ambient literature* and ambient music
Many people when they consider the term ‘ambient’ in relation to works of art will think not so much of literature but of music. ‘Ambient’ is the name of a genre, or suite of genres, developed by contemporary musicians. Among these musicians, Brian Eno is generally accepted as being of crucial importance in the evolution of the form. Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, 1978, was a result of the composer’s desire to create music for public spaces, for specific social environments. In his liner notes for the American release of the album, he wrote:

To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music.

An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.

Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.

It could be said that texts are portable environments, and that they produce an ambience – a mood, an atmosphere. We can imagine a person passing through an airport, with Eno’s music playing in the background. The person is carrying a novel, which they started reading at home. They read more of the novel in the departure lounge, then during the flight, in their hotel room, on the beach or beside the pool. In each of these various locations, the novel provides a stable, imaginative continuum. While the world turns around the text – the temperatures vary, the time zones alter, the travellers find themselves in different situations – the text retains a kind of stasis, an integrity. The novel maintains its own environment.

We might explore different ideas of literary ambience. These ideas could be related to scale. A shorter text – a haiku, for example – could be said to generate a micro-ambience. Longer texts could be described as producing a meso-ambience. Very long texts, like Dustless, create a macro-ambience.

ambience as a function of scale
Eno selected the word ‘ambient’ to describe the type of music he wished to produce: ‘ambient’ is based on the Latin term ‘ambire’, ‘to surround’. It’s in this aspect in particular – that of a work of art which ‘surrounds’ the reader, providing them with an immersive experience – that I believe Dustless might be described as ambient literature.

From my own point of view (of the creator, rather than the reader) the act of writing Dustless over a number of years became one of immersion. I ‘lived in’ the novel. It surrounded me. It wasn’t like composing a poem, or a short story. It demanded a different approach – effectively, a different way of being.

At a certain point, I realised that Dustless wasn’t going to be a ‘straightforward’ trilogy or quartet. It began to overwhelm the boundaries of a conventional fictional form. Frankly, I started to wonder if I would ever get to the end of it.

Dustless began to take on curious properties. It was no longer simply a ‘book’. It was like a magical forest which, the further you walked into it, the greater it seemed to become – with the added complication that the forest was generated by the person who moved through it. The limits and boundaries of the novel weren’t established: they were like the horizon line, which moves as you move.

As the years passed, and I seemed to get no closer to finishing the work, my friends despaired. I consider myself to be an instinctive writer, who allows his work to be guided by intuition. It perhaps sounds like an abrogation of authorial discipline and responsibility when I say that I felt that Dustless itself was finding its own level and shape, but that was how it did feel. While I was aware that in traditional terms, Dustless had blurred the borders of ‘normal’ literary form, it didn’t feel ‘wrong’ to me. By and large, the composition felt sound, the narrative proceeded in a fairly logical, organic way, the text grew. At times, it was true, the psychological duress of living with an unfinished and unproven text of this scale made me panic, and wish to rush to a conclusion, but by this point, Dustless had generated its own momentum, and wouldn’t permit me to dash to the end, even if I’d wanted to. It wouldn’t be hurried. It belonged with glaciers and the evolution of weather systems, the gradual formation of rocks. It possessed a kind of geological grandeur.

ambience as a function of pace
When I set out to write Dustless, I had a number of things in mind. One important aim was to write a book that would produce the type of experience that I had enjoyed when reading as a child or adolescent. I wasn’t interested in a ‘literary’ style, or in playing formal or meta-fictional games: I wanted a story of a fairly traditional kind. I still think of Dustless, in fact, as a form of gigantic fairytale.

I also wanted to write something that was against “the times”, as I understood them. By this, I mean a tendency in culture towards an intensification in the number and brevity of stimuli – a tendency I associate, in part at least, with capitalism and the desire to sell you products. I wanted to write a work that resisted the temptation to provide a rapid series of climaxes – the sort of work that is all crescendo. Instead, I aimed with Dustless to slow the narrative tempo down, to pay attention to details, to honour the materiality of ordinary life.

