A Bit of Ginger
- Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel by Gordon Burn
Faber, 214 pp, £15.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 19729 3
Gordon Burn’s work takes place at a point where fact and fiction, public events and private lives, fame and death all meet. He began his career as a proponent of the non-fiction novel pioneered by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer; his first book, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), was a painstaking re-creation of the life of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. He topped that with an account of Fred and Rosemary West’s killing careers, Happy like Murderers (1998). The first resembles a documentary; the second is more like a novel in the sense of being more artfully shaped and occasionally straying from the record to speculate about things the writer can’t know. But both are horribly illuminating about the home life of a serial killer, and about England’s recent past.
Burn’s first fully fictional novel, Alma Cogan (1991), suggested a psychic twinning between the anodyne 1950s pop singer of that name – ‘the girl with the giggle in her voice’ – and Myra Hindley. At the end of the book, his heroine visits the house of a disturbingly obsessed fan, among whose massive collection of memorabilia she finds the ultimate Alma Cogan collectors’ item: a recording of Hindley and Ian Brady torturing their fourth victim, Lesley Ann Downey, while Cogan’s Christmas novelty hit ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ plays on Radio Luxembourg in the background. Being famous doesn’t just mean ‘enduring the bizarre projections of others’, Cogan explains, it means constantly being besieged by their ‘shivering, shaking bodies hanging around waiting to put themselves next to mine out in the dark every night’, being ‘terrorised by the instant access that being well known seemed to give me to the complexed, mysterious interior lives of complete strangers’.
It’s often been said that there’s something murderous in our approach to famous people, and it’s true that few achieve media ubiquity without being turned on, in one way or another – whether they’re Tony Blair, David Beckham, Princess Diana or Kate McCann. For Burn, celebrity is an irresistible force that always leads to obscenity and violence. Written hard, in a style that bears the clear influence of Martin Amis, his second novel, Fullalove (1995), is the memorable and often dazzling story of a ‘wall-shinning, nose-poking, leg-in-the-door’ tabloid hack, a ‘colour man’ sent to the scene of ‘the latest nail-bomb or child-snatch or brutal sex-death’ to colour up the basic story – to ‘give it a bit of ginger’. He soon starts to worry whether he might be not just a witness but ‘an actual carrier, a cross-pollinator of misery and annihilating despair and doorstep human anguish’. This turns out to be the least of his problems.
So Burn’s non-fictions are novelistic, while his novels plunge into the world of the tabloid. Happy like Murderers carried an epigraph from Don DeLillo’s Mao II: ‘News, darker and darker news, may be the only narrative people need, and the shapers of this narrative are authors in their own right. To a certain extent their world has become our world, a place of extreme anger and danger.’ Born Yesterday, his new novel, is an attempt to bring to life the thesis of the novelist in Mao II, Bill Gray:
The novel used to feed our search for meaning . . . It was the great secular transcendence. The Latin mass of language, character, occasional new truth. But our desperation has led us towards something larger and darker. So we turn to the news, which provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where we find emotional experience not available elsewhere. We don’t need the novel . . . We only need the reports and predictions and warnings.
Born Yesterday presents ‘The News as a Novel’, a subtitle that recalls Mailer’s book about the 1967 Vietnam protest march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel; the Novel as History. Burn opens with a leisurely sketch of the professional dog-walkers of Battersea Park. The focus of the scene doesn’t become clear until page four, when the first of the main characters arrives: Margaret Thatcher, apparently a regular visitor to the park, now a ghost of her former self. The ‘heightened reality of the “Iron Lady”, scourge of the trade unions, victor of the Falklands War, the best man in the cabinet’ has dissipated. She totters through the park, steadied by an agency nurse, wearing ‘old ladies’ clothes’ and ‘flat suede lace-up shoes of the kind you see advertised in the backs of the colour supplements’. Even her famous handbag has gone, though a ‘muscle memory’ keeps sending her hand twitching at its non-existent strap.
