Richard Major (Magdalen, 1985) explains how he came to pre-write a satirical novel that might say something about the White House in 2017
Here’s a rum turn of events. I jotted something down a year-and-a-half ago that is now being published as a short novel. It is, I admit, a psychological oddity; the question’s where the oddity lies. I don’t think it’s in me. Things would be less worrying if it were.
In autumn 2015 my family and I were living in Budapest. On a certain night of November, a night as dark-and-stormy as any gothic yarn might require, I enjoyed an elaborate nightmare. I saw the students of a huge Northern ex-polytechnic invent a mascot, a made-up student. They cobbled its portrait together with Photoshop, using visual scraps from here and there; they registered it for its course, meaning to write its essays, and eventually get it its degree – for at this dreadful place no student need ever speak to a lecturer. Only the creators outdid themselves. They emptied into their concoction all the filth of their own ids: ideas too dire to air on their own Facebook pages. Their mascot became hypnotically awful; became nationally infamous; rose to supreme power; dragged the country into general ruin. – Such was my nightmare.
In a way it’s easily analysed. As everyone knows, Mary Shelley had a similar dream, which she wrote up over the next three days; this eventually grew into the novel Frankenstein. We had been talking about Frankenstein before I went to bed that night; here was Frankenstein’s creature reimagined.
The difference is that Mrs Shelley, being an optimistic Liberal, gave her monster no political role. Its public acts are limited to murders; it didn’t stand for office in the Republic of Geneva.
But what if it had? There’s a kink in human nature (Augustine called it the mysterium iniquitatis) which draws us toward iniquity, if the iniquity’s sufficiently extreme and bizarre.Frankenstein’s creature was so frightful, so unreal – physically as well as morally – that it would surely have spoken to the basest layer of humanity, always a lively constituency. Wouldn’t it have been enthralling? So enthralling that in the end it would be irresistible?
Indeed, isn’t this the secret of some of history’s most degraded, degrading rulers? They’re talkative villains who can’t stop drawing attention to their own foulness; we can’t take our eyes off them as they caper to absolute power. I’m thinking of Nero, Idi Amin, Hitler; but also of such made-up rogues as Shakespeare’s Richard III and (way down the cultural spectrum) Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Herod Antipas in Jesus Christ Superstar, Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune, indeed the Joker in Batman ….
Anyway, I jotted down my dream; in pious imitation of Mary Shelley I managed this in three days, between lectures. Then I put it away and pretty much forgot it.
A year later it came to mind again because history had jumped tracks. Autumn 2015 is a long, long time ago. The issues in international politics were the Paris climate agreement and intervention in Syria. Even American politics were adult: either Jeb or Rubio was to be the Republican nominee; the debates were about the economy. Donald Trump was low-comic relief at the margin of affairs; I’d scarcely heard of him.
But now it’s as if Shakespeare’s hunchback had hobbled downstage, dropped himself onto the shoulders of the groundlings, been carried with howls across London Bridge, been deposited in the palace, given the crown. We have slid (suddenly, how suddenly!) into an age of made-up monsters. Satire cannot keep up with the phantasmagoria.
Let’s consider our global bugbear. Who is he? He’s not a conservative: solipsists have no politics. He’s not a magnate: he was born to billions he boringly dissipated through bankruptcies. What is he, then? A clown from what is called “reality television”: that is, essentially unreal. The biological Trump is unwholesome but vestigial. What does exist is the nightmare, our invention not his, “the Donald”, a concoction of every private vice that horrifies, that intoxicates us.
There used to be, in the Old Days, before 2016, public affairs and private vices. Now and then one would erupt into the other, causing a sex scandal. But the internet has worn away our sense of privacy – even our concept of inwardness. What calls itself the Information Age is essentially the Profanation Age. The information it supplies, the information we think we want, is precisely what in any decent system we shouldn’t and couldn’t know. Now we follow the inner life, and even chart the blood-pressure, of friends and strangers on social media. Half the internet’s given over to private parts in public action; half television is systematic voyeurism.
We have invented the Donald, whose career has been nothing but dismal media exposure. Since he’s only virtual, he exists beyond the public sphere, beyond ascertainable truth, in a dimension of “alternative facts”. Beyond good and evil, he was not unelectable so much as undefeatable. His nightly tweets exhibit the interior of a tiny mind: yet they dominate every news cycle.
He’s not alone. Zuma and Duterte, too, are nihilist tyrants, standing for nothing but their own well-advertised awfulness: formidable in their nothingness. But Trump’s in a special league. He’s defiled the American republic; he’ll quite possibly start a nuclear war – what else, given his solipsistic nature, can he do, once our world threatens to break in on his? And yet he’s not there.
It’s weird. It’s better than a story.
begat, [note lower-case b] by Felix Culpepper (a pseudonym for Richard Major) (IndieBooks.co.uk, 2017) was published in July, and is also on sale at Blackwell’s. Major also has a series of novels about Culpepper, a don at St Wygefortis’ College, Cambridge, who moonlights as an assassin to the Establishment. The first book, Quintember, was published last year and its sequel, Parricide, will be published in 2017.
Richard Major (Magdalen, 1985) did his Oxford DPhil in English, on theories of the theatre in Reformation England. He was subsequently ordained an Anglican priest. He is a novelist and prolific writer, journalist and teacher. Married to a US Diplomat, Kris, with two children, he currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa.