"Not In My Name" is the new novel by Marc Nash available in Kindle format from Amazon.
It's fundamentally a novel for our anxious times. It involves terrorism, identity theft, internet grooming, politics and the battle for hearts and minds.
It asks a very simple question, but one that is overlooked in today's pell mell of ideas and information: What are the limits to protest and opposition within a democracy?
Enter its dark and deceptive world where no-one is who they say they are or whom they seem...
One thing that sometimes get overlooked in the reflexive repulsion at suicide bombing, is the fact that it involves suicide. Yes we may well know things about the political motivations behind the act, but the human animal has rather powerful inhibitions to snuffing itself out. Such inhibitions have to be overcome and this can never happen on a level of pure ideas. It has to also engage deep, deep emotions.
I have some personal experience of witnessing the immediate run up and aftermath of a serious suicide attempt within my close family. I have used much of that experience on the scene of familial suicide depicted in the novel and which I reproduce below as a sample. I wanted to make some sort of link between a familial suicide, with that of the willful suicide bomber, because I feel part of the mental mechanisms are the same. The familial suicide may process through feelings of guilt for those loved ones left bereft. A process mirrored by the suicide bomber having to process past notions of innocent victims of their detonation. I'm not sure such a linkage has been done in literature before.
Here is the sample which comes from Part 1 of the novel. It is written in the vernacular of Yorkshire.
"We all took t'our beds that night, save mi father who had been inexplicably delayed an' held up, or holed up overnight. An' o'course mi sister, who had never vacated hers in first place. First we knew anything were up, when Mam took phone call from Shrink jis returned from his holiday, asking why she had not brought mi sister in f'her first thing Monday morning session. Mam cursed herself f'oversleeping, presumably laid at door o'emotional drain from previous afternoon’s exertions. She went t'rouse my sister but were perplexed t'find her bed empty. I were woken bi scream from downstairs an' hurdled stairs brace at a time, only t'run int'mi Mam’s arm outstretched across lintel o'hallway that led on t'doorless utilities room an' through that t'kitchen. I rebounded like a pinball. Tilt.
Phone were cordless one an' she still had it clutched t'her nightdress, when a tiny, but insistent canvassing dragged her out o'her low-level maundering. Evidently Shrink were still on line an' instructed her t'hang up an' call ambulance. She told me I were t'remain exactly in place an' under no circumstances were I t'set foot across portal o’utility room, let alone kitchen it’sen. She lurched off past me, unsteady on her legs an' careening int'walls. Still fuzzy-headed from not exiting sleep state on mi own terms, I hadn’t really apprehended what had occurred. Think I rather innocently raised mi heavy head t'stare through both sets o'door frames, jis t'fix point in space t'clear mi fog. I came to sharpish alreet.
Kitchen chair being out o'place were what registered first. Since we never congregated together as family anymore, all four chairs ought t'be housed flush at table. I tracked upwards an' saw this figure clothed all in white, slumped back against kitchen chair that had been fetched apart from customary cradling. Head were bowed against top o'one o’shoulders an' jis at confluence there, dull hue had intruded upon scorching whiteness o'cloth. I don’t know if it were distancing effect o'observing from two rooms away, but whole scene looked unreal. Double doorframe perspective endowed it wi’filmic quality. Nowt colours seemed quite right. Skin, what little was exposed at margins o’fabric seemed synthetic. Whole arrangement looked like life-sized doll or waxwork, certainly not mi sister. Why had Mam told me t'stay here an' bear witness t'this?
Her white kameez gave me impression I were waiting f'ghost t'fully emerge. I looked down an' saw discarded tie-dyed dupatta rucked up on floor. Wi’its intensity o'colours an' sinuous contours alternately breasting an' arching above dull floor lino, in mi teeming mind it took on form o'snake about t'devour figure in white perched above it. Fuck, y'really don’t want t'be confronting this sort o'pother on a come down.
Fortunately Mam returned t'barge me out way an' back int'some lucidity.
