“Don’t open the blii…” shrieked the vampire, and then he was gone.
One of the reasons why the film is almost never as good as the book is that you create a film of the book in your head as you read it. You picture the characters, give them their voices and fill in the blanks. This is why good writing doesn’t give you everything, just what you need.
I’m a big fan of the clichés of noir – urban settings, darkness and rain, moody atmosphere and morally compromised players.
Guy Montag is a fireman – a person charged with finding and burning books (the ultimate source of unhappiness in mankind). He’s assisted in this task by a monstrous mechanical hound armed with a hypodermic syringe. But is there really any happiness in his life? And is he maybe hiding books of his own…?
It’s a typically dystopian sci fi novel from the mid twentieth century, about a post-literate future in which people are isolated from real engagement with one another by earphones, tvs and constant sensory input. In its way it’s oddly prescient, if very much a product of its time.
Anyway, combine the above, and here’s what I’ve got…
Black screen. Jesus In The Courtyard by King Dude plays. The door opens (it wasn’t a black screen at all). We’re opening with one of those showboating shots, the camera as point of view.
Our man strolls down the corridor swinging a box that occasionally comes into view. There’s a blaring TV screen and a hubbub of excitement, not unlike any group of men left unsupervised. The vocals cut out as our POV man cranes his head round the corner of a door. The box raises up (the framing’s slightly skewed like someone’s leaning at an angle) “Got a real mean bastard tonight, you coming?” to the room’s inhabitant. He shakes his head, “not tonight.”
“Wife still won’t let you, huh?”
“Something like that…” an apologetic, conspiratorial half-smirk – wife calls the shots, what you gonna’ do?
The song picks up volume. We wander down some stairs, passing men in uniform and exchanging greetings. We pass a slightly scruffy logo, Fahrenheit 451; the noise gets louder with each step.
It gets a little darker, with more than one off-kilter light source. We’re in a crowd of men, shouting and passing money round. The box is lifted again, the door opened and the animal inside shook out…
And THEN the shot switches completely to the point of view of the animal –we see the man who’s been carrying the box. He’s dark haired, in his mid-twenties in the same heavy-duty uniform worn by the others in the crowd. The shot whirls around, panicked – it’s a circle of men, who look huge from this angle. There’s a rat and someone’s dropped a chicken. Then a metallic noise from the shadows, a single red beam of light and a huge beast bursts out grabbing the rat as the crowd goes wild.
Then it turns on our point of view, a menacing metal 8-legged freak that pounces and the screen goes black.
Next scene is of the man who declined to be involved in the blood sport, Guy Montag (though we don’t know that yet). He closes the door behind him – his shift is over. As soon as the door closes, Generique by Miles Davis plays. There’s a long shot down the street, in a quite conscious homage to old noir movies. The scene is lit by moon and streetlight. It’s late-ish autumn. He turns his collar to the cold and starts to walk home.
On his way home tonight he’ll meet a young girl who’ll prove to be a catalyst to his unease. When she first speaks the music stops (it won’t play whenever she’s around, and won’t stop when she’s not).
Maybe I’m strange, but I like to adapt the stories I read like that, giving them a character and a palette not necessarily all that faithful to the book. It’s why ‘my’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is a lot meaner and bleaker than yours (and also less dated).
Do you do the same? Would you? Is it sacrilegious to take such gratuitous liberties with the written word…? As ever, comments below for venting.
On the edge of greatness, he paused. He breathed in deeply and exhaled, once, twice. And then he took the leap of faith.
They never found the body.
They say you should write what you know. So he always started with the aftermath and worked backwards. (It was what he knew) The action would come in time – he’d always found these things worked like little excavations. Others plotted things out, and that worked too.
The action would come in time, some details would reveal themselves. Then he’d start to see the shape of the narrative, same as always. This wasn’t exactly his first time.
He rubbed a little life into his hands and found a new page in the notebook he carried around in case of sudden inspiration and to jot down small observations. He already had a couple of characters so he had most of the who. He’d flesh out the what, and the when, and in time the how and finally the why. His characters certainly had motivations but he knew better than to force the issue. Best just to wait patiently.
He flicked back and forth through his notebook to give his hands something to do while he worried at the details. Some minor details – he liked to think of them as clues – were more trouble than they were worth.
For him, he found they had to be teased patiently, and followed. Some led him in the wrong direction entirely, wasting his time, which was valuable to him, at least. Overall it was like sex, like that cop Leslie Nielson had played in that movie had said: a painstaking, arduous process and just when you think you’re getting somewhere, nothing happens.
