Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Last Noel: a Christmas Story

[I asked Twitter and Facebook for a subject or idea for a Christmas story. I received a wide variety of sensible, weird and filthy ideas; but the combination of television and radio superstar Noel Edmonds and a post-Apocalyptic London was irresistible. Merry Christmas. God help us, everyone.]


He walks the streets to find a tree; it’s no use, no, nothing without a tree. The right kind of tree. The word on his mind is fulsome. The word on his mind is plump. The word on his mind is proportioned. A spruce or grand fir, potted with damp earth, decked with paperchains and popcorn, the fresh blast of pine, the sharp of its needles. Once he had stood atop a kind of crow’s nest, over the square, looking down on the crowds and started the countdown. At its end, he hit a red button to light up the Norwegian Spruce, the coos and ahs reaching him in waves of childlike delight. What a site, that tree. What a site. No use, no; nothing without a tree.

He crosses the river, the trench where once it flowed, and looks in every car he passes, though he knows them well and not one has a tree in the passenger side or one lain across its backseats. Once, inside the Jaguar, he found a cigar and lit it just for the smell, the memory of leather-backed chairs and cognac, of men talking, gently drunk and half-eyed at the end of dinner. He would like to find a cigar today, but there isn’t even a cigarette or a book of matches in the fourteen abandoned vehicles. He knows, but he looks anyway.

Mother used to bring him, the first week of December, into the city on the train. They would disembark and walk the teeming streets: the hats and umbrellas, the smell of chestnuts and damp cloth. She held his hand tightly and took him to department stores and boutiques, allowed him to carry the bags, the cardboard ones with tissue paper inside his favourite, the strong smell of sprayed perfume lingering on his skin as, at the end of the day, they rode the rails out east, the two of them strap-hanging, the bags clenched between his legs.

He walks up the Charing Cross Road, its slight incline and remembers strip joints and peepshows, cars which took him from one bar to another, then out to Surrey. He has long since found the last surviving sex shops and looted all the magazines that interest him. By Any Amount of Books, he remembers once a woman, one had once— Stop now. He says this. Stop now. No past, no remembrance. A tree. He shouts this. A tree, that’s all. I have come for a tree and I will not leave without a tree. I will not be denied.

Inside one of the bookstores, somewhere, there could be a tree. But these shops are a last resort; their trees, if they have any at all, will be puny little things. Small and dusty and without the trimmings. Threaded tinsel, at best. To his left, Chinatown. No trees to be seen there. Lanterns, perhaps. One day he might need lanterns. Once there was a lantern bobbing from a string, inside a restaurant; a wife, his wife, telling of an affair. How these things come to one, just from the saying of a word.

Tree, tree, come out, come out, wherever you are!

He jumps over the bonnet of a black cab. A tic now. A superstition. If he sees one on his side of the road, he feels he must vault it. It slows his progress, but at least he does not think of lanterns or strip joints. Charing Cross Road meets Oxford Street and Noel now realises where he’s heading. He has decided on the place that surely will have a tree. Even after everything that has happened, perhaps because of it, Noel believes he has agency. Even after everything, Noel believes he can manipulate the world, can bend it to his will. He has said many times there is no such thing as death. And in this, at least in his case, he has proved himself correct. He is therefore certain that John Lewis will have, somewhere in its rooms and halls, a tree. There is no need to look elsewhere, duck into what was once HMV, or Tower Records. Energy in the body, unlike the mind, is limited. One must focus instead. Energy burns but lightly when focused.

He vaults a rank of black cabs. He takes some jerky from his pocket and chews as he walks. He passes a McDonald’s outside of which he was once mobbed. That’s what they said in the papers, but it was only five people, and at least one of them had called him a bearded bastard. He cannot recall the year it happened. A million lifetimes before, at least.

He has seen this street more often from a helicopter than at pavement-level. To his knowledge he has never taken a bus along the road. He can not recall the last time he rode a bus. He jumps aboard an open-doored 73. There were clippies when was young, uniformed and ready with a clip round the ear for cheek. The buses smelled of metal and ash, grime in the upholstered seats. This 73 smells of plastic and rot, the floor sticky with what once was drink. He gets off the bus. He vaults a lone taxi and slows his pace until he stops outside the grand façade of John Lewis. Its doors are open, wedged. It welcomes him. You have come for the trees, Noel, it says. The trees are here and waiting for you.

