Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters

Don De Lillo is one of my favourite authors. I relish reading books that deal with difficult issues and those that face death head on. Add those two facts together and I should have loved Zero K . In his latest release, Don De Lillo looks at the issues of euthanasia combined with cryogenics, giving the wealthy and ill the chance to decide when to die, along with the promise of living for ever. De Lillo does a good job of creating atmosphere, but the setting he achieves is cold and clinical. There is a lack of heart that detracts from the whole reading experience: perhaps I just didn’t care enough about the characters, Jeffrey, the protagonist, his father, Ross, and his dying stepmother, Artis.

In De Lillo’s Cosmopolis we were swept into a chaotic futuristic New York. The lead character, Eric, isn’t necessarily likeable, but he is compelling, and I stayed hooked as his day deteriorated. In Zero K, the coldness of the cryogenic theme seeps through both the setting and the characters. Jeffrey travels to a remote part of  Russia to see Artis and Ross before she dies in a strange facility that preserves the body until such time comes that technology can bring people back to life. This unnatural act is mirrored in the strange, pared down surroundings of long corridors, endless doors, and the writing itself echoes this remoteness, this blankness.

A book about facing death, about  the wait before death, about choosing to walk towards death, is always going to be a hard read. I was compelled to keep reading, but with less relish than other of De Lillo’s works. But does that mean this isn’t a good book? I’ve checked out the other reviews on Amazon. The reviews are written by a mix of those who have read De Lillo’s other works and those who are new to him. Universally, the ordinary reader/reviewer does not seem to be grabbed by Zero K. The chilly atmosphere has deterred even those who like me are fans, who approached the book with eager anticipation. De Lillo’s books are generally critically acclaimed, however, and this raises the question in my mind, ‘Do I have to like a book for it to be good? ‘. On a superficial level, the answer is, of course, no. One person may love a book, another dislike it intensely. We all have favourite genres and will say with passion, ‘I hate sci-fi!’ or, ‘I love chick lit.’ Although I don’t enjoy the atmosphere of Zero K, it contains good writing. In fact, if De Lillo wasn’t so good at conveying atmosphere, perhaps we couldn’t feel so chilled by the book.  And writing about difficult people and difficult issues sometimes makes for an amazing read.  I’m also reading Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future at the moment which is harrowing, but in which Svetlana Alexievich really manages to convey the humanity of people affected by the incident.  Another book that I am midway through is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling . Keenan is the best writer that I have come across in the selection of hostage memoirs that I have been studying, In the first half of the book he drags us down into his mind while he is in solitary confinement during the initial period that he is held. Again, this is not an easy read, Keenan feels that he is going mad, and he writes into that madness. But it is compelling. I want to read on to find what happens next, even though I know the outcome from newspaper reports, from reading John McCarthy’s version of their shared experience. Keenan does not attempt to make himself likeable, I think his aim was to communicate his experience with veracity, but there is enough humanity in what he wrote to make me care. 

 This also makes me reflect on my own writing. I asked a friend to read the first section of the book’s second draft, and she reflected that she wasn’t sure if she liked my characters.  There is a fine line here.  My characters don’t need to be totally likeable, the people I’m writing about need to have flaws, need to have the possibility that they will change, but they also need to be compelling enough, likeable enough to make the reader keep on reading. Returning to Zero K, perhaps this is just what De Lillo’s characters lack. Jeffrey, Ross and Artis don’t make me care enough. And considering one of DeLillo’s books that I loved, The Body Artist, in which the lead character Lauren, loses her husband and deals with a strange sort of haunting,  the way de Lillo writes makes me care. When I pick up a book, I want to care, I need to care about the characters.  For me, there is no point reading a book unless I engage emotionally, unless I really care what happens. It is easy to care about the people who lived through Chernobyl, about Brian Keenan, because they are real.  Perhaps, unusually, this time, De Lillo has failed in the writer’s duty to make people care. Without emotional engagement, a novel is no better than a list of words, and that is something I will take away and remember when editing my own writing. 


Zero K is released today and costs between £7 and £12 at time of writing, depending on format.


Review: Kate Tempest, reading from her new novel @DLWP

This is a late review. I’m not sure why I didn’t write it up last month, I can only think that I had too much on. But anyway, last month I saw Kate Tempest read from her new novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses . Tempest is better known for her spoken word poetry, and was up front about this being her first novel. Up front is very much her style, uncompromising, and it made for a slightly awkward interview. Tip: if you are talking to Kate Tempest on stay, find an interviewer more empathetic to her style than a middle aged man. The question and answer session was stilted and awkward, with Tempest only finding her flow when she ad-libbed with the audience. (Interestingly, I pick up the same vibe from an interview with Tempest in the May issue of Vogue… doesn’t seem to be online but you can see the photoshoot here.) She brought her dog to the event and there was a nice moment when he let her know he wasn’t too happy to only see her from a distance.

