Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The plot sickens


There are so many people to feel sorry for, but today I’m thinking about novelists. I’m thinking particularly about the novelist (a male one, as I picture him) who had planned one quick final edit of his state-of-the-nation epic before clicking send – and then this! I imagine his cry of anguish echoing the words of Prince Charles, whose long-awaited wedding to Camilla had to be postponed when Pope John Paul II died: Why does everything always happen to me?! 

The Independent on Sunday called my first novel 'zeitgeisty', which was nice. It helped that I’d written it, from first thought to last word, in a year, and even so I felt I was only hanging on to reality by my fingernails. Since then I’ve chosen to write about the past, which is relatively stable, or the future which – if you’re lucky – hasn’t happened yet. At the best of times, contemporary reality is a moving target. If nothing else turns up to make nonsense of your plot, some development in how we communicate is likely to.

Novels with contemporary settings published in the near future will include coronavirus if only because it will seem weird to leave it out. For a while novels will fall into three categories: pre-covid fiction, surviving from an innocent age, in which we will notice with a pang of nostalgia how unconsciously people used to mingle and how carelessly they hugged and kissed and shouted into each other’s ears at parties, covid fiction, which will deal with the thing itself, and finally, if we survive that long, the post-covid kind, in which the virus will go unmentioned because no one needs to mention it.

The material for covid fiction is, of course, all around us in tales of bereavement, heroism and profiteering. Families are separated and lovers divided. A scientific advisor to the Government secretly breaks his own social-distancing rules to entertain his married lover. And all of this against a shifting backdrop in which what was previously unimaginable becomes mundane. A few days ago I watched from my second floor window as a normally mild-mannered gent exploded in rage at a passing jogger and pushed him off the pavement. A month ago I would have thought the old man had gone mad or suffered some unforgivable betrayal. But all I think now is, you know, bloody jogger, what does he expect?

And this week, in case we were afraid of running out of plot lines, we’re being teased with the possibility of expanding from households into bubbles. It makes sense. The neighbourly mingling of, say, six people is only slightly riskier than the familial mingling of two separated households of three each. As long as we remain strictly monogamous in our bubbling. Oh yes, from an epidemiological perspective it makes perfect sense. But socially it’s a complete nightmare.

There’s a piece of dialogue I remember from a 1970s Dennis Potter play about a group of seven-year-olds getting up to mischief one summer afternoon in the Forest of Dean. The play was called Blue Remembered Hills. Grown-up actors took the parts of the children. I can’t recall who played Audrey, but Angela was Helen Mirren. The bit that for some reason pops into my head went like this:

Audrey: Angela, will you be my best friend?
Angela: I’m best friend to lots and lots.

Ah yes, the delights of childhood! And we can enjoy them all again. Like a disillusioned Audrey, I can already imagine how many people would honestly love to bubble with me and Leni but unfortunately are already committed to bubbling with someone else.


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