To be positive, one needs strategy. Noel has strategy. On his gameshow, he talked a lot about strategy; it can buy you good fortune. His strategy is to start at the top of the building at the back of the store and work his way to the front, floor by floor if need be. The stores are at the top of the building, he believes, and so this is the perfect strategy to deliver a tree. Not just any tree: the perfect tree. Not some wire coated in silver streamers, but a tree that looks like a tree. Branches and roots: something convincing.

The first five rooms are full of clothes. The sixth has kitchen equipment. These are the wrong kind of stores. This is stock. Under his layers he begins to sweat, scentless now, at least to him. He pulls out some more jerky from a pocket and chews as he upends boxes too small to contain a tree of any sort. He kicks a few things, they skid across the linoleum. In one room he throws eighteen red-wine glasses against a wall, only stopping when a shard of cut crystal grazes his cheek. Positive. He says this. Be positive.

Five hours and Noel is on the ground floor. He heads to the back of the store and pushes open double doors. There are mannequins, faceless, but with breast, faceless but with bulges at the crotch. With one he dances, just a quick minuet, then pushes one of them to the floor. He kicks it so hard, so many times, its head comes away. He watches the head roll towards a cluster of child models and stop like a football at the shin of a child wearing winter clothes. And behind the boy, there is the tree. He can see it, just behind some metal cages, just a tip of a branch, just enough to announce itself. Noel pushes everything aside. The tree is the same height as him, and has a fur of fake snow on some of its needles. The frame is dark and wood covered; perfectly believable. It stands, eventually, after some wrangling, fulsome and plump and proportioned. He touches the tree and it even feels real. Beside it is a box. There are paperchains and tinsel, fairy lights, and an assortment of gingerbread men, angels and penguins. The box goes under one arm, the tree under the other. He is hot but will not take off his layers. He pauses by the exit of the shop. He takes in a long breath and lets it longly pass.

I’ve got the tree, he shouts. I have the tree. Look. I have the tree!

Back on Oxford Street he does not vault the taxis and does not turn back down Charing Cross Road. He has a tree and at the junction of New Oxford Street and Holborn, he knows what must do with it.

He walks the streets. He does not know them as well as he thought. Cars and crew always bringing him; one year the helicopter. He circles his destination for some time, but then remembers a street corner and knows he has arrived.

The hospital is a kids’ hospital. For years, he had spent every Christmas Day there. With the kids. With the crew. Delivering presents for the dying, the almost dead, the getting better. The emotion always got to him. Every year the break in his voice, the slight nudging away of a tear as the credits rolled. They cancelled the show via fax, one July afternoon. In a rage he called the Director General of the BBC and demanded to know the reason. They don’t believe your tears, the Director General had said. Noel, they think you’re faking.

Noel walks to the wards where the sickliest of the children had slept: their drawings still taped to the walls, their coloured blocks and dollies on the floor. The kids never thought he was faking. Never them.

He looks out of the window, out over the city. He dresses the tree the same way he always has, with as much on each bough as possible. He does not have the Santa suit, but he can remember how it felt, the scratch of the beard on his beard. He stands in front of the tree and he remembers the moment when he surprised the children. The way their eyes extended, stalked out, then came back in, punctuated by squeals. The way the strength returned for a moment as they ripped away the paper to reveal a present. Something expensive, something to make the world feel a righter place. It made him feel alive. He watched them and felt a tremor that connected him to every person on earth. And they said he was faking it.

He puts the angel on the top of the tree. It is a magnificent tree, the finest he has ever seen. He turns to ask the little boys and girls if they would like to join him in a carol. As always, they all scream yes. He hears their cracked, off-key voices join his in ‘Hark! The Herald Angel Sing’. Noel sings out his lungs and in every line and verse he waits for that tremor, a tremor that will never come.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Man Booker 2014 - Shortlist Predictions

After an astonishingly poor showing for my longlist predictions - just one out of 13 - it's probably not a good reason to pay any heed to my shortlist choices. But a tradition is a tradition, so here we go with my thoughts for the six that will go toe-to-toe later in the year.