“The ambulance is coming. I have to ring the good Doctor back to tell him what hospital they’re taking her to.” She looked at her watch. “Oh my God, your Father will be home any time. I’m going in the ambulance. You’ll have to clean the blood up off the floor. He doesn’t know yet... Don’t look like that at me. Just for once do something to contribute to this family will you?”
I weren’t aware of frowning, even at prospect of pressing mi nose t'blood. I were just bemused why she wanted t'keep appearances normal f'him. How were she planning t'disguise fact that their daughter’d seriously lacerated herself? Maybe she were right an' Dad wouldn’t notice.
Doorbell rang an' though neither of us were exactly thinking straight at this point, we both factored that as dad had keys, t'were likely t'be ambulance. Mam indicated she were going upstairs t'dress an' scuttled off. So I went t'open up. Two men stood there in civvies, one reaching in t'his jacket pocket an' flipping agape his warrant card.
“We had a report that an ambulance has been called for a knife wound.”
Knife wound? Knife wound? How had they construed Mam’s faltering words t'be that? Did they imagine Sis t'be streetwalker having been slashed bi her pimp? Or casualty o'squabble between two addicts over their fix perhaps? Had she been caught up in affray spilling over from terraces, between Leeds Whites an' Sheffield Blade Runners? 9.00 am, Monday morn, i'a residential road? Nor were it a mere bloody domestic. This weren’t a wound, it were a virtual self-decapitation. A beheading. Wait a tick, how had they got here before bleeding WYMAS? Where were big white taxi anyroad? All this, i'smotheringly cacophonous interstice, o'blinking away his warrant card.
“Um what? Sorry. Yes. Yes, mi- my sister’s tried t'commit suicide, bi- by cutting her throat. We’re waiting f'ambulance now”.
They seemed satisfied wi’this an' murmured something about 'if there were anything further' before trooping off. At that moment, I hated Police more than I’ve hated anything since. How could they have got things so awry? Why didn’t they seem t'care about situation that were confronting them, i'they only bothered t'put their heads round door? I closed house on them as Mam came beetling down stairs. I shook mi head an' she motioned me towards cupboard under stairs, where cleaning gear were kept.
“Wait till they’ve moved the body before you start”.
“Body?” It were first material confirmation she’d let slip. Mi sister had apparently been successful in excising her tortured existence.
In what fashion too. Not far removed from ritual slaughter o'animal f'meat. How steady an' unflinching must her hand have been? She tried t'fully sever that head so troubled bi excruciating tribulation. T'snap antennae o'impaling broadcasts. No bi y'leave as she took hers. No suicide note or any message o'farewell. No elucidation, from she who used t'tek utmost pains t'find it f'me. No words at all, hurtful or otherwise. Self-explanatory why she had t'snuff out sen. When her Shrink later called round house t'offer us his professional condolences, he had temerity t'advance angle that since deed took place at home, it could be interpreted as explosive rejection o'her family. I didn’t think o'it at time, but mere fact she chose t'wait till his return from holiday an' were due f'appointment, might equally have been repudiation o'his methods.
Words carelessly cast out, bi so-called bleedin’ clinical talking cure specialist. Hurtful words. Words that could bring y't'y'knees, as images had felled stout cypress that were mi sister. Now it’s all bin stirred up again bi those three cocks also dabbling cheaply wi’words, ignorant o'their true magnitude. Have they ever scrubbed family member’s blood off kitchen lino? Have they fuck!
Only way I could manage it, were t'dissociate reality o'what t'were. Plasma an' pith of my sister. Same stuff as I’m made from. Now doused in a gritty rag that were once shirt off dad’s back. Then wrung back out, int'plastic bucket smeared wi’god knows what household dregs, shade an' consistency of factory chimney. Whatever grimy shit were in it an' no matter how diluted bi’bilge water, couldn’t disguise carmine hue o’her blood. Lustrous, but no longer vibrant.
Once I’d scoured away main pool, had t'peer awfully hard t'detect stray drops. F'lino were a geometric pattern, constructed o'thousands o'small hexagonals, o'reds, browns an' oranges. Beads o'blood, once they’d been impacted upon floor, also resembled hexagons, wi’in that same spectrum o'colour. I could only spur mi’sen on, bi looking f'perfect superimposition o'blood speckle wholly contained wi’in a lino hexagon. I wouldn’t purge it clean, but rather let it be, so it might serve as a talismanic protection. Analogous to finding four leaf clover, or apotropaic Hand o'Fatima. But needless t'say I didn’t locate one. All speckles overlay hexagonal boundaries. Six is more a Jewish significance than the five in Islam.An' I’ve had it wi’words too."
Semtex semiology, internet grooming, ID theft by most unreliable of narrators - he who willfully misleads. Is that a siren wailing or bomb-blast tinnitus ?
What political action remains available after marches, petitions and the legislative process have been ridden over roughshod by the Executive? How do you make your voice heard? How do you ensure you shout the loudest? Through the deafening percussion of a bomb, that momentarily silences all else. That takes the very breath of life away.
But then what is to be done, amidst society's outrage and teeth gnashing? What more can be achieved as the protagonist’s dismembered body is heaped in a box below the soil ? Yet if you still exist within the virtual world, a poster boy for recruiting, replaying snuff films of the act, then the shock wave reverberations are sustained. And it comes easy to online activists who submerge their identities within the Net, stealing those of others as well as their souls. Grooming not for desire, but for death. Cyberspace is where the real politics are being fought out, in far more vicious and unconstrained talking shops than any legislature. In an anonymous realm, who exactly can be said to be acting in whose name?
Part 1 “Singles” shows two people at opposite ends of the country who both feel alienated. Be it from a lack of fulfilment at work, empty consumersim, institutional racism, family loss andlacking a sense of physical security. A social isolation arising from that sense of nobody else sharing their sensibilities within an atomised society. A political non-representation and the sense of outsiderness. A remote sighting leads Aki to pursue Matilda as a possible end to his isolation and so the hunt begins in earnest.
Part 2 “Cacophony” sees their relationship budding across the internet. A meeting of minds, a genial clash of cultures. Northern and Southern, East and West. All the protocols of virtual communication are being observed, but behind the silver tongued (or keyed) anonymity, you can never be quite certain whom you are addressing. Why does Aki47 keep inching closer and closer to uncovering all of TillyTant ‘s personal contact details ?
Part 3 “Confluence” has Aki motoring to London, seemingly about to grant Matilda her cherished wish to meet him the the flesh. But their convergence is on far more devestating terms than she could possibly imagine. He has been grooming her all this time. Not for sex, but for being a terrorist mouthpiece. Their online exchanges now sealed in virtual stone as part of Aki’s ‘legend’, his cover story as now he sheds his ‘clean’ snakeskin to reveal to the world who he truly is.
In this internet age, identity is a highly mutable commodity. The novel explores how people actively play out other of their personnas on the Net and the contagion of identity theft. The novel also looks at how modern conflict is being waged in cyberspace as much as in reality. For every bomb-wreaked crater pockmarking a warzone, the detonation is being replayed on myriad websites. This is where the real politics is being fought, rather than the Senates and Legislatures of the world. Where these talking shops are far more vicious and unconstrained, because they are unaccountable in their anonymity. Even the Intelligence community joins the virtual fray, spinning their legends and threads into the info/disinformation mesh.
The novel’s other main theme therefore, is the state of politics and more specifically, examining the limits of opposition within our democracy. When the Executive declares an unjust and unpopular war, what options remain when marches, petitions, lapel ribbons and the like fail to register ? The novel explores the explosive transformative process behind the ultimate form of resistance, a homegrown suicide bomber. What are the divergent pulls on identity, of growing up British, Asian and Muslim, that in isolated cases can lead to 7/7 ? Why do more people vote for contestants in reality TV shows than general elections ?
