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Why make things up?

By
Essay | 17 minute read
Why fictionalise the world around us when a novel can never keep up with the speed of contemporary events? A fiction writer grapples with the question

1.

My novel came to me in an instant: a nine-year-old boy, his mother’s empty bed, the messy house, the clues she’s left amongst the chaos. The story happened right there, where I lived, in a south London chimney-pot terrace; and right then, in 2012, in the waning glow of the London Olympics and the deepening shadow of the coalition government’s austerity policy.

Not that I wanted to write a political novel. Nor did I have grandiose ambitions to capture the spirit of an era. I just wanted to thread my characters into a tapestry of my own present-day life, in which they would appear truly authentic. A longtime diary writer, I have a habit of recording the present moment – a habit that gives me great pleasure. Deciding that the setting for the novel was the here and the now made the project feel easy and enticing: like life writing, but with a fictional narrative, and from a nine-year-old’s point of view.

The chapters poured out. Jonah lives in a house that was pretty much my house. The local shops are more or less my local shops. Jonah’s mum has taken up yoga. A girl in his class loves Justin Bieber, and her Croc-wearing dad is crazy about some ancient guy called David Bowie. Jonah plays Super Mario with his younger brother on their Wii. He’s interested in particular things in the news: the discovery of a new particle in the Large Hadron Collider; the landing of the NASA rover Curiosity on Mars. He and the other kids all use words like ‘buff’ and ‘random’ and ‘badman’, and their heroes are Olympian athletes. Jonah’s hero is Oscar Pistorius. He sees him run at the London Stadium in Stratford, and has a poster of him blu-tacked to his bedroom wall. Oscar becomes Jonah’s ‘imaginary friend’: he talks to him silently about where his mother might be, and who might know. But as I wrote, and the action of the novel rolled on into 2013, real life rolled on too. As I finished the first draft Oscar Pistorius was charged with murder.

2.

When I was a child, I loved it when my mother told me stories about me. My fictionalised self would wake up in her own bedroom, and have her usual breakfast, her usual toy animal beside her; and then there’d be a knock at the door and all hell would break loose, and the Tamsin in the story would, against all odds, and helped by the toy animal, manage to save the day. My own children, when little, were similarly entranced by stories in which they featured, set in their actual world. Of course, through the process of identification, children – and adults – can see themselves as any fictional character, in any place, time or context. But I love to read a novel that captures a place I know well, and/or an era I have lived through.

A novel set in the here and now allows readers the pleasure – and maybe pain – of recognising the events they are living through, and seeing them made some kind of sense of. But given the time it takes to write, edit and publish a novel, the aim of capturing the present moment is fraught with the risk that the unfolding of real-life events will overturn the project. My diary entries are a jumble of what’s happening in my own life and what’s happening in the news.

Although Jonah is a child, given globalisation, his day-to-day life would proceed against a backdrop of political upheavals, technological advances, natural disasters, celebrities’ deaths. I kept naively sketching such details in, only to have to strip them out again. Then in 2016, as I was coming to the end of the third draft, two real-life events happened that required me to go back and add them in: the death of David Bowie, and the EU referendum. On 14 June 2017, as I was working on the copy-edits, came the devastating tragedy at Grenfell Tower. There is a paragraph in my novel in which my protagonist, dreaming, flies over London, spotting the familiar towers: the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Knuckleduster. It would have felt peculiar – and remiss – not to add a handful of words to reference the tragedy.

The novel finally went off to the printers in the autumn of 2017, and my joy at having dispatched it was tinged with an anxiety. The publication date wasn’t until this month. The world was changing fast and furiously. Any day something might happen that would render its content presumptuous, anachronistic, or simply past its sell-by date. I tried to think of novels which this had happened to, and couldn’t. So how did novelists create the present moment, without being tripped up by real life unfolding? And were there thousands of ‘present day’ novels that tripped themselves up and never saw the light of day? A political thriller set in Westminster with no mention of Brexit? A children’s novel featuring a cameo appearance by a kindly Jimmy Saville? A romantic comedy set in the ancient, serene city of Aleppo? I dug out novels that I’d remembered as being ‘present-day’ – Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up; Ian McEwan’s Saturday; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; John Lanchester’s Capital – and discovered they were published between three and five years after the events they were depicting.

I questioned my desire to capture the zeitgeist. Why should that be a task of fiction, when electronic media plays it back to us every minute of every day? Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday explicitly ponders this question, “The times are strange enough. Why make things up?” And maybe this had always been a problem for novelists. In 1961, in his essay ‘Writing American Fiction’, Philip Roth wondered about novelists’ ability to invent a world that equalled the absurdity of his current-day reality, and worried about ‘a voluntary withdrawal of interest by the fiction writer from some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times.’

