I was talking to Richard Hamblyn at the launch of the BACW literary journals last month, and he was suggesting (as you would expect a non-fiction author to) that creative non-fiction stories are generally more compelling than fictional ones, because they are true. The popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books seems to back this up—apparently Zadie Smith needs the next volume ‘like crack’. On the topic of his motivation Knausgaard writes that he was sick of fiction, ‘just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me nauseous.’ But surely we shouldn’t abandon it altogether; surely there is much compelling truth to be found in fiction? The late Nadine Gordimer wrote, ‘Nothing factual that I write or say will be a truthful as my fiction.’ In a world saturated in 24-hour news, reality TV and relentless social media updates, it sometimes takes a fictional story to break through our defences—the hardened indifference we cultivate to cope with reality-overload. In my previous editorial I wrote about finding your voice and I do believe that identifying the truth you have to tell is part of this process.
I read three fantastic books this week: all fiction, each very different from the others, but each communicating some compelling truth.
Charlie Hill’s Books is a satirical and very funny look at the book industry in the form of a novel. Richard Anger, independent bookshop owner goes on holiday to Corfu, meets neurologist, Lauren Furrows, and together they witness the sudden death of a tourist; the first victim of SNAPS – Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome. Together Lauren and Richard deduce that the murderer is none other than Gary Sayles – bestselling author and perpetrator of lethally mediocre fiction:
Three days later review copies of The Grass is Greener began to arrive at newspaper offices, bookshops and the homes of bloggers. Within twelve hours the reviewers began to die.
A pointlessly detailed passage in Chapter 3, in which the hero of the piece argues with his wife during a Bank Holiday trip to IKEA, accounted for a part-time-critic-about-town on the Bristol Evening Star; Chapter 4’s barely credible description of a drunken seduction and one-night-stand did for a contributor to Beach Reads R Us!; and the Books Editor of the Glasgow Chronicle passed away after becoming cognitively becalmed during the course of a particularly laborious pun in Chapter 5.
Richard and Lauren have to find a way to prove their theory and to stop Gary Sayles before any more people get hurt. Gary Sayles himself becomes increasingly convinced of his own importance and increasing deluded about the value of his own writing, to such an extent that he plans to launch his next book with a ‘Peoples’ Literature Tour’. At the same time hippy conceptual artists Pippa and Zeke target Gary Sayles as the subject of their next project. The three storylines converge for a dramatic finale. It all sounds rather facetious but it is an idealistic satire. Though Hill’s protagonist, Richard Anger, is rather bitter and cynical, the book is not—it is unashamedly optimistic; books can save the world, Hill’s protagonist would have us believe:
I believe fiction should make people smart and dribble and blether and snort and gibber and hustle and ogle and fart. It should confront the terrible truths of the world. […] I want to be gazing in wild surmise. I want to be moved. And by that I don’t mean just emotionally manipulated, moved as in chasing my tail. I mean moved as in having my perceptions altered, my perspectives shifted. I want to be made to feel or think differently about life.
Sometimes, strangely enough, it is easier to recognise truth set in a fictional world that is completely unfamiliar. This week I also read M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts, which is, to classify it in the most simplistic way, a zombie book; though the zombies are called ‘hungries’ which is somehow more chilling. I am rather squeamish about zombies and don’t generally read zombie fiction, perhaps it’s something to do with the rotting flesh and mindless hunger—vampires seem more glamorous.
The Girl With All The Gifts, however, is incredibly gripping and moving, despite the rotting flesh. It is about Melanie, a ten-year-old girl who has lived in a cell for as long as she can remember and is transported out of her cell, heavily restrained, each day for 'school' together with a group of similarly imprisoned children. She doesn’t understand why she has to be restrained—‘I won’t bite’ she jokes with her captors, but they don’t laugh. There are several teachers but Melanie’s favourite is Miss Justineau who is kind to them and reads them Greek myths, including the story of ‘Pandora’s Box’—the ‘girl with all the gifts’.
The ‘Pandora’s Box’ in this book takes several forms—firstly, for Melanie, it is the truth about who and what she really is and whether she even wants to know. For researcher, Doctor Caroline Caldwell, Pandora’s box is Melanie’s head—she believes that if she can cut open Melanie’s brain she will be able to find out why she is so different and in doing so find a cure for the hungry virus and save the world. She doesn’t see Melanie as a child—only as a specimen. But then the isolated army base where Melanie is imprisoned is swarmed by hungries. Melanie saves her teacher’s life and escapes with Miss Justineau, Dr Caldwell and two soldiers: Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher. Their only option is to make their way south to ‘Beacon’—the last human city, but in order to do so they will have to cross the hungry-infested ruins of London. Finally, in London, Melanie finds another type of container and within it the seeds of the destruction of humanity, but also the potential for the redemption of life on earth—if she is brave enough to open to the box.
There are infinite metaphorical comparisons I could draw from the relationship between Melanie and her beloved teacher, Miss Justineau, including the breaking down of barriers between those separated by race, culture, religion or disability, not to mention the book's obvious allegory about humanity’s voracious consumption of the planet’s resources. Despite the science fiction setting, this is book saturated in truth.
The third book I read was Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. I am always wary of tragedy-fiction; it can seem gratuitous and exploitative, but Bray’s novel is funny as well as poignant. It is not so much about the ‘what’ of four-year-old Issy Bradley’s sudden death, but about the ‘why’ as her family struggles to make sense of it in the context of their Mormon faith.
Bray skillfully hops between the characters so we get to see the events from the perspective of each of the family members. Issy’s father Ian is convinced that he has all the answers, and yet he cannot understand or control his family as they continue to act in perplexing ways. Issy’s mother Claire’s faith begins to unravel and she retreats to Issy’s bed to hide from reality. Teenager Zippy battles with first love as she strives to follow the rules of morality imposed by the church, espoused in catchy sayings: ‘the dangers of the dark’, the ‘hazard of the horizontal’ and of course the ‘naughty 'B's: breast, back, bottom or belly’. Football-mad Al is resentful and rebellious while seven-year old Jacob attempts to practice resurrection on dead birds and insects in preparation for the miracle that will bring Issy back.
It is a book about religion and the truth of Bray’s candid observations shines through the story. This is not mudslinging from the outside though, but very personal, heartfelt disillusionment—Bray herself was brought up in a devout Mormon family. Beyond this, it is a story about the dynamics of family, how we mess each other up, but it has a redemptive tone—it is also about how we save each other.
I’m looking forward to lots of reading time over the summer; I had thought of ploughing into the Knausgaard tomes but I have a suspicion that Zadie Smith and I may have differing ideas about what constitutes ‘crack’ reading. I have three more books lined up on the bedside table though: Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, the Bailey’s prize winner A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist—recommended by my local Waterstones’ bookseller.