The novel is a trenchant sweep on Britain in the Noughties, full of the anxieties behind eyeing up fellow commuters on the Underground, crucifixes and hijabs in the workplace, aspirational lifestyles, keeping up with new technologies, adventure tourism, green issues, Big Brother (Orwellian), Big Brother (Endemolian), radioactive assassinations and the Arctic Monkeys. “Not In My Name” could not be more timely, more contemporary and yet full of lessons for the future. It should detonate the market place.
What Ever Happened To The Political Novel?
Politics has always had a part in literature. The founding or key myths and legends such as "The Iliad" or The Icelandic Sagas operated at twin levels of solidifying communal myth and as a record of actual clan or tribal configurations. Dante's "Inferno" is highly critical of many of the political and religious figures of his age. Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" the same for his own times, though maybe more veiled.
In the twentieth century Orwell was the political author supreme, while the totalitarian system in Russia produced the likes of Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov's masterpiece "The Master and Margarita". Two recent American Presidencies have yielded anonymous novels from Whitehouse insiders, though these of course tend to restrict their dealings to the machinations of High politics, where I'm more interested in politics High and Low. America's tempestuous era of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and the counter-culture yielded epic political novels from the likes of Philip Roth and Don Dellilo, in "American Pastoral" and "Underworld" respectively. Delillo's books "Mao II" and "Cosmopolis" are two of the best political and cultural books you could ever wish to read. Even a beautiful observational writer of minutiae such as Nicholson Baker was moved to writer a short and angry tirade of a book about wanting to assassinate President Bush "Checkpoint", not a great work, but you could feel his fulgurant anger at the political leader of his country.
But I'm struggling to recall any equivalent tomes from British writers covering our politics. Apart from Alison Miller's "Demo" mentioned earlier on this site, there's Margaret Drabble's "The Good Terrorist", but to me that reads like a cartoon treatment of its militant protagonists. Michael Dobbs wrote the Francis Urquhart series of power broking in Parliament, but again restricted to High politics. Will Self is a political writer when he chooses to be and Martin Amis thinks he is, but is in my opinion betrayed by his fear of the working classes he purports to be spoofing in his early novels.
In recent years Chris Cleave has taken up specific issues such as terrorism ("Incendiary") and immigration ("The Other Hand") and there are plenty of books about certain groups' search for identity and their experiences as immigrants to Britain. But no one it seems to me as grasped the nettle of a wide-ranging scope of politics across the whole terrain of Britain.
I have no idea why this may be. Could it be through a complacency that our political system needs no fictional scrutiny, or it's polar opposite that our system has fallen into such apathy with the electorate, no one desires to read any treatment of it? We also have a proud tradition in other media, of political thrillers, satires and situation comedies from "Yes Minister" through to "The Thick Of It". Maybe the very success of these programmes mean that books can't compete, though the US produces "West Wing" and several Hollywood films and yet fiction can still compete with its own treatments of political themes. Perhaps it merely reflects the lack of any new political theory or thought of any note since probably the exegetists of Marx, such as Gramsci and the Frankfurt school. The free market politics of the 1980s of Reagan, Thatcher and their spiritual leader Milton Friedman was really only n updating of the Free Trade movement of the nineteenth century of John Bright and Richard Cobden. Yet while we may lack for the all-encompassing political theory, we are possessed of so much thought and theory on every element of our society.