In July 2017, in his piece on ‘Brexlit’, Jon Day wrote that ‘the novel has always had an uneasy relationship with the granular reality of the news cycle. Novels about contemporary events written before the political ink has dried can feel like barely padded polemics, clothing in fictional form what would be better expressed in an essay or newspaper column.’ He goes on to cite the failure of Howard Jacobson’s Pussy, a satire of the Trump presidency published only a few months after Trump was elected, which ‘shows just how unsatisfactory real-time novelistic responses to political upheavals can be’. We are bombarded with a kaleidoscope of bite-sized summations, snaps, memes, gifs. To pause long enough to capture what’s happening in more depth feels like running up a descending escalator. But as fake news is overlain by even faker news, and as we rant within our echo chambers, aren’t novels that distil the way we live now more vital than ever?

Of course novels can do this by creating an alternative present, or a future. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are all powerful examples of social fiction. There have been a handful of novels about the new and little-understood phenomenon of cryptocurrency, exploring its potential impact, and lack of sanction, but they are all science fiction. Dave Eggers’ book The Circle, published in 2013, describes a near-future dystopia, in which a social media corporation is monopolising the world and personal privacy is being erased. Eggers writes about the present by creating an alternative but highly recognisable reality; and since its publication, as each year passes, the novel becomes more and more prescient, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story being the most recent confirmation of how close we are to the nightmare of secrets being lies and privacy theft. But for me, The Circle is too much of a parable. Despite its prescience it rarely gives a sense of real life. Instead, cartoonish archetypes float in a sinister utopia, while the bland young heroine glides passively towards her chilling fate. It is a vehicle for a polemic against the way we live now, a warning of where it will lead. It’s not the real world. Much of what was horrifying in the novel has already come to pass; but our lives will never resemble the lives of the characters in the novel.

In a piece decrying the vogue for historical fiction and the lack of present-time social realism, Amanda Craig quotes novelist and former Booker judge Kate Saunders: ‘I suppose the past feels enormously safe, because it’s over.’ Craig acknowledges that ‘to seize the present moment is like trying to capture the moment when a fried egg turns from liquid into solid’, but urges more writers to try, because ‘by failing to notice or celebrate our own age, with all its eccentricities and agonies, and by sticking our collective heads into bonnets, we fail also to understand what is special about the way we live now.’

The best-selling YA novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is far from a celebration of our age, but it fulfils the vital task of holding up a mirror to enduring, systemic ugliness. Inspired by the police and vigilante shootings of young, unarmed African Americans, as well as by the Black Lives Matter movement, the novel merges the political with the personal, getting to the heart of the racism and hypocrisy entrenched in American society. Of course it’s important that novelists grapple with the particular social, political and moral issues we face now. But how to do this, without running the risk that you stop short of the climax – the revelation, the huge explosion, the thing that transforms the entire landscape of your ‘fictional’ world?

3.

A month or so after the events of 9/11, in his essay ‘Tell Me How Does It Feel?‘, James Woods relates a conversation between New York novelists Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, the morning after the attack. McInerney, having seen an invitation to a literary party on Ellis’s kitchen counter, blurts out that he’s glad he doesn’t have a book coming out. Ellis says that he was just thinking the same thing. Then McInerney says that he doesn’t know how he’s going to be able to go back to the novel he’s writing, a novel set in New York, ‘the very New York which has been altered for ever’.

Woods goes on to decry the ‘New York novel’, and lambast the self-conscious cleverness of ‘hysterical realism’, which strives to capture the times ‘but do[es] not know a single human being’. He cites works of fiction set in New York that are not ‘New York novels’ and would not have to change to accommodate the events of September 11, ‘partly because they are already dark books, in which the city looms jaggedly’ but also because ‘their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary.’

Which makes me think about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Although the bulk of the novel is set in New York in the first fifteen years of this century, there is no mention of the 9/11 attack, or of any other ‘real-life’ event. We know when the characters are alive because of the food they eat, the technology the use, the same-sex weddings they go to. And there is a strong, almost cinematic sense of place, indoors and outdoors. They are in hip, twenty-first-century New York, no doubt about it. So is that how it’s done? A sense of place, of social mores, with some gadgets, some fashion, some interior design? Is this sufficient? And should fiction eschew real-life events, so as to be untrammelled by them?

There is ‘no mention of real life events’ in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

John Michaud in The New Yorker finds that the effect of Yanagihara’s scrubbing out of history is to place the characters in ‘an eternal present day … the political and cultural zeitgeist … rendered into vague scenery’. For me, this gives a feeling of allegory, and renders the characters infantile, almost ethereal. To be ‘real’ they would need to discuss, or even think about politics, and be affected events outside their own lives. In this seemingly realist novel, I was particularly struck by the medical care the main character, Jude, is so reliant on. Early in the book, as a poor student, he happens to receive this care for free from a doctor friend.

This regular, expert care, from a kind of fairy godmother, removes the need for any reference to health insurance, or the social implications of the healthcare set-up in the US. And then there’s the fact that Jude and his three friends become stupendously successful in their chosen professional fields. These are people who, at the beginning of the novel, can only just afford to eat in a cheap Chinese restaurant. Only one of them comes from an affluent family, but they all sail into fame and fortune, the only obstacles arising from the traits of their own personalities. It struck me that, if it weren’t for Jude’s inability to heal himself, the novel could be read as an espousal of the American Dream.

