In the introduction to his 1995 novel, Crash, J G Ballard wrote “We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary to invent the fictional content of his novel”. What was true in 1995 is surely even more valid now. With rolling news channels, moving billboard headlines and permanent wireless connectivity, it is easy to feel that we are immersed in the mass media, permanently connected, and surrounded by news. An appropriate time, then, for a bold new experiment from British writer Gordon Burn, whose latest work, Born Yesterday, is an attempt to write the news as a novel.
Burn takes a broad timeframe of summer 2007, which certainly makes for fascinating reading. In the UK at least, it was a strange time. One of the wettest on record, it hardly felt like a summer at all. As the rain continued to pour from the sky, swathes of the country disappeared under floodwater. As Burn notes, dry land was not the only thing to go missing. It was “a summer of disappearances, absences, some voluntary, others not”. This compelling theme echoes through the novel, as it does through the lives of the main characters.
June saw the final days of Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister, and his disappearance from Downing Street. Blair had been such a dominating presence in UK life that the Glasgow terrorist attacks, which occurred just three days after his departure, were curiously notable for his absence. The guy who had left his footprints over every major national event since 1997 – from the death of Princess Diana, through the millennium celebrations, on to the London terrorist attacks of 2005 – was suddenly not there. The novel takes us to his former constituency and bears witness to the removal of the trappings of Prime Ministerdom, conducted, appropriately, in the absence of the man himself.
Two more of the UK’s four surviving Prime Ministers make key appearances in the novel, the frail Margaret Thatcher, by now fully transformed from Iron Lady to mere old lady, and the ascendant Gordon Brown. Burn follows these leaders in a stalker-like manner, and in doing so, parrots once again the voyeuristic tendencies of the modern media. Like many inhabitants of the news, all three forsake the security of anonymity in favour of that of the detective detail and closed circuit camera. As Burn draws comparisons with the new protections being built around Brown’s constituency home with those applied to Blair’s a decade earlier, it’s east to see how the emergence into public (and media) life requires a kind of retreat from it at the same time. A peculiar kind of disappearance made necessary by other events that are rarely out of the news.
Of course, a more explicit disappearance dominates the book, and rightly so — it dominated the news over those damp months. The unsolved abduction of British toddler Madeleine McCann from a Portuguese holiday resort was a tragic family event that became an epic soap opera and something of a watershed moment for the UK press. Within days of the girl’s abduction, the media was commandeered into launching an international hunt for Madeleine (‘Little Maddy’ in the inevitable tabloid shorthand) before commandeering the case for itself, altering it from the search for a missing child into a media event all of its own. As the case dragged on, the news chatter became less and less about the whereabouts of the child, and more and more about the media response to that initial event. Before the summer had even ended, the ‘Disappearance of Madeleine McCann’ had become an ever growing hollow circle, with a four-year-old girl as a strange absence at the centre.
In dealing with the McCann case as a novelist, Burn humanises its characters as the media could not, or would ever need, to do. Details of the lives of Kate and Gerry McCann, of their family, friends and associates, are shaded in and brought to life in a way that is simply not possible by an industry now dominated by the pithy soundbite and snappy headline. In an age of celebrity news, Madeleine McCann is the perfect media celebrity. We sympathise with her plight, we feel her hurt and we experience loss without every actually knowing her as a real person. Her disappearance makes Madeleine McCann as ephemeral and as untouchable as the genuine celebrities of old. It is her unreality as a human being that makes her real as an uncanny icon. Disappearances. Absences. Again and again.
As absorbing as it is, the news still cannot deliver one of the key elements of the art of the novel: a singular narrative. Stories hint at possessing a beginning, middle and an end, but cannot deliver all, if any of them. The key storylines in Born Yesterday are appropriately fractured. The Madeleine McCann case remains, in the book, as in life, heartbreakingly unresolved, while the rise of Gordon Brown has several beginnings, all of ambivalent authority.
For this reason, when a narrative does begin to emerge, it is not formed by the news as reported, but by Burn himself, appearing here as the newest type of media participant: the news junkie. Unable to sleep, Burn’s character obsesses over the individual newsbulletin dramas until hidden links emerge to connect the seemingly disparate dramatis personae.
These buried connections run through Born Yesterday like a network of invisible lines. The eye defects suffered by Brown, Little Maddy, Robert Murat (initially suspected as her abductor), and Mullah Omar, of the Taliban; the link from the McCann’s Portuguese resort through Paul McCartney, his estranged wife Heather, TV presenter Fiona Phillips and back to Brown; the recurring significance of soft toys, battered through love. The obsessive persistence of these connections and the hidden bonds that link places through time recalls the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair, and the novel is richer for them.
It is these links, rather than a conventional narrative, that make this book a success. The news is not a novel, but a constellation of distinct events, separate but somehow connected, sometimes tenuously, sometimes not. This understanding makes Born Yesterday a satisfying read, an experiment certainly worth repeating.