Can a novel work if it’s set against unresolved real-world events?
What if, for instance, someone had written a thriller whose backdrop was the election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – and the book had come out before the election result was known? Could that have worked?
I’m hoping the answer is yes, because that’s the approach I’ve taken with a new mystery drama, Never Going to Happen, which I launched under the pen-name Anders Teller in March 2018*. One of its underlying themes is Britain’s tortured progress towards leaving the European Union, and the book was released more than a year before that process sees any kind of resolution.
Does it matter? I don’t think so. First and foremost, this is a personal drama, a mystery thriller and a romance, and it includes themes entirely unrelated to the dreaded word “Brexit”. The twists at the end (and there are several crackers, if I might be so bold as to say so) don’t depend on how our real-life politicians conclude the Brexit process. Whether you read the book now, while the clamour is still going on, or five years hence, when we know how it all turned out, I believe you will experience the same satisfying and rounded story.
In that case, why have I featured Brexit at all? It’s because the subject has thrown up so many challenging issues – fake news, the rise of populism, the power of the internet to manipulate opinion, and above all, the belief that the referendum vote somehow legitimised the expression of extremist views and the entitlement to shout down dissenting opinion.
I thought these issues might make a compelling quasi-real backdrop to a fictional story – one about shadowy people who are trying to reshape the way world events will turn out.
Some readers might still argue that they want a “story arc” that is set within a known and settled contextual framework. They might rebel at the idea that the real-world events raised within the book should continue after the story has ended, and may not turn out as the people in the book would like.
As far as my book is concerned, my answer is that it sets its own bounds, and simply doesn’t rely on real-world outcomes. It isn’t really very different from other such books – it just has a slightly more contemporary feel.
Obviously it won’t be contemporary in ten years’ time! But I don’t think that matters. By way of analogy, dozens of films were made during the second world war: not just propaganda films, but also human dramas that used the war simply as illustrative context. Most were released long before the outcome of the war was known. The ones that over-played the sentimentalist, rabble-rousing themes probably sank without trace, but those that homed in on universal issues and enduring values had a much longer shelf life.
I won’t be so bold as to make such claims for Never Going to Happen, but I do think it deals with timeless themes that are not tied to Brexit or to any other specific world event.
*Never Going to Happen is now available worldwide in Kindle e-reader format from Amazon, and will be released in paperback soon.