My guess is that the British may just be suspicious of big ideas in literature. It's true that our playwrights of the 80s and 90s were very much dealing in big ideas, but did so in such a preaching and hectoring manner that ultimately they killed that type of play (compare with the uproarious political farces of Italy's Dario Fo which managed to entertain as much as challenge intellectually). I wonder if the same holds for fiction and that British authors effectively censor themselves from writing political novels because they gauge that there isn't a market for it."Not In My Name" is both unapologetically political and tries to deal with many ideas, big and small. It offers up the possible genesis of an extremist, homegrown in their very alienation from British culture. But the novel offers up no pat answers, only an impression of the complex factors at play. It portrays several viewpoints and each is suggested to have some validity, which makes a synthesis of them into a solution all the more unlikely. Some of the scenarios served up are extreme, push at the limits of human behaviour. But they are not done for shock value, but the build up to them in the narrative hopefully show how the character ended up at such a point.The novel also probes the 'new' politics offered up by the internet, both in terms of the new opportunities for political participation and the extra-parliamentary platforms for debate and expressing views. The internet has also changed the way of news reporting and its corollary, propaganda. No more are we restricted to the view of the mainstream media outlets, but there is raw footage from camera phones as all citizens potentially become news and photo-editors. With no less opportunity to disseminate only the message you want the footage to represent. You'll see in the page of this site tagged "T'internet" that online debating forums has a tendency to bring out a certain vitriolic aspect in the discussions. The passion for political issues seems to be there out in cyberspace. A passion I believe that feels unrepresented and unexpressed through the old, conventional political outlets. The internet is the battlefield for hearts and minds. Be it beheadings and IED footage, or bomb-making Powerpoint slideshows being spiked by the authorities, this IS the new politics in the information age. George Bush proclaimed a war on terror in response to 9/11. Apart from the nonsense of making actual war on an idea, on an abstract noun, the absolute bombardment of data on the internet means that anyone can be empowered to mount a personal campaign of protest and resistance, no matter how brief. Can it ever be stamped out? No, because the idea of terror and terrorism is forever with us as long as there are political malcontents willing to resort to it. That also is the new politics and "Not In My Name" considers this development and its implications.
Politics And Protest
What do I remember about that march? That we'd neglected to cut holes in our banner, so that every gust of wind nearly knocked us over as we approximated a sailing ship trying to move against the wind! I also remember the camaraderie of it, us little knot of students side by side and swapping songs and banter with people from the town. People from all walks of life. And such a social element accompanied all my subsequent marches, though after the violence of the poll tax and recent student demos I have no idea if that still persists in the wake of people turning up to demonstrate armed with a sense of anxiety that it's all going to 'kick off' at some stage. People have their mobile phones poised to record the behaviour of the Police, the Police have their camcorders poised to record the demonstrators.
I say I have no idea whether the social element still pertains because I have long since stopped going on demos. Because to me they never change anything ever within a democracy (as against in a dictatorship such as in Eastern Europe and the Arab spring currently). In stable democracies, even a huge march of the order of a million people means 59 million aren't protesting and the government can point to the twisted logic that those 59 million have voted with their feet to support their position. In our recent history, huge anti-war demonstrations, the "Not In My name" demonstrations from which the book's title is taken, achieved nothing as Britain still sent troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. Students are still going to have places cut and competitive pricing set by Universities. Fox hunting is still banned despite the protests of the Countryside alliance, just to show that it's not simply a Left versus Right split.
When demonstrations do erupt in violence, and there are always elements who attach themselves looking for a chance to either attack the police or use the march as a cover for other criminal activity, then the issue being protest is automatically invalidated in the eyes of those watching the news footage back home on the television. No amount of beseeching by the peaceful protestors can appeal to those bent on trouble. And there are always those intoxicated by the emotions swirling around a demonstration, who allow themselves to be swept up into the violence.
Okay, so demonstrations don't seem to work. What other means of protest do we possess? The best march I ever went on was to protest the Section 28/Clause 27 amendment of the Local Government legislation that looked to prevent any active 'promotion' of homosexuality, which was to my mind a
clear instance of government-backed homophobia. It was a great march since I found myself marching among a group of graphic comic artists and needless to say they had some great captions they hurled in their chants. This amendment had been introduced as a Private Member's Bill, that is one individual was responsible for the amendment (though everyone felt he was doing it to distance government culpability in the homophobia). I wrote to that individual Member of Parliament. as is my right and he replied to me. Do you know what his letter said? It told me to write to the elected MP for my constituency, rather than him. My MP was inherently hostile to the legislation anyway (it was the redoubtable Glenda Jackson). I wrote back to him saying since it was his private Bill, I was felt I was entitled to him answering my questions on HIS BILL. He never replied again. So writing to your MP doesn't achieve anything on a policy level.
