23 March 2023

‘The Passengers’: a polyphonic reading list

Posted by Will Ashon

The Passengers by Will Ashon, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is a portrait of contemporary Britain told through a patchwork of voices, collected by Ashon over a period of three years. You can read an extract from the book here, and below, find out more about some of the polyphonic books that inspired The Passengers.


Polyphonic books: Bakhtin is supposed to have defined it first, in reference to Dostoevsky: ‘A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices.’ Which sounds a lot like Twitter. Except for the ‘fully valid’ bit. You have to pay for that now.


Virginia Woolf – The Waves
You could argue that the way Woolf slips between consciousnesses inevitably merges them to some extent, but then it seems to me that our consciousnesses overlap, and it’s in those graceful slides from one to another that some part of her genius lies. Not now, Bernard!


Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields, Michael Logan – Jeff, One Lonely Guy
The clue is in the intro, where David Shields – the author of the classic Reality Hunger – describes One Lonely Guy as ‘Notes from Underground told by and for and in the digital age.’ There’s someone who knows his Bakhtin. And his Twitter. A brilliant, ragged, fractured book about connecting and feeling unconnected.


William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying
Very few people know that this is the favourite novel of dance music producer Diplo. He even named a track after it. Don’t say I’m not teaching you anything.


Andy Warhol – a: a novel
More music trivia! Mo Tucker, the drummer with the Velvet Underground, was one of the people Warhol employed to transcribe the tapes he made of 24 hours in the life of Factory stalwart Ondine. Mo didn’t approve of swearing, though, so she blanked out all the curse words.


Svetlana Alexievich – Chernobyl Prayer (trans. Anna Gunin and Arch Tait)
You can’t be flippant about Alexievich, so I’ll leave it to her to do the talking (which seems somehow appropriate): ‘This is the way I see and hear the world: through voices, through details of everyday life. This genre – capturing human voices, confessions, testimonies – allows me to use all of my potential, because one has to be at the same time a writer, a journalist, a sociologist, a psychologist, and a priest.’


Linda Rosenkrantz – Talk
It’s summer 1965 and Marsha, Emily and Vincent are at the beach. Rosenkrantz spent a summer recording her conversations with her two best friends and the result is a Woody Allen script with less creepy sexual dynamics (although the politics of race still leave something to be desired).


Olga Ravn – The Employees (trans. Martin Aitken)
An imagined oral history of the future. Ravn’s tale of the employees of a space ship in a far away galaxy is told solely in transcripts of the de-briefs carried out following some kind of ‘incident’. Never has a Humanoid Resources report been so compelling.


Jeff Mermelstein – #nyc
A renowned New York street photographer, Mermelstein’s latest book consisted only of images he took of people writing, conversing, texting on their phones—except the pictures aren’t of the people so much as their screens. The fragments of conversations, somewhat queasily snatched from over his subjects’ shoulders, add up to a story of a city. Quite an odd story, admittedly, but then it is New York…


Ashley Hickson-Lovence – The 392
Hickson-Lovence’s debut novel (his latest is the wonderful Your Show, about Uriah Rennie, the first Black match official in the Premier League) sits somewhere between Geoff Ryman’s 253 and Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (which is high praise indeed). Set over 36 minutes on a bus journey from Hoxton to Highbury, it’s a meditation on London and Londoners, on gentrification and race.


The Passengers by Will Ashon (Faber) is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner will be announced on Monday 27 March at the British Library.

Join Will Ashon, alongside the Rathbones Folio Prize judges Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne and a stellar line-up of other shortlistees, at an event at the British Library on Sunday 26 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

Books mentioned in this blog post