Sunday, 17 July 2011

Facing a Brave New World in your Underwear

‘Sleepwell and Fly’ opens with a young boy waking, disorientated, from a poison-induced fit. When I showed Chapter One to one colleague of mine he read silently for a few seconds then said, “Ah! That old chestnut!” I wasn’t offended. And if you’ve got a few minutes, I’d ask you to consider a further trio of tales, separately and at once. I ask for no other reason than this group of narratives has been occupying my mind for a few weeks, and that they raise an interesting question.
Here we go: John Wyndam’s 1951 novel 'The Day of the Triffids', Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel 'The Walking Dead', and Danny Boyle’s 2002 film '28 Days Later'. Right; hold that thought.
The link? This is about the classic, apocalyptic last-man-on-earth opening to a story. Wyndam’s novel, interestingly, begins elsewhere but the BBC adaptation went for Bill Masen waking alone in an empty hospital following an accident. The Walking Dead opens with Rick Grimes waking alone in an empty hospital following an accident. 28 Days Later plays with the formula a little – backstory first - but lavishes attention on the scene in which Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wakes from a coma alone in an empty hospital.
There are variations on this in other narratives; the ‘amnesiac struggles to seek identity’ is an obvious one – and by extension, the stranger lost in a strange land’ too. We can add to that of course the old chestnut; ‘young boy waking from a poison-induced fit.’
Why are we fascinated by this device in all its forms? My guess is that this preoccupation is twofold; first something to do with defamiliarisation, second to do with character.
Defamiliarisation first. These story structures allow us to present a familiar world in a new way. Readers see the deserted streets of London or Atlanta with fresh eyes. An abandoned bicycle becomes a sinister symbol of something; a creaking sign reading ‘No Gas’ becomes a powerful and disturbing comment; a torn and flapping bill poster, a dropped child’s toy, a family photograph framed behind broken glass – all of these pedestrian objects become fired with a new resonance. We like these openings because in a sense they comment on the power of narrative to make the world seem different, even if it isn’t. These stories inevitably move on to defamiliarise social structures. New societies; new political systems, the corrupting influence of power; freedom, control, etc. (They are the ultimate celebration of the writer as Bad God. “I can kill everyone in the world except this remarkably blue-eyed cycle courier called Jim! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!!)
Character second. A few months back, I wrote a post called The Hepless Witness Part One in which I wittered aimlessly (what’s new?) about the importance of a vulnerable protagonist – the aim being to make a reader feel a helpless witness to events, never sure of how, or indeed whether, things will resolve themselves in favour of the main character. And here again, these story structures press the right buttons. Our protag is invariably alone, frightened, ill, and in the case of Rick Grimes, wearing nothing but boxer shorts. Let’s imagine that for a moment. You wake to find your wife and family missing, your friends gone, the world completely changed – and you have to cope with these new circumstances wearing nothing but the grids you’ve been sweating into for the last three weeks. How can the reader not sympathise here? Hell, we’ve all dreamt of the time we rocked up at school in our birthday suits with our teeth falling out. Rick - we know how it feels.
So I made no apologies for the start of Sleepwell and Fly, even when taunted, and no offence was taken. The poison-induced fit? It’s an oldie, yes. But it’s a goodie.

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