The surefire way to change policy is the once in five years right we have to vote for a new government. Parties offer us their manifestos of intended policies and actions. Huge, unwieldy commitments that they can barely honour. The party in opposition always trot out the line 'we'll have to see what the situation is once we take power'. The party in government suddenly come up with a coherent body of policies they've failed to enact or probably even mention during the previous five years of them being in power, because they have to be seen to be dynamic and still chock-full of ideas. Firstly no voter is going to agree with every single manifesto point, so at best they can only be partially represented by any one party. In fact, most people vote to keep out a party from power. hardly a ringing endorsement of our politics. Just to give you a concrete example of the inability for manifestos to be honoured, the current Conservative government had made a manifesto pledge to protect the UK music industry in the face of the file sharing technologies that were hurting their copywright and accordingly sales (recently reported at down 5% year on year). Now the government report that they've pulled back on that manifesto pledge (reneged?), because they claim now they're in power they've come to see the realities of the situation which have outflanked them. I don't understand why they couldn't have equally reviewed and monitored the situation while in opposition. So they've made a pledge, a strange and somewhat specialised one to my mind and then not honoured it or even given the impression of ever having had much intention to honour it, but having presumably snaffled a few votes by it. And I want to stress, any political party would have acted the same way, not just the current incumbents.
Time and again electorates fall for manifestos. While the issue of anti-abortion in the US horrifies me, I never understand how election after election it's used to mobilise a significant Republican grass roots vote, yet never is there much indication of any impetus to get anti-abortion legislation put on Federal or constitutional statute books.
So there seem to be no effective means of registering your opposition, your protest within a democracy in any meaningful, policy-influencing ways. Given that, is it any surprise that you create the pre-conditions for extreme forms of protest. Which under the right circumstances and prompting, can lead to a homegrown suicide bomber as in 7/7. The government doesn't really operate in my name, not when it goes to war in the face of my opposition. What about someone who sees they have absolutely no stake in the government, in the country, in the culture?
Not only does the novel produce an impression of a political demonstration (considerably better I hope than that in Alison Miller's novel "Demo"), but it goes on to offer a view of a true, modern, technologically-driven democracy in our day and age. I say we probably don't need our politicians and political parties. But we still need politics. Do you agree?
What The Internet Really Offers Authors
There is much debate among the literati about online and electronic publishing. Yet I feel they are looking the wrong way round at this.They are concerned with delivery systems, that is how literature is served up to readers, always thinking about convenience and ease. (I have to admit I don't want to make my writing particularly convenient or easy to read, I want them to make readers stop up short and gasp, or violently disagree, or anything so long as they have a reaction).
For me, the added value to literature in all things virtual, is in its content. Books can now write about the internet world itself. All my books to date deal with the internet one way or the other. Part 2 of "Not In My Name" is entirely in the style of internet postings, in the form of blogs, chat rooms and forum discussions. It is a whole new narrative style.
Firstly it allows for a multiplicity of voices. It's almost like a Greek chorus from drama. Disembodied voices, chiming in from the side. The reader has to decide how much significance to attach to these individual voices, or whether the whole community together is what lends a section weight. Why should one person's comment on a forum or blog outweigh that of another? You are forced to return to the words themselves to decide. Anadverbsd of course you have very little help from adverbs as you would in dialogue, such as 'he said distractedly' or 'she said while running her hand through her hair'. There are no visual prompts or cues, the text is stripped of everything but itself.
Next it allows for a certain subversion of linear narrative itself. Of course, normally sentences proceed one after the other in linear fashion. In such a way is comprehensibility conveyed, much like putting one foot ahead of the other in order to walk forward. But in part here, I have reproduced the structure of a forum where the latest posting, which is probably responding to one earlier though not necessarily the one immediately prior because of the pace that some of these forums move, is what you read first. So unless you scroll down on your kindle to the first comment, you're reading the comments in reverse order.That is you're always reading a response before the post that it's responding to. I find the possibilities of that very exciting. It more approximates what I was saying in the tagged page 'language', that in fact this is how we speak, in non-linear fashion, albeit not backwards answering questions before they've been posed! But again, it asks the reader to think in a different way. is this particular post significant in its detail, or is it more to convey an overall impression in conjunction with those others around it?