  1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
  2. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
  3. The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
  4. How to be Both,  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
  5. The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
  6. J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
It's interesting that if I were right - which seems unlikely, but still - then only one of the shortlist would be American. From what I've read of the longlist, my favourites have been The Lives of Others, The Wake and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Anyway, there you go. Let's see if I haven't jinxed all of the above...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Murakami - normality versus the ordinary

This is the original text of the lecture I gave on the eve of publication of Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage at the Big Green Bookshop, London.

Murakami – normality versus the ordinary

In the autumn of 1997 I was a bookseller in Birmingham. The sales rep for Harvill came into the store and told me that he had a book I would love. He said don’t bother about the cover; it really is something. I took it home. I had no money and when the electricity meter went off I had to light candles as I was already on emergency. I picked up the book and started reading, still somewhat put off by the horrible yellow jacket. I was still reading some six hours later, six hours in which I thought I had finally found my writer. 

I hadn't dared re-read the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle until a week or so ago. Re-reading is a dangerous thing to do to books you have fallen for so deeply and not had chance to return to. Declan Kieberd wrote in his introduction to Ulysses that you do not read Joyce’s book, Ulysses reads you. And to me that’s a fair assessment of any book: timing, mood, manner of discovery, the place where it was read have a profound effect on the experience. Reading the Wind-Up Bird would be to go back to that bedsitting room, strange cooking smell coming from the man below me, the burr of the heater that didn't work even had there been electricity. It felt a suitably Murakami thing to do. At least it wouldn't mean sitting at the bottom of a well.

The temptation was, of course, to read the new book first - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I had an advance copy ready to read, the thrill of that never ceases, and I could easily have just elected to read that and spoil  the whole reading experience for you by giving you my cock-eyed opinions. But I went back, primarily to work out what it is that we’re all doing here. What it is that makes this writer different to any other literary writer in the world? Why are we here, on a Monday night waiting for a new book to be allowed to be sold?  What is it that we read in Murakami that we don’t get anywhere else?

What surprised me perhaps the most was the freshness of those opening pages of the Wind-Up Bird. Fresh despite having a clear memory of reading it, fresh despite so many of the tropes we have come to associate with Murakami being present inside the first six or so pages. Here’s the opening page.

[I read the opening page, I can’t type it out, sorry]

To me this, up until the section break on page 6 is the ur-Murakami text. Almost all of his tics are here: cats, food, music, sex, the surreal and the normal clashing while the narrator shrugs his shoulders and tells us he’s just a normal, regular guy. It felt fresh despite this, fresh also in comparison to his other subsequent big books – Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. These are words and sentences worth analysing, picking apart. The music is important, because Murakami is a musical writer, not just in the sense of his appropriation of everyone from Nat King Cole to Duran Duran, Janacek to The Lovin’ Spoonful, but in the way he builds his stories. As Jay Rubin says in his excellent book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, “Murakami knows how stories are told – and heard” which is getting closer, I think to the crux of the matter. Murakami knows where the white spaces are, the silences, the beats you miss because you’re concentrating on the complete sound of his world.

Let me explain what I mean. In that opening section of the Wind-Up Bird, we have Toru explaining his routine and how it has been interrupted by someone wanting to get to know him, later who will talk dirty to him down the phone. What we hear, as described by Toru is an ordinary person to whom something extraordinary is happening. 

Incidentally as a quick aside, this is why so much of modern British literary fiction is so anaemic. British literary fiction has a tendency to invert what all great American and world fiction understands, that being a normal person thrust into an extraordinary situation is what gives a story its great narrative drive. A lot of British fiction does the opposite: it puts extraordinary people in ordinary situations. There are too many geniuses, writers and grotesques in British fiction. One of the reasons Harry Potter was so popular was because he was just an ordinary boy, who was suddenly caught up in something incredible. Read Martin Amis, later Ian McEwan people like that – their characters do not understand what it is to be normal; they exist in a privileged, extraordinary manner.

And even though that’s an aside, it comes back to my initial point about what Murakami does that is so appealing: the ordinary. He present ordinary brilliantly, and the extraordinary brilliantly too, but it is the ordinary which has me in awe. And it comes back again to the music, and what we really hear.
Let’s take again that opening of Wind-Up Bird. This is a guy making lunch listening to the radio when a woman starts talking to him as they are close confederates, then she hangs up, he makes the pasta, goes back to his library book, then the phone rings and it’s his wife suggesting he works for a poetry magazine, who then reminds him to go and look for their missing cat.