This isn’t a review of the book, I haven’t read it yet – busy month, long pile of books to read, and in many ways I don’t want to read it. Instead, like a member of the audience requested, I want to hear Kate herself read it. In her hands, a page of prose became poetry, because transformed, became music. The way she performs the words dance off the page. This is a book that begs to become an audiobook, read by the author. There’s a review of the book in the New Yorker if you want an insight from someone who has read it. Interestingly, at the New York launch, the audience wanted her to keep reading from the book.

So, what have I learned from Kate Tempest? I’m just about to embark on reading some of my work out loud at a small event. In watching Kate Tempest I was totally inspired about finding the rhythms in my work when I read it out loud. I think for every writer, performing work changes it: when practising for my event I see extraneous phrases to cut that look fine when they lie unspoken on the page.  I’ve always been a writer, but not the person on stage. I need to find the performer in me.

The Bricks That Built the Houses costs £8/9/10 depending on format at time of writing.

No happy ending, no pot of gold

I’ve been thinking about possible endings to the book I’m working on. I’ve written an end, but it might not be the right end. At the same time as writing the book, which in part is based on life after being held hostage, I’ve also been reading for research. My first draft complete, and part way into the first rewrite I’ve been studying Some Other Rainbow, the story of John McCarthy and Jill Morrell. This is the first book that I’ve read that equally reflects the experience of the person left behind and the person held hostage, something that I try to do in the book I’m writing.
It was amazing to read this true experience, to see what resonates with what I’ve written and what doesn’t. Jill writes about extensive campaigning, working on the political reasons behind hostage taking at a time when international relations were difficult and dramatic changes were seem in the geopolitical landscape. I hadn’t even considered the political aspects of what happens to my character. I will think about it more, but I suspect that I won’t be trying to expand on that arena.
What did interest me in particular is the experience of both John and Jill after his release. That’s a significant part of my book, and while I knew from the start that it wouldn’t be an easy period for the couple I’m writing about, at first I wasn’t clear what would happen to them. Writing myself into the story it became clear they would separate, the difficulties becoming overwhelming for a while. And depending on how the book ends they may or may not get back together. So it surprised me that I was upset when I followed up Some Other Rainbow by reading a 2009 article from Jill Morrell, in which she explained that she and John broke up four years after his return. She expressed the unresolved feelings that she had about spending five years of her life on the campaign, and the impossibility of attaining the ‘normal’ life they both wanted. I guess when you read a story following a couple through a traumatic experience, when you get to know both of them, there is some sort of unwritten promise, that for resolution, the relationship will survive. Some Other Rainbow ended at a point where John and Jill were together: it is only because they are real people, with real lives, because newspapers continue to be interested in them, that I was able to follow up what happened. I need to think about this more in the context of how I end my own book, and I’ll be revisiting Some Other Rainbow too.

Review: The Girl with Nine Wigs

Sophie is facing a rare cancer at the age of twenty one. In The Girl with Nine Wigs, a diary written with European openness and hard hitting humour, she shares the journey she didn’t expect to take.
No eyelashes, no hair on her head, Sophie seizes the challenges of cancer treatment, adopting new personae with each new wig. She picks green feather eyelashes to wear with Platina, the wig that says, ‘Yes, indeed, I’m wearing a wig.’

“time could take away my weddings and divorces, my children and corrective underwear.”

No amount of dressing up takes away from the scary knowledge that every twinge, every headache could be a new tumour. Sophie writes honestly about the changes to her body, like the first hair loss – her pubes – and how this impacts on the life of a 21 year old student. She writes about her first time clubbing after five months in hospital, about meeting new guys, and dates and sex when she has to wonder whether her wig will come off.

Sophie has some great friends, some from ‘before cancer’, some who she meets as part of her new experience. She has a supportive family, who have just gone through the challenge of her mother’s breast cancer. She has humour and perspective on her side as she writes, but throughout all the positives her very real battle comes out.

Every person’s story is unique, every person with cancer has a different experience, but in The Girl With the Nine Wigs Sophie Van Der Stap has truly written something unusual and well worth reading. You can also hear Sophie’s story … and meet some of the wigs … in her TEDx talk. The Girl with Nine Wigs: A Memoir  costs around £8.99 in paperback or £2.99 on Kindle at time of writing.

The Secret Diary of Agent Spitback

What I’m writing #whatimwriting @writingbubble #prose4t

So, most of April has passed and I haven’t updated the blog. I guess this is just a reflection of the limited hours in the day. I’ve been to a work conference, which took all of one weekend and more, and I’ve taken the kids away for a fabulous weekend which I am midway through writing about for Family Friendly Working. And, oh yes, I’ve written 23000 words of the second draft of Blindsided as part of Campnanowrimo.