Then of course there is the anonymity of the internet, which i feel definitely empowers people into different behaviours from their norm. For a start you can present whatever image of yourself that you desire. If you mount a photo, it doesn't even have to be one of you (something I explored in my novel "A,B&E"). With a certain security endowed by anonymity, some people feel able to take the leash off their behaviour in a way that they may never be able to in the flesh and blood world. Forums can bring out the worst in people, both because they are committed enough to the issue to join up to the forum to discuss it and also because you can let rip to get your point of view across and attack those that disagree with you. Hence passions can run very high on certain forums. Never underestimate the pertinacity of Godwin's Law, which states (tongue in cheek) that the longer a discussion on the internet becomes, the probability that someone will resort posting that a fellow poster is 'acting like the Nazis/Hitler' reaches 100%' . But I do wonder if anyone in the history of online discussions has ever had their mind changed through the persuasiveness of somebody else's argument...
You also have all sorts of protocols and etiquette involved in moderating these forums, which I also offer up as an example of self-regulation or at least independent regulation away from the authorities. The microcosm of power relations involved in those sort of decisions and strictures is itself a fascinating subject. But forums do not always have to descend into name calling and mud-slinging (as my protagonist says, what could be more redundant than name calling people who don't even use their real names?). Sometimes the wordplay and speed of thought in response are astounding. Forums can also bring out people's creative self-expression, for we only have the words we can type to play with, so we deform and remould them to suit our purpose. Puns become very important in the online world and a great source of humour. I commend anyone to Twitter for the ultimate exemplar of this. Sadly for my novel which is set in 2006, Twitter had only just been introduced then, so it only gets a couple of passing mentions. But we have since seen how Twitter and other social media platforms can help get information out to the world that various people are trying to suppress. It is a very powerful tool. (In the page on this site tagged 'The Political Novel' I go on to look at how content can be manipulated deliberately to misinform or serve as propaganda).
Sticking with the theme of being whoever you want online, there is a short section of the novel where the female protagonist is MSN chatting with a former Congolese child soldier. I have deliberately muddied the waters as to whether he is genuine, or a creation of the male protagonist playing the female like a fish through adopting different guises and seeing what she will wear. What is the child soldier, truth or fiction? There is also a periodic virtual voice of a whistle blower, ostensibly trying to serve a warning to the populace of Britain, but again his authenticity is questionable. He confesses to being a 'spook', that is a member of the intelligence services, but again that could just be a cover to seemingly legitimise his true agenda. Could he too also be an elaborate construct of the male protagonist, even though his message seems diametrically opposite? The spooks call it 'operating under two flags', where it becomes almost impossible to know which side you're actually working for. And both these help underlines my point about what the virtual world offers the modern day author artistically. Just as anyone can take their imagination off the leash when they move and converse within cyberspace, authors should be encouraged to represent such creative and imaginative unleashings, even within the same character. It's what we've always done to a certain extent, in that we have to dream up and create characters from scratch. But now we can go so much further and have no excuse for limp characterisation at all.
And finally, when is an internet grooming not a grooming? Just why has the male protagonist gone to seek out the female one if not to conduct a relationship across the ether? Again the answer to this comes back to media and information, but I don't want to say more in case of giving out spoilers. But the task of writing a slow seduction by virtual chat was a fascinating exercise for me as a writer, because it's paced so differently to a face to face exchange. The slow build up and manipulation were a real challenge to get right. Again, while boy meets girl in the flesh is still full of missed signals and misunderstandings because both parties' sense are heightened by their yearnings for a successful outcome, on the Net it is far more blind and without cues and prompts. Again this invites a different way of writing a scene from the norm. I'm telling you, it's a rich seam for fiction writers.
