of shook by some of the testimonies I read. I thought I had a fairly reasonable view of how men and women were at this point in the century and I was wrong. That definitely fed into the book.”
Writers are also coming to terms with the possibility that the novel, in general, might be in decline because of the technological revolution. Yet the style of Connect – its wide scope mixed with a very intimate story – seems like it would only work in novel form. Is there hope yet?
“No artform ever goes away,” says Gough. “I think the novel will stick around for a long time, but a lot of what it used to do is being done better elsewhere. The novel used to be the best way to tell a story - straightforward, realistic, tell-a-fucking-story. Then HBO comes along, then Netflix comes along.
“Suddenly TV isn’t bland anymore. Suddenly you have The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones. But the novel can do very mysterious things that television and film can’t do. The experience of reading itself is different. It forces your imagination to work. You’re creating the scenes in this book, your mind creates them in ways that can’t just be recreated on a screen. So I’ve tried to do things that only a novel can do with Connect.”
Having said that….
“Haha! ‘Having said that….’ Will there be a film?! Well, they say you can solve any technical problem if you throw enough money and talent at it. I mean, Spielberg seems to have pulled it off with Ready Player One, that thing of moving between reality and virtual in a way that’s satisfying for a cinema audience. There has been interest, but I don’t want to talk too much about it…”
We’ll have to wait and see then
Connect is out now on Picador.