On the face of it, this is entirely the notion I described earlier, an ordinary man for whom the extraordinary happens. Except, Murakami is playing a kind of jazz brush drum beat in the background that if you don’t listen closely enough to, you’re likely to miss.

Yes, this seems fairly normal: man listens to radio while cooking food. But the normality that Toru is so insistent he represents is not actually so normal at all. Firstly he is cooking pasta at 10.30am, which isn’t the kind of thing regular people do. Secondly, he is out of work, we later learn, simply because he quit his job, with nothing to go to, with no plan in mind and no interest in what happens next. Then a woman calls him for some phone sex and he just sounds…mildly irritated. Phone Sex he says, Fantastic.

What we therefore see as a ‘normal’ life is far from that, he is, like most of his characters, not normal, not regular, not even close to a Joe Schmo slob. The voice is intoxicating, didactic even, telling you what to listen to, while leaving everything else in the background. It’s this I think that gets to heart of Murakami’s great gift: making everything seem normal, when actually, there is nothing normal to cling to.

One thing that grabbed me on the second read of Wind-Up, which I had forgotten from the first time around, if I even noticed it, is the clear evasions of Toru’s wife. She is coming home later and later, seems now, all of a sudden happy with her husband sitting at home all day, is a different woman than she was just a few months before. Toru registers this, but does not investigate it. A normal reaction would be suspicion, but he just lets everything slide. The normal world, such as it is, is no less dangerous than the one that can be found at the bottom of a well.

It’s a popular idea that Murakami writes two different kinds of novels, the big, surreal opus like Hardboiled Wonderland, Wind Up Bird and 1Q84 and the smaller, more winsome tales such as Sputnik Sweetheart and Norwegian Wood. However, I’d argue that all actually come from the same space and from the same yearning: to see the world in a more magical, yet more real way than it often is presented in fiction. Even at his most faux-realistic, the nature of Murakami’s prose means that it inhabits a fictional realm means it feels other, strange, but distinctly our own. He is playing with our own notions of what we want from life – love, sex, food, adventure – while also subtly showing that it is here in our own lives if we look hard enough.

This section of the Wind-Up Bird originally appeared as a short story, the opening to his collection The Elephant Vanishes. This is a book I have read many times, perhaps because it includes the other great pillar of Murakami’s work, a very short story called "On seeing the 100% Perfect Girl one Beautiful April Morning". It is, to me, one of the very great short stories: simple, but heartbreaking, stylistically and formally inventive, but with a story as old as humanity. If The Wind-Up Bird is Murakami’s masterpiece, this story distills his gifts of love, sex and fate into just a few pages.

[Here I read the story, you can too, here]

The crucial line in the story, for me is the two cliche's tucked in to the end of the second paragraph: "The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest and my mouth is as dry as a desert." These are faux-naif words, but one that immediately grounds us in the ordinariness of the narrator. He is one of us, one of those people who gets tongue tied and can't really explain the world around him in any great or significant way. The simplicity sets up an expectation of realism and normality. We are in the realms of a pop song - where hearts beat like a drum and love is everlasting and permanent.

However, this set-up is reversed in paragraph four. "Much as I like noses," he writes "I can't recall the shape of hers - or even if she had one." It could be a joke, the style is conversational and wouldn't feel out of place in that kind of comic deadpan way. Yet it actually puts a tremor through the still and normal world Murakami has created. How normal is this set up anyway? How can one be so sure that someone is the 100% perfect person for you? The normality is false here; there is something strange right from the get-go; Murakami just doesn't allow you to fully see it. 

It's this, I think, that draws us to his work, draws us deeply in. His work tells us that really, we don’t need a Malta Kano, a wild sheep or a talking cat to see the strangeness abound; we just need to look around us to take in the fantastical oddity of the world we inhabit.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Booker Longlist predictions

If any year is going to prove a tough one to call, the first Booker Prize with added Americans is it. As I compiled this list, I kept wondering why it was that for the first time, I was struggling to see a large dividing line between the US and all other countries. Of the ones that went instantly on my list, only one was American. After spending all that time fretting we wouldn't be able to keep up, were non-American's just limbering up. I don't know. One thing this year proves is the only way to really judge is to read all 160 titles submitted.