What's In A Name?
The novel's main protagonist has a necessarily shadowy existence, as he seeks to cover his tracks. For he is a terrorist in the making. He is your next door neighbour and he is the man operating in the margins of cyberspace. He is nowhere and everywhere. He is the terrible idea that exists at the periphery of your everyday thoughts and when he is propelled to the forefront of your mind, he provokes dread in you. He is the nameless fear.
Warning - This Book Contains Dialect!
Writers are often faced with a decision whether to write in the vernacular of their characters or not.
The pros are:
1) A desire for authenticity (though in truth if you were to write how anyone speaks, you'd have to put in 'ers' and 'ums, leave sentences hanging unfinished, broken off in the middle and taking off in a new direction and have your characters speaking over one another so that no one is actually heard).
2) A desire to offer a different set of rhyhms for the reader other than those of the descriptive narrative flow. Vernacular speech rhythms, as used by several Scottish authors to great effect like James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, can invest a completely different tone to the book. Of course there is also the possibility of injecting some idiomatic words whose informality also offers a contrast with the descriptive narrative.
3) It does help to lay down a firm sense of place through the language used. of course with a potential international readership, this equally could be seen as a disadvantage, especially if the place is not one that is well know abroad.
4) A use of the vernacular helps fix both the character and the way they view the world much more precisely than a more formal language resorted to in all books.
The cons are:
1) The language may just be too opaque for readers unfamiliar with it. It may halt their progress through the book, stopping them at places in bafflement at simply not understanding what is been said. Supplying a glossary in an appendix is a possible remedy, but that becomes equally interrupting of the reader's flow.
I take the view that when I read anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange", a book written largely in a made up slang of its protagonists, the context within the sentence often gave me the meaning of the word and I feel that this holds with vernacular. It doesn't slow one's progress through the book too much.
So I wrote "Not In My Name", or Part 1 of it at least, in a heavy Yorkshire dialect. (I had some help and guidance from two lovely Yorkshire denizens Gavin Buchan and Nikki Crick since I hail from London down South!). It wasn't just in dialogue however, but also in every thought with which the main character expressed his personality. His foil, a woman from London, spoke in a more standardised English and the contrast between the two as their chapters alternated is further pointed up.
But then two interesting things happened as I was writing the novel.
The first was having to think about the difference between how we talk and how we write. Part 2 of the book happens entirely online, in forums, chat rooms and the like. We converse by keying words on a keyboard. We type our responses. The written language is a different one from the spoken one. The vernacular speech and thought from Part 1 of the book, now transforms into a fairly formal and normative written form of English. The same character expresses himself in entirely different language. the abbreviations and slang of Part 1 are not reproduced online in Part 2. What if anything, does that say about the communicability of the vernacular? Does the character recognise that to a more universal audience than that of your mates from the same town, you need to have a more universal version of English? Perhaps a pride is taken in the elitism of a vernacular impenetrable to most? Perhaps it just reflects the difference in how we learn to speak, by imitation and modelling by our parents as babies, from how we are taught to write at school in a formal setting with standardised methods.
The other thing that came to me as I was writing Part 3. The character himself rejected his dialect as not being true to his essential core identity, but one adapted from him being the son of immigrants to Britain. He slips easily into a very formal and wordy English when speaking on his mobile to his mark, which shows how he is able to morph in and out of the various identities he has adopted, or had forced on him.
Our language says so much about who we are. Not just in terms of our education and class, but about our cultural and social groups. Those who might absorb the idiom of hip hop and gangster rap. Or those fast talkers who speak the hectoring patter of salesmen. Those betraying a certain lack of surety in raising the end of their sentences to make it sound like a question requiring a reassuring confirmation. And so on.
So for me there really was no question of pros and cons. I needed the dialect to show up the contrast and therefore the level of alienation from the self.
I'd love to know how you found the dialect as a reader. Let me know!