And what have I learnt?

1.. I’m shattered. The conference came right after three weeks of school holidays which wasn’t great. Next year it comes at the end of term which means at least I’ll feel prepared, and I’ll have some down time after.

2. The Amazing Family Science Weekend is, as it says, Amazing. And exhausting. We will go back, though.

3. It’s a bugger of a challenge to start writing again with all that going on.

Nonetheless …

I’m happy with what I’ve written.

I still need to go back and question my second main character’s motivations and actions – are they plausible, how much of what they do is reaction to the dominant lead character, when do they start to push back, to think of their own interests?

I need to work on the supporting cast – some are two dimensional stereotypes, others are less than that, just names with a few actions. They need to be more.

The symbolism and foreshadowing in the book is developing, but I need to do more.

I have more reading to do. A lot more reading. I had a good talk about PhDs with a great tutor from last year. He was very supportive about the book idea and felt I was on track … but I do need to fill in an application form before finishing the book if I want the book to be part of the PhD

Oh … and the ending.

At the end of the first draft I wrapped everything up but I wasn’t happy with it, so on the train yesterday I dumped down 15 other ways it could end. That still needs more subconscious consideration, I think. And I don’t need to do anything about the ending for a while.

But …

I’m happy with the 23,000 words … which will be 25,000 words in the next couple of days. I think I will pause there and work on the characters and depth. I might, just might then have a ‘first three chapters’ worth doing something with. I might possibly have something to take to the Festival of Writing. If I go … At times I’m optimistic about how much better it is, at other times I think the whole thing is clichéd and pointless, and there are more than enough books in this world.

But nonetheless, I am going to continue to write. Slowly.

Essay: Writing trauma

‘First person narrators can’t die so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.’ [1]

Experience is not neat, well organised. Life is full of knots, but there is a line through.

War is a terrible experience, so why is so much written about it? Diaries, news reports, fiction: we write war, read it, it fills the shelves in newsagents, libraries and bookshops.

Survivors of war emerge changed. Life is shifted by war: previous experience looks different through the lens of survival, a lens sharpened by the deaths of others. This drives the need to tell the new story, and through that find the re-formed self. Those who have been through life changing experiences are often compelled to tell, talk, blog, write, to reclaim their story. Those whose lives are swept away by trauma, write in order to take control … only I can write my story.

Writing in the midst of trauma may not reach the whole experience. Paul Fussell quotes Robert Kee, a RAF flyer in the second world war, writing about his diary: ‘From all the quite detailed evidence of these diary entries I cannot add up a very coherent picture of how it really was to be on a bomber squadron in those days … No wonder it is those artists who re-create life rather than try to recapture it who, in one way, prove the good historians in the end.’ [2] Writing after trauma takes time. Walter Benjamin notes in The Storyteller, ‘ten years later … poured out in the flood of war books’[3] and this is reflected by Siegfried Sassoon who wrote his memoir around ten years after the war.[4] Time shifts experience into something else.

In writing trauma there are a number of participants: the person who has had the traumatic experience, and the author. Sometimes they are the same person. Every author requires a reader to function as witness. This paper is grounded in triangles where borders between experience and fiction shift. This is exemplified in Siegfried Sassoon’s experience in WW1, his poetry and memoirs, and Pat Barker’s fictionalised version of his experience. It also rests on my creative writing, my writing about other people’s experiences, and my critical and autoethnographic analysis. Overarching both these set-ups is the two-fold question: why write trauma, why write trauma that belongs to someone else? In this section of the paper I examine trauma and the need to write, of those who have experienced it, those who write it, and those who witness it on their behalf.

In Regeneration, in the conversation from which this dissertation takes its title, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon discuss pig keeping, poetry and ergotherapy, the theory on which Dr Brock is basing his treatment of Owen. Owen says, ‘He thinks we – the patients – are like Anteaus in the sense that we’ve been ungrounded by the war. And the way back to health is to re-establish the link between oneself and the earth, but understanding ‘earth’ to mean society as well as nature.’[5] The whole conversation is grounded in earth: the men joke about keeping pigs after the War (and insist that pigs are clean animals – not dirt, not death). They discuss how Hercules lifted Antaeus off the ground and talk about Owen’s poem, The Inspection:

Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,

For being ‘dirty on parade’.

He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot

Was blood, his own.

‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.

‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,

Far off to where his wound had bled

And almost merged for ever into clay. [6]

In giving Owen departing instructions to work on his poetry, Sassoon says, ‘You’ve got to sweat your guts out’,[7] an earthy description of writing, made all the stronger as both men have seen men’s guts exposed. In a world of strangeness and uncertainty, where life teeters on an edge and the abyss of death is visible, writing can be grounding. In a world where, ‘Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures,’[8] writing was a legitimate outlet. At a time when talking about feelings was riven with conflict for men, writing provided a foundation, a place to process life changing trauma.