That said, these are my predictions. These are based on what I think will make it and those which I loved too much not to exclude. In 2011 I got 8 out 13 correct; since then I've got no more than two. Here's hoping for a better return this year.

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsee
All the Days and Nights – Niven Govinden
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
I am China –Xiaolu Guo
Munich Airport – Greg Baxter
Eyrie – Tim Winton
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Free – Willy Vlautin
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis
Upstairs at the Party - Linda Grant

Friday, 29 November 2013

Books of the Year 2013

It’s been a year of reading in splurges and jags – unsurprising, probably, in a year otherwise occupied with the birth of my first child and writing a new collection of short stories. I’ve probably also read proportionally fewer new books this year than in any previous year: there has been some glorious raiding of the shelves, including The Leopard by Lampedusa, which is still kicking around in my head months after reading as well as collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, On the End of the World.

All of this has made me feel somewhat removed from this year’s fiction, much of which has not stuck as fast as I would have hoped.  All That Is, by James Salter felt at the time like it should be the apex of the year, but weirdly now feels like a very good meal one has eaten: difficult to remember in detail, despite the few exquisite memories. The Collected Stories, however, do feel like the real thing. A resonant and shimmering collection, one that feels more lasting than this novel.
In terms of novels, the best were uncompromising and unusual, marked by a sense of playing a different game to others. Eimar MacBride’s debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press) has to be the book of the year, for its originality, its refusal to compromise and its wholesale re-invention of the tired coming-of-age novel. I have rarely felt as passionate about a debut as I do about this novel, rarely has a book hinted so darkly at a fresh, inventive future for fiction.
David Peace’s Red or Dead (Faber & Faber) was not the book I had expected. When I had first heard about Peace taking on the life of Liverpool manager and icon Bill Shankly, I expected a companion volume to The Damned Utd; all seething hurt and seventies paranoia. But the genius – and I do think this is a work worthy of the word – of Red or Dead was to ignore that. To present a life without thought for expectation but aligned to artistic necessity. This is a novel that feels closer to conceptual art than mainstream literary fiction, and is all the better for it. A much longer piece on it can be found here.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love (Harvill Secker) was another book that sears itself into your consciousness, and frankly there’s no one else I’d rather read right now. A Death in the Family, the first book in the My Struggle sequence, was excellent, but this novel goes way beyond in complexity and fictional art (You can read my Observer review here). I found a similar excitement in Javier Marias’s The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton), a spiralling and dizzying novel of lies and loves and death and life. It has led me back to his books, and I am already hooked on his intelligence and craft.
Mention must also be made of Zadie Smith's The Embassy of Cambodia - a short story that suggests the mixed but always interesting NW could prove to be her transitional work. This is peerless, near-faultless writing, perfectly in control of its material. For the space of sixty or so pages I was lost in Fatou's halfway existence, one foot in the past, the other in the future. I can't praise it highly enough. 
Three of the books that I loved this year also happened to be by friends. This should not put you off. Nikesh Shukla’s The Time Machine (Galley Beggar Press) is the best thing he has written, perfectly showcasing his ability to find humour in the dark and warmth in the chill. (it’s only a quid, and some of the money goes to charity, so do buy it). Lee Rourke’s new novel, Vulgar Things (4th Estate), is out next year and I was lucky enough to read an early draft. It is superb: challenging and unusual, strangely beautiful yet maddeningly unnerving. Even for Gavin James Bower, his book Claude Cahun: The Soldier with no Name  (Zero Books) is short, but his depiction of this obscure yet fascinating artist is vivid and arresting.
In non-fiction, Philip Davis’s Reading and the Reader (OUP) was wildly inspirational, and essential for anyone interested in the acts of reading and writing. I found myself going back to books I loved reading sentences in a new light, perhaps the way you would after reading a good biography of a band and listening to their records all over again. It also made me hate Wordsworth less, which a quiet triumph all of its own. Sebald’s essays, A Place in The Country (Hamish Hamilton), are a joy as you’d expect. Another friend, William Atkins, allowed me to read an early draft of his book The Moor: The Landscape That Makes Britain (Faber & Faber). It will be one of the most celebrated and well-reviewed books of 2014.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Writing and the Sound of Silence - a Playlist

