It was inevitable: give me three weeks on my own, with no work responsibilities, and I will read. Straight through. I haven’t been able to actually read a book since the winter break; between teaching classes, marking papers, researching for the PhD, and trying to squish in some writing here and there, I just don’t have the free hours to drown in a good novel these days. The closest I get are audiobooks when I’m cycling or running.
So when I picked up two books on a shopping expedition last week, I knew I was tempting fate. The first had me curled up on the couch for two days, plowing through it. I had to take breaks, however, as Ben Elton’s Blind Faith managed to hit on my two major phobias: crowds and enclosed spaces. His take on an update of 1984 is focused on the YouTube concept of us becoming our own Big Brothers, watching each other, with privacy actually becoming illegal. You’re never alone in his world, always surrounded by people, pressed in, group-hugging, emoting, confessing, sharing, blogging. I’m still so twitchy from reading the novel, engaging with this world, that every time my cell phone chimes with a text message I want to send it crashing against the wall. Sure, it’s satire, and surfacey, and without much real depth (esp when you compare it to more serious post-apocalyptic takes like Children of Men or The Handmaid’s Tale), but it hit much closer to home than the others specifically because it is so close to the society in which we currently live.
The second is one that I feel I’m sacrificing for just by taking a break and writing this blog entry. I read Scarlett Thomas’s novel The End of Mr. Y a few months ago, picking it up out of curiosity from Tesco. I loved it. It was smart, fantastic, engaging, dark, with real, flawed characters who aren’t so good you know nothing bad can really happen to them. So when I was browsing and saw her other book, Popco, I bought it without even reading the blurb. It’s not often I do that, with any author. This one must be a reprint, as Popco is older than Mr. Y, thanks to the latter’s popularity. At any rate, it’s also smart, fun, engaging, mysterious…about a sixth of the way in, I can’t wait to finish it.
I love books like these. I love getting so lost in them that when my husband makes a comment next to me, it startles the crap out of me. I love feeling like there’s this other world out there, and I’m in it, the writing so perfectly crafted that I forget I’m holding the rough paper and black type, that I’m sitting with a cat holding my lap captive, that I’m anywhere or anyone other than where and who the story is happening.
I also hate them. I hate them because I didn’t write them. I should have thought of that. I should have thought of a drug that allows you to share other people’s (and cats’ and mice’s!) mindspace. I should have thought of the YouTube society (I did, I think, if you search my idea journal, but I haven’t written it up, so it doesn’t count). Maybe I hate those more – the ideas that I know I had, but that someone else wrote first. I know anything I wrote based on those ideas would be completely different, but now that I’ve read another’s take on it, I’ll never get that other author’s story out of my head. So it’s useless now, unless I do it 20 years from now when I’ve forgotteng all about it.
Anyway…These ideas are so simple. Mr. Y is built on an incredibly simple concept – mindspace – but full of such richness and texture that I can’t see how it could be told any other way. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is like that, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are in a class on their own, because he was brilliant enough to fuse all the insanely fun elements of fantasy with the tension and suspense innate to mystery, and throw in some romance and humor on top of it.
I feel like we all search so long for that great idea, that amazing concept that will make us look like brilliant writers, catapulting us to the top of the bestsellers, dominoing into more and more brilliant ideas. I wonder if we try too hard. Make them too complicated. So many of my beginner writers in my classes convolute their stories in freakish ways to include some sort of twist at the end of their short stories – most of which aren’t all that twisty if you’ve read any amount of short stories. The plots are too complex, the character left behind. I look at the best novels and stories, the ones I love the most, and really they’re quite simple. Lonesome Dove – a cattle drive. The Stand – cross the country to save Mom. The Wizard of Oz – runaway has to find her way home.
We teach it over and over – there are really no new ideas out there. No new plots. The best you can do is take something and put your own stamp on it. Add yourself to it. So I’m going to take my simple ideas, and keep writing them the way I think they should flow out. If they work, they work. If they don’t, well…try again.