Is It True What They Say, the Better the Devil You Know?

I had one of those metaphorical comic-book light bulb moments the other day while walking to the station. I realised what my novel, The Angel, is really about. That might seem odd as I’ve been working on it for so long but, perhaps, it’s because I’ve stood a back a little recently from the novel and possibly the Transmission project made me think more objectively about its structure (see lots about structure in the post below).

It won’t be a spoiler to discuss the basic plot premise of the novel to any of the growing band of readers who’ve become familiar with the draft in some shape or form or, in fact, to any reasonably long-standing readers of the blog  (I love all of you!). However, if you do really harbour aspirations that, come the hopefully glorious day, you’d like to approach the novel completely fresh then stop reading here.

The engine of The Angel’s plot is a triangular relationship. James and Emma are married and, outwardly, are a successful, attractive, high-achieving couple who ‘have it all’. Then James meets Kim, a German artist. Superficially, Kim is as alternative as James is conventional.

The dilemma that James faces in the novel is choosing between the two. He’s already embarked on a safe, traditional, reasonably satisfying but ultimately stultifying relationship with Emma, largely based around materialism and consumerism that reflects their professional status. Kim is a catalyst who makes James confront his latent dissatisfaction with his existing relationship.

James has to consider whether he opts to make a risky choice and pursue Kim. While he loves her unconventionality, he’s aware of some difficult baggage from her past. He thinks he feels instinctively  closer to Kim but doesn’t know if that’s a case of the grass being greener. And, of course, there are no guarantees. Even if he was to hedge his bets and try and engineer an affair with Kim (and that makes the huge assumption she’d be willing to) he runs the danger that he’d destroy his reasonably tolerable marriage for something that might only turn out to be a brief fling. This dilemma may be more complicated if James isn’t aware of the full picture — can he be so sure about Emma’s commitment and the enduring stability of his marriage?

Perhaps this situation reflects the sort of universal dilemma about risk and reward that most people have faced at some time — why Mephistopheles is required to broker a Faustian pact on one hand or as Kylie Minogue sang Better the Devil You Know on the other? Also, this kind of choice is certainly not exclusive to relationships — one might argue the current economic crisis is because the entire worldwide financial sector chose reckless thrill-seeking over stolid domesticity. However, when these choices involve human relationships, emotional responses are heightened. I deliberately chose adultery as a subject because it’s one of the few remaining conflicts within established relationships that triggers strong feelings.

The appeal of the story notwithstanding, it’s been something of a puzzle to me how I’ve come to write a novel and sustain my interest in it so long that has, in this respect, no direct parallel experience in my own personal life (the triangle dynamic is definitely not a case of ‘write what you know’). Ironically,if I’d been consumed by the emotional stress of prevaricating between two romantic partners then I doubt I’d have had the time to write a novel about it.  Yet the novel has felt very personal and it’s finally dawned on me that James’s situation and much else in the novel directly relates to the situation I’ve found myself in while writing it with the difference that James’s dilemma is a metaphor.

For me, the dilemma is between the ‘day job’ (Emma) — a career that probably looks quite planned and reasonably successful from the outside, not badly rewarded, fits my (technical) skills but is something that maybe I’ve fallen into doing. Kim is the writing — risky, economically a basket case, but a choice that I appear to be irresistibly and instinctively drawn towards. And at this stage it’s only a flirtation — a few encouraging responses but nothing approaching any substantial relationship and definitely no guarantee of commitment in return.

I suspect that the same is true for many writers in a similar position to me — striving to establish ourselves on the path towards Maslow’s self-actualisation while having to service the bills. In common with the fictional adulterer we’re almost illicitly wining and dining the seductive new partner and experiencing all the uncertainty, guilt, anxiety about being found out but also, perhaps, the thrill involved in juggling the two contrasting partners. Ultimately, like my character James, I don’t want to be a cheat.

The Narrative Center

As mentioned in the last post, I just spent a very long weekend in Center Parcs (staying until late Monday afternoon. trying to get most value for money).

I’ve been to all the Center Parcs in the country although the one at Elveden in Suffolk the most often (about four times) — and would go more often if it wasn’t so ludicrously expensive. This is quite odd as I normally like holidays to be as independent and away from hordes of other people as possible — I much prefer self-catering cottages in the wilds of Wales or Gozitian villas to big hotel complexes.

The concept of entering a fenced-off compound, surrendering your ability to ‘escape’ because your car is parked (as in my case) literally a mile away and spending three or four days there with over 4,000 other people hell bent on a good time would normally be an anathema to me. And yet…

Like Disneyland or well-run theme parks like Alton Towers, there seems to be something quite re-assuring about these closed, contained, managed worlds. I can pretty cynical about most forms of entertainment and yet I found myself happily paying out extortionate prices — like £10 for 30 minutes on a pedalo (although I saved £96 for a weekend hiring 5 bikes by strapping our own precariously on the car and spent more time looking in the mirror to check they hadn’t fallen off than I did looking forwards down the A11).

