Just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Gordon Burn’s work has always occupied a grey area where fact and fiction, journalism and literature meet. His novels are reminiscent of those non-fiction pioneers Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, using fiction to illuminate and deepen real events. Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), was a re-creation of the life of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, while Happy like Murderers explored the lives and crimes of Fred and Rosemary West. Both were meticulously researched, but often allowed a fiction writer’s license to speculate on motive and guilt. His fictional novel Alma Cogan merged the two genres, by creating a fictional tale about a real life person, the 1950’s singing star, and suggesting some kind of link between her and infamous killer Myra Hindley.
It’s fair to say that Burn is interested in the darker side of human nature, and in Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel he creates a loose fiction out of the news headlines of the summer of 2007, a summer dominated by the image of Madeleine McCann, the toddler who went missing from her family’s holiday apartment in Praia de la Luz in Portugal.
This was proving to be a summer of disappearances, absences, some voluntary, other’s not; he was interested in the idea of absence, of erasure and self-erasure
The central character starts as ‘he’, becomes ‘I’ and eventually reveals himself as Burn, a Chelsea based journalist, originally from the North who, in charged and vivid prose explores the top stories of that summer from the headlining grabbing disappearance of Madeleine McCann; the floods and foot-and-mouth outbreak; the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport to the unveiling of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. Burn wanders, Mrs Dalloway like, through his London suburbs, where he watches Margaret Thatcher take a walk in his local park, muses on Tony Blair’s recent departure as prime minister and weighs up Gordon Brown’s chances as the latest PM.
On this loose structure – this tale of three Prime Ministers – Burn hangs a very thin narrative which takes in Wimbledon, Northern Rock and even ‘How Clean is Your House’. The effect is novel as rolling news where coincidence is not only a theme but part of the structure of a novel which suggests that we consume the news in fragments and create the whole as best we can.
The abundance of media images creates a screen between the individual and the world, and that this is the source of the feeling we all increasingly have of seeing everything but of being able to do nothing. The media gives us images of everything – but only images.
Opening with the pain of Madeleine McCann’s parents, the novel is filled with other absences. Flood waters wipe away streets while foot and mouth decimates the countryside. Empty houses dominate, from the room in the Ocean Club Resort in Praia de la Luz, to Tony Blair’s constituency home, still guarded by police officers, taped off like its own crime scene. Burn muses on the house where Fred and Rosemary West lived and killed and wonders if the fact of its bulldozing does anything to erase the pain it once held. Later in the book, Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull is put under guard at night, despite having been removed from the building, and this piece of art serves as a neat metaphor for the blurring of glamour and death, celebrity and pain.
Like Mrs Dalloway, Born Yesterday creates unexpected rhythms and coincidences that suggest a deeper meaning in the news that we consume. Like some kind of pattern analyst, Burn points out unexpected ways of looking at the news to create connections and patterns that we might otherwise not see. His is a world of celebrity, where, no matter who you are – grieving mother or incoming Prime Minister – there are rules and ways in which you are expected to behave. He is interested in how things appear and how we, as news consumers expect them to appear.
The media of real life. The murder leisure industry. Privacy is so last century, the headline read, but we need help to adjust.
Thus, Kate McCann is untrusted because she does not cry for the cameras. Online websites like gonetoosoon.com provide a realm of virtual communal mourning. Doctors become terrorists and terrorists are doctors. Despite having news all the time, we know so very little, we trust even less and we try to find the truth in our television news, when in fact, the truth is largely absent.
What does a mother look like when her child has been wrenched from her?
This notion that there are two types of lives, the one you are living and the one that people believe you are living is the dominant theme throughout Born Yesterday and Burn suggests that once you are ‘ famous’, a celebrity, the disparity between these two lives widens. He looks for connections and coincidences between people who have chosen fame and people who have become famous through being on television. Both Madeleine McCann and Gordon Brown have a distinctive eye; Paul McCartney once holidayed at Praia de La Luz; the McCann’s legal team also defended The Thick of It star Chris Langham on his charges of child pornography. There is a bravura set piece where Burn bumps into Kate Middleton at his local Tesco Metro and watches her look at the very magazines whose pages she graces, before exiting to the glare of the paparazzi.
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.
The melding of fact and fiction, brought about by our insatiable desire for round the clock news, leaves us, suggests Burn, knowing everything and nothing. Rolling news gives us the pieces of a collage and it is up to us to create the overall picture. Despite its title, I hesitate to call Born Yesterday a novel. It is, in some ways, indefinable, much like the news it explores but it is a fascinating and enthralling look at the point where fact and fiction collide. Given what Burn has created out of the events of 2007, it is interesting to wonder just what he would have made of 2017…
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