Born Yesterday: the news as a novel, by Gordon Burn

Our summer of discontent

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Friday 02 May 2008 00:00

A year ago tomorrow, Madeleine McCann's disappearance from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, inaugurated a British summer and autumn of media-amplified squalls and sensations. They added wave after wave of electronic storms to the actual floods and gales of those months. It was, writes Gordon Burn, "a terrible summer and a peculiar time": a chilly, not a silly season. Terrorists struck, ineffectually, at Glasgow airport, but misfired, providentially, in the West End of London. Tony Blair bowed out and Gordon Brown, with a grim aplomb that now feels a century away, began to preside over these "piled-up catastrophes and near-catastrophes". Plague (foot-and-mouth) and deluge added their Shakespearean commentary to events.

In haunting novels such as Fullalove and Alma Cogan, and in bitingly perceptive books on figures who became accursed icons of the saturation-media age (the "Yorkshire Ripper"; Fred and Rosemary West), Burn has patrolled the fuzzy and shifting borderlands between contemporary fact, myth and fiction with a talent unequalled in his generation. Critics reach for Ballard and Mailer as comparisons. Both have no doubt fed his eerily convergent eye.

His work reminds me just as much of that moment in the pre-war history of Modernism when dream-inspired Surrealism came together with documentary reportage. Novels, films, paintings and photographs yoked new mass-media methods to glimpses of a troubled collective unconscious. Disorienting acts of collage and juxtaposition would break open the crust of normality to reveal a hidden order of fear and desire. The German critic Walter Benjamin both practised this revolutionary briocolage and theorised it. His fellow-thinker, Theodor Adorno, worried that Benjamin operated at "the crossroads of magic and positivism". At that uncanny junction, Born Yesterday sets out its stall.

Burn begins to think where the class-of-'68 academics end. Of course, our pervasive and invasive media create and channel shared events. Whatever, M. Baudrillard. But if the pathos of Maddy's story became your own amid the "generalised sense of loss" in summer 2007, or if you felt the cloacal eruptions of the floods ("the soil pipe exploding into the bedroom") as metaphor more than as meteorology, which literary form best suits this sense of the 24/7 news flow as part of the self as much as society? Burn chooses the non-fiction novel, as Born Yesterday traces the media-driven deeds and images that lent a plot of risk and menace to "the landmark events of a waterlogged summer".

Its central figure shares the co-ordinates of Burn himself: North-eastern roots, a Chelsea address, a journalistic expertise in art, politics and crime. As a character in the "novel", he watches the aged, police-protected Margaret Thatcher stroll in Battersea Park, travels north to Sedgefield both to witness Blair's departure and revisit his own early days, talks to ex-EastEnders star Susan Tully about how she dined at Granita in Islington on the night that TB and GB sealed their pact, and skulks around Brown's house in North Queensferry. This is, among other things, a tale of three Prime Ministers, and the riot of contrary emotions they arouse.

As a viewer, reader, thinker, in charged, allusive prose, Burn explores the twists and shocks of the Maddy case; the failed bombs in London and the burning vehicle in Glasgow; the floods and pestilence in the green fields of England. Later, Damien Hirst's $50m, diamond-encrusted skull serves as a neat joint emblem of Andy Warhol's "Glamour and Death". The coupling of that pair rules the media-inundated world, Burn hints; our toxic mass adhesives at a time when "an aggregation of fragments" is "the only kind of whole we have".

Burn's intuitive leaps and links find an artistic shape in the torrent of reported dramas. So the have-a-go baggage handler John Smeaton becomes, in the Scottish fictional tradition of the doppelganger, Brown's disinhibited double, "his cursing, sweating, horny-handed sharer-self". Coincidences or (as Benjamin would put it) "correspondences" abound: from Sue Tully eating in Granita as "the deal" was done, to the "bizarre links" that bind the McCanns to the Beatles, and the ocular flaws that connect Maddy's distinctive iris, the "suspect" Robert Murat, Gordon Brown, and even the striated glass eye of a soft toy on the jacket of Fullalove – a novel about a snatched child and a media frenzy.

Some of this sounds scarily occult, some faintly banal ("magic and positivism"). It all fits in with the book's Surrealist enactment of a logic of affinity rather than causality. We seek these fragile associations to make sense of the data deluge, Burn implies. He nods to Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, where acts and objects chime as Big Ben strikes the hour: "the plangent interplay between isolation and connection".

Like Woolf's, this narrative dwells on the unexpected rhymes that hint at a meaning in the madness of the urban collage. Born Yesterday is a spine-chilling Gothic tale and a ghost story as well. The McCanns' trauma apart, other vanishings punctuate the book; in Trimdon, amid the abandoned mineshafts, Burn finds "an area whose history was full of erasures, wipings-out, disappearances". In a pure Gothic-horror sequence, floods force "primal muck" back through the pipes of middle-England ("the plug of the shower in the ensuite seeping sewage..."). Figuratively haunted houses fill these pages, from the Ocean Club Resort in Praia da Luz to Brown's lonely fastness of "Drumcarling" on the Forth.

When does a "dream home" become a "house of horror"? When something cherished disappears, or something feared comes back? As it delves beneath the floorboards of Britain through a summer of discontent, Born Yesterday discovers both processes – the loss of meaning, and love, and the return of repressed desire and dread – at work in the downpour of publicity and news. In this brave and unsettling work, Burn again proves himself a master of liminal space. A Charon in the electronic underworld, he ferries us across thresholds, not only between media fact and fancy, but past and present, self and others – and, most of all, between life and death.

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