I have a problem with first person present tense (FPPT), when the story is unfolding at the same moment the story is being narrated. Some ‘present tense’ stories are only quirks of storytellers using present tense verbs within a past tense story; their narrative position is still fixed at a time after the story (or parts of the story) have already happened. Think of Harvey Keitel telling a story: ‘I’m in the shop, running through the receipts for the day when this kid, he comes in and starts looking through the magazines.’
When the story is being narrated at the exact same time as it is happening, I find the telling of the story false. How does the narrator know what to tell the reader? Without any knowledge of the effects of the events, how can they tell which details to leave out and which to dramatise?
There is also the problem of ironic distance. When the narrative time is exactly the same as the time events unfold, how can there be any comment on the event. If anything, the author is missing one of the great things about first person narration: namely, the game the reader plays in figuring out what kind of person the narrator is through their relationship with the truth and the events of the story they are telling.
FPPT is stream of consciousness. Woolf did it, and though it is an art form worthy of some awe, it is not great for the telling of a story. Again, if your narrator doesn’t know how the story ends up, how can I trust – as a reader – that the story is going to be worth my time? The FPPT narrator cannot know it is a good story, worth my time. Any promise that it is is a lie.
Lastly, the condition of narration for first person dictates its value. We must ask: Who is telling me this story? How is it getting to me? and Why are they telling me this? It is mostly the second principle that shows FPPT to be wanting: if the story is happening at the exact same time of its telling, how are you (the narrator) able to write it or tell me? When you’re running, making love, swimming, eating, fighting, rifling through a filing cabinet, you simply cannot be writing the story or telling me at that actual moment, too, that you’re running, making love, swimming, eating, fighting, or rifling through someone’s files. The effect of your FPPT is that you lose authority: I know you’re lying to me.
I know it can be done. Telling me about Hunger Games, The Waves, or Fight Club doesn’t hold water for me. These stories are either poorly told, in my opinion, examples of stream of consciousness, or they use that story telling quirk of present tense verbs from a past tense narrative position.
What would I say to anyone embarking on a FPPT narration? I’d have to tell them, try harder. Just, try harder. It will pay off. Unless you’re Virginia Woolf or Chuck Palahnuik, of course; in which case, I am genuflecting before your majesty…(he said).
Miki watches students fight their way out of the lecture hall. One poor kid, a pretty boy, is holding his belly and groaning. He looks at his hand and limps on, bent over; he presses his belly again. There’s something black in his hand. The street is loud and dark, but Miki’s safe, crouched in a shadow against the wall of a closed café.
When she’s certain the last student has left the lecture theatre, she crosses the street and slips inside.
It is silent, inside, and dim except for the riser light bathing the lectern. Light pours down on Avery and Nat like a long silver sword, held at the hilt by a single hair. They’re conjoined in sibilant conference. Behind them, the screen glows; outside is a kind of growl, something near but muffled.
Miki lopes down the stairs. When Nat looks up, his face wide with juvenile guilt, Avery’s whispering stops.
‘Hear me out,’ Miki says. She holds up the bottle she’s brought and the tin cups, holds them up in supplication. Nat and Avery, caught, both clear their throats.
‘I need,’ Nat says, ‘to go,’ and he leaves, but not before kissing Avery, hard.
Outside, sirens cycle.
Just before disappearing through a side door, Nat looks back, mouthing something to Avery.
‘Here we are,’ Avery says, turning.
‘It’s hot here. I didn’t think it would be so hot.’
‘And you’ve brought drinks,’ Avery shakes his large head. His blonde mien is full of light from the surface.
Miki gives Avery a cup, sets the third on the lectern. They both look at it.
‘He’ll be back,’ Avery says.
‘He will. What’s the drink?’
‘They call it whisky,’ Miki says, holding up the ancient bottle.
‘I guess we’re allowed.’
‘We’ve been so blind. Don’t you think we’ve been blind?’
‘You of all people, Miki, you should have known.’
Miki pours the whisky. It makes a gentle sound against the tin of the cups but its smell is strong.
‘Woah,’ Avery pulls his face back from the fumes. His face is usually full with sleep. It’s his eye lids. They hang over his eyes, hang down like hammocks. ‘How are we meant to drink this?’
‘You sip it.’
‘We’ve been damned angry with you,’ Avery says. ‘Now, it’s as if nothing matters. The students, when we told them, it was close to chaos.’
‘I saw them.’
‘Monsters. We’re monsters, not gods.’ His torn sleeve falls from his straw-thin arm when he wipes his face. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Leave her out of it, Ave. She didn’t ask for it.’
Avery throws back a knock of his drink. He screws his eyes, shivers.