Trauma is hard to face but it cannot be ignored. Adorno raised questions about the possibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. He then wrote, eleven years later, time shifting his perspective, ‘The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting; Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormir, must be secularized. Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it.’[9] Humans are compelled to write trauma, read it, view it again. Trauma prohibits art, but demands it, and Walter Davis suggests in his paper, Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11 , we may be compelled to live it again.[10] One must sleep no more, no longer. A decade passes, it is time to wake up from the repeating dream, and seize it, take control, create art and poetry, create a new self. Adorno continues: ‘it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.’ Art and writing are different from factual portrayals of traumatic experiences. Images of war burn in the mind, remain as scar tissue. Owen’s poetry does more than any list of facts to convey what happened. Writing, poetry, photography reach across time and space and allow us to create memorials to the past, new stories for the future. Those who have experienced trauma can feel that they have created something that stands apart from them, that can be exhibited, and as a result there are witnesses to their pain.

Artistic recreation and repetition of trauma, of tragedy, has occurred over thousands of years. War writing is not always but often tragic. AD Nuttall suggests in his book Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? that there have been different answers to his titular question at different times.[11] In ancient Greek theatre, audiences enjoyed catharsis, ‘The purification of the emotions by vicarious experience’.[12] No one really dies: horrible events are controlled and resolved. Even a death in a tragedy comes with a sense that it is the correct resolution. But it is more complex than simply rejoicing in death under control. There is a battle between our innate aggression – one primitive instinct – and our need for civilisation, for Eros – love. Reading, writing tragedy, where the end is a death of some sort that is simultaneously wrong and right, allows us to feel this conflict. Tragedies are consoling because they are in the past, complete – but unsettling because they resonate with now. They must have a message that transcends time. The strongest message to be written is death, we cannot escape it however fast we write, read, run. Tragedy is Walter Benjamin’s death in the misapprehension that he would be deported back to France from Spain as he tried to escape the Nazis. Tragedy is rooted in reality, in one death, the death of millions in war, in works like Wilfrid Owen’s Futility which highlights the pointlessness of life:

‘O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?’[13]

The dreams of shell-shock victims forced Freud to reframe his concept of dreams as wish-fulfilment: a compulsive repeating return to traumatic experiences did not match up with his pleasure principle. Ellmann writes that in comparing the compulsion to repeat to his grandson’s game of ‘Fort – Da’, Freud found that it ‘resembles tragic drama, which inflicts upon the audience the painful experience of loss, while wresting pleasure out of the aesthetic mastery of that experience.’ Freud concluded that, ‘The compulsion to repeat overrides the pleasure principle’.[14] This compulsion to repeat links to writing trauma and the death drive. Freud himself writes, ‘the goal of all life is death’.[15] I feel this in my writing, can see it in the writing of others: there is a desire for the outcome of publication, the need for an end, for death. This paper repeats a theme that drives through my writing, compels me to write trauma. Freud wrote, ‘the aim of the second [drive] is, by contrast, to dissolve connections, and thus to destroy things … we also call it the death-drive’.[16] Here is a conflict: writing creates rather than destroys, the desire to destroy connections seems in direct opposition to the desire to create. However, in writing, creating one thing destroys something else. Writing a fictionalised memoir of a traumatic experience destroys feelings of lack of control. Perhaps for the author who has not experienced the trauma but is writing someone else’s trauma, as Barker is, writing trauma is still about making sense, about taking control. There is still compulsion to repeat. An event like WW1 compels people to make sense of it over and over again. Considering the death drive further, Bennett and Royle explain: ‘everyone at some level (consciously or unconsciously) is driven by desire to die, to self-destruct, to return to a state of inanimacy. By a sort of uncanny reversal or displacement of perspective, then, life would not be about living, progressing and developing, about pleasure, vitality and staying healthy.’[17] This contributes to the need to write trauma: life is about the desire to die, to find an end, to read, to write an end. Nuttall suggests that Freud’s death drive is: ‘Contrary to popular belief… not primarily a wish for one’s own death but a desire to inflict death on others.’[18] This makes sense in the context of writing and reading fiction about traumatic experiences where one safely inflicts death on others. Nuttall expands on catharsis, and develops it into the idea of exercising emotion – different from passive purging – imagining, watching, dreaming, writing tragedy is in fact preparing ourselves for possible futures. He writes, ‘For the process to work, two things need to be the case: first, the situation must be hypothetical rather than categorical (as football is hypothetical warfare, not actual) and, second, that it should nevertheless involve a probable relation to real danger.’[19] The better the writer, the more real literary danger feels. This is about seizing the death instinct and the human fear of death, embracing the conflict on a safer page or stage, and preparing ourselves for what must come.

