William Brett

What we lost last summer

William Brett on Gordon Burn's mix of news and novel

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Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel

Gordon Burn

Faber, pp. 128, £

It’s startling to read about extremely recent news events in a book presented as a novel. In Born Yesterday, Gordon Burn uses the McCanns, the floods, the foiled terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, Blair’s farewell and Brown’s hello as the meat of his narrative. Although this isn’t a conventional novel, in that the narrator appears to be Gordon Burn (addressing himself as ‘he’) and his ‘journey’ consists merely of reflecting on last summer’s major news stories and conducting the occasional interview, its approach to the news is nevertheless novelistic. It’s as if you’re reading a secret Sunday supplement which reports the news not as reality, but as components of a fictive world. The suggestion, of course, is that a fictive world is exactly what contemporary media presents, and we, as round-the-clock news consumers whether we like it or not, are co-opted by it.

This isn’t a new idea — it’s at least as old as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967): ‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,’ he wrote, with particular reference to the effect of mass media. But Born Yesterday is still a unique project, and one that is by turns unsettling, jarring, hilarious and profound. Its major weakness is inevitably that it feels rushed — if Burn had had an extra year to write it, so much more could have been done, but the crucial effect of immediacy would have been sacrificed.

Loss is the over-arching theme, or as Burn puts it, subtraction. In the summer of 2007, we lost Blair and Madeleine McCann, Brown lost his bounce, and thousands of people lost their homes to the floods. The narrator dwells on these events as if they are deeply personal, not just to him but to everyone. (He recounts the story of a little girl ‘refusing to eat her breakfast and sobbing over the void left in her life by the disappearance of Tony Blair’. It’s a true story. How do we know? The scene plays out on an internet video clip that was shown on Richard & Judy.) The implication is that our consumption of the news is an emotional act, akin to reading a novel or watching a film. This is partly because of the way the news is presented to us, partly because of the way we are hard-wired to receive it, and partly because of the way that news protagonists act. It still shocks to read how the McCanns were able to construct a careful image of themselves even in the hour of their grief.

Increasingly, the narrator makes connections between the major news stories: Heather Mills McCartney appears on GMTV and compares herself to Kate McCann; Paul and Linda McCartney used to holiday in Praia de Luz, where Madeleine was snatched, and so on. These connections have the ring of paranoid conspiracy theory. But they go nowhere. And that’s the point — they are as unreal, as fictive, as the feeling that the summer is filled with a sense of loss. And the source of all this fiction is the news, bringing a new meaning to the old cliché: don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

But occasionally, and movingly, Burn stumbles upon reality. He finds Margaret Thatcher walking in Battersea Park, instinctively replacing the strap of a symbolic handbag that is no longer on her arm. And he visits Sedgefield, a community groping its way back to normality after the circus of the Blair years. These are people and places that the media is finished with. They may no longer be newsworthy, but in return they get to be real.