The philosophy that forms such an important part of the world of DustlessTanZo, ‘the pure Way’ – urges its followers to pursue the quality and virtue of ‘vigilance’. Vigilance is a way of looking carefully at the world around us, and valuing the things in front of us. It’s a form of respect for the environment and for artefacts, and – above all – for other human beings. In very broad terms, it seemed to me that our culture was failing to provide any kind of space for people to reflect upon or contemplate the direction their lives were taking, and that we were committing ourselves to a very negligent way of life. This was a way of life founded on consumption – I consume, therefore I am – and was inherently short-termist. The key issue of the day – the degradation of the environment – required long-term thinking, and a movement away from a life founded on consuming things.

I wanted Dustless to embody some of the virtues of ‘vigilance’. This meant creating a work with an unusually slow narrative tempo. This is particularly true of the earlier parts of the novel. At times, the writing is very ‘spacious’, reflecting the landscape through which the protagonists are moving.

This tendency of Dustless towards stasis – one aspect of a very long work is that in both reading and writing it, the ‘end’ becomes so distant that it ceases to possess the same general value as in a conventional novel – is another aspect of its ambient nature. It isn’t the race to the end, to the climax, that is important in Dustless. It isn’t the destination, but the journey itself, that becomes the subject of the book – or, to put it another way, it is the experience of reading the book that becomes the meaning of the book.

ambience as the consequence of a rejection of the novel as task, trophy or totality
It will be clear by now that Dustless is, in some ways, a demanding work. However, its quality of ambience – as I am trying to explore and develop here – is only problematic if we approach reading a novel with a particular mind-set.

As Dustless grew and grew, my friends would roll their eyes, and shake their heads. People wouldn’t be prepared to spend their time reading such a vast work – that was my friends’ fear. Although in some ways I quite understood where they were coming from, another part of me remained faintly puzzled. If a text is good, and rewarding – if reading it is a pleasure – then what does it matter if it is very long? In fact, doesn’t the fact that there is more of it actually increase the chance of the reader taking pleasure in the act of reading?

It seems to me that there is an attitude towards reading that reflects the short-term, consumptive culture in which we find ourselves. Reading a novel becomes a kind of task. This in turn converts the work from a pleasure in itself to the acquisition of a trophy. One reads a novel to get to the end, to possess the novel.

I happened to be on a train one day, and I overheard a group of people talking. They were clearly keen travellers. One of them described a possible itinerary for a journey through Africa. And at a certain point, the person said something like “Oh, we’ll do Zambia”.

That phrase really distressed me. It was so off-hand, and seemed to include in it so many assumptions about what it means to travel and to experience the world. The idea of “doing” a country is really quite disturbing, I feel. To “do” Zambia – the expression has undertones of sex and violence. The sense of entitlement, of control and mastery, sheathed within that phrase, seem to me to be a part of the acquisitive and consumptive attitude to life that is inculcated by our current system.

That same attitude can be extended to cultural artefacts and events. Like beautiful waterfalls, or tours of diamond mines, novels can be crossed off a list of things to do. Life – the reading experience – becomes a form of itinerary. One location leads to another. It forms a part of a chain. Reading becomes a means to an end, and as a result, the experience of reading in itself may become diluted or lost.

It seems to me that literary ambience resists this process of consumption and acquisition. When the scale of a work is so great, it begins to problematise the notion of ‘totality’. You can never get ‘outside’ of an ambient work – if you walk around the perimeter, as it were, you can’t see into the heart of the forest; and if you are walking through the forest, you can’t see the forest’s edge. Some people might find this threatening or unpleasant. However, in one way, it brings you back to the purpose of your exploration. If you can’t get to the ‘end’ of the journey, if you can’t achieve an overview of the work, then what does this mean for the act of journeying, of reading?

In Pocket Rimbaud, a poem from my 2003 book, a.m., there is the line:

But the journey forgets its maker.