Returning to Ellmann’s concept that we write to gain pleasure from aesthetic mastery, what does that mean now? Writing gives us a controlled, albeit temporary, solution to pain, to death, to the desire for death and the need to control it, practice it. Given the popularity of crime stories, war stories, detective stories where the end is neat and the pain we experience imaginary, I suggest that, in line with Freud’s death drive, some part of us is addicted to pain, to death, but beyond that, addicted to the idea that we can control it, that there is a neat resolution where death feels right. It is present in humour when someone else’s pain is entertaining, neutered as the clown stands up and grins after a fall. We rate a good book as one that seduces us to think it is real, we relish life experiences in safety: a commuter reads a thriller on the train, transported to a world rife with adrenaline charges, yet arrives home safely. The book-buyer’s life is safe: books supply something that we crave. Readers and writers are as much experience junkies as those who climb, abseil, skydive. Addiction, repetition: we seek that thrill again and again.

Peter Brooks expands on the idea of story and repetition in Freud’s Masterplot:

‘Narrative always makes the implicit claim to be in a state of repetition, as a going over again of a ground already covered: a sjuzet repeating the fabula, as the detective retraces the tracks of the criminal. This claim to an act of repetition – ‘I sing of’, ‘I tell of’ – appears to be initiatory of narrative. It is equally initiatory of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: it is the first problem and clue that Freud confronts. Evidence of a ‘beyond’ that does not fit neatly into the functioning of the pleasure principle comes first in the dreams of patients suffering from war neuroses … : dreams that return to the moment of trauma, to relive its pain in apparent contradiction of the wish fulfilment theory of dreams.[20]

That returns us to trauma. In writing trauma we seize control of the dreams that will not go away, we become our own heroes, we create our own plot, meaning and end. There is pleasure in rereading a book, trusting the author for resolution. Even if the end is death we feel a sense of rightness in that end. Echoing Nuttall’s concept of the shift from passive catharsis to active exercise of emotions, Brooks writes, ‘the essential experience involved is the movement from a passive to an active role … claiming mastery in a situation to which he has been compelled to submit’ … ‘by this choice he asserts an active mastery of what he must in fact endure’.[21] In Barker’s book, Owen starts a sentence and Sassoon finishes it: ‘”It’s mad not to write about the war when it’s-” “Such an ‘experience’”.[22] They laugh, expressing the insanity, conflict and compulsion in writing about trauma. They write, must write, must take control of the dire situation that they find themselves in at the front, they continue to write until Owen at least is stopped by death. Brooks continues his explanation, ‘We have moved from a postulate of repetition as the assertion of mastery … to a conception whereby repetition works as a process of binding toward the creation of an energetic constant state situation which will permit the emergence of mastery and the possibility of postponement.’[23] Mastery repeats, across Ellmann and Brooks’s writing and within Brooks’ piece. Mastery is about authority, power, dominion, skill. Authorship is rooted in authority, takes skill, gives power and dominion over one’s characters. A number of papers link shell-shock, and indeed Regeneration to the issue of gender.[24] In brief and inadequate summary, shell-shock is allied to female hysteria, forced on men by the relative immobility of trench warfare. Mastery is linked to manhood: ‘The term master was originally applied almost exclusively to men …, is still normally used of a masculine referent’.[25] The battle to overcome a ‘female malady’ is won with mastery of a situation by writing. Mastery seems inextricably linked to that which is taken away by disempowerment, the futility Owen feels in his poem of that name, the irony that Owen and Sassoon use when discussing why one should write about the war. In both the Sherston and the Regeneration trilogies, being a soldier involves following orders without asking for a rationale, taking orders that seem nonsensical, and waiting without any knowledge of exactly what for. Following, taking orders, waiting: all passive actions. Writing is in this situation a way to exercise the emotions, as per Nuttall, to develop mastery, as per Brooks.

For the writer of today, for myself, perhaps for Barker, writing gives mastery over the unfathomable. We seek to deal with the fear of death, to anticipate disaster, to practice it, to fend it off by gripping it tight. We write trauma, because events like WW1 do not go away. It is not the achievement of mastery that is the goal, but to travel through life with hope of mastery. Death is less terrifying if one feels that one can come closer to it, examine it and walk away alive.