Everything I’ve ever published has been written in near silence. And if it were possible, I would prefer absolute silence. Just the keystrokes and movements across the mouse-mat audible. No drills – I can hear one now, pummelling the old playground, ripping out concrete flags and metal joists – no cars slowing and speeding over traffic calming measures, no screams from the nearby schoolyard. No music either. No trance from open car windows, no gospel from the church, no classic rock from a builder’s radio. These especially. Above all, no music.
This was not always the case. In my mid-twenties I wrote a novel while listening to Where You Been by Dinosaur Jnr on constant repeat. Over and over, night after night, day after day. When the resultant novel was a mess, I decided then: no music. Concentration. Rhythm. Solitude. No music at all. It’s a decision, and now a routine, which has affected my relationship with music. If there was once a self-curated soundtrack to my life, populated by favourite bands and brand new sounds; now it’s more a confusingly eclectic pub jukebox: out of my control, and mainly on in the background.
I don’t think this is a unique experience. There is, I’m sure, a difference between the way the youthful listen to records – the way they consume them (in the sense of devour) – and those who have come to be less interested in how that consumption defines us. There is a very specific line crossed when you no longer sniff the vinyl on the bus home after buying a record (as Morrissey once put it), but just enjoy listening to music when and where you like.
I thought about this a lot while writing If This is Home. But until recently I hadn’t realised how much of that had seeped into the fabric of the novel. There is music everywhere, music at every stage – whether explicitly mentioned or not. Music is the vehicle of dreams back in 1990s England. In New York it is a link to the past and an idea of the future. In Las Vegas it is memories of better times – and also confrontation.
The opening scene of the book has Mark, the central character, watch an altercation between two groups of men, one young one old. Mark cannot hear the music that the young men are loudly playing on a ghetto blaster, but I knew it was always The Real Slim Shady by Eminem. The kind of song that was just loud and obnoxious enough, and male enough, to be provocative. Las Vegas was about music and I invented an anecdote around Sammy Davis Jnr’s Candy Man song (which is even creepier than the version in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). And as life is slowly unravels for Mark, a Vegas radio station plays Mariachi band music, imploring Mark to believe in the word of the trumpet.
These were accidents, which they weren’t in the sections which concentrate on Bethany Wilder in 1990. Here the music selected itself. Especially Run, Run, Run, by the Velvet Underground, which is a kind of unofficial anthem for the novel. But also The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie… that New York sound was always going to inspire a longing to escape to the Bowery. But these dreams of leaving to go to New York, I knew, would not come fully formed. The New York escapist dream was more likely to have its genesis in Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan than anything else. Radio was always important then, but perhaps not as much as your parents’ record collection.
But a soundtrack to anything fails if it just accounts for the records you like, that are obvious. While Bethany is having her hair done at a salon before she is, against her better judgement, to be crowned Carnival Queen, the local radio is playing Sacrifice by Elton John. To her it is everything that is wrong with the town in which she lives, and the country in which she is stuck. Listening to it now, I can take her point. I won’t feel upset if you skip it.
Music changes when the narrative briefly stops in New York. The theme to Somewhere in Time – I love a time travel romcom – fitted in because the solo piano works well with Mark’s increasing isolation. The next five songs on the playlist are the ones chosen by his best friend O’Neil on the first time they meet – “old country songs and rockabilly as well as some fading metal acts.” Do not skip the Poison track, it is immense.
The final tracks are about the inevitable return home for Mark – and Joni Mitchell, who has been haunting the book a little, is finally mentioned. Fugazi are also dropped in, perhaps in the way I would have done when I was 16, as are forgotten dreampop innovators The Telescopes – a local-ish band who briefly achieved a small level of fame in the late 1980s and early 90s. Reacquainting myself with them was a pleasure – though there is little pleasure derived from it for Mark.
Unconsciously, the way Mark shies away from music, the way he doesn’t react one way or the other to the sound of t.A.T.u, is a way to show how he has become stunted, how he has lost an understanding of joy. In the brilliant Un Coeur En Hiver, the reticent Stèphane is forced at a dinner table to offer his definition of music. Music is not art, he says, but dreams. And this is what I wanted to see through Mark, and through If This is Home : what it is like to finally stop believing in dreams.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Fiction in the Post Factual World (or why I write novels)

My father retired early. A working life spent in the same job, at the same plant, ended in redundancy and a comfortable pension. He called it parole. He still does, a decade later; and a decade later we still celebrate it: his liberation. There is much to celebrate. Those ten years now belong to him, to us as a family: they are not mortgaged to a corporation, nor have they been lived with a sense of time being wasted. That is something worth celebrating.

