My gap year was very conservative. I sat in a kitchen of my flat above a glaziers in Acton, west London, and read Ulysses. It was a rite of passage. While friends were driving across Nevada, paragliding over the Sahara, or tunnelling out of Broadmoor, I was turning the pages of Joyce’s voluminous book. Each morning, after my flatmates had eaten their breakfasts of last night’s cold kebab or yesterday’s brown rice, I pushed the pizza cartons and the foil containers of chop suey on to the floor, spread out the readers’ guides and set to work. It took me the best part of the twelve months.
A year later, when Pete appeared at door, lean, deep tanned, a far away look in his eyes, I was yelling “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Pete had been all the way around the world and returned to find me where he’d left me. The only part of me that had done any travelling was my eyes.
When I mention to friends that I want to write the Ulysses of children’s novels they look at me as if I’ve just asked them to fire a nail gun into my knee. “What would you want to do that for?”
I used to feel slightly ashamed and embarrassed that I love James Joyce. Finnegans Wake may be the most difficult novel of all time, but its mad ambition thrills me. So now it's time to come clean.
My day job is a headteacher. I spend my weekdays surrounded by young people. I have two teenage children and they regularly fill the house with their tall, grinning friends. They are all super smart, witty, much, much brighter than I was at that age. They simultaneously play computer games, watch TV, write music, design crazy stunts to film and put up on YouTube. They are texting and listening to iPods, having six different conversations. Watch them, shoved together in the same room. They are not just capable of multitasking, but of multi-dimensional multi-tasking. They seem to live permanently on several levels. Their language is a melt of references, of quips and quotes, facts and nonsense from The Simpsons, South Park, QI, and stuff they randomly bite off the internet and from each others’ Facebook pages. Their chatter skims across media, and across decades. They dabble in accents, and throw chunks of Welsh, French or Spanish into their chatter. Yes, it sounds like the incomprehensible noise of Finnegans Wake. It’s clever, funny, and somehow has its own inner logic.
They are, therefore, in a much better position to understand a book as something other than a vehicle for the third person, past tense narrative.
Indeed, the traditional form is something that must seem not just quaint to them, but archaic. In a recent Guardian article a certain Mr Philip Pullman makes a silly fuss about the present tense, suggesting writers should further exploit the richness of the past tense, and so on. A few pages before Mr Pullman’s piece, Tom McCarthy is interviewed about his novel C. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is written in the present tense. Compared to Pullman's dusty lecture, McCarthy sounds thrilled and excited by the possibilities of fiction.
McCarthy clearly wants to reaffirm the case for modernist literature, for something more than the traditional ‘sentimental humanism’ as he puts it. If the vast majority of the adult population doesn't have a taste for experimental fiction, perhaps it is this generation of young people that are the first to be ready for novels that play with notions of voices, persons, perspectives and tenses, of stories that are a tangle of parody, pastiche and genre shifting.
And when e-readers really take off, there will be an infinity of dimensions to explore.
The book is dead. Long live the book.