The first day of this unusual novel, it emerges, is 3 July 2007: Blair has been out of office for six days. The narrator appears to be a sort of media-age flâneur; like someone surfing channels, he flips between the park, where he is walking his dog, and recent events in the news: Blair’s departure from Downing Street and his journey to his Sedgefield constituency, shedding the trappings of power all the while; the car-bomb attacks on the West End of London and Glasgow airport and have-a-go hero John Smeaton’s assault on one of the bombers; the floods that put large parts of Yorkshire and the Midlands under water; the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal. The narrator starts the book as an ‘I’. Later, a ‘he’ appears who, it gradually becomes clear, is a version of the author (though he stops short of referring to himself by name à la Mailer).
The idea behind Born Yesterday, Burn told an interviewer, was to take the non-fiction novel ‘to its ultimate’: to find a big story ‘and the moment the news explosion happened to go there and write about it, turn it into a novel in the way that happens all the time through rolling news, newspapers, blogging. And to turn it around fast, so that the novel came out while the news coverage was still fresh in people’s minds.’ But the right big story never presented itself. At one point, he told his publishers: ‘I think I’ve got the story. Sedgefield by-election: the novel.’ That didn’t pan out. Instead, Born Yesterday is a news collage, incorporating all sorts of more or less relevant fragments: an internet shrine to one of the teenagers murdered last summer; a close description of Blair’s house in Trimdon and the surrounding area; an interview with an EastEnders actress who happened to be in Granita on the night Blair and Brown supposedly made their leadership deal; sections from what seems to be a medical textbook on heart surgery, a reference to Gerry McCann’s job as a heart specialist; reflections on the history of DNA fingerprinting, a technique discovered in a university laboratory quite near the McCanns’ Leicestershire home.
Born Yesterday is hard to categorise or characterise. At times it seems like a piece of conceptual art, a brashly clever take on the Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord: ‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation’). At other times, it’s more like a grand essay in what might be called the Marshall McLuhan tradition, making oracular – if not exactly proven – assertions about the media and modern life. This one alludes to George Trow’s book Within the Context of No Context:
The grid of fifty million and the grid of intimacy.
There is a national life, and intimate life. The distance between these two grids is very great. There is one method, one brutal and shocking method – Oswald used it, Sirhan-Sirhan, the Chapman who killed John Lennon – of connecting the two.
At others still, it seems more straightforward: an urbane, sophisticated summary of a summer’s events, like the ones British writers sometimes do for upmarket American publications. Burn includes sketches of recent Labour history, with amusing ruminations on Brown’s resemblance to both Richard Nixon and Bela Lugosi and a painfully accurate description of his stony smile: ‘Brown’s grin was fixed, as always, as a grimace; there was some gurning, a movement that suggested chewing, the clearing of a shred of tomato skin maybe from in front of his bottom teeth.’ Towards the end, though, the novel more frequently resembles a paranoid blog or stalker’s diary, tracing crazy, occult connections. The McCanns’ friends, he says, are the ‘Tapas 7’:
We are in the auspicious year of ‘Triple Seven’. 07.07.07. ‘Three Sevens’. The phenomenon of the Triple Seven weddings. The best man getting up and saying exactly 777 words in exactly 7 minutes.
Seven is considered a lucky number in Western culture.
The thrust of the book seems to be that, in the age of spin doctors and rolling news, fact has become a kind of fiction, constantly shaped and tweaked and distorted. As the epigraph from Milan Kundera puts it, ‘Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo), stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misinformed, an infinite realm of non-truths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal.’ This echoes the thesis of Flat Earth News, Nick Davies’s recent book about the media in Britain: that thanks to the enormous amount of space now needing to be filled, journalism has been supplanted by ‘churnalism’, endlessly reiterated misperception and gossip. So stories about Mrs Thatcher or Kate Middleton that may or may not be true are mingled with snippets of information that sound as if they’ve been made up but haven’t: Blair’s house in Trimdon really is called Myrobella; according to some witnesses, he really did approach Blur’s Damon Albarn with the ‘swinging vicar’ greeting, ‘So what’s the scene like out there?’
Burn deals fairly straight with the known facts, but his interpretation of them is dreamy and speculative rather than critical. The news is like a fiction in another sense: ‘the landscape of the broadcast news’, with its bombs and Afghan warlords and Iraqi beheadings, resembles ‘the novels of the new medieval future’, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Often Burn’s book reads like an Andy Warhol-style celebration of the new, shiny mediated reality. As he lists the football shirts worn by famously murdered children, Burn sounds almost religious. The news seems to be acting out what Mailer called ‘the dream life of the nation’.