For the first few years, the celebrations were held in Chester, beginning with drinks at my brother’s small apartment and then dinner at an Italian restaurant. Our family are creatures of habit; we stick to a routine if it works. So we would have a drink at the flat, and as dusk fell over the trainlines, walk up the road to the restaurant .
The place was run by an Italian couple – Luigi and Sophia, good hosts both – and they chattered in thick, pleasing Italian accents as we waited for a table or ordered drinks. The exposed brick walls had black-and-white pictures of famous Italians nailed to them, and fairy lights gave the place a holiday trattoria ambience. We always had a good evening. Wine and pasta. Operatic arias sang as desert was brought. The inevitable hen-do tables.
Then my brother moved from Chester to London, and the parole celebrations had to find a new home. We decided on renting an apartment in York. I planned an itinerary and found a similar sounding Italian restaurant. After eating, my brother told us the following story:
He had, the previous week, been back to visit friends in Chester. On the Saturday morning, he'd been in the town centre and outside Boots had seen two people he thought he recognised. After a moment, he realised who it was: Luigi and Sophia from the restaurant. They looked different out of their dress clothes, but even in jeans and jumpers it was clear who they were. My brother, in a moment of nostalgia, approached, intent on thanking them for hosting the parole dinners for all those years, and expressing his disappointment that we would not be there the following weekend.
He was behind them when he heard their accents. Not the beautiful Italian accents, but pronounced northern ones.
‘I tell you what, love,’ the woman said. ‘I’ll see you in Marks and Sparks.’
The woman wandered off; then the man shouted back
‘Get me a sandwich will you? Cheese and pickle.’
She smiled back – the exact same smile she gave when you ask for another drink when she’d already taken your order. He didn’t say anything to them.
‘What was I going to say to that?’ he asked.
This is the kind of story I like: something small, a tiny exhumation from daily life transformed in its telling to something beyond its humdrum origins. I suspect it might not be true. I don’t even know whether the names are correct. I can’t even quite remember how authentically Italian their accents were. It has a kind of authenticity to it, though. A feeling of two lives caught in a narrative, one now so engrained it is impossible to escape. I like the idea of this couple pretending every night that they are Italian immigrants; their worry that some real Italians will one day come for dinner; the come-down after another night’s service and the accents can be put away along with the bow tie and elegant dress.  It is the kind of narrative loop we’re all bound by to a greater and lesser extent. The kind of idea that I was trying to explore in If This is Home – indeed all of my fiction – characters who are caught between who they think they are and who they wish they were, people trapped in narratives of their own construction, men and women metastasised by their own self-deceptions.

The tension between public and private is one of the bedrocks of literature. Not as involving as love, not as divisive as war, but right down there, right at the nub of existence. And while this tension was once the preserve of the powerful – to have any tension, a character’s public persona has to have something to lose – it is now one of the central questions of all of our lives: what is public and what is private? Or to put it another way: what is real and what is invented?
This is what I wanted to explore in If This is Home: how the constant repetition of a falsehood can make something feel real; how a false persona can become realer than the one you actually live. This is how the central character, Mark Wilkinson, describes the process of bringing his new identity, Joe Novak, into being:
I realised, as I added to the information over the months, that the humdrum was what gave a life quality, what gave it the ring of authenticity. So Joe’s first proper girlfriend, Katie, was a mousy girl who had decided that their relationship could not survive the distance of university. He sometimes missed her, but there were no hard feelings. She had fallen pregnant in her final year of college and was married with a son. They did not speak anymore.

Joe was present at no cataclysmic events. He had been close to the Wall when it fell, but no closer than a million others. He’d stood next to Joey Ramone in a pub toilet in West London. He had once randomly come face to face with President Clinton while jogging in Central Park. Small tales of almost and nearly. The kind of stories we tell each other all of the time. I read them back, these inventions, and slowly they began to persuade. This was the truth.

