Fiction in a time of lies
When US political journalist Ana Marie Cox is asked how she is, she replies, ‘I’m OK – in Trump-adjusted terms.’ Her neat coinage captures something important about our current moment, and about the doggedness of the human condition. Though battered by a succession of recent shocks, we’ve simply recalibrated to the new reality, and got on with our lives. We’re a bit like that man who fled the Borough Market attacks with his pint of beer poised safely in his hand. A pint that was half-full, you feel, rather than half-empty.
However bad these times are, they are of course nowhere near as bad as they’ve sometimes been; and this human capacity to keep calm and carry on has persisted through far more terrible circumstances. I think of the troop of girl guides who, in the second world war, were interned by Japanese forces in the Weihsien concentration camp. Their adult stewards kept them sane, and alive, by bringing along their brownie uniforms and badges, and maintaining a breezy Baden-Powell reality, where smiles, campfire songs and decent manners glossed over the brutal realities of camp existence. Those patrol leaders understood how to use a good old yarn to cosset their charges from harsh reality; though maintaining this illusion exerted a psychological toll. “Dear me,” says one journal entry, with characteristic restraint, “Brown Owl had an attack of neuralgia!” Which was, one imagines, merely the tip of an iceberg of pain.
So is it the job of a novelist, too, to turn Brown Owl when times are dark? Should we be crafting comforting illusions to blanket the world from all these near and present horrors; or rather, should we rip away the curtain, reveal the stark mechanics of power? I’m pretty sure the answer is, both. My fiction, I’m told, has a dark bent, but I’ve always sought to temper its edge with a coating of humour. Sugaring the pill, I suppose. My latest book is a case in point. I spent 2016, and the early part of this year, writing a near-future novel called LUCKY GHOST. It’s out in July. The particular dystopia it paints is one where people go about in electronic veils known as Mesh, which wrap curated illusions over their perceptions of the world. In the story, these fake realities are used to manipulate the British population towards catastrophe. When I started writing, I didn’t understand why that theme seemed so current, so important. After the experience of the past eighteen months, I begin to have some notion.
Throughout the first draft of LUCKY GHOST, the situations I was writing about began to seem less and less speculative, more like documentary. The writing process became a race against the real-life story unfolding around me. The savage cultural divides revealed by Brexit. The catastrophic hacking of the US national conversation, and its spawning of the Trumpocracy. The adoption of fake news as a mainstream form of discourse. At a certain point I might have reasonably asked, why bother writing about dystopia at all? People can get that at home.
It’s true that fiction, and publishing, move at a glacial pace compared to real events. It will take us novelists years to absorb the blows of the present moment, and reprocess them into narratives that can truly illuminate the crisis we’re living through. Yet already, as I wrote my tale about the destructive potential of comforting fictions, I came across some clues. The book’s central image, of people wrapping dangerous illusions around their faces, is of course a metaphor. It’s just that I didn’t know at first quite what it stood for. Sometimes, it seems, the very last person to interpret a metaphor is the author composing it. But now? Now I get it.
In our present-day dystopia, the oppressor isn’t some tyrant – even Trump is just a CGI simulacrum of a dictator. No, it’s exactly as Cartoonist Walt Kelley once wrote: We have met the enemy, and he is us. The painful truth is that, right now, it’s we who are to blame for our own oppression. We, and the stories we insist on telling ourselves. True, it was Russian hackers, and the Leave campaign’s battle-bus, and Cambridge Analytica, that propounded the most significant lies of 2016; but we’re the ones who chose to consume them.
So, in a time when every story is judged by its potential as click-bait, rather than its factual content, maybe fiction has a better chance than news in speaking truth unto power; and unto the powerless, too. It’s the duty of every story-teller, as best we can, to hold back the tide of falsehood, by inventing things that are as truthful as we can make them. In doing so, perhaps we can also expose the role that story itself is playing in our present crisis.