This book does invite some obvious criticisms. Its designation as a novel seems questionable, and destined to inspire endless ‘but is it art’-type arguments. It is not a non-fiction novel in the sense that The Armies of the Night or In Cold Blood is: a narrative with a protagonist, a beginning, a middle and an end. ‘Non-fiction non-novel’ might be a more accurate description. Sometimes it seems like a pile-up of modish styles and preoccupations: a bit of psychogeography here, some ‘found objects’ there; a spot of blogging here, a postmodern set-piece there. It’s undeniably pretentious and silly in places, and at times it simply doesn’t work. And in some ways it seems merely to have surrendered to the news and its detritus. In a few years’ time, who will know who Esther McVey is, or care that Brown was sent to Nicky Clarke for a haircut as part of his prime ministerial makeover? Burn’s attempt to juggle and link all last summer’s news events also leads to some pretty tenuous connections. At one point, he notes that Madeleine McCann and Marilyn Monroe have the same initials. At another, before discussing the rugby accident that cost Brown the sight of one eye and the use of the muscles needed to produce a smile, he writes: ‘He had been thinking about trauma, reading some things about trauma. Their experience of trauma was what the McCanns, Gordon Brown, and Brown’s new friend John Smeaton . . . had in common.’
It surprises me that Burn didn’t mount an all-out assault on the McCann kidnapping, a story straight out of Gordon Burn land. In Fullalove the protagonist is given a cuddly toy by the wife of a murderer, to place at a shrine to her husband’s victim; the journalist keeps it, and it becomes his only comfort and consolation. Burn is irresistibly reminded of this conjunction of horror and sentimentality as he describes Kate McCann keeping Madeleine’s Cuddle Cat constantly by her side. He even recycles some of Fullalove’s prose for the occasion: ‘Copy filed with an implied catch in the voice, a muffled sob in the throat, sentimental as a lollipop.’ Some of the most powerful sections of Born Yesterday deal with the McCanns. But they’re also powerfully tasteless. Perhaps Burn decided it was just too ghastly to devote a whole book to them.
Yet the fragmented form of Born Yesterday is entirely appropriate to its subject. Reading this book feels much like it did to be reading too many papers and watching too many TV bulletins last summer. Although the links and connections don’t all work, together they create something like a coherent symbolic economy: it had been ‘a summer of disappearances, absences, some voluntary, others not,’ the protagonist tells the policemen who wonder why he’s looking at Gordon Brown’s empty house in North Queensferry (their response is not recorded). The book deals with ‘celebrity victims’ and ‘celebrity government’; it’s full of sightings and vanishings and empty places. Both Madeleine McCann and Blair disappear, in their different ways; the ex-PM’s house, surrounded by police lines, looks like the scene of a crime. The book frequently returns to the places or the people that the news has left behind: Mrs Thatcher is only one of many ghosts that haunt it; another would be the old Labour Party, as it existed in Trimdon before the dazzling lawyer from London was selected as the constituency candidate. The wider implication is that a more authentic, less mediated world has been lost. Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, features at length and stares from the cover of the hardback, making its point about the glittering mask of celebrity and the deathly void it conceals.
A more unified and organised book would have excluded many of Born Yesterday’s highlights: the brilliant description, for example, of Kate Middleton being hit simultaneously by a paparazzi ambush and a hailstorm, outside Tesco Local on the King’s Road: ‘It was like Kate Middleton’s appearance on the street was the cue for special effects to turn the rain machine on, for the music to be brought up high and the smokers, taciturn and sullen to that point, to become animated into a jostling crowd scene.’ Quoting selectively doesn’t do justice to a bravura five-page passage that works by its accretion of big ideas and weird local detail. The writing is often relentless and incantatory, but it is also sharp-eyed and full of vivid particularity. Here is David Beckham appealing on TV for information about Madeleine, ‘holding up a picture captioned with the single word desaparecida’: ‘the broad diamond-encrusted ring, the buffed pearl-cuticled nails, the big fuck-off watch’. It’s good to see the British novel, or whatever Born Yesterday is, showing a bit of experimental swagger. From time to time, I even found myself excitedly wondering whether Gordon Burn hadn’t written a sort of Waste Land for the rolling news era.