Other clues though, well they came in flashes revealing everything: the shape of things, the story. And the one in his mind’s eye was a doozy. He smiled tightly. This one would hopefully lead him to other avenues until he’d hiked up and across the entire rotten edifice, the whole story.
All of life was stories, he reasoned, it’s how we communicate as a species. Did you hear about… Have I ever told you how I… It’s how we learn and it’s how we remember.
He’d always felt that he had a keen ability to observe people and human nature, but for all that it had brought him it left him feeling isolated, detached somehow from the reality everybody else seemed to live. Observe it and write it down, rinse and repeat – life at arm’s length. Only never quite reality, perception: reality microfiltered and pasteurised through his senses then his brain. After all, everything is made up of largely nothing but you’d never know to see it.
Everything was just perception, at least in his experience. That was his cant.
He nodded to the uniformed sergeant – get forensics on it ASAP, make sure it’s not the victim’s hair or a cat’s or something.
18 hours since the start of his shift. They’d stiff him on the overtime of course, but at least he finally had a breakthrough. Protect and serve or at least clean up afterwards: that was his cant.
PS: A clue: this whole thing was built out of a ridiculous pun on something vaguely esoteric and massively pretentious, that’s also a glib critique. Says everything you wouldn’t want or need to know about me… See if you can find it, no prizes for the winner.
I’m startled by the chilly cleanliness of the street, taste the incredible freshness of the air. The buildings are uniform, blank and alien. A phrase I don’t recognise drops neatly in my mind: reinforced concrete. I should feel more terrified. A ragged man with a ragged beard bends down in front of me, muttering incomprehensibly to himself as he picks up what I recognise as a…cigarette butt. I nibble the concept, trying it on: cigarette butt. He pockets it – a filter with a meagre film of unsmoked tobacco. He glowers at me in kneejerk hatred then boards a.
A. Bus. A beautiful image of a near naked man adorns the side. The technique of the painting is exquisite, but the picture is debauched, disgusting. Women can see this, as can that poor degenerate who apparently wanders freely in this brightly lit Eden-city.
“Mr Sutcliffe? Mr Sutcliffe. Hi. I’m Peterson, I’m calling from SoCal; I represent the Time Warnburg conglomerate.”
I don’t recognise the accent. The words feel strange; an obscure dialectical English, but unsettlingly familiar. Like deja vu.
“You’re probably feeling a little, uh, confused right about now.”
“It’s Dr, actually. And who are you, Mr Peterson? More to the point, where are you; I can’t see you.”
“That’s, aah, a little, uh, complicated. You were the victim of a little, uh, temporal disalignment.”
“Excuse me? A what?”
“A temporal disalignment, a TD. Look, I’m a producer and we’re making a movie about your time and we, ah, there was some unpleasantness a few years back and, basically what I’m trying to say is, uh, we’re legally obliged to have unimpeachable consultants for any period movie we release. Even then there are disclaimers and all kindsa’ hoops; you know what I’m saying?”
A young dark-skinned man knocks into me and walks away shouting obscenities, clearly he’s part brute, one of those vicious savages we hear so much about. His costume is shapeless but garish: he should be sequestered away from decent folk. I feel an odd stab of guilt but force it away.
“Mr Peterson, I’m a little unsettled. And confused. Could you be clearer, perhaps.”
“Nausea, right? Light-headed?”
“Well, yes. But also, your idiom is, forgive me, a little bizarre. More to the point, so is mine. Where am I? How did I get here? And why am I not, um, freaking out?”
“Whoa there, Mr, uh, Dr, Sutcliffe. That’s a lotta’ questions and I bet you gotta’ whole lot more. Ok, the language thing, it’s complicated but it’s a side-effect of the TD. We took you from your time and place in London, 1852. Like I said, we’re making a movie about Jack the Ripper and we needed a medical consultant to advise on Victorian medicine. We also needed one or two Victorian perspectives, that whole accuracy thing I was talking about. Unfortunately there was a problem and you got landed a little too early and in the wrong universe.
Jack the Ripper? But my mouth frames a different question, “I’m sorry, wrong universe?”
“Uh, yeah. Look, this is a little embarrassing. You’re familiar with the many earths theory? Goldilocks theories about radiation levels and general viability, sine waves, that sorta’ thing?”
An elderly lady with a small dachshund on a knotted string gives me a pitying look – I must sound as though I’m talking to myself. My word, is mine a demented mind?