A Little Life certainly doesn’t express what George Eliot saw as the moral imperative to realism: ‘a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.’ The writers of the great nineteenth-century realist novels all documented at least some aspects of the rapid technological advances, massive social change and associated political upheaval happening around them. These accounts are hugely interesting to us as history. But these novels continue to be widely read not because they capture their time, but because they capture our time too, with their universal qualities. Rather than going broad – capturing as many details of the present times as can fit – does the novelist do better by delving deeper into a moment in time?

As social change accelerated, and everything became newer and newer, the modernists searched for new ways of expressing that newness. In his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, T. S. Eliot wrote of a tradition which had ‘a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and temporal together.’ Time, for the modernists, is not linear, but circular, and the present moment contains untold layers of the past. So, while James Joyce’s Ulysses corresponds with Homer’s Odyssey and is thick with symbols, metaphors and allusions to the past, it is also concerned with Irish nationalism and the international politics of the day.

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf employs ancient mythology to give the novel its timeless circularity; Mrs Ramsay, resembling Demeter, reappears after her death and watches Lily Briscoe complete her painting. In the short, bridging section, ‘Time Passes’, Virginia Woolf describes the First World War in about thirteen pages, and only actually mentioning it in couple of brief asides. Instead she describes the empty house, vacated by the family, inhabited by their ghosts, and, like European civilization, subject to ‘an immense darkness’. She creates a sense of durée, a term coined by Henri Bergson to define the internal, subjective perception of space-time.

Ali Smith’s Autumn has been labelled the first post-Brexit novel. It was published in October 2016, less than four months after the EU referendum. The novel opens: ‘All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.’ In her echoing of Dickens’s famous opening, Smith gives a timeless, mythic quality to Britain’s predicament. She alludes to the works of Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley among others, as well as the Profumo scandal, and the sixties pop artist Pauline Boty.

She also, in a sentence that made me feel that sharp shock again, refers to the murder of Jo Cox. Smith started the novel before the referendum happened, envisaging it as ‘a farce about an antiques shop’; but was compelled to tackle ‘the European Union, murdered MPs and constant phone-checking to catch up with a news cycle that feels … like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.’ Smith has also said: ‘The way we live, in time, is made to appear linear by the chronologies that get applied to our lives by ourselves and others … But we’re time-containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures … in every one of our consecutive moments … I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive.’

Autumn, by Ali Smith (pictured), ‘has been labelled the first post-Brexit novel’ (photo by Sarah Wood)

Autumn gave me that sense of the endless layers that any present moment is made of; and also of its constant slipping away. As Woolf put it in To The Lighthouse: ‘It was necessary now to carry everything a step further. With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.’

4.
A student of English Literature in the 1980s, I should know full well that writers are not authors of anything at all, but merely symptoms of a wider current condition. They don’t capture the zeitgeist; the zeitgeist captures them. If I’d have remembered that, I might not have tied myself into those knots, weaving things in, and then unpicking them; but simply trusted the present moment to flow through my fingers.

When I write my diary I often get distracted by the present moment. On a train, in a laundrette, or even at my own kitchen table, I will become aware of something happening in my immediate vicinity, stop relating how my boss snubbed me in a meeting, or my thoughts on the #metoo campaign, and immerse myself in describing the here and the now. A few weeks ago I found I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. I was sickened by the details – the white eyes, the foaming mouths – and overcome by the poignancy of the daughter stroking her father’s arm. My visceral and emotional reaction was accompanied by a throbbing brain ache: which buzzing nuggets of information were actually true? Mid-morning, needing succour, I took myself to a greasy spoon café, ordered eggs Florentine, and took out my book and pen. ‘I don’t know what to make of this Salisbury thing,’ I wrote, and then stopped, deeply bored by my own humdrum confusion. My food arrived. It looked peculiar, and I silently told myself off for having ordered something so poncey in a cheap-as-chips café. ‘Would you like some ketchup?’ asked the waitress, in a Russian accent. She was willowy and beautiful, with a winning smile, and the sex-trafficking glamour puss Tanya in McMafia flashed into my mind. ‘No thank you.’ I smiled back brightly, hating my own kneejerk associations and judgements.

My smile dropped away as I faced what was on my plate. Two hard white balls, covered in what looked like squirty cream, except it was a startling lemon yellow. Manfully I took a mouthful – and had to spit it into a paper napkin. The yellow mousse was indescribably foul. And it had gone everywhere. All over the table. On the handles of my knife and fork. On my fingers. A glob of it was foaming in my lap. Weak with disgust, I mopped it up as best I could, pushed my plate away and picked my pen up. I wrote about my kneejerk feelings towards the waitress, my feelings about those feelings; how I had been a Russophile as a student, and had longed to visit; about Pascha, a Russian friend, who had been locked up in a detention centre, and had tried to cut off his own ear; about the chemical toxicity of the florescent goo, and the plate of food, covered in scrunched napkins. I went on for a page or two, and then asked for the bill. While I was waiting, I read it back; and then entitled that entry ‘The Brixton Poisoning’.

Tamsin Grey’s debut novel, She’s Not There, is published by Borough Press on 19 April 2018. to buy click here.