“Tomorrow I’m going to begin my novel.”
Thus begins Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Tomorrow. A single sentence that said so much to me. At once a knowing nod, a jibe, an amusing paradox of sorts. Because I am putting off my novel – if not starting it, at least from tackling it in earnest – and for the same reasons as the protagonist of Tomorrow: I want it to be a novel about everything. It’s unwieldy, it grows in all directions whenever I spend time with it, try to pin it down.
It is the promise of a novel to beat all other novels – ‘chasing a mirage’ – that keeps the protagonist (and me) producing, exploring; and yet it is also what keeps us dissatisfied. The feeling is one.
Sometimes I wonder whether it will always be the case that I will have ‘the novel’ looming over me, the MacGuffin that keeps me moving, but that the real body of work is what happens incidentally in the peripheries. The preparation, the experimentation, the spin-offs and the alternate takes. Often the most interesting things happen by accident or on whims, so doing something wonderful on purpose can seem like a futile pursuit.
“I open my notebook. I leaf through the pages in which I’ve already written sketches and notes fo the latest iteration of my novel. I have dozens of these notebooks in my flat and in a way they did become books, because all of the books I’ve written have been off-shoots from this process. But I know inside myself that each one resulted from an act of betrayal and only got written when I turned away from my original objective …”
Like the protagonist in Tomorrow, I often think that some time away, alone in a different environment, is what I need to really start making progress. Like it will shock all the pieces into place and I will magically become the person I need to be to write it. But I’ve done this, and the reality is I’m still me, just in a different place with (usually) the added distraction of being outside of my comfort zone. What I was really looking for, of course, was an escape from the dreadful feeling of not having written, but that follows wherever I happen be.
Perhaps it is patience I lack, and the idea is not fully baked. But will it ever be? Or is it about taking a snapshot and moving on and then painting the subject from a different angle in time?
As you’ll guess from the title, time plays a key part in Beckett’s novel. It explores the concept of linearity and the way we look at our lives as though they were stories: in acts and distinct threads and narratives with underlying meaning. As though we, ourselves, were novels being written in real time without ever feeling ‘together’ enough to make a resolute start. But life happens anyway. Life, like the novel, is something we think we should just know how to make. But when we set out on a preconceived path, we find we actually have no clue.
Over time, assumptions build up, become more solid, along with biases and blind spots and values and blockages. Our particular privileges and backgrounds influence the way we meander through time without us ever realising.
In highlighting this, often in inventive and surprising ways, Tomorrow is a challenge to the reader’s worldview through and through. It demonstrates conflicting views of various sociopolitical topics and their roots. It seems to beg the question: is every decision really as good as any other? Every cause as valid? Is every starting point in every story arbitrary, as much as we would like to think it is meticulously planned? And in that sense this is a novel about everything. In merely telling the story as it comes to them, the protagonist (and perhaps Beckett) has achieved their aim of a story of great scope.
And yet, Tomorrow is what I would call a ‘quiet’ novel. It is very internal, very low energy. It doesn’t have a flashy plot or world-critical stakes. Books like this are often undervalued, and the term ‘quiet’ can be used in a derogatory tone in reviews and critiques. This is something that deters me from committing to my ideas at times, because my recent writing has been all about subjectivity and internal identity. I worry that it will be poorly received because it isn’t ‘exciting’ or clear-cut or linear. (Maybe that is why I’m always waiting until tomorrow to start the novel…)
“Nothing much will happen in it, that’s how I feel about it now. Most books are crammed with things happening, but all that busy stuff is just a distraction in my opinion, in books as in life.”
The thing about quiet novels, though, is that despite not having the clear marketing angle of extroverted novels, they are rich in emotion and insight. In an unshowy way, they have something to teach us about what it is to be a person experiencing from the inside. In a passage about being represented in a movie, Beckett’s protagonist says:
“My facial expressions are sometimes determined and brave, and sometimes weary and hopeless, but we can always see them, while the thing we can’t see is my thoughts.”
And this is precisely why quiet novels are important. They show us a different angle. They put into words what we can’t always articulate because we’re too close. Without being overtly philosophical, they make us think.
So, tomorrow, I’m going to begin my novel. I’m going to write it exactly as it comes to me, without concern for its size or whether I’m in the right place to write it or what people might think when it doesn’t contain explosions and cliffhangers. I’m going to begin my novel because it doesn’t have to be everything, it just has to exist.
Tomorrow is out now in hardcover, paperback and ebook.
You can read an in-depth interview I did with Chris Beckett during the first UK lockdown here, in which he discusses science fiction, his writing process, and his particular interest in ‘inner space’.
Some time ago, I decided I would start writing ‘book responses’ as opposed to reviews. More than placing judgement upon the merit of authors, I wanted to express how what I read affects me, how it merges with whatever is going on in my life at the time. As subjective beings, I think that’s all any of us can really do with sincerity.