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 fa├žade: 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.

1 comment: