Books

Writing a modern novel: How to compete with the tyranny of the new

How should literature meet the world we live in now? Asks novelist Paul Lynch

Composite illustration of a person screaming

Illustration: Chris Bentham

There is a 1991 book you may know by Don DeLillo called Mao II that explores a unique set of problems facing the modern writer. In that book, the reclusive novelist Bill Gray finds himself adrift from a society that no longer places the novel at the centre of the culture. A novelist in the late 1990s would no doubt recall a time when demanding fiction such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog could chart at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for 29 weeks across 1964-65, not to mention a time when men in large numbers, and not just women, read literature as though the very state of the soul, not to mention the nation, depended on it. 

In Mao II, DeLillo laments the saturation and spectacle of our modern media, which has replaced the novel’s whisper in the ear. How can a novelist be heard, let alone compete, with a device that beams terrorism and war into our living rooms while we eat our dinner? 

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“Not long ago, a novelist could believe he could have an effect on our consciousness of terror,” DeLillo once said. “Today, the men who shape and influence human consciousness are the terrorists.” 

Thirty-two years after Mao II, we live in an age of dread, but our consciousness has now been irreversibly shaped by the technology that delivers the spectacle. How is the novel to compete with the fragmentation of our attention, with the tyranny of the new that generates a constant fear of missing out? Can the novel even contend with a reality that has been turned into perma-spectacle and distraction?

The author watching out of their window might feel a certain anxiety. They might even put up a defence: the novel has no ideal use, after all, but can only offer the reader what a novel can do. The moving light of consciousness. The hidden life of unrecorded acts. The startling moment that unfolds in silence. Meaning and human truth rather than data and information.  

And yet, we live in an age of unravelling. We live in a time when the mythic has again become possible, when the great journey of the spirit is no longer a series of inner trials but presents, for millions of people, real-world challenges of biblical proportions – the collapsing of nations, exodus across entire continents, disruption and dispossession on an epic scale.

In the ruins of a future wrought by climate change, the novelist can see things only getting worse. How is today’s writer to respond to questions of life and death, power and powerlessness, that are writ large around us? How should the writer respond when it might seem the entire future of our planet is at stake?

When I sat down to write my fifth novel, I was grappling with these questions. I obsessed over the problem of Syria, the staggering refugee crisis that came of it, and was astonished by the west’s indifference. I was dogged by the feeling that I had to take all this on, but the path was fraught with danger – how can one write a novel as mirror to such a world without becoming political?

It is wise to remember Stendhal’s scoffing injunction that “politics is a millstone tied to the neck of literature and drowns it in less than six months”. Or what AC Swinburne said of Wilkie Collins: “What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition? Some demon whispers – ‘Wilkie! have a mission’.” 

I found myself working on a dead-end novel for six months and then I had an idea. I could not write about Syria because I did not know enough about it. Instead, I could move the mountain to Ireland and co-opt the problem in spirit. Prophet Song was born, and setting my tale in Dublin was the great liberation. I began to wonder what Ireland would look like with a populist government drifting towards tyranny.

I thought about how Kafka and Beckett each reflected the terror of their age and found myself writing a dystopian novel that may or may not be set in our own time but offers the reader a deeper sense of the real, a deeper sense of the terror, a world where truth and circumstance can no longer be perceived. 

When Eilish Stack, a mother and scientist, opens her front door on a dark, wet night in Dublin, she is greeted by two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police, the GNSB. At that moment, she enters the book’s labyrinth. And as I wrote, the problem of the political fell away. The book became a song not about grievance but grief, and yet it sought a more intense way for fiction to engage the modern reader. It is for this reason that the book ends with a question that only the reader can answer, while the book became an answer to my own personal question: how should literature meet the world we live in now?

Prophet Song book cover

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch is out now (Oneworld, £16.99)

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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