Returning to the question of the person who tells, who writes, their own trauma, Adorno writes,

‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living–especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.’[26]

Adorno reconsiders his statement that has echoed throughout writing since he made it. He addresses the question of how you can live after Auschwitz, how you can live when you could have died, should have died. For me, living and writing go hand in hand. He focusses in, further examining those who have escaped by accident and that links to the work I have done with Joe, to the writing of other trauma survivors. Whatever the event, whether individual or with global impact, survivors have to address the question, ‘Why am I still alive?’. This returns us to the function of writing a story: to create meaning and resolution. When death touches you, it changes you, and this needs to be documented: where was I, where am I now? Life’s value shifts: trauma can raise the value of life, but at other times can make it feel pointless. Men returning home after war lose the ability to live without adrenaline rushes.[27] When you have come through trauma there is guilt: why them, not me? Writing assuages this with the ‘duty to tell’ – something that rings through Siegfried Sassoon’s statement.[28] Writing is grounding, as Sassoon and Owen discuss in Barker’s Regeneration: it creates the certainty that the person plagued by dreams requires if he is to go on living. ‘Going on living’ is the opposite of death: it is hard and cannot be taken for granted post-trauma. Going on living when others have died brings with it not just guilt but the duty to bear witness. This is present throughout Don McCullin’s autobiographical narrative, Shaped by War as much as it is in Sassoon’s statement.[29] Ulrich Baer extends the duty of witness to those who see photographs of trauma. This is another motivation to write; to share the burden of being witness in the hope that if more people understand what has happened, is happening, it will not recur. Dori Laub extends this idea further as she explains how the process of narrating a traumatic event is part of the development of the trauma, where the ‘“knowing” of the event is given birth to’.[30] Narrating a life-changing event becomes a critical continuation and part of the event itself: the listener becomes a co-owner as he ‘comes to partially experience trauma in himself’. I write to process trauma, to share the burden.

Time brings events into focus again: with the 100th anniversary of WW1, a nation remembers, reads the war again. The attacks on September 11 2001 are the most recent ‘game changer’ in the way that WW1 was and continues to be. 9/11 compels us to revisit trauma as each anniversary drags us back. Corporate memorialising brings demands for stories: look in libraries, on TV schedules, on the internet: we are re-witnessing.

In a strange echo of the numbness and mutism that Prior experienced in Regeneration, one of Prior’s men, Hallet, is shot in the face with ‘a hole where his left cheek had been’.[31] He is returned to England but does not live long. In his dying hours, impaired by the damage to his face and jaw, he repeats the word shotvarfet, which Rivers eventually translates as ‘It’s not worth it’ The question of whether it is worth it, whether war justifies so much death and pain, is whole point of the Regeneration trilogy from Sassoon’s statement to the end where Prior and Owen go over the top. The question of whether it is worth it is that same question that we seek the answer to as we write trauma. As those who have experienced trauma seek to imbue it with meaning – I’m scarred, I’m new, I’m better – we seek the same message. We need to know that they neared death and passed it by. We hope to see that others have mastered death, and we might too.

At the end of the Regeneration trilogy, Billy Prior sees Wilfrid Owen die, ‘his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell.’[32] Prior witnesses Owen’s death in his own last moments, traces of Anteaus. We read a story to the end, to the death. We continue to the last page to seek purpose, pause to take in the dying moments of the story, then seek a new book. The search for narrative meaning continues.

[1] Pat Barker, The Ghost Road (London: Penguin 1996) p118.

[2] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University press 1975) p311.

[3] Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’ p362.

[4] Sassoon, The Complete Works of George Sherston

[5] Barker, Regeneration, p123.

[6] Wilfred Owen, The Inspection [Accessed July 2015]

[7] Barker, Regeneration p125.

[8] Barker, Regeneration p44.

[9] Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, New Left Review I/87-88, (1974) [Accessed July 2015]

[10] Walter A Davis, ‘Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11’ Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 8(1) (2003) p130

[11] A D Nuttall, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

[12] OED [Accessed online June 2015]

[13] Wilfred Owen, Futility, [Accessed July 2015]

[14] Maud Ellmann, Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, (London: Routledge, 1994) p7.

[15] Sigmund Freud, Adam Philips, Ed. The Penguin Freud Reader, (London: Penguin, 2006) p166.

[16] Freud, p93.

[17] Bennett and Royle, p39.

[18] Nuttall, p74.

[19] Nuttall, p76.

[20] Peter Brooks ‘Freud’s Masterplot’ from Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) p97.

[21] Brooks, p98.

[22] Barker, Regeneration p123-4.

[23] Brooks, p101.

[24] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press 1987) p171. Lena Steveker, ‘Reading Trauma in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy’ in Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Eds, Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi 2011) pp21-36.

[25] OED [Accessed online July 2015]

[26] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, English translation by E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge 1990) p362-363.

[27] Paul Allen, The Warrior’s Code of Honour, [Accessed June 2015]

[28] See Appendix 1

[29] see Appendix 2

[30] Dori Laub Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge 1992) p57.

[31] Pat Barker, The Ghost Road (London: Penguin 1996) p196.