We live in an era of extreme personal reinvention. What Mark is describing is simply a more holistic sense of the identities we present online and in life. The invention of Joe Novak is no different to creating a Twitter handle or Facebook profile. We build profiles, but we are actually creating characters, creating ourselves anew. And with this comes pure fiction, pure escapism from reality. And we have become inured to it. Day after day, we wade through so many people’s counterlives, so many peoples’ projections of themselves it’s a surprise we need fiction at all. Who needs fiction when everything is unreal in the first place? When other people’s lives are presented like novels, and can be read as such?
The answer should be no one. Yet writers are in surplus. There have never been as many writers as there are at this moment in human history. Stories are in surplus too. Culled from everywhere, culled from our new sense of self-curation.  The rise of self-publishing is not just down to methods of distribution and eReading, but also down to people understanding how and when to fictionalise their own lives using prose. They are exercising fictive muscles with every Tweet or post. We live in a post factual world; where rumour, dissent, harangue, terror, self-interest, surveys and vainglory are equally weighted. Consensus is impossible. Facts, unarguable facts, are in short supply.
So what does this mean for the writer of fiction? Does this mean we need to embrace the strange semi-fictionalised world of the world outside of us? Or should we be looking to create narratives that offer succour, that give us clear lines and threads we can cling to? I fall, as writer, into that first proposition (while as a reader I enjoy both camps, a reader being necessarily more pluralistic than a writer). I use the word narrative often to describe my characters and situations: they only become ‘stories’ in the telling. But what they live, what they experience, is a series of interlinked narratives: much as we do in life.

Writing If This is Home I wanted to explore as many narrative techniques as possible – crime, coming of age, romance, homecoming, even computer game narratives – while the characters just wandered on, almost regardless of what was going on around them. I could have made, for example,  If This is Home almost a straight mystery narrative. It might have worked that way, and perhaps would have sold more copies had I done so. But to me, the story is more than the mystery: it is about how we inhabit – an important word here – our own narratives; and I needed to reflect that with cuts across time and across identities. So If This is Home has a first-person narrative and a third-person narrative; one follows Mark in real time in 2003; while the third person follows his girlfriend Bethany Wilder in 1990. This is the first part of the Bethany chapters:
In moments of crisis, Bethany Wilder always thinks of America. Or more accurately, she thinks of New York City. It is just past midnight and she is lying in the bath, smoking a cigarette, imagining its streets and buildings, the sights and sidewalks. Open in her hand is a guidebook that lives permanently in the bathroom and has become bloated and warped from the damp. Whenever she turns a page, the spine cracks and crumples. She’s read the book so many times she knows its words as surely as song lyrics.

The first sentence is her favourite: New York City is a metropolis of unimaginable contrasts; a haphazard, beautiful, maddening construction that cannot help but entrance even the most jaded of travellers. In her edition there is a pencil annotation alongside the words haphazard, beautiful, maddening that reads Just like you. Usually those smudgy letters give her a small kick of pleasure; but now she avoids even glancing at the looping script. She doesn’t want to be reminded. Not tonight.

This was the first bit of If This is Home I wrote; and it started out very differently. It was more overt, more obviously about the narratives to which she inhabits. Only the handwriting on the guidebook survives from that first draft. But in revising it, I got an idea of Bethany through the narratives surrounding her. Does she believe in them, the narratives she is told by others, the narratives she has spun from listening to music and hanging around with her friends? How convincing are these narratives, how immersive?
And this is why novels retain a unique power, even in the face of the novelistic public persona. A novel allows you to see that other side, it strips away the imploring façade: this is how I see myself, please see me in the same way. The novel allows us a free pass into the dichotomy between a character’s self-hood and others’ perceptions or understanding of that character. We can see them from the inside out and still not be certain which iteration is the truth.
This is what I take from fiction, from the books I read and the authors I love: a view of human experience in all its fictive and experiential flux. The novels is a personal confession; it speaks directly to the reader. No other art form allows such radical narrative exchange between creator and consumer; and no other art form asks so much of a consumer. You sit in communion with a great writer’s book and you can be transported, readjusted, made to see the world in a wholly different way, experience images and sentences of such beauty it can make you shiver physically and psychically. And it’s just your experience; no one else can ever see what you have seen. In a world in a battle between public and private, reading a novel is the last bastion of the private: something that is yours and yours alone.