Miki looks around the lecture theatre, remembers the times she slumped in the front row, watching Avery’s feet, well before SinSin chose her.
‘Idols, gods, money,’ Avery takes the bottle. ‘Why did we ever bring them back?’
‘We couldn’t live without difference, or aspiration.’ Miki’s stomach lurches. Her skin prickles.
‘Today’s lecture,’ Avery turns with a flourish to the screen. ‘Words,’ he says, ‘from the Journal of a Godhead.’
The words on the screen fade out and are replaced by SinSin’s scriptor: ‘… I lay my hands on the things we shan’t be taking with us … I chased Miki into the garden, and I touched the Node case, again and again.’
Avery study’s Miki’s reaction.
Miki knows they’re dismembering her wife’s words.
‘You’re being careful?’ Miki says.
‘We’re in no danger now.’
‘Maybe not now, but… You could have months before…’
‘Are you ready for Gliese?’ Avery’s eyes, though bloody, are tranquil.
‘I don’t want to die,’ Miki’s voice shrills in the lecture hall. Avery scans the doors. ‘Of course, I don’t,’ Miki says, softer, ‘It’s why I’m here.’ The walls shimmer; she takes a panic breath.
‘Our time’s gone,’ Avery says. He gazes off.
‘It’s just,’ Miki leans up to Avery’s ear, the way she’s done a thousand times. Her fingers land on his neck, the way they still can, ‘There were accidents.’
The power crashes for a moment. The air stops. A sucking noise comes to a closed off pop.
‘You don’t have to die here,’ Miki’s voice hangs in the great space.
‘I didn’t even get to see the planet.’ Avery drains his cup and hits the lectern with it. His mouth looks tough and screwed. ‘So, possession is more important than people, now?’
‘Know what it means to scrape a living? Count all the houses there have ever been in the world. All those houses,’ Avery says, ‘and inside them, trillions of lives.’
Miki puts her cup down. Glances up at SinSin’s words. SinSin touches her telescope a lot.
‘How many people scrape a living? Utter lifelong struggle. For what?’
Miki’s life on the surface is privileged. She can see that.
‘There’s a way I can save you.’
‘By giving up your seat on the Anabas?’
‘I’m sorry,’ Avery says, ‘I’m being foolish.’
The screen above Avery changes. ‘Who is Node?’ it says.
There is a fecund pause.
‘We believe your wife is taking a third on the Anabas.’
‘She isn’t,’ Miki’s impulse is to stand up for SinSin. She’ll be an inspiration for the Pilgrims when they reach their new home on Gliese. Besides, Miki can’t take her name off the manifest. Avery is right: the time for choosing has passed.
‘That’s why I’m here. If I can get you on the manifest…?’
Avery’s eyes fill with tears and his mouth drops open. He falls into Miki, lifts her onto her toes.
‘We’re a breath away from the end,’ Miki says, holding on, ‘but there’s a chance to save you.’
Everyone knows, now, the last shuttles are on their way.
In the garden, at sunset last night, Miki twisted her body up from beneath her armour to look at the sky. The atmosphere was farther away. Everything tallied. The falling night temperatures, the scorched earth: the end, she realised, it’s really coming.
‘It’s more than just a sun storm, this time, isn’t it?’ Avery says.
‘The Anabas comes in twenty minutes,’ Miki, swallows hard. ‘You said it was no miracle I got on, well…’
‘They still happen, my friend,’ Avery sniffs. He has a warm salty smell.
From beneath the riser, Miki looks up into the light pouring down from the surface. Five hundred metres of optics. It feels warm.
The screen changes, this time to a pulsing script. ‘Miki. Where is Miki?’ it reads.
‘New script, Miki,’ Avery says, ‘You’d better go.’
The theatre doors open and some students peer in. They are bewitched by the scriptor.
The chute home to the surface makes Miki sick. She slumps on the ground, the life pouring out of her. SinSin is lying in her Volther Corona lounge chair; around her, the house clicks and wheezes within its membrane. The world outside, the world of the surface is louder than it has ever been, thrumming like a heartbeat. SinSin’s interfacing her scriptor; she’s in her own orbit, blind, mute, and deaf.
Her dress is period, sunrise brown. There are jewels laced through it, twisting from amber through gold to studio blue.
She stops writing, sees Miki, and smiles.
‘I need to ask you something,’ Miki says.
‘Come…Ow!’ SinSin winces, ‘Let’s look at the Mayflower.’ Holding her head, she pads over to the viewing deck.
‘Like being stabbed. Like I’m an old, old clock.’
Miki hobbles over to her, massages her scalp.
‘We want to save as many people as we can, don’t we?’
‘Look at the Mayflower, go on.’ SinSin puts her hand on the telescope’s amber casing. Miki genuflects before it. ‘I’ll miss my telescope.’ SinSin had it rendered in ancient jade, carbon dated to the stone age.
‘You know my friends Avery and Nat,’ Miki says, adjusting to Jupiter’s glow through the lens.
‘We’ve been through this,’ SinSin says, sighing fumes.
Jupiter has the shyness of a man who always finds the corner of the room, of a man who doesn’t want to be noticed but is so cumbersome, so strange, and so beautiful people can’t help staring.
The flotilla hangs there, in suspension, on Jupiter’s shoulder. It looks like a child’s mobile, a gyroscope of ships all turning gently in time, their silver masts unfurling. ‘They’re preparing the sails,’ Miki says, standing again.
SinSin fidgets with the jewels of her dress. It rustles and clacks. When Miki refocuses, SinSin is holding a small tan case with a Mayflower logo.
‘They believe I got my place because of you, Sin.’
‘You did. We deserve to survive.’
‘But they’ve such brilliant minds…’
‘You are a psychologist,’ SinSin huffs. Miki’s vision starts to sparkle and the outside world sounds hot and sore. ‘And theology’s such a stupid subject.’
SinSin steps into her travel suit. She points her all too human toes and does a knee bend to zip it around her.
Outside, the cicadas’ thrum is seared with pain. The tan Mayflower case looks cool and safe, privileged.
‘Space is going to be cold,’ SinSin says, ‘Especially on the flotilla.’
‘We’re going to have the life frozen out of us,’ Miki says, ‘Isn’t that the point?’
The cicadas’ brutal, undulating dissonance rumbles in the compound.
‘When did we last see blue sky?’ Miki says.
‘We’ll see it on Gliese.’
Miki moves close to SinSin, enough to feel her breath. SinSin’s skin is so white and delicate. She has a blue vein like river water on the side of her jaw.
SinSin’s face burns pink the way it does and Miki pulls her close, holds her skull, her short black hair.
‘Who’s Node?’ Outside, the haze thrums, screaming. It swells and swells, over and over.
‘We’re not alone,’ SinSin says, kissing Miki’s neck. ‘I’m bringing a child.’
‘The third seat,’ Miki says. Realising she’s trembling, she kisses SinSin’s temple.
‘Here,’ SinSin says, giving Miki her travel meds, ‘We swallow together.’ She stands back and fills her eyes with Miki’s face.
‘I have to ask you,’ Miki says, and all her despairs coalesce, turn black and seed her belly.
‘There’s no room for anyone else,’ SinSin says, ‘Node has to come.’
They fill up on their gazes.
SinSin blushes and streams with a kind of light. Her cheeks are taut and rosy, her lips, dewy, trembling. All Godhead. All Muse. All Joy.
Something light inside gets lighter; something blackened cracks.
Miki swallows her pills, but she has to squeeze them down, her throat is so hard.
She was told once, time was an arrow, that it had already left its bow string. ‘I feel so helpless.’
SinSin eases out from Miki’s crush, ‘There’s a well in the English desert,’ she says, ‘Daddy laughed when he showed me, made me look in. God, the reek. I dropped in my bracelet. Down, down. No one saw me, and I never said anything about it. Miki,’ she searches Miki’s eyes, ‘things never come back.’
The Anabas lands just inside the compound. Its pulses thump the earth, and the house windows flicker, flashing raw sunlight like lightning balls. SinSin screams and her little hands go up. Miki holds her fast. ‘It’s okay,’ she says, cupping SinSin’s face in her hands, ‘Look at me.’ She kisses her, ‘Don’t leave without me; I’ll make it back.’
The lecture theatre is full. Miki takes the stairs two and three at a time.
‘Nat,’ she says, ‘Avery. Let’s go.’
But their faces are streaked with fear, and they can’t be moved.
‘Avery, come on.’
Nat howls something. Avery pulls Miki to the lectern.
‘The scriptor,’ he says. ‘It’s her last.’
Miki reads the screen’s pulsing words.
‘The jewels in my dress, burned when we took off. I am thinking of Miki. Stop… From the Anabas, Earth is frozen in time and I am alone with Node. I will call her Amber… I hide Earth behind a fingertip, but when I take my finger away, it’s still there. Still miserable, still small.’
This is what an exceptional writer and her talented husband can do. I cannot wait for May 18th.
Goblin by Ever Dundas, cover design by Cinnamon Curtis
“Ian McEwan’s Atonement meets Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth
in this extraordinary debut.” – Freight Books
Creatures! I’m thrilled to unveil the beautiful Goblin cover, designed by my wonderful husband, Cinn. You can find more of his work here – feel free to get in touch with him, as he takes commissions (ranging from birthday cards to annual reports and book covers).