[32] Barker, The Ghost Road p273.

Prose poem: Mail up!

This is a prose poem from my dissertation based on the format of Field Service Postcard that soldiers were issued with during WW1.Field Service postcard.jpg


Mail Up!

NOTHING is to be written that tells the truth. Feelings not required will be erased. If I say what I mean the post card will be destroyed.

 I can’t tell you

 I am



quite        unable to tell you.

 I have been            shot at



I am                         sickened



I …

I have received your




 My body follows at first opportunity

 I have received no way out.


at all.




[Postage must be prepaid on any letter or post card addressed to the sender of this card.] 

Review: Not Another Happy Ending

I have spent a lot of the last two years reading writing about writing, as I studied literary criticism. In Not Another Happy Ending I’ve been doing much the same but in a fun and light-hearted way for a change. David Solomons’ book, adapted from the screenplay for the film of the same name, takes all sorts of clichés about writing and shakes them up.

Have you ever written a dramatic domestic scene where the tension builds as the kettle rises to the boil? Read ‘Not Another Happy Ending’ and you’ll be taking the red pen to all mentions of kettles. What about stories of would-be novelists who get the deal of their dreams, and discover that the reality of being a successful author isn’t all they had hoped? Well, that’s the cliché that Solomon’s book explores. There’s a handsome French publisher, with a hapless assistant, who takes up Jane’s first novel, a ‘misery-lit’ thinly disguised story of her childhood. The book sales start slowly, but then take off. Jane wins an award, meets a Hollywood screenwriter who soon becomes her boyfriend, and reconciles with her father. For the first time in a long while, she’s happy. But … and there’s always a but … she has to write another book. Second novels are called ‘difficult’ for a reason, and Jane’s struggling with the weight of expectations, while her screenwriter boyfriend is happily working on the screenplay of her first book.

There are plenty of fun twists and turns in the tale – a pub quiz team, a character from Jane’s book who becomes real, a run down cottage in the wilds of Scotland, and a book launch on a double decker bus. In Not Another Happy Ending David Solomons has done a great job of delving into the preconceptions surrounding becoming a successful writer and shaking them up.

This is an easy read, and I’d recommend it for holiday reading for writers … and anyone else who wants a fun romance where the girl gets her guy, of course!

You can also watch the film on Netflix – the trailer is below.

ETA: Having now watched the film, it’s fine, it’s fun … but the book is better!

Not Another Happy Ending costs around £7.99 in paperback and £3.49 on Kindle at the time of writing

Sightlessness is another country (WIP) #whatimwriting

This is a difficult one to write, half resolved thoughts, a tiny idea that hasn’t been fully birthed.

I’ve been writing about sight loss. I take a privileged western man, and strip away his freedom, then to add to his nakedness, I take his sight.

I’ve been reading about post colonialism, because I know that I’m writing a western view on Africa. I need to take Adam from his home, from everything that keeps him safe, in order for him to change as a person. I’m taking him as far as I can out of his comfort zone, into new territory where he isn’t his own person, where he loses his identity, needs to find a new self.

I always consider what it means to write this as a woman, what it means to write about a man.

Somewhere in this I can see a thread linking sightlessness, sight loss, with landlessness, with colonisation, where the country you thought was yours is no longer yours, no longer home. Some place where unclear boundaries, wavering borders cause pain and trauma. Somewhere, land and gender, aid and disability, the relationship between doctor and patient all interlink. In this place, I challenge ‘I know what’s best for you’, in a place of self and other, of subject and object, of having and of loss. What I’m writing observes the shift between observer and observed, between seer and seen.

In the first version of Blindsided, the most experimental format, I wrote,

See. Seeing: we see without thinking, we ‘look, behold; observe, perceive, understand; experience, visit, inspect’. I see: I follow what you are saying. I see: I have (a) vision. Also, See, ‘throne of a bishop, archbishop, or pope’ from Latin sedem ‘seat, throne, abode, temple,’ related to sedere ‘to sit’. I do not see, I am unseated. “

Going back to the New Immortals, someone used the phrase, ‘The chaos of the indeterminate body’… ‘people don’t know how to die.’ Nothing prepares us for death, nothing prepares us to lose a sense, a limb, an ability. I couldn’t walk age thirty eight. That was a shock. And maybe that’s why everything I read is about death, why I see death in everything I read. This time, I want to be prepared. Or must we always be blindsided by what life throws at us? Are we inevitably unseated? Is the very unpredictability of life, of the human response what makes us want story? Are stories are a way that we can be prepared?