As far as I could tell, almost everyone else that I’ve ever encountered there has a similarly good time — again something that seems to happen at Disneyland, even to the most embittered sceptic. I was prompted to wonder why. It goes beyond the obvious factors like things generally working properly and having good staff who are well trained in customer service (they’re in the company of John Lewis and Waitrose in surveys and have recently undergone a whole company training programme ‘Making Memorable Moments’ similar to the ones I used to do at BA when that company actually had good customer service). (It might be possible to spot my MBA training in the interest in customer service and operations management there — I’d love to write a thesis on how these places work.)

But what does this have to do with novel writing? On a psychological level, I think there are some startling similarities. A comment I wrote up on the blog a few months ago that Francesca Main made  (commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster) seems very relevant. She said of reading the opening of a novel that ‘you must feel you are in good hands’ as a reader — and this is exactly what places like Center Parcs do. Well-written fiction has an authorial assurance (distinct from the narrator) that, ultimately, makes the reader feel safe — part of a contract in the reader suspending disbelief and also a guarantee that the time invested in reading will result in a satisfying experience.

Note that the words ‘author’ and ‘authority’ have the same etymological root. And so this is at Center Parcs and Disneyland — there’s an invisible sort of authority that derives from the exclusivity of the community — everyone’s paid a lot to be there so that’s a social leveller and they are literally gated communities where causes of social anxiety can be excluded. In Center Parcs case various design features ameliorate the fact that thousands of other people are also on the site: the accommodation is cleverly laid out so neighbours don’t overlook each other; the forest setting deadens the noise levels (and mobile phone signals!); and the absence of cars eliminates a source of status and also creates an environment which is a bit otherworldly (a bit like that created in fiction).

Center Parcs is also interesting when considered against Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . The safe and exclusive environment is important as it addresses the knows that physiological and safety needs need to be covered before the higher needs are fulfilled. It brings to mind an interesting quotation that I read recently in the Economist Blighty blog about wider society:  ‘the ultimate purpose of politics and the state [is]: the protection of people from each other.’ I’d argue that the attraction of novels to many readers, especially but by no means exclusively in non-realistic genres, is the sense of escape from anxieties about other people’s actions in the disordered ‘real world’.

Belonging/social needs are generally covered as people are on holiday with family or friends. However, the popularity of activities, like my doing archery or the tree-climbing that I blogged about below, is certainly associated with achieving self-esteem (overcoming fears, demonstrating ability). Some of the activities even inch towards self-actualisation — having a massage in the spa is very nice and I even got up at 6.30am on a Sunday to be educated by a wildlife ranger — going round looking for deer and birds (we spotted a little owl — which is apparently good going).

Also, as mentioned in a previous post in the context of rollercoasters, much of what we choose to do in our leisure time fits a classic narrative structure, which separates the experience from the inertia and continuity of real life — films, plays, music all tend to have beginnings and ends with middles arranged into some sort of anticipated structure. The same applies to holidays — there’s travel there and back and packing and unpacking, acclimatisation and so forth — although holiday companies seem to have been slow to realise the narrative. A subsidiary of my ex-employer, Thomson Holidays, has stumbled in its current TV advertising on the parallels between drama (films/plays) and a perfect holiday experience ‘authored’ by an expertly directed cast.

One re-assuring facet of holidays, planned activities and instances of fiction is that there is a planned end — in real life we never know when the end is.

A need for narrative structure must be somehow hard-wired into the human brain and is no doubt exploited intuitively by effective fiction writers. As a novel has an all encompassing narrative arc and many smaller arcs within that structure, so does the holiday experience. Even such basic events as a meal in a restaurant follow a set structure — and the more satisfying and memorable a meal the more likely it is to have an expectation setting opening and a satisfying resolution.

The more complex activities that I did at Center Parcs are similarly organised. A well-delivered massage certainly follows a pattern that ends with a rewarding, relaxing denouement. The tree-trekking starts with a briefing then has a series of 9 ‘acts’ of rope obstacles to be negotiated between trees (a place to pause) — tension is gradually built up as the obstacles rise higher above the ground. Then there’s the climax of suddenly descending at speed down the zip wire. You negotiate the course yourself (as you would read a book) but there’s always the re-assurance of the authority of the instructors in the background — like a safe, authorial presence — as with reading a book, it can be thrilling and feels perilous but you know it’s ultimately safe.

The Center Parcs Aerial Adventure could be quite an effective, if unorthodox, model for the plotting of a novel as it seems to tap into the same basic human psychology.

Also, many of these participatory activities are a little like a performance and perhaps it’s not surprising that I mentioned in the last post that I was struck that one of the climbing instructors reminded me of my character Kim — both are acting, to an extent, in some sort of artifice. It reminds me of the surreal line in ‘Penny Lane’ (that Ian MacDonald thought was one of the most truly avant garde lines The Beatles ever wrote) — ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway’.