“Sheesh, what did you guys… Right, I’m no science guy, but it’s like this: there’s a, a multitude of universes, it’s where we get the word multiverse, right? Lots of Earths, lots of Dr Sutcliffes. But not every Earth exists, least not as you’d understand it. The, uh, laws of physics don’t apply uniformly everywhere, which is why we’re able to talk. You were carefully selected after a long, believe me it was looong, vetting process. You’re from a different universe – we can’t go back into our own past, not to before the machine was invented. Ask a physicist. Or don’t – those guys don’t speak English! Ha. Sorry, just a joke.”
I remain silent.
“Where was I? Oh just put it over there, Francis, yeah. What? Not that asshole again, tell him we don’t want any more of his shit; he’s finished…What?… Come on, that was 3 years ago. Fucking...Sorry about that Dr Sutcliffe. No rest for the wicked, right?”
“You were telling me what this is all about?”
“Huh? Oh right, yeah. Can I just say Dr Sutcliffe, you’re taking this real well all things considering, even with the TS effect. Ok. So. My time is a long way ahead of your time now and your, uh, home time. Except it kind of isn’t because of fractal universes or something. Like I said, I’m no scientist. That’s why you can’t see me; ‘cause I’m not really there.”
“Wait, TS effect?”
“Yeah, you see some people don’t appreciate being, uh we call it timeshifted, so the timeshift, or TS, is designed to stimulate certain receptors and keep you calm. Don’t worry that at least is temporary. And some people find it, uh, euphoric.”
Machines pass before my eyes at terrifying speeds. I recognise them but don’t know what they are. Some idle in front of me belching…steam? The noise is deafening. They feel intimidating, violent.
“I certainly don’t feel any euphoria.”
“Hey, buddy, I’m trying to help here, no need for the ice-queen routine…Look, we’re still working on the problem but hopefully we can resolve your issue. Think of it like a story for the grandkids, only maybe not ‘cause I’ve seen your crazy people hospitals! Sorry.”
A barely clothed woman swims into focus. She is perfumed and painted and showing so much flesh she’s no doubt a..hooker…odd word. She is so brazen, no chaperone. I’ve little doubt she’ll be raped by nightfall. Again that stab of guilt. She notices my attention and screams gibberish at me as she retreats into the distance.
“We’ve pieced some of it together. You got switched with a local girl about two weeks ago. I say switched…we’re still working out who she is and when she is. Right now all I can say is she’s a girl, sorry, a woman. And it wasn’t a straight switch: I only hope she didn’t get thrown too far back because she’d probably get burned as a witch… Anyway, that’ll account for why your surroundings are a little more, ah, familiar than they should be. Also why you didn’t ask me what a movie is.”
I’ve been here two weeks? That can’t be right. “Is that why I’m talking funny?”
“Uh…sorta’. It’s like, you ever driven a car long haul? What am I saying, of course you haven’t, don’t know what the fu..heck a car is. When you go on a journey you pick things up, right, like parasites and bug splats. This is what you got – only insteada’ a parasite you got the, ah…local vernacular burrowing into your mind. We can limit that here to keep your, I guess you’d call it integrity, um, intact…but out in the field, sadly not.”
Panic rises with Peterson’s words. A couple across the street stare through a window at brightly lit boxes. Their child cries, a thin rasping noise accompanied by the stamp of tiny feet. Why is he allowed to behave like this? Another disembodied voice “There is a good service on the rest of the London Underground.” Another bus, which reads “some people are gay, get over it”. Well, I wouldn’t begrudge a man his joy. I feel I may have missed some nuance.
“Look, Dr Sutcliffe. It’s time to talk consequences.”
Consequences? What consequences? A crowd of people pour down the – station? – stairs, like city rats. They are people of many races and costumes, holding tiny boxes that blare tinny sirens. I shudder involuntarily. Peterson returns, quieter now, more in sorrow than the previous jauntiness.
“Dr Sutcliffe? It’s probably starting to sink in, right? This is the TD – you asked yourself, yes, why you keep feeling guilty? Out of focus? We’re doing what we can, but I gotta’ warn you, if we don’t fix it in time, there’s no point in sending you back, ‘cause you won’t exist. But we still got maybe a few hours to fix it before sending you back would be downright negligent. Not negligent, of course – that’s not an admission.”
“Oh don’t get me wrong, there’ll be a, uh, shell. A person. But not you – see it’s all about language, it frames how you articulate your thoughts, your prejudices, your memories, everything. Even to yourself, especially to yourself. Everything about you is the words you use. We TS’d you but you got TD’d which accelerates the process. Right now you got over a century of linguistic flux and all the cultural baggage that entails, 161 years to be exact, comin’ atcha. To you. Right now you’re mostly the, the you that you know with a piece of someone else in you, but soon…you won’t recognise yourself. She has it worse, wherever she is, believe me.”
I’m not going to exist?
“Can’t you just bring me to wherever you are? You said you could control it?”
“If it were up to me, I’d TS you right here, but the lawyers got me, you know? You’re contaminated so we can’t use you. And we can’t TS just anyone, that’s tampering with the past, and that’s a crime, buddy. I’m sorry, my hands are tied.”
“One other thing, I’m, uh, obligated to say this, don’t even try to sue, hell, right now you’re the one in breach of contract.”
“What contract? I didn’t sign anything, I simply turned up here. I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
“Nice try, buddy. Anyway, on behalf of Time Warnburg I just want to say sorry for the trouble you’ve found yourself in and we wish you luck with the future.”
“Wait, I thought you said you were going to help me? You can’t just leave me here in this awful place. Anyway wouldn’t the TD simply be reversed if you sent me home? Wouldn’t I just go back to being me? Hello? Where can I go, what do I say? How will I live? Please, I have a wife and child. Hello?”
Preston Peterson – how he hated his parents for that – took a sip of his expensive mineral water. He pressed a few buttons on his phone “We’re probably gonna’ have to shelve ‘Jack’ for a little while.” He hung up then tapped in another, longer number “Hi, Captain Alloway? You’re probably wondering why you’re in Gettysburg in 2226…”
The Victorians future-proofed their houses to enable residents and later generations to modify the internal space according to need. By the 1960s the Victorian style was considered ugly and wasteful – the future was utilitarian, in any colour or material you wanted provided it was poured concrete.
The 70s vernacular is now considered the architectural equivalent of swearing.
Space in any urban environment is forever at a premium. And as cities become more crowded, modern needs demand that living spaces be more versatile to combat the cupboard-like proportions of the average home. Builders these days, in London at least (or so it might appear), subscribe to the principle ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em expensive’.
Luckily there are all these new-fangled technologies to remove the clutter from our lives – chunky vinyl gave way to nifty CDs to the slow death of the hard format. No need for physical copies of music or film. Virtual friends are the same as real ones with the added bonus that you don’t have to feed them. Same with books (not that I feed my books).
The ebook is not a thing of beauty, but it might be a joy forever. Unlike Keats.
It’s certainly convenient – no more will I have to chop down a tree, pulp it, treat it, turn it into paper, let it dry, bind it into a book and then copy out longhand whichever novel it is I don’t want to pay for. And then weep bitter tears once I realise that I don’t have enough pages and will forever wonder what actually happened to Madame Bovary.
I like to think it all worked out.
I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking “Profane Words! The ebook is a godless contraption, an abomination abhorrent to all right-thinking men.” But hear me out: you can have whole entire libraries at your fingertips; you can take it to a café, or on holiday. It’s light and you can wedge it into a special cover so strangers think it’s an iPad.
Best of all, if you find yourself wanting to read something that snobs like me call post-literate, no-one ever has to know. Except that person reading over your shoulder, of course – there’s always one. Fifty Shades of Dan Brown gets your knickers in a twist? Age gap too great for Nancy Drew (“my god he’s old enough to be her father”)? Some people, especially men, are too ashamed to read low end chick-lit in public – no longer.
Wait. How old is Nancy Drew supposed to be again?
But there’s a downside. No, not the romance of pulped and bound trees with their intoxicating paper smells and lovingly crafted covers hinting at the boundless joys within. Not the promise, or the anticipation of a pristine spine. As the French say, the best part of the affair is the walk up the stairs.
There might be no inherent romance to an ebook, but it’s the future, only now. And just like in the 1960s, functional and utilitarian are once again the future. Besides, who needs romance in their lives? That’s positively bourgeois, and hipster moustaches tell me that 19th century philosophy is the big fashion trend this season. And when fashion speaks, people listen. Power to the people, y’all.
Back to this downside. The other day I spied a young man on public transport. With his half-dreadlocked hair, his vintage-flavoured attire and hippy jewellery he was clearly a free thinker and an intellectual, spiritual but not confined by the narrow concept of organised religions, yeah? In case anyone was in any doubt, he was reading 1984; the Beatles of the books wot make you deep world. At this point you probably think me a grump and a meanie.
