My Spirit Animal is a Duck-Billed Platypus

My Spirit Animal is a Duck-Billed Platypus

I’m a bit of a picker-upper of unconsidered trifles (I don’t mean the edible kind though I wouldn’t say no to a nice sherry trifle) and find myself sometimes buying odd bric-a-brac that has ended up on the shelves of charity shops, solely because it had a strange and rather special something about it. A kind of shine that might be familiar to players of computer games, where the magic potion, amulet or artefact lights up in some subtle way when you go near it.

That’s how I came to find my platypus. He was sitting amid the vases and candlesticks in a local charity shop and he was about 75p. That was a couple of years ago now and he’s sat in front of my computer monitor ever since. He’s a tiny china ornament about two or three inches long. I’ve never seen one like that before though I do own a platypus finger puppet my brother brought me back from Australia.

When specimens of duck-billed platypuses (or ought it platypi?) were first brought to Europe they were thought to be a taxidermist’s joke because they seemed so bizarre. They are beyond extraordinary: egg laying mammals which are semi-aquatic, capable of electro-location of their food in the water, and one of the very few mammals that are venomous (the males have spurs which can inflict painful “stings” on humans). Do read the Wiki article for more information on the natural history of this astounding beast:

Looking at them from a shamanistic perspective, their attributes are also extraordinary too:

Connection the ancient animals,

Ability to remain unique,

Value of remaining as you are,

Ability to rear young differently

The idea of them being a hoax comes down to the observation that they appear to be made up of the various component parts of other creatures: a bill like a duck, a tail like that of a beaver and so on. Each component fits a platypus to its environment, perfectly. They appear strange to us at first because they are unfamiliar and exotic, but once you have studied them a little, they become beautiful too (though they remain exotic and strange!).

I’ve thought about this for a while and realise that I resonate with the platypus. Leaving aside my own assemblage of skills, natural abilities and talents both inborn and learned, I realised that my writing is a kind of literary platypus. Nothing I have written fits neatly into the strict taxonomy of genre descriptions. This is both wonderful and maddening. People say, “You should fit to a genre,” and I discovered I can’t. Not won’t- can’t. I have tried a number of times and very quickly a story evolves, and morphs into another platypus-book.

Cross-genre literature actually appeals to a lot of people because it crosses boundaries and it carries more surprises than literature that sticks rigidly to the accepted parameters of a single genre. Away With The Fairies is a platypus of Women’s literary fiction/Paranormal/Spiritual/Mystery. Strangers and Pilgrims covers the same areas. Square Peg has a couple of limbs of Coming of Age to add to the mix. The Bet creeps into Anti-Romance (not a genre but I’d like it to be) as well as incorporating Psychological Literary Fiction. Even the short story collections, billed (duck or not) as horror or ghost stories are far from the classic genre of either.

Why does genre matter though? Why do I even try to classify my books in this way. Simple answer: visibility. In the vast ocean of available books, people understandably need to use some tools to track down the books they enjoy. Amazon has begun creating categories in their charting system that means that hybrids and platypus books have a chance of becoming visible on the never-ending shelves. So, for us creators of Weird but Wonderful cross-over books, there is hope that readers have a better chance of finding us and loving us.

I’ll end with a little snippet of cultural reference from Wiki:

The platypus has been featured in the Dreamtime stories of indigenous Australians, who believed the animal was a hybrid of a duck and a water rat.[83]:57–60 According to one story, the major animal groups, the land animals, water animals and birds, all competed for the platypus to join their respective groups, but the platypus ultimately decided to not join any of them, feeling that he did not need to be part of a group to be special.

An Eye for an Eye for an Eye ~subverting and challenging genres

Today’s post comes from Marc Nash. If you remember I was setting sail on a voyage to discover books that are exciting and break the norms; Marc is one of the authors creating such work. You can find his blog here:

I used to bristle at the word ‘genre’. Apparently I don’t just write ‘fiction’, rather my novels are in the genre ‘literary fiction’. Yet ask for a definition of quite what that is and you’d struggle to receive a coherent answer. At best you might receive woolly assertions that genre novels tend to operate more on the level of plot and story-line, while literary fiction places less emphasis on plot and more on language and character. I’ve never understood why literary novels supposedly don’t overly-concern themselves with plot, nor why genre novels can’t attain high level of literariness through their language. They are not mutually exclusive. I always have the sneaking suspicion, that ‘literary fiction’ is merely the genre tag for when a book can’t be neatly fitted into any of the other genres.

But my new novel “An Eye For An Eye For An Eye” is a bit different for me. Firstly I wanted to write a genre book that also demonstrated a literariness through it’s language and depth of character study. But I also approached the task of writing a genre book that was at the same time also subverting the very notion of genre. Taking the standards of the genres I was working in and breaking as many of those prescriptions as I could. Will the gatekeepers of these literary genres admit my book to their canon, or will they banish it as heretical?

Genre number one: Police procedural. The main character Simon Moralee is charged with clearing up murders, yet he isn’t actually a policeman at all. He’s a member of the public with a special psychic power, who is adopted by the police to make them look good in their clean-up rates. The problem for them is, his mental ability completely obviates the need for any detective work at all, so that he actually represents the death of procedure. The police are demoted into serving as little more than Moralee’s baby sitters, yet he himself yearns for being elevated to a true policeman and bemoans what his gift has done to the solid practises of evidence and deduction.

Genre number two: Paranormal. Well Simon’s psychic gift is notionally a paranormal one. Since he can decoct the last few frames a person sees before they die, which in the case of murder victims is usually the faces of their killers. The book examines quite how the balance of his mind may have been shaped to throw up such a power, while his adversary also offers further, menacing but mundane reasons as to what lies behind such an ability. But the book goes further, as part of its theme interrogates those very last frames in a person’s life as it tantalisingly probes just what happens at the point of death. So a paranormal phenomenon actually serves as the launchpad of the most rooted-in materiality fact, that of death itself.

Genre number three: Dystopia. The definition of ‘dystopia’ is a place where everything is as bad as it could possibly be. Yet you don’t need the post-apocalyptic delight of a zombie invasion, or some viral pandemic, or nuclear catastrophe to bring civilisation to its knees. My inhospitable world is one more of drift and aimlessness, fostered by a collapse of central authority brought about by economic bankruptcy. I was conceiving of a world not too much further removed from the economic problems suffered by certain countries within the Eurozone like Greece and Spain. What might happen were a government forced to adopt such economic stringencies, that citizens no longer saw any benefit in regarding themselves as citizens of their nation? So the dystopia I have created is one that has many recognisable facets of our own society and offers some political slant on where our Western democracies may currently lie in their relationship to us their citizens.

And yes, “An Eye For An Eye For An Eye” not only has a plot, a considerable array of big ideas and themes, but it also revels in its literary language! Now to see what the genre purists make of it.