I think all works of literature resist intellectual appropriation – in other words, it’s impossible for any one person to gain a total understanding of a work of art. You don’t “do” them – or, if you do, you really don’t. Works of art inevitably change as different people read them, and as cultures evolve through time. This is as true of a haiku as it is of À la recherche du temps perdu. However, the scale and duration of a very long text may make the literary journey one of a kind less obviously disposable than one undertaken when reading a shorter work. A very long text may reinforce the power of the act of reading, of the sensation of an intelligence in the process of constructing meaning.

Logically, of course, there can be no journey without a maker – (can there?). But what I tried to build with Dustless – or, ended up trying to build – was a work that was both for the long term and of the long term. Again, looking at Dustless very partially and subjectively, from the creator’s side, during composition I did find at times that my ‘role’ in the making of the book seemed to become smaller and smaller. Dustless was always there, in the morning, in the evening, before sleep, after sleep… At times, I felt my own life dwindle away when set against the book. This was perhaps an experience of engrossment or absorption so profound it might also be said to be an experience of detachment or even of annihilation. In this sense, it might even be possible to glimpse such a thing as a journey without a maker…

ambience as a function of duration
I mentioned earlier in the post the notion of micro-ambience. If we follow Brian Eno’s definition of ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint’, then it could be said that any work of art will produce ambience1. When a reader encounters a haiku, for a short period of time, if the reader is engaged with the poem, then that arrangement of 17 syllables will ‘surround’ the reader. The reader’s attention will be absorbed by the poem, and the haiku will generate its subtle influence on the reader, tinting their thoughts. Of course, Eno was outlining a very specific definition for ‘Ambient Music’, whereas what I am trying to describe is a more general, a more loosely defined cluster of ideas around notions of ambience and immersive works of art.

We build up relationships with different works of art. Obviously, many are not to our taste, and we discard them early in our acquaintance. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have a profound influence on us: we can be affected more strongly by works we dislike than those we like.) In the case of a haiku, our relationship might appear to be only a matter of instants: we read the poem and forget it. However, we may come to love that particular poem, and read it over and over again, or memorise it, so that it grows with us, and forms a part of the atmosphere of our intelligence.

In the case of a work of macro-ambience – as Dustless would seem to be – our relationship to the work will almost certainly extend over a period of years. Whereas a haiku can be read in its ‘entirety’ in moments, a very long text absorbs time. In this other sense, I think the book could be considered as ambient literature. It becomes part of the rhythm of your life. It isn’t an incidental read – you don’t finish it in a week, and then move on – but you keep reading it. Very long texts possess this quality of extended duration. The events of your life change – you might move house, for example, or start a new job, enter a new relationship – but, if you continue to read the ambient text, then that text will form a kind of background to your life. In this way – as it is extended over long periods of time, with breaks and events in the ‘foreground’ of your life – a very long text can provide a spiritual or cerebral ambience through which you live.

*The term ‘ambient literature’ appears to be been first used by Paul Roquet in his article, Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction, published in 2008 in the Journal of Japanese Studies. Dr Roquet uses the term to refer to a specific strand of literature produced in Japan in the wake of events of literal and social upheaval – the Kobe earthquake and the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Underground system. Dr Roquet’s paper is particularly concerned with a genre of literature which supplies “an artistic response to the demand for transposable calm“.

James Burt [] explores the term ‘ambient literature’ in his useful and interesting article, Facebook and the End of Literature.

1Eno and other artists working in the ‘ambient’ field self-consciously set out to produce ambient effects. Most artists probably aren’t conscious of producing an ‘ambience’ as such – but will look to produce or explore ‘moods’ (melancholy, for example, or excitement). They will look to stimulate their audience in a particular way. While they aren’t intending to regulate moods in quite the specialised fashion in which Eno was doing, they will usually seek to regulate moods in a more general way – a work that seeks to incite rebellion, for example, won’t aim to induce a state of calm, but will seek to agitate and motivate the audience.