You’re absolutely right, but in fairness, the reason I know what this chap was reading was because he was holding it up so that the cover was at the eye level of everyone sitting down (except next to him, which no one was because he was a wee bit smelly, soap being bourgeois and all). It faced up slightly so that everyone standing up could see it clearly, too. The cover had been fashioned to look like mid-20th century Soviet propaganda. That wasn’t an accident.
I ended up moving further down the carriage (no reason), but when I looked up, there it was: the cover was facing me. Moving again I noticed the cover followed me like the eyes of Mona Lisa.
What a poseur.
I was especially pissed off because everyone was paying attention to 1984, and not my copy of WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
And it took me bloody ages to find just the right cover depicting the mathematical flavour of the novel while also portraying the sort of dystopian vision the USSR was to become. It was banned there between 1921 and 1988 don’tcherknow.
So the moral is this: ebooks are great and all, but useless if you want strangers to know what you’re reading and realise how tasteful and deep you are.
By ‘absolutely must’ I mean ‘might like to’, of course.
The long winter draws in, brittle and dry as a glamour model’s hair extensions. A chill wind fumbles with forlorn Christmas decorations that punctuate the street like misplaced apostrophe’s. The book sits on my shelf staring at me, reproach in its spine, reminding me that I promised to lend it out and yet have consistently failed to do so. The book is a Victorian orphan peering sadly through the toyshop window, abandoned and alone.
I’m sorry, book. Would you forgive me, book?
The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of His Window And Disappeared is the debut novel by Jonas Jonasson.
Allan Karlsson is 100 years old. But rather than celebrate his centenary in the warm, fuzzy confines of his nursing home he clambers out the window and begins a journey across his native Sweden the book’s blurb describes as ‘picaresque’. This maundering and murderous voyage is interspersed with an account of Allan’s life to date, in which it turns out that he was present at a number of the 20th century’s key moments.
Picaresque, in case you were as unaware of its meaning as I was until right this second, means: of or relating to rascals or rogues.
The professionals claim that the rules are simple: edit, edit some more. Be prepared to kill your darlings; avoid clichéd turns of phrase like ‘kill your darlings’. Adjectives are not your friends, nor are similes or puns. Especially not puns – the only thing less acceptable than a pun is an exclamation mark! Metaphors should be treated, at best, with suspicion and sentences should be succinct and to the point. One subject to a sentence, please. On the subject of succinctness, writing is not an excuse to show off the breadth of your vocabulary, and likewise you should resist the temptation to write in jargon, dialect or argot. Your characters say things, sometimes they may shout if the circumstances are appropriate: they do not exclaim, intimate, demand or do anything else that suggests you’ve engaged in the act of writing, which is gauche.
‘The professionals’ may never have heard of Gustave Flaubert or James Joyce but they would approve of Jonas Jonasson if writers weren’t all consumed by paralysing envy.
Hundred Year Old Man’s prose style is straightforward and almost child-like in its simplicity, which neatly reflects the character of the protagonist. This is not to say the book or its hero is/are simple-minded – there is a difference between simplicity and stupidity. Rather, the book aims at, and achieves, the sort of utilitarian legibility that Ikea instruction manuals tend to lack. I’m assuming that it was faithfully translated into English.
For those of you who are less pretentious than moi, Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing runs that the words on the page should be the tip of the iceberg; most of the meaning lies beneath the surface and should be inferred by the reader rather than explicitly stated by the writer. Hundred Year Old Man is that sort of novel, although it’s arguably a bit too irreverent for that sort of chin stroking analysis (give that man a Booker prize).
The plot zips along as quickly as the body count mounts, its gentle (if a little black) humour obscuring the serious points – cotton candy with a hook in it.
It’s a holiday read you won’t need to hide on an ebook. For best results, team it up with a tall glass of something alcoholic that isn’t some form of banana liquor and doesn’t come with an umbrella. Preferably vodka based.
Scandinavian books, films and tv shows often tend towards dark and gloomy – bleak affairs that can weigh a little heavy. Hundred Year Old Man is not that – in fact if there’s a criticism it’s that it risks coming off as rather lightweight; impressive flights of imagination that quickly become a little self-conscious, even repetitive at times. In a word: superficial.
That’s not how I read it, though.
If you go to bed every night clutching an F Scott Fitzgerald collection to your bosom, the prose might not suit your taste. If you like your fiction to come with lashings of overt literary pretension, likewise. For everyone else it’s easy on the eye, it’s got a lot of charm and you might learn something without once feeling like you’re being lectured.
Take me for example: I learned the meaning of the word ‘picaresque’.