Returning to geography and disability, identity and power phrases that come up in my reading that resonate … unsettled states … nations without borders …missing borders … unclear borders. In writing about a rebel group in West Africa I need a clear strategy for what they are rebelling against. What is the identity that they are seeking to protect? What borders do not match with communities? What power do they lack? In writing about sight loss, I cast Adam into a space where he is seeking boundaries, where there is safety in limits and borders and danger in an unseen edge. He is dragged into a place where he can’t see the boundaries that used to be clear, and those borders he thought were stable, his identity as a man, a doctor, an employee, a volunteer, have all gone.  In the last part of the book Adam spends most of his time by the sea, a place where the border between land and water changes constantly. In this place of uncertainty, though, he finds something that he’d lost.

rassembler: to assemble, gather together
rassembler ses idées: to collect one’s thoughts
rassembler ses esprits: to gather one’s wits
rassembler son courage: to screw up one’s courage

Virginia Woolf writes, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” (From Three Guineas, Woolf’s take on Patriarchy and Fascism) Looking up other people who have written about this quote, about the feminist politics of place, I stumbled across Adrienne Rich’s Notes Towards a Politics of Location. Rich expounds on the need to understand your ‘country’ … that she is, that I am writing as a middle class, privileged, white woman. She writes about ‘the body’, ‘my body’ and the difference between the two, the latter plunging her into ‘lived experience’. In writing a world where Adam is pulled from sighted to unsighted, from where he is privileged and in control to a situation where he has no power, where he loses a sense, I want him to be forced into a place of change, where he examines his privilege, that which he takes for granted.

The phrase ‘No Nation’ keeps recurring in my research – Robert J C Young uses it to paraphrase Woolf, and I’ve written about the film, Beasts of No Nation, based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala. I’ve not yet found the source for Iweala’s title. In what I’m writing I’m aspiring to see what happens to a man when he loses his nation, his privilege, his seat, his sight. Rich writes, “We… often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.” I guess I’m tying into knots the threads of white privilege and ability. I’m not sure about the final part of the book where Adam, sightless, returns to the home where he grew up. It is the easiest thing for him to do, in some ways the only choice he has as he struggles with his new self, but it is a choice of the privileged. He has a home to go to. And perhaps I need to change that, or maybe he needs to prove that he has changed against his former background. I don’t know.

There’s a lot of things I don’t know. Yet. This is a rough cascade of thoughts which I will return to.

To be continued …


What I’m reading, what I’m writing #whatimwriting #amwriting

I’ve been reading A House in the Sky: A Memoir of a Kidnapping That Changed Everything for more in depth research on being a hostage. In many ways this is one of the best books written (ghostwritten) that I’ve read on the subject so far, because Amanda Lindhout goes in more deeply to the felt experience of being kept prisoner. I don’t know if this difference is something to do with gender – the other books I’ve read so far are written by men, but I have more idea now about the parts that she found truly degrading: the dirt, the hunger, the chain pressing into her ankles, having to ask permission to go to the toilet, the lack of privacy. Her hostage experience starts off in a situation where she has a dialogue with her captors, where she still has some power, where there are boundaries, but by the end of her time in captivity it seems like she has become a thing to them, an object. I’ve written about this before in the context of doctors and patients: I think at some point during a doctors training they have to make the leap where they can regard the patient as ‘other’ in order to protect their own psyche. That’s where you end up with damaging beliefs for the health professional, like ‘doctors don’t get sick’. (And a better, more experienced doctor can cross the divide in both ways, empathising with the patient when needed, treating them as an object when slicing into them, perhaps.) And I can see how this objectification (?) can be necessary for a hostage taker in order to mete out the brutal treatment that Amanda Lindhout received. The challenge as a writer is in capturing the humanity and personhood of the person who is doing terrible things. The second draft of my book is going to have to go deeper, darker into Adam’s experience: at the same time I have to make his captors more human, more multifaceted.

Other things that came out of reading the House in the Sky were details of re-entry into normal life. Amanda’s teeth were damaged, she experienced stomach cramps when trying to eat after months with little food. She describes the feeling of the soft bed, her first night in a hotel after months on a mattress on the floor. And she touches on uncovering just what had been done to free her. I also looked at some videos from Nigel Brennan, her fellow captive, where he talks about what his family had to do to get him back. It is interesting that some parts of what was happening to them in captivity did get back to their families, small details that the families had no way of verifying at the time.

Reading other people’s written experiences is good, but I do wonder whether I should also be out interviewing people. I’d have no qualms doing this for non fiction, but I feel more hesitant about doing it for fiction and I’m not sure why. Part of it might be the long, indefinite process. I have no contract for this book, so no publication date, and I have no intention of being tied to any sort of deadline before I’m a lot further into the process! I also have qualms about seeking out people who have been through trauma, so it was interesting to read this account, where the author Holly Muller speaks about her experience of interviewing Austrians about their experiences during WW2. She suggests that people were keen to talk to her, and I agree that people can find speaking about trauma therapeutic.