Goblin will be out on 18th May 2017, and you can now pre-order a copy directly from Freight (or buy it at the launch night in Edinburgh – I’ll update you on the date and venue soon). If you’d like me to appear at any events, please get in touch.
“A captivating and capricious debut that explores with a deft hand the ‘creature world’ we all carry somewhere inside. Hops neatly and with verve between contemporary Edinburgh and wartime…
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Donald Trump, a man who has never held office, has just been elected the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. A year ago, even six months ago, we might have ticked ‘false’ alongside this statement to verify our sanity. He has, however, won the 2016 US Presidential Election, and – it’s not just my opinion – won it on dangerous rhetoric. He appealed first to the Republican caucus with inflammatory language and bald hatred of the other Republican candidates, then to the lowest and most corrupt reactions of the largest slice of the US voting public when he pointed his guns at Clinton. The demography* of the US is largely disenfranchised, reactionary, disillusioned; it will fight for anarchy before balance and will betray human rights before betraying its heartfelt sense of patriotism. It’s not a democratic philosophy, but it’s the new philosophy of the people.
I laughed at him through my fingers when he tore his Republican competition to pieces to secure the nomination for the Republican party. His rhetoric was fuelled by hatred and seemed to corrupt politics, but he appealed to the caucus and, with monosyllabic thunder, shunned any last vestige of reason. I wasn’t laughing when Hilary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders to the Democratic nomination. I started to incubate a morbid and curious fear for the future: Trump could win. I had a similar feeling during the UK Referendum to leave the European Union.
The anti-politics rage that’s now come of age in the United States of America has its roots in the Nazi party and has always appealed to individuals’ fear of the other, their gluttony, and their patriotism, but in these dark cases up until now this rhetoric has normally been supported in some measure by the press. We’re seeing a terrible sea change, however. As with the Brexit result in the UK, Trump’s victory this morning is a win for mental corruption over the power of the fourth estate. It seems that the sense our media has made of politics, especially in the UK, has been about one rung above the extreme rhetoric of our worst politicians, but the people, the majority of people, aren’t listening to ‘sense,’ the vast swathe of the demography is being excited by the worst of our politicians’ claims. Farage and Johnson in the UK and now Trump in the US have keyed into our fear, greed, and flag-waving chauvinism. It seems Trump’s rhetoric has delved one yard below the media’s mines and blown them to the moon.
But this isn’t democracy. Democracy, besides being a system of fair suffrage, demands that the principles of social equality are adhered to during a presidency. When the demographic of a country is skewed to the extreme, democracy in practice is laid to waste. Look at the Morsi leadership of Egypt following its ‘democratic’ elections. He decreed his leadership immune from challenge and reversed decisions made by the Egyptian judiciary. Liberal and secular groups, rightly, refused to take part in Morsi’s extremist, yet democratically elected government. The same could be true now. I fear, however, it won’t. There is no stomach in capitalist countries to revolt; the stock market index would ‘take too much of a hit.’
The question is, what’s to be done? In the UK people are waking up to a new politics. Corbyn is the voice of many left wing people, but his political party sings with a different voice, a baritone deafening itself to the people’s wishes. Perhaps it’s in the power of demography we’ll see change in the UK, if the political machine and its media counterpart can listen. The US is a much larger, much more frightened, much greedier, and – alas – much more patriotic machine, and its commander in chief is a radical capitalist with a voice that thuds straight into its heart.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the last word here is not a politician’s but a writer’s, George Orwell’s: ‘But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ – 1984
- – For ‘demography’ read not the study of populations but the weighting of a population. The weighting of our society seems heavier toward the non-book reading individualist who might love their family and their country, who’ll pay their taxes and participate in their social systems, the parties, the fashions, and the mores with nothing but good intentions, probably the best of intentions. I’m just not certain enough people in the world question the established rules and systems to which the great proportion of us abides.
SinSin Minkin was born at twenty-four without memory; Schroeder made her in his coffin.
I love you so and yet there is such mystery in you.
Perhaps I cannot say ‘I love’ until I know you through,
Until you are clear and not opaque to me,
But then, who can say they are not prisms
To themselves? Are not a little in the lee
Of knowing’s gaze? Hazy with sophisms;
Hard to reach? Still, I am not that light,
To search in you; I am human when you unfold
Over me, when you take my breath, my living sight
And warm the winds, the storms within, untold
In me. The little known of you, it is the sweetest hook,
It is my island in the lake, its lapping waters, cool;
It is all the bee loud living there, tumbling in the brook.
I’m drowsy in your darkness, in the ripples of your pool.