WHY is my most original novel so far. It is a satire on the modern world, and also a self-satire. For the concept I had in mind I needed a protagonist free to look at the way things are with entirely fresh eyes, somebody who would feel able to think whatever he liked, however jolting or outrageous. It’s hard to achieve that if you still see yourself as being involved in the world, and therefore afraid of the consequences of your conclusions.
Follow these leads and one obvious situation presents itself – a narrator who is so unhappy with his life that he is contemplating suicide, and so discontented with how he has arrived in this situation that he prefers to imagine how things might have been otherwise. Which implies he is likely to be young, a time when your family and education inevitably dominate your story more than your personal achievements or failures. The fact that he is suicidal completes the scenario, for the mind faced with intolerable stresses often retreats from reality into an imagined world. The psychiatrists call this escape a fugue. And one pressure above all can be more intolerable than most – an attempt to ram religious belief down anyone’s throat. All of a sudden, Simon lives! And since the story needs a room into which he can blamelessly barricade himself, he becomes a disillusioned junior doctor, resident in a hospital.
And what is the result? Mere farce? No. Under its façade, this novel points to uncomfortable truths about the folly and thoughtlessness of much of what we are doing today – our overpopulation, our pursuit of sensationalism, our breathless obsession with sex, our abandonment of values, our fanatic preservation of life at any cost.
All that accepted, the subject may not strike readers as one particularly suitable for comic fiction. But why shouldn’t it be? I quote Beaumarchais at the front of the book. He wrote he had to laugh at everything, otherwise he would be forced to cry. Much depends on the treatment. Besides, what is humour but the gap between what we experience, and what we expect? Laughter frequently underlies tragedy, just as comedy, much as we chuckle, is often founded on the misfortunes of others.
But to make the broader point, what is all art anyway? What are pictures, or statues, not just novels or poems? Artificial constructs that look away from reality even as they look at it. There’s an essay in Writing Class that expands the point. And the self-satire? Think about the act of novel-writing. What does a novelist do except retreat from the real world and invent an imaginary one which explains existence as he or she sees it to his or her better satisfaction. My mockery adds in temporary insanity, and more, literary word play and highly artificial dialogue and events as evidence of that stare of mind.