April 13, 2008
Gordon Burn: Born Yesterday
The cover of Born Yesterday quotes novelist David Peace calling Burn “the best British writer there is.” Peace and Burn have a certain sensibility in common so we might expect some bias, but even so, at times I would agree with him. Burn’s relentless pursuit of the centre of “the psychopathology of fame” over the last couple of decades has given us some wonderful, overlooked books. His debut novel Alma Cogan (1991) took a subtle look at the tabloid iconography of Myra Hindley while Rupert Thomson was still in short trousers. His last book Best and Edwards was my favourite read of 2006, bringing an exceptional literary intelligence to twin tragic tales of the other end of celebrity: a book about football which even a soccerphobe like me could love. So when I heard that he was going to be taking the major news events of 2007 and making a novel out of them, I was hyperventilating with anticipation. My usual trawls of eBay, publisher’s publicists and elsewhere at the start of the year for an advance copy proved fruitless; no wonder, as it turns out Burn only started writing it at Christmas, and finished just six weeks before publication, in mid-February. A novel in six weeks? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Iain Banks. Oh dear.
Here’s the news: it’s not a novel. There is no overall storyline, and no invention at all so far as I could tell (even the joining character, ‘he’, turns out to be Burn himself, researching the book). Stylistically it’s indistinguishable from Best and Edwards, which means it has a ruminative air, circling its subject matter with facts and implications, and always returning to Burn’s bête noire: the public appetite for pointless fame, the media happy to feed it, and the effect it has on consumer and consumed.
Also like Best and Edwards, Born Yesterday is not ashamed to admit when someone else has said something better than Burn could – or before he could – and the book is rich with aphorisms from reliable sources:
There are really two kinds of life, notes the American writer James Salter. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.
Salter joins J.G. Ballard, Philip Larkin, George Steiner, John McGahern, and names new to me, all with something to say on this psychopathology which so fascinates Burn (and me, otherwise why would I be writing this?). Howard Singerman: “The collective memory of any recent generation has now become the individual memory of each of its members, for the things that carry the memory are marked not by the privacy, the specificity and insignificance of Proust’s madeleine, but precisely by their publicness and their claim to significance.”
But where does this leave the meat of Burn’s book, the news stories and people we think we know from the current affairs of the past summer, as we wait patiently for him to transform their base stuff into art? It doesn’t happen, quite. The main players are Tony Blair as he hands over his premiership to Gordon Brown (with his “folded Shar Pei features”), the bombers of Glasgow airport and instantaneous media hero John Smeaton, and Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of Madeleine McCann “who vanished into folklore and common fame” on holiday in Portugal.
Burn treads carefully with the last, justifying their inclusion in the book on the basis that their media story is one of manipulation at both ends – and I bet he wishes he’d held the deadline back a few weeks to cover the McCanns’ libel victory against Express newspapers – for reasons fair and foul. It’s also clear he couldn’t resist it because of the parallels of the McCann story to some of the content of his 1995 novel Fullalove, which he explicitly reminds us of (to be fair, most of us probably needed reminding), as well as some inconsequential connections with other elements of the book (Proust/madeleine, defective eye/Gordon Brown).
There’s the odd bit of flashy prose which is even more reminiscent of Fullalove, when Burn engages with the garish elements of urban modernity (“…on the top of the number 19, gazing out of the tagged, hazed window, catching the effervescent blue of the digitised sign on the side of the bus occasionally bubbling up against shop window displays and stretches of marble curtain-walling…”), and the fiction comes really only when he extrapolates into the lives of people he sees, such as the woman in the supermarket buying “a slippery stack of New!, Now, Star and other junk magazines” and an addict’s supply of chocolate bars:
this innocent but potentially sordid transaction – the basement living room, the gorging, the trips to the bathroom, back to New! and EastEnders; a woman scoring her drug of choice at the local Tesco.
Again the most succinct summing up of the problem with the sort of fame we are now exposed to, comes from another writer, this time Thomas de Zengotita. It could equally apply to the benighted state of our bookstores, where actress-slash-model-turned-author gets more shelf space and print coverage than fine writers like Burn.
Real heroes today must become stars if they are to exist in public culture at all. That is, they must perform. But as soon as they do that, they can’t compete with real stars – who are performers.