Fragments

Donald Barthelme, in See the Moon?, in 1968:

Fragments are the only forms I trust.

Italo Calvino, in If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller, in 1979:

…the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears.

Gordon Burn, in Born Yesterday from 2008, writing about the erstwhile Eastenders actress Susan Tully:

A colleague had logged her onto YouTube for the first time that very afternoon, and the fact that just tapping the words ‘Michelle Fowler’ into the thing could back so many moment of the past crowding back – a pandemonium of fragments (an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now)…

Jaron Lanier, in You are not a Gadget in 2010:

Instead of people being treated as the sources of their own creativity, commercial aggregation and abstraction sites presented anonymized fragments of creativity as products that might have fallen from the sty or been dug up from the ground, obscuring the true sources.

Theo Tait on Gordon Burn

Nice, longish essay in the LRB this issue, by Theo Tait on Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday which I have written about now and again.

A more unified and organised book would have excluded many of Born Yesterday’s highlights: the brilliant description, for example, of Kate Middleton being hit simultaneously by a paparazzi ambush and a hailstorm, outside Tesco Local on the King’s Road: ‘It was like Kate Middleton’s appearance on the street was the cue for special effects to turn the rain machine on, for the music to be brought up high and the smokers, taciturn and sullen to that point, to become animated into a jostling crowd scene.’ Quoting selectively doesn’t do justice to a bravura five-page passage that works by its accretion of big ideas and weird local detail. The writing is often relentless and incantatory, but it is also sharp-eyed and full of vivid particularity. Here is David Beckham appealing on TV for information about Madeleine, ‘holding up a picture captioned with the single word desaparecida’: ‘the broad diamond-encrusted ring, the buffed pearl-cuticled nails, the big fuck-off watch’. It’s good to see the British novel, or whatever Born Yesterday is, showing a bit of experimental swagger. From time to time, I even found myself excitedly wondering whether Gordon Burn hadn’t written a sort of Waste Land for the rolling news era.

A pandemonium of fragments

Gordon Burn, in Born Yesterday, writing about the erstwhile Eastenders actress Susan Tully:

A colleague had logged her onto YouTube for the first time that very afternoon, and the fact that just tapping the words ‘Michelle Fowler’ into the thing could back so many moment of the past crowding back – a pandemonium of fragments (an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now)…

Isn’t this exactly what services like Friendfeed leave us with – just an aggregation of fragments? And how well does this represent us – are we more than the sum of our parts?

The News as a Novel

Born YesterdayAm reading Gordon Burns’ Born Yesterday at the moment. Burn is one of my favourite writers, whether he’s producing non-fiction such as his remarkable books about serial killers (Peter Sutcliffe in Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son; Fred and Rose West in Happy Like Murderers) or the recent Best and Edwards about the Manchester United players; or fiction like Alma Cogan and Fullalove.

His writes brilliantly about celebrity, and infamy, and describes rather than explains, leaving you to make your own mind up. In other words, he treats the reader like an intelligent person.

With Born Yesterday, though, he is drifting into more experimental territory, presenting news stories from last summer – the search for Madeleine McCann, Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair etc – as a continuous narrative, pointing out the coincidences and connections as he goes. In many ways with this book Burn is delving into the kind of stuff that B.S. Johnson would approve of, effectively writing a non-fiction novel. Johnson famously considered that telling stories was telling lies, and therefore a Bad Thing (for a good introduction to Johnson and his work, Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant is superb. He is famous for doing stuff like having a hole cut into the pages of a novel so the reader can see into the future by reading the text a few pages in advance).

Burn is fundamentally right in that the news these days is a novel. Much of the news and the way in which it is presented seems to have more in common with soap opera plots than traditional reporting: the McCann issue being a case in point, with the attitude towards the parents of the missing girl wavering between sympathy, then approbation, mistrust and back to sympathy again.

But the news now is a story in which we can all participate. Being halfway through, I’m not sure if Burn will touch on the role that we all can have now as citizen journalists, or social reporters. But the images that we take on our mobile phones and post to Flickr or Facebook, or the video we capture and stream through services like Qik, or the opinions we report on our blogs and social network profiles all add to the primordial soup of content from which the news will be formed. As traditional media organisations get more and more wise to the role that citizen journalism can play, we will see a preponderance of amateur news reporting, creating a richer tapestry from which the news ‘novel’ can be formed.

Burn has the advantage of looking back at events and seeing them within a wider context. Perhaps this is the role that traditional media will play in the future, pulling together all the threads of the content produced by us, reporting on what is going on around us.

Update: By sheer chance, there was an article on B.S. Johnson on Guardian Online yesterday.