When I was seven or eight years old, I used to pick up paperback novels in bookshops and stare at them: thick squat books with huge shiny letters on their covers and titles hinting at horror, thrills or murder. Some of the authors’ names were bigger than the titles. Stephen King. James Herbert. Len Deighton. Writers in an adult world I knew nothing about and wanted to join.
Sometimes, I’d do something I’ve noticed my five-year-old son now loves to do with grown-up books. I’d flick to the very end and see how many pages there were. The more, the better: that was the rule. Stephen King was especially awe-inspiring. Some of his paperbacks felt as thick as they were wide, climbing towards 1,000 pages. Inconceivable! What might it mean to sit down and read a book like that, let alone write one?
I knew that the Lord of the Rings was the longest and most grown-up book it was possible to read, because it filled three thick paperback volumes on the shelf in our hall at home. But the paperbacks in the shops weren’t the kind of books we had at home. They felt more like the videos in the horror section of the video store, whose very boxes were terrifying enough to give me nightmares — but that I couldn’t stop looking at, trying to fathom their contents. They were adult, incomprehensible, amazing.
As it turned out, I didn’t read a Stephen King book for many years, perhaps because there seemed to be something lastingly alien about these shiny-covered bestsellers — these books so different to the stories and poems and literary fiction I read at school and then university. My first was The Shining. I don’t remember exactly when or why I read it, but I do remember how deeply and uneasily it drew me in; how its slow accretion of detail created something like a real place, populated with real people — then cracked open that reality’s walls to let the nightmares in.
I’ve written seven books of non-fiction over the last decade, but I’ve been a novelist for less than a month. Finally, uneasily, astonishingly, I am out there in narrative form. There’s a book with shiny writing on the cover that features my name, that contains my characters travelling a path intended to thrill — and, if I’m honest, that I don’t fully understand. This seems to be part of the deal with fiction. It does things, or fails to do them, at the level of atavistic emotion. What other people take from it may be nothing you intended.
On balance — and bear in mind that I’m new to this game — I love this. No matter how nuanced the non-fiction I’ve tried to write, it has been an exploration in search of a conclusion. Non-fiction defends or asserts a world-view of some kind; a verdict about the way things are. It selects facts and arranges them in sequence. It says: here are some salient truths. Fiction is agnostic. You aren’t critiquing or endorsing a thesis. You’re setting rival world-views in motion, then watching what happens when they collide.
I’ve written my novel from and about the obsessions of my non-fiction: technology, technology’s impacts upon what it means to be human, its uses and abuses and astonishments. But I’ve done so via a cast of characters with fundamentally incommensurable views and experiences. They don’t agree about what the hell’s going on. They never will. They want to kill each other; or, they want to be best friends; or, to destroy each others’ civilisations; or, to have sex. Or several of these things in sequence.
In all of this, they come much closer to life than anything entailing reasoned argument.
It should be self-evident, but somehow isn’t to many people, that being right doesn’t count for much. Not on its own. By the time you’ve gathered people in a room and persuaded them to be reasonable, to listen to each others’ views and abide by the same rules, the most important battles have already been won. And those battles took place outside the room: in the places where human problems are matters for love or violence, for compassion or vengeance, for the accretions and diminishments of time and luck and loss.
Fiction knows this. Shakespeare knew that murder and marriage are more important ways of dealing with disagreement, historically speaking, than any number of syllogisms. The play’s the thing. Clarity and logic and certainty may help us describe the universe outside out heads, but they barely touch the stories we carve through time, wildly looking for purpose and purchase.
I’ve written a novel. I don’t know what it means, and I hope you enjoy it.
This Is Gomorrah (UK Edition)
